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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
Updated On: August 29, 2023
Cardio is a necessary evil. It's something most of us dread, but we all need it to stay healthy.
And when it comes to cardio, the two most popular options are the treadmill and the elliptical machine. Both are excellent cardio options with numerous health benefits, but due to their popularity and similarities, people often debate which is better.
So we are going to break down the treadmill vs. elliptical, and after reading this article, we think you'll find that one isn't necessarily better than the other. Rather, it all comes down to what your fitness goals are and what you are looking for in your gym equipment.
Without further ado, let's find out whether the elliptical or treadmill is the best fit for you!
Table of Contents:
A treadmill is a stationary cardio machine designed to let the user walk, run, or climb in place. It consists of a moving platform, large enough to walk or run comfortably, that moves like a conveyor belt under the machine.
The treadmill was initially designed as a way to generate power, usually to grind grain, and slowly evolved into a form of punishment. Eventually, the treadmill became a popular form of exercise. However terrible your workout may feel, modern treadmills are far from a punishment tool.
They come equipped with all the latest forms of technology to facilitate ease of use, including adjustable speed options, built-in workout programs, and recordable data from our workouts, such as heart rate and calories burned.
Many can be adjusted to various incline positions to make the workout more challenging. Therefore, people use the treadmill to warm up, cool down, and perform workouts of various intensities.
The treadmill is designed to simulate outdoor walking or running, so the benefits should be nearly identical. Some benefits of the treadmill include:
Finding a dependable walking or running route can be difficult, especially for city dwellers. Not to mention weather is unpredictable, and several parts of the world face freezing temperatures for most of the year.
Treadmills eliminate these issues, giving users a controlled environment to perform indoor workouts.
Treadmill training burns calories similarly to walking or running outdoors. Unlike outdoor training, however, the treadmill shows you how many calories you burn (without a wearable tracker), making it easier to track your workouts.
Regardless of the type of workout, treadmills are great for improving cardiovascular fitness. Exercising increases heart rate and helps improve blood circulation, both essential to cardiovascular health.
Treadmills today offer several different workout programs, speed options, incline settings, and resistance levels for self selected exercise intensity.
An extension of customizability, users can choose to do a low-impact workout, like walking, or a high-impact workout, like running. There are also tons of great workout routines you can do on a treadmill, like the Best HIIT Treadmill Workouts and the Best Treadmill Workouts For Weight Loss.
Despite its many benefits, treadmills have a few cons, especially when comparing the benefits of elliptical vs treadmill. These cons include:
One of the best parts about exercising outdoors is appreciating the scenery and nature around you. Treadmills can be boring at times due to the lack of scenery.
Compared to elliptical trainers, the treadmill primarily only works the lower body, particularly the thighs. To train other muscles, run to increase the load on the abdominals and add incline to place the focus on the legs and glutes.
While the treadmill can reduce the dangerous terrain or hazards of running outdoors, working out on the treadmill is still a high-impact exercise.
Running on a treadmill could be high-impact, creating a greater force than just your body weight. This can cause stress on the joints, tendons, and ligaments, leading to a higher risk of injury. People with joint issues should consider a low-impact machine.
Treadmills are very bulk and large machines, with an average length of six feet or longer. They require a large area of space, which limits the buyer pool. However, there are ways around this if you aren't working with a lot of space.
These 10 Best Folding Treadmills are great for those who want the convenience of an at-home treadmill but don't want something taking up the entire living room.
An elliptical is a type of stationary exercise equipment that gives users a total-body workout, whereas a treadmill only targets the lower body.
An elliptical machine resembles a combination of a stationary bike and a cross-country ski machine, with individual pedals controlled by handlebars. Users grab the handlebars and use their arms to pump back and forth while the legs pedal in a circular motion.
The handlebars engage the upper body to pump, targeting the shoulders, chest, arms, back, and core. At the same time, the legs pump in the shape of an eclipse, hence the name. This combination of movements mimics running with stair climbing for a low-impact exercise that works the upper and lower body.
Let's look at the benefits of using an elliptical vs a treadmill. And, if you want to learn more about the benefits of elliptical machines, check out our article on the 14 Best Elliptical Benefits.
The biggest difference between the treadmill and elliptical is that ellipticals work more muscles.
While the treadmill only works the lower body, the elliptical heavily involves the upper body. Ellipticals use handlebars to train the arms, chest, back, shoulders, and core.
On an elliptical machine, the user's feet remain on the pedals, so there is no impact on the ground. This makes it a great low-impact workout that won't place too much stress on your body.
One study comparing muscle activation in the elliptical machine vs. treadmill found that elliptical machines can reduce impact and muscular effort by 60% compared to the treadmill. This makes it practical for recovering from an injury1.
Like treadmills, elliptical machines offer several options so users can customize workouts to their goals and fitness levels.
In addition to resistance levels and incline adjustments, ellipticals can stride forward and backward. These options allow users to change intensity and create different workouts easily. Check out our Best Elliptical Workouts For Weight Loss to see just how customizable and effective this piece of gym equipment is!
Both the treadmill and elliptical are classed as cardio equipment and help you maintain fitness. Therefore, ellipticals also help elevate the heart rate and improve circulation to help the cardiovascular system.
Working out on an elliptical machine requires more engagement than a treadmill since your arms are occupied. This helps keep users more focused on the workout and reduces the boredom of a repetitive treadmill motion.
Compared to a treadmill, elliptical machines are much more compact and space-efficient. Most machines fold up easily and don't require much space to work out, making them more feasible for people with limited space.
There's even under-desk ellipticals that really take up minimal space and help you stay active throughout your work day.
Compared to treadmills, elliptical machines are far more affordable. An elliptical machine would be ideal if you are looking for a small, cheap home solution.
Despite the advantages of elliptical machines compared to treadmills, they also have cons. These include:
Treadmills are one of the most straightforward pieces of exercise equipment, as you simply walk or run. Elliptical machines can be more confusing and difficult to use, as it's a foreign motion to most. Ellipticals also require more upper body and core strength for balance, so beginners can struggle with this.
While the lower-impact workouts of ellipticals may prevent joint stress, they don't provide the same boost in bone strength as weight-bearing workouts like treadmills.
We will dive into this concept deeper below, but studies show that running on a treadmill can burn more calories than an elliptical machine workout2.
When comparing the two, the biggest difference comes in muscles worked. In general, treadmills only provide a lower body workout, whereas ellipticals work both the upper and lower body.
Treadmill workouts target all of the leg muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. They also involve the gluteus maximus every time the foot pushes off the ground and in hip extension. Lastly, the abdominals help stabilize the torso and maintain posture during walking or running.
If the treadmill has incline options, you can alter the degree to which your training targets the quadriceps vs glutes, as well as increase calf strain.
Elliptical machines, in contrast, incorporate the upper body alongside the legs. Gripping and swinging the handlebars on ellipticals trains the entire upper body, using both push and pull movements. While this pumping motion may seem easy, it involves the biceps, triceps, shoulders, back, traps, and chest.
For lower body, ellipticals distribute the workload to effectively target the calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps. They also work the core better than treadmills, heavily involving the abdominals and obliques to maintain posture and balance. To put more emphasis on the core, stand in an upright position, and lean toward the handlebars to reduce the core workload.
Although it's not as common as treadmills, some ellipticals offer an incline option. If possible, the incline option increases leg flexion and better targets the hamstrings. You can also emphasize the hamstrings by performing the leg motion in reverse.
To dig into the muscles worked on the elliptical, head to our article: What Muscles Does The Elliptical Work?
While you might think that an elliptical machine would burn more calories than a treadmill due to the added movement of the upper day, research shows it's the opposite.
A study published in Harvard Health compared the calories burned in 30 minutes on elliptical vs treadmill and various other exercises. They found that a 155-pound person burns an average of 335 calories in 30 minutes on an elliptical compared to 372 calories running on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a 10-minute mile pace2.
A different study compared the energy expenditure of treadmills compared to five other exercise machines. The results showed that the treadmill produced the highest rate of energy expenditure and increased heart rate the most3.
As even more studies have shown similar results, running on the treadmill burns more calories between the two.
Since studies show treadmills are more efficient at burning calories compared to other fitness equipment, it would make sense that they are also better for weight loss. Let's look at the research.
One study examined the physiological changes in women following twelve weeks of exercise on the treadmill, elliptical, and stair-climber. The results showed that physiological changes were roughly the same when volume and intensity were equivalent4.
Another study compared maximal fat oxidation (MFO) between the treadmill, elliptical, and rowing machines. The results showed that the treadmill had significantly higher fat oxidation rates than the other machines, with the elliptical coming in second.
For reference, the number associated with the MFO rate for the treadmill was 0.61, compared to 0.41 on the elliptical and 0.40 on the rowing machine. This study confirms that the treadmill is king for weight loss and burning calories5.
Despite the overwhelming research favoring treadmills for weight loss, anecdotal evidence seems split. In the Reddit thread "Treadmill vs. elliptical for weight loss," users seem divided on which is better, with the decision ultimately coming down to preference.
A common theme among users who favor ellipticals is the reduced stress on joints. For example, one Reddit user states: "Elliptical. It's a total body workout and doesn't hurt your joints at all." (source)
This answer validates ellipticals over treadmills for lower-impact workouts, not based on weight loss results. Still, low-impact exercise can be key to consistency, as constant pounding on unprepared joints can cause pain that puts you off training for a while. The longer you train on a consistent schedule, the more likely you are to lose body fat.
While we agree you should pick the machine that best fits your body, the evidence supports a treadmill workout for weight loss if used safely and regularly. Still, you should pick the machine that favors your preferences, and follow a consistent workout routine and healthy diet for weight loss. Check out our Weight Loss Meal Plan to help get your diet in check.
When comparing the two cardio machines and determining which is better for your home gym, there are a few things to consider.
Depending on the size of your home, space could be the main factor, as treadmills take up far more room than ellipticals. Another thing to consider is your preferred fitness routine and fitness goals. If you are looking to maximize weight loss and calories burned, then a treadmill might be the better option.
However, an elliptical would be better if you prefer a lower-impact workout targeting the entire body.
For treadmills, the best home gym option is the Sole F63 Treadmill, which has everything you ever wanted from a piece of exercise equipment, including 15 different incline options. The Sole F63 has a sturdy build, so you don't have to worry about the machine wobbling.
It has six preset workout options so users can customize their routine based on their goals. Even better, it can easily be folded and wheeled away to help with storage. With a price tag of $1,199 and financing options, this machine is very affordable.
And if ellipticals are more your style, look no further than the Bowflex Max Total 16.
The Bowflex elliptical includes a complimentary one-year membership to JRNY® upon purchase, featuring daily adaptive workout sessions, on-demand classes led by certified personal trainers and elite coaches, a collection of over 200 videos showcasing real-world locations, streaming entertainment (subscriptions to external services not included), and comprehensive tracking capabilities to monitor your workout metrics.
The Bowflex Max Trainer is furnished with a 16" interactive HD touchscreen that can be adjusted to suit your preferences. This elliptical machine includes 20 easily customizable resistance levels and has six grip handlebars offering various options for finding the most comfortable hand placement.
For $2,199 you'll get all of the above, and you can always opt for their payment plan option.
Interested in a side-by-side view to compare the treadmill and elliptical? Here's a look.
Upper and lower body muscles worked
Primarily lower body muscles worked
Burn fewer calories compared to treadmill
Burn more calories compared to elliptical
Lower impact, full-body workout
Higher calorie burn aids weight loss
Home Gym Considerations
Takes up more space
Additional Information & Reviews
These are the most common questions we get related to elliptical machines vs treadmills.
Depending on your goal, the treadmill is the best for burning calories and losing weight. However, if you want a more complete body workout involving the upper body, the elliptical would be the better option. For a more comprehensive answer, check out our article on the Treadmill vs Stationary Bike: Which Should You Choose?
A treadmill typically lasts the same as an elliptical machine with regular maintenance and proper care. Cheaper, lower-quality machines may last for one to five years, whereas more expensive machines can last five to ten years or longer. Many machines come with warranties.
Most people find running on a treadmill much easier than an elliptical. Ellipticals require greater core strength, balance, and upper body endurance.
The elliptical is a better workout for cardio than walking on a treadmill. However, running on a treadmill is the best.
Yes, 30 minutes on the elliptical is a sufficient amount of time to help lose weight, assuming you're challenging yourself. Users should strive to exercise for 30 minutes to an hour.
Weight loss varies between people and depends on several factors, including diet, exercise routine, and age. With that said most users see results within three to four weeks.
Both the elliptical and treadmill are excellent ways to perform cardio exercise, providing users with a convenient way to workout.
The decision of which is better, treadmill or elliptical, will depend on your goals, budget, and available space. Research shows that running on a treadmill is the best way to maximize the calories burned and weight loss. However, the elliptical would be the better option if you prefer a full-body, low-impact workout that can increase core strength.
Both machines have their share of benefits and cons, so the decision should be based on personal preference and fitness goals. Regardless of which machine you choose, they both provide mental health benefits, a convenient way to exercise, and are excellent options for improving your health.
Team Treadmill? Check out the 7 Best Incline Treadmills and the 10 Best Folding Treadmills for tons of great options. Opting for the elliptical? Pick the best fit for you using our articles on the 8 Best Elliptical Machines and the 8 Best Elliptical Machines Under $1000.
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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