The best indoor cardio solutions for home gyms with low ceilings

In Equip Your Gym, Plan Your Gym by Tim Steward

Last updated on February 28th, 2021 at 07:46 pm

Many home gym owners seem to think that all they need is a treadmill or rower or tend to leave the cardio out altogether. In my opinion, both sides of that argument are wrong. As I’ve written about numerous times, all home gyms need three basic components:

  • Space to train
  • Resistance to train with
  • An indoor cardio option
Here you see all three essentials in one place, but with a nice, high ceiling.

That said, what if you are trying to build a gym in a room with a low ceiling? Are your cardio restrictions limited? What’s the best choice in a short ceilinged home gym?

There is a wide selection of effective cardio options that fit well in a home gym with a low ceiling. Rowers and recumbent options that are low to the ground are ideal, but so are treadmills with decks that stay close to the ground. Options to avoid are taller machines like ellipticals and stair climbers.

*By the way, if you have a gym with a low ceiling, make sure not to miss our article with some really awesome tips straight from gym owners dealing with this exact problem. You can check it out here: 11 Ways to Train in a Gym with a Low Ceiling – Real Tips From Real People.

Do you really need cardio?

I’m going to leave this highly charged source of debate alone for the most part. Personally, I believe that you should build a gym that directly contributes to your goals. If cardio isn’t a part of that, don’t feel obligated to add it. It’s okay to do that… Really!

My goals of living longer and aging well require it. Cardio training is something I do three times a week, no matter what. I also walk a minimum of 45 minutes every day without fail. Because of those things, I’ve chosen to put a treadmill in my gym.

Now, if I can, I do my cardio and walking outside. That’s always my first choice. But I live near Chicago. If you are at all familiar with this area, you’ll quickly see why I’ve chosen to give myself an indoor cardio option as well.

I simply can’t get outside for 30% or more of the year. Not comfortably, anyway!

In this article, I’ll cover the best options for cardio machines in a low ceiling gym. I’ll also cover a few options for those who can’t or don’t want to go the machine route. But in either case, I’m sure there will be at least one option that will work for you and your goals!

Does the most effective cardio machine fit under a low ceiling?

I wanted to quickly touch on this because I think this debate pulls many people off track. It also makes a whole lot of people buy the wrong thing.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. Which machine burns more calories? Which one is better for your heart? Which one is a better full-body workout?

The right answer to all of those questions is the machine that you’ll actually use consistently!

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my friends who do a lot of Crossfit are right and that an air assault bike is the “best” form of cardio. The problem for me with that conclusion is that I HATE the air assault bike. You could give me one for free, and I would never use it!

That’s the same reason I don’t own battle ropes, a stair climber, or an elliptical. I despise training on all of those things. So they don’t get a home in my gym. That’s one of the best things about having a home gym in the first place! You get to decide what goes in it!

For me, a treadmill is the right choice. Is it “better” or “worse” than an air assault bike? It doesn’t matter!!! I actually use my treadmill consistently. That, by definition, makes it more effective for me than a bike.

A treadmill is the right choice for me. What’s the right choice for you?

I would strongly recommend that anyone looking to add a cardio option to their home gym ask themselves this question before spending a penny.

A quick note on quality

I’ve worked at a store that sells exercise equipment (among many, many, many other things) for almost 20 years. I’ve seen just about everything there is on the market and have talked to just about every type of customer. 

One thing that’s been consistent across all that time is that you get what you pay for with cardio gear. There just isn’t any way around that.

Does that mean that you have to buy the most expensive options? No, absolutely not. But it does mean to stay away from the cheapest options. In this day and age of fake reviews and online-only options, you aren’t really saving any money by going cheap.

There is a huge difference between an $1100 treadmill and a $600 option (for reference, expensive treadmills are $2500-$6000, $1100 is the budget option). Trust me when I say you’ll be replacing that $600 model sooner than later. I’ve talked to countless customers doing precisely that. 

All of those people said the same thing. “I wish I’d bought the nicer one to begin with.”

I’m stepping down off of my soapbox now—end of rant. I just had to cover that upfront.

Cardio machine options for rooms with low ceilings

Once you’ve decided on what machine(s) or other types of cardio training may work for you, now you’ll need to figure out what will fit in your room.

For those with a low ceiling, this presents a few restrictions. It also makes the question I recommended asking first (what will you actually use consistently?) a tad more involved.

For those with a low ceiling home gym, you should start with this question:

What will I use consistently that will also fit in my gym?

What won’t work in a low ceiling gym…

Ellipticals are almost always
a no go under a low ceiling.

Let’s start by eliminating a few options off the top. On the whole, there are a few categories of equipment that simply won’t work based on having a low ceiling height.

If you have a 7’ or shorter ceiling, you won’t be able to use a stair climber or an elliptical. The same will be true of most treadmills. These machines put the user anywhere from 8”-24” off the ground. This won’t leave enough headroom unless you have an 8’ ceiling or higher.

If you have your heart set on one of these three and your ceiling is 7’ or shorter, there are some alternatives that you can consider, but keep in mind that all of those alternatives will be a compromise. None of them will be quite the same as their full height or standard format counterpart.

I’ll cover some of these options for you later in this article.

Will a treadmill fit in a low ceiling home gym?

Whether or not you can fit a treadmill in a low ceiling room will depend, in large part, on your height. I’m 6’6”, so with a 7’ ceiling, I’m out of luck. Someone 5’6” may more success. 

If you do want to go the treadmill route, you’ll need one with a shorter deck. The deck height, your height, and a couple of other variables are how you’ll know if a treadmill will fit in your gym.

Here’s how to figure out if you can fit a treadmill in your low ceiling gym:

  1. Start with the height of the tallest user in your home.
  2. Add 14” for headroom
  3. Add 6” if you plan to use the incline
  4. Add the height of the treadmill deck
  5. If that total is lower than your ceiling height, you can fit a treadmill

The average treadmill deck height is 8”-9”. So here’s how this would work for me.

  1. I’m 6’6”, so that’s 78”
  2. Add 14” for headroom = 92”
  3. Add 6” for the incline = 98”
  4. Add the deck height of 9” = 107”

That means that if I want a treadmill, I need a ceiling height of 8.9’ or more. In other words, a room with a 9’ ceiling or higher will work for me.

If you are 5’6”, you can get away with an 8’ ceiling. You’ll have to be pretty height-challenged to be able to use most treadmills with a 7’ ceiling.

If you are just a couple of inches off, you might want to look at treadmill options with a shorter deck. Keep in mind, though, that this really only saves you 2-3 inches as a “short deck” treadmill still has a deck height of around 6”.

Another vital thing to remember is that you’ll need quite a bit of room overall to fit a treadmill. They are pretty big to start with and will require a fair amount of clearance on all sides.

If you aren’t sure what may or may not work in your gym, see my detailed guide to how much room you need for a treadmill here!

What are the best treadmills for a low ceiling home gym?

There are a LOT of great treadmills out there. Nordic Track, Life Fitness, ProForm, BowFlex, and True are just a few of the brands that make quality treadmills. A lot of people have their preferences, and I do too.

One of the many things we sell where I work for my day job is treadmills. I’m fortunate in that I get to see and try all of them. I also get to talk to customers, see what gets returned, and really get a feel for what people have the best experiences with.

For low ceiling gyms, my favorite line of treadmills is by a company called True. Serious runners will already know of them, but they make a comprehensive line of treadmills. They also happen to have the lowest decks of any of the higher quality treadmill manufacturers out there.

In their line, I recommend one of two models (although I will tell you that all of their models are really great,  you can’t pick a bad one!).

True TPS100

The True TPS100 has a deck height of 6.25”. It’s got a lot of high-end features and a great feeling deck to run or walk on. Here’s a quick rundown of its highlights.

  • 3 hp motor
  • Polar heart rate monitor compatible
  • 12 mph top speed
  •  8.5” color LCD monitor
  • 350 lbs max capacity
  • Great warranty (1 yr parts, 5 yrs labor, 30 yrs motor, lifetime frame)

 Click here to see the best place to buy and get the best price and service on this True treadmill.

True M30

If you are on a budget, then I’d go with the True M30. It has a slightly higher deck at 6.75”. It’s True’s entry-level model, but it’s anything but entry-level compared to many other manufacturer’s treadmills. Here’s a rundown of the M30.

  • 3 hp motor
  • 12 mph top speed
  • Compact 74” footprint
  • LCD console
  • 300 lbs max capacity
  • Great warranty (1 yr parts, 5 yrs labor, 30 yrs motor, lifetime frame)

Click here to check current pricing and availability on the M30.

If you want to see True’s full line, you can see all of their many options here!

What are the worst treadmills for a low ceiling home gym?

If you decide to go with a lower deck treadmill, it’s important to avoid a particular category called “under desk” treadmills.

These are not a good option

These inexpensive, low-profile treadmills are meant only for walking and only to be installed under a standing desk. They have no supports to grab on to for safety, they will not hold up to regular running or jogging, and they have no cushioning at all.

They are great for walking at your standing desk, but that’s it! Please don’t opt for one of these as your cardio option in your gym.

Be careful about this category as if you search “short deck treadmills,” this is most of what shows up. The descriptions will make them seem like viable choices, but trust me, they are not!

We sell standing desks and treadmill desks where I work, and we’ve tried out numerous versions of the under-desk treadmills that come in at budget prices. We finally decided not to carry any of them because they were all so cheaply made.

If you have to resort to something like this, you are better off finding a different cardio method altogether.

Exercise bikes

An excellent option for a cardio machine in a low ceiling room is an exercise bike. Even if you are being aggressive and standing while you pedal, odds are you won’t run into any issues with ceiling height.

There are several varieties of exercise bikes to choose from these days. I’ve seen everything from a very high-end Peloton down to a set of rollers that can turn your street bike into a stationary exercise bicycle (check that out on Amazon, it’s pretty cool!) and a ton of options in between.

In general, there are two categories of bikes: one where your arms are stationary and one where they aren’t (called air assault bikes).

Best stationary bikes for a low ceiling home gym

I’m currently researching a full guide to exercise bikes and have tried a ton of them. The guide isn’t out yet (article coming soon!), but I do have some current front runners.

For me, the Peloton was a good bike, but waaaaaay overpriced for what you got. If you want live classes streamed to the console, they are the best option. Otherwise, there are much better bikes for the same or less money.

Nordic Track S10i

One of those is the S10i made by Nordic Track. I was blown away by this bike! It was better than the Peloton in every way. For a high-end bike, this is my number one choice without question.

Coming in at under $1500, the Nordic Track Studio Cycle S10i is a fantastic option. For comparison, at the time I’m writing this, a Peloton bike is $2245 plus a required $39 per month membership cost.

So for $1000 less, you get a better bike! To me, this is a no brainer. Here’s a link to the best place to buy that Norcid Track bike. You’ll get amazing customer service and the guaranteed lowest price too!

ProForm Studio Bike

A step down from that price-wise is the Pro-Form Studio Bike. It’s probably the best feeling bike in its price category. This is the bike that’s in our gym at work, and I’ve used it more than most. It’s a solid bike that you’ll have and use for years.

I would buy the Pro-Form from the same place I recommend getting the Nordic Track option. You can see current pricing and availability here!

Best air assault bikes for a low ceiling home gym

As for air assault bikes, you can’t beat the Schwinn Airdyne. Schwinn innovated this category and has been making this type of bike as long or longer than anyone else. 

Schwinn Airdyne

Not to mention, they are reasonably priced, coming in at almost half the price of the option from Rogue (a great bike, but way overpriced, to be sure).

There is no reason to look at any other option. Everyone else is merely copying the Schwinn, and many cost a lot more.

Check out the Schwinn Airdyne here on Amazon for current pricing and availability.

Rowers

Rowers are the king of low ceiling cardio machines. And you can make a really good case for them being the most effective as well. (although I stand by my point earlier that the most effective machine is the one you’ll actually use consistently!).

They are the only cardio machine that fully works every muscle in your body. A short time on a rower at even moderate intensity is equivalent to a much longer time on just about any other machine.

All this is in a package that is as low to the ground as you can get. A rower will work in virtually any ceiling height.

When it comes to rowers, there is a definitive winner. The Concept 2 has long been considered the best rower available. 

Concept 2 Rower

Check for product availability, as well as a detailed description, images, and current pricing on the Concept 2 here on Rep Fitness.

As much as I like the Concept 2, I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention the Nordic Track option. With its huge 22” interactive HD touchscreen display and silky smooth operation, it’s a contender for the best rower available.

Nordic Track rower, look at that beautiful screen!

That display is the one area that the Concept falls short. The Nordic Track’s display is not only beautiful, but it allows for interactive rowing programs not available on the Concept model. Yes, it will cost more than the Concept by a fair amount, but that screen may be well worth it for many of you.

Check here for the best place to buy Nordic Track RW900 rower. Just like with the bike, this is the only place I’d buy one.

Non-Traditional Cardio Machines for low ceilings

Recumbent Stepper

While most people are familiar with the traditional cardio machine options of a treadmill, exercise bike, elliptical, or rower, there are several options you may not be familiar with.

If you really wanted to get a stair climber, but your ceiling height doesn’t allow for it, you could consider a recumbent stepper like this model from Spirit fitness. Its unique design keeps it low to the ground, and its 48” overall height makes it ideal for a low ceiling application.

Another recumbent (technical definition is lying down) option is a recumbent exercise bike. These are not only lower to the ground but are supposedly much easier on your lower back. 

These tend to be popular with people who are not comfortable bent over a traditional bicycle setup. This model by True is a very nice example of a high-quality recumbent bike.

Non-Machine Cardio Options

So what if you don’t want, can’t fit, or don’t want to spend the money on a cardio machine? Luckily, there are many ways to add indoor cardio options to a home gym with a low ceiling that don’t involve big, bulky, expensive cardio machines.

Here’s a rundown of my favorite cardio options that don’t involve machines and don’t require anything more than a 6-7’ ceiling or higher.

Kettlebells

One of the best things about kettlebells (and there is a lot of good to say about them) is that they are one of the most versatile implements you can add to your gym. The number of movements you can perform are almost endless.

In addition to using them for resistance training, the kettlebell swing is an amazingly effective cardio workout. Just a few rounds of heavy swings will have you breathing heavily with an elevated heart rate. They are one of my favorite cardio exercises.

You can do lightweight, high rep swings. You can do heavy, low rep swings. You can do banded swings, one arm swings, and swings for endurance. And they are a heck of a lot more fun than endless hours jogging on a treadmill!

Check out my recommended kettlebells page to find the best kettlebells for your individual needs!

Battle Ropes

With a set of battle ropes, you can genuinely get a soul-crushing cardio workout. They come in different lengths to fit different rooms. They come in different weights to suit different training goals. And they aren’t very expensive, either!

Battle ropes are another option that leaves a ton of room for variation. One of the worst things about cardio is it’s boring. With battle ropes, you can switch things up every time you train!

I also like that they can be coiled up and put away. They take up almost no room in your gym. That’s a huge benefit in many home gyms! Check out these budget battle rope options that will have you sweating in no time!

Boxing Heavy Bag

Ever go just a few 3-minute rounds with a heavy bag? No? I believe that everyone should at least try. The first few times I trained on a heavy bag, I was exhausted! There’s a reason that boxers spend so much time running. Boxing has a huge cardio component!

You can hang a heavy bag from just about any height or type of ceiling. I wrote a full guide on how to hang one that you can see here.

If you are going to go this route, I’d suggest starting with a lighter bag like this 40 lb model from Everlast. More lightweight bags like that are made for cardio conditioning over power. They will also be a lot easier on your wrists and hands when you first start.

If you have previous heavy bag experience, then a slightly larger, 70 lb model is an ideal choice, plus this kit on Amazon comes complete with wrist wraps and gloves!

Speaking of wrists and hands, get yourself a set of wrist wraps, and learn to use them. Combined with a light set of gloves, you’ll protect yourself from injury. This is more important than you may think. It’s not a good idea to bare-knuckle box a heavy bag of any size!

My favorite thing about using a heavy bag for cardio is it’s a great way to work out frustration and aggression. If you are ever having a bad day, just a few minutes on the bag can make you feel better!

Sandbag

Also known as “battle bags,” sandbags have been around forever. They are an extremely versatile option that can train every major movement pattern.

They are also inexpensive, easy to use, and they take up virtually no space at all. I’ve talked to several people who feel that a sandbag is an essential part of any home gym.

While I won’t go that far, I will say that they make an excellent cardio option. And like the other options I’ve mentioned, you’ll find it hard to get bored due to the variety of things you can do with them.

For me, the best sandbag options can be found over at Rep Fitness. They offer four sizes, seven colors, and an impressively reasonable price point. Check out all the options here on the Rep Fitness website.

Cardio fits!

As you can see, there are a lot of options for cardio in a low ceiling gym. From expensive machines down to very inexpensive battle ropes and everything in between, there is bound to be an option that is perfect for your gym and your goals.

It might take a little thought and imagination, but just about anyone can fit some indoor cardio into their home gym. Even one with a low ceiling!

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