How Accurate Are Gym Calorie Counters?

Many of us rely on the inbuilt calorie counters in treadmills, cross trainers, stationary bikes and stair machines to give us an indication of how much less we can hate ourselves in the shower afterwards. The better versions of these calorie counters will ask you for your age, weight and gender before giving readings – but even these aren’t quite as reliable as you may have thought.

Stationary Bike

The bike supports more of your weight than any other cardio equipment. Because of this you are using only your legs to keep the machine going, which makes it easy to standardize calorie expenditure, making the stationary bike the most accurate cardio equipment with respect to burn rate calculations.

The only way to vary the burn rate is by changing your pedalling technique. For instance it is harder to stand on the pedals than it is to sit down with the same resistance as the seat is no longer supporting your weight. This is a popular routine in spinning classes as it provides a simulation of uphill mountain biking.


The calorie counter on the treadmill is recognized as being one of the most reliable cardio machines, second only to the stationary bike. This is because you can’t easily cheat by adjusting posture or varying your gait, the treadmill will mercilessly keep you pumping away without offering a way to decrease the load. The only way to deceive the calorie counter is to decrease your weight by holding onto the rails. Gyms should consider high voltage handrails to avoid this temptation.

The treadmill is easier than running outdoors, but running on concrete will wear away at your joints over time. To compensate for this decreased difficulty just increase the incline by a few percent or run for a bit longer.

Cross Trainer

The cross trainer has a clear advantage over the treadmill, namely that you don’t wear out your knees and spine, due to the zero-impact motion. However, a recent study shows that the cross trainer is possibly the least accurate when it comes to estimating your energy expenditure, with some machines giving read-outs up to 40% higher than true values.

One possible reason for this inaccuracy is that the movements we make on the cross trainer aren’t as natural as those on the treadmill.

Cross trainers also vary greatly between brands, with different resistances and ranges of motion, making standard calculations even more difficult.

Furthermore, whilst on the cross trainer we use a combination of leg and arm movement to increase our heart rate. Yet the cardiovascular benefit of using your legs or arms are very different. Your arms weigh much less than your legs, hipps and glutes, which means that the more you rely on your arms to keep the cross trainer going the less calories you burn.

Stair Machine

The main problem people have with the stair machine is posture and technique. As soon as we get tired we have a tendency to lean forward and take shorter, faster steps, instead of pressing the pedals all the way to the floor. When you lean forward this way you are handing over a lot of your weight to the machine and are therefore working less to move your body up and down. However, the machine doesn’t know that you’re cheating in this way, and so will overestimate your calorie expenditure.

To get the most out of stair machines, keep your back straight and eyes forward, and don’t lean on the handrails. Also don’t cheat yourself with the range of motion – take long and deliberate steps. Don’t worry if you find you can’t do as much as before, at least now you’re doing it properly and you can build honest fitness over time.

In general you shouldn’t rely to heavily on calorie counters, as even the most accurate tend to overestimate. A better way to get an idea of exertion is to use a heart rate monitor and aim to keep your heart rate within the margin as dictated by your age. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor then this old rule works quite well: you should be able to talk whilst working out without getting too winded, but if you can sing you’re not working hard enough.


Free Weights, Machines and Cables

The gym floor usually segregates free weights and resistance exercise machines, and sometimes people aren’t sure which to use and why. In the most general sense, machines are used to target very specific muscle groups, whereas free weights engage surrounding muscle and work on balance as well.

Free Weights

Free weights are an excellent way to work on both strength and endurance by varying repetitions and load. They are so effective because they almost perfectly simulate ‘real life’ exercise, such as lifting logs, pulling carts and plowing fields – which is what our bodies have evolved to respond to. They also work on muscle balance and improve the way ligaments and joints function in unison. This is because a dumbbell chest press, for example, engages more than just the chest muscles during the motion. First of all you need to get the weights into position and then use your shoulders and arms to press the weights into position – all the while balancing and readjusting – which engages surrounding support muscle tissue.


Machines serve their own purpose in the gym and shouldn’t be neglected, despite the advantages of free weights, as outlined above. They are very effective at isolating muscle groups and so are often used during recovery after injury and physiotherapy. However, this advantage is also their weak point, as becoming good at a machine will only make you good at that particular machine – it won’t increase your ability at anything else.


Cable workouts are very effective at toning and should be used in conjunction with free weights. They are generally used for high repetition workouts as this is the best way of achieving definition. They should not be used for strength building or mass gain, as you generally can’t lift as much as with free weights.

The great thing about workouts involving free weights, cables and machines is that you continue burning calories even after leaving the gym. This is because of the interval training style of switching between high intensity exercise and rest over an extended period of time. This form of workout increases metabolic rate and so you will continue burning calories for several hours after lifting weights as the body recovers. This is in contrast to endurance (flat heart rate) cardio, in which you only burn calories during the actual activity.

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Strength Training

After you’ve been hitting the free weights for 6-8 months you can consider transitioning from endurance resistance training to strength training. You should only consider this an option if you have been consistently going to the gym at least 4 times a week and working different muscle groups in cycles so that you target every […]

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