20-minute cardio workouts at the gym

Nancy on an Arc trainer machine.

I’m not usually smiling on the Arc!

In a previous post, I pointed out that it’s possible to do a good cardio workout in only 20–25 minutes, whether you’re running, using machines at the gym, or swimming. Today’s post will give examples of workouts I do on cardio machines at the gym. Sure, I’d rather be outside running. For those of us who can’t handle the high impact of running, though, cross-training with cardio machines is an effective way to keep fit.

Choosing a machine

I’m not an expert on all the machines out there. I have my own favourites. Here are some factors to consider when choosing a machine:

You should feel completely comfortable as you move on the machine. The machine shouldn’t aggravate any injury you may have. Not all machines are sized correctly for everyone’s body.

To get a good workout in 20 minutes, try to do at least some of your workouts on a machine that uses your whole body, such as an elliptical or an Arc trainer with arm bars.

Experiment with the machine’s resistance levels. To get an intense workout, you want to find the combination of resistance and speed that challenges your aerobic system the most. If the resistance is too high, you won’t be able to maintain a speed that mimics the high turnover of running or cycling. If the resistance is too low, you won’t be working hard enough.


As I mentioned in my introduction to 20-minute workouts, putting variety in your workouts helps you keep doing them with enthusiasm in the long term. You can vary your workouts by using several different machines, by having a whole menu of different workouts that you do on one machine, or both. It’s probably a good idea to use more than one machine to avoid repetitive motion injuries, especially if you’re using the machines daily.

Cardio machines include stationary bicycles of various types, elliptical trainers, Arc trainers, stepper machines, and Nordic skiing machines. The two machines I’m currently using are the Lifecycle recline bike and the Arc trainer. I’ll give workout examples for these machines, but the principles of interval training that I use can be applied to workouts on any machine.

Arc trainer workouts

The Arc trainer is my favourite machine because it offers so many options. You can adjust both the resistance and the step height, as well as your speed. The step height is available at ten levels, with one being the lowest and ten being the highest. The default step setting is three, and I find that this is the best level for getting a good workout. Occasionally, if I’m training specifically for an event with steep hills, such as the Grouse Grind, I’ll use higher step levels to get my quadriceps used to that action. However, the lower steps make the motion on the machine more like running.

Nancy on an Arc trainer machine.

My Arc trainer workouts are harder than my runs now.

The Arc trainer is available in models with and without arm bars. Using the arm bars will give you a good whole-body workout. My gym only has Arc machines without the arms, though, so I get upper-body strength from other exercises at the gym. I’ve found that I can push harder on the Arc when I’m holding on to the machine. During the “rest” portions of my workout, when I slow down my cadence, I swing my arms; this is good for form and balance, but I can’t do it when I’m pushing all-out.

Arc workout #1 (21 minutes)

  1. Use the machine for 12 minutes at the hardest steady pace you can maintain. (You will naturally go slower at the beginning, speeding up and burning more calories/minute as you progress. Give yourself two or three minutes of easy warmup.)
  2. Do four cycles of easy one minute/hard one minute. During the “hard” minutes you will mimic a running sprint effort by increasing both the machine’s resistance and your speed. You should be breathing hard during this time. Don’t stop during the “easy” minutes; just put the resistance back down to your “steady” level and reduce your speed enough so that you can push hard again in one minute.
  3. Warm down for one minute.

Arc workout #2 (20 minutes)

  1. Do a steady pace for 10 minutes, as described in workout #1.
  2. Do three cycles of easy one minute/hard two minutes. (See instructions for hard and easy in workout #1.) Again, push as hard as you can for the entire two-minute intense sections. Take more than one minute of “easy” motion if you need more time to recover.
  3. Warm down for one minute.

Arc workout #3 (21 minutes)

  1. Do a steady pace for 12 minutes. Try to push yourself as hard as you can after your initial few minutes of warming up.
  2. Take an “easy” minute by slowing down your speed.
  3. Increase your resistance level slightly; it shouldn’t be as high as your “sprinting” level since you have to be able to maintain it for the next seven minutes.
  4. Warm down for one minute by lowering your resistance back to your “base” level and slowing down a little.

Stationary bike workouts

Working out on a Lifecycle recline bike.

Sweating on my usual Lifecycle.

I’ve always been most comfortable on Lifecycle machines. I only ride recline-style bikes now as the other ones are way too uncomfortable. Another feature of the Lifecycle machines that I’ve always liked is the pre-programmed hill workout (see below).

Lifecycle workout #1: Hill program (20–24 minutes)

I like this workout because it gives four components in only 24 minutes: a warmup, a five-minute “tempo” section, a seven-minute interval training section (hills) and a warmdown. After you select the hill program option at the start of your workout, you can choose a total time between 6 and 24 minutes for your workout. The 24-minute option is best, because otherwise your “intense” bursts will be too short to make you work really hard. However, for variety I sometimes do two 12-minute programs in a row and choose a higher resistance level than normal to really challenge my quad muscles on the hills.

The Lifecycle offers 12 resistance levels. Here are some pointers for choosing resistance levels that will give you the most “bang for your buck” in your 24-minute workout. Don’t choose one resistance level at the beginning and stick with it.

  1. Your warmup minutes should be fairly easy but not just effortless spinning.
  2. Your five-minute “tempo” section should be done at the highest resistance level you can maintain without your muscles tying up. You will need all your leg strength for the hill section.
  3. The four hills are a minute long each. They get progressively harder. I suggest you set the resistance so you’re working quite hard on the first hill, and try to keep that resistance for all four hills. You may not be able to. “Gear down” on the third and fourth hills, if necessary.
  4. Increase your resistance level on the warmdown section or it will be far too easy. When you’re doing a 24-minute workout, you shouldn’t “waste” six minutes of it with such an easy warmdown. If you want to cut the workout off at 20 minutes, then it’s fine to have two easy minutes after you finish the fourth hill at 18 minutes.

Lifecycle workout #2: Ladder workout (20–24 minutes)

To do this workout, use the Manual setting. In this workout, you’ll start at an easy resistance level. You’ll increase the resistance level by one level every minute, until you reach the highest level you can maintain for a minute. Then you come down the same way. Here are some pointers for making this workout as challenging as possible:

  1. You should only include two resistance levels that are relatively easy for you. For example, if you can ride the bike easily at any level up to level 6, you shouldn’t start your workout at level 1 or most of your workout will be easy. Your bottom level on the “ladder” will be 4 and your top level might be 9.
  2. You need to warm up in this workout, just as in any other workout. On your first “climb” you won’t go as high as your second climb. For example, if your top level when you’re warmed up is 9, you might only go up to level 7 or 8 on your first climb.
  3. This workout is tough because you’ll be exhausted after your minute at your top level, yet you’ll only get slight relief by going down one level. You’ll have to experiment to see which maximum level you can complete while still being able to ride down through each level below. If your leg muscles go into severe oxygen debt, you might have to “rest” for extra minutes at your lowest level, but try to avoid this if possible.

Lifecycle workout #3: Interval workout (20 minutes)

In this workout, you do a more classic interval training workout with longer “hard” intervals than the hill program allows. You use the Manual setting for this workout.

  1. Warm up for about three minutes at an easy resistance level.
  2. Follow one of these patterns:

a)      Three minutes hard (as high a resistance level as you can maintain for the whole time) followed by one minute at a very easy resistance level. Four sets.

b)      Two minutes hard followed by one minute easy. Five sets.

3. Warm down at an easy level for an additional minute or two.

These workouts are just examples of the countless permutations you can put into your cardio machine workouts.

Staying keen about your cardio workouts

  1. Put variety into your workouts to escape boredom and give your body new challenges.
  2. Measure yourself on your favourite workouts to be honest about your effort. Record the resistance levels you use and your total calories burned. You’ll see improvements and be motivated by them!
Nancy doing chinups

If you’re not tired enough after your cardio workout, you can always add a few chinups!

About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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