Elliptical vs Treadmill: Which One is Better for You?
There are some questions in the fitness world that will never have concrete answers. They will always spur passionate debate from different schools of thought, and the answer to the question will just never be resolved.
You know what I’m talking about - HIIT vs low and slow cardio, functional weight training vs isolated muscle weight training, and of course, the focus of this article: Which is better for you, an elliptical or a treadmill?
The key to getting to the bottom of this long-debated fitness debate is to emphasize these words: for you. Instead of approaching it with a right or wrong mindset, it’s really important to remember that what works best for you may be totally different from what works best for someone else.
So, there is no absolute answer; instead, it’s relative to your needs, your health, your goals, and much more.
To help you comb through what would be most beneficial for you - a treadmill or an elliptical - we are breaking down the benefits and downsides of both!
Elliptical vs Treadmill: How Do They Stack Up?
Both treadmills and elliptical machines can provide you with a great aerobic workout and help you burn calories. But each machine has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks when you start to separate the various goals and needs.
We picked a group of the most important factors to consider when you are making this choice. Compare and contrast to your heart's content!
- Calories Burned
While of course, how many calories you burn will depend on your efforts, there is debate around which machine burns more calories because the elliptical is non-weight bearing, and therefore, the momentum of the machine can do some work for you.
But actually, research shows that if you’re doing an hour on either machine, you get just about the same amount of calories burned. The treadmill has a slight edge, but it’s so small that it’s unfair to the elliptical to even talk about it!
Both the treadmill and the elliptical have resistance capabilities that can help you ramp up the calorie burn; changing the incline or speed on the treadmill will accomplish this, whereas increasing the resistance level on the elliptical will put you into calorie burning overload.
And, short bursts of intense cardio are typically more effective at burning calories than long, steady-state cardio, so consider the next section (impact on joints) if you’re looking to do some intense exercising and mega calorie burning.
- Impact on Joints
At first glance, you may think, “Hands down. The treadmill is SO much harder on joints than the elliptical.” While this really does appear to be the case, thanks to the elliptical being non-weight bearing, it deserves a deeper dive.
The unnatural motion that the elliptical makes the hips conform to during use can be difficult for people with back, hip, or ankle problems. It can be especially troublesome if the user does not have a strong core, as core stability is what helps the joints stay aligned and moving within a safe range of motion.
Yes, the treadmill does make your joints absorb impact, but this is only really problematic if you’re jogging or running or you already have joint issues. Walking on a treadmill - because it’s a natural, functional movement of the body - is better for the joints than using an elliptical.
- Cardiovascular Benefits
This section is similar calories burned; your cardiovascular benefits come mostly from training in a zone where your heart rate is elevated, so it depends on your intensity.
You can change the intensity on both machines, so neither of them has an advantage over the other in this category. The more important to consider is choosing an elliptical or treadmill that actually offers various levels of resistance and intensity.
- Versatility of Workouts
You definitely have more options with a treadmill, especially if you’re able to run. The reason is that you can adjust the incline and engage in interval training with the incline, with speed variance, or with both!
Some people have even taken treadmill workouts to the next level by walking/jogging backwards and doing side slides on a slow speed! With the elliptical, there is one motion. Yes, you can do that one motion forward or backwards, at different resistance levels, but there is still less versatility.
- Muscles Worked
Both machines offer a great lower body (legs, glutes, hips) and core muscle workout, but the elliptical offers something the treadmill does not: upper body workouts.
The handles that equip ellipticals allow users to engage their upper body, from the shoulders to the back to the arms. The treadmill limits users to lower body workouts only.
- Ease of Use: What's More Beginner Friendly?
Okay, this can be a little bit tricky. So, the treadmill is hands down easier to use, thanks to it giving you space to perform a natural movement (walking, jogging, or running). The elliptical has a bit of a learning curve, as many find the motion to be awkward and prefer the simplicity of the treadmill.
However, just because a treadmill is easier to use does not necessarily mean it is more beginner friendly. The treadmill can take longer to adjust to because of the impact of the joints and the need for the body to adapt to a new, more strenuous workout.
So, which is more advantageous really depends on your current joint health, level of fitness, and personal preference.
- Noise and Space
Again, there is some trickiness in this answer when it comes to how much space each machine requires. Because of the huge market for treadmills, there are really small, compact options (think: under $200) that take up virtually no space and are super light-weight, and there are near commercial-grade options (think: under $1000) that take up a lot of space and are very difficult to move.
But one advantage that the treadmill has over the elliptical (space wise) is that most models do fold up, and therefore offer a more compact option. Elliptical machines range in size, but the better models typically are not space savers.
That being said, ellipticals do beat out the treadmill when it comes to noise, thanks to their low-impact nature. You will hear your feet clunking along the treadmill belt along with the motor humming along while you’re working out on a treadmill, but the elliptical allows you to move through your routine fairly quietly, which is a joy when you're trying to get in a quick morning sweat session before your family wakes up.
Pros and Cons of Ellipticals vs Treadmills
Okay, now that we have covered the main categories, let’s do a quick recap on the pros/cons of each machine, because that was a lot to take in!
- Versatility and intensity. The treadmill gives you great versatility in your training styles, and it allows you to scorch major calories through interval training (if you have incline and speed adjustability).
- Space saving. You can easily find compact or fold-up treadmill options that do not require a lot of space.
- Natural range of motion. They allow you to move in a simple, functional way, keeping with a natural range of motion.
- Impact on joints. If you run, you may suffer through joint injuries or more pain thanks to the higher impact absorption required.
- Noise. The motor and the exercise motion are louder than the elliptical.
- Limited. You are limited to a lower body workout.
- Low stress on joints. Offers an effective cardio and calorie-burning workout without making the joints absorb impact.
- Easy to use. Your body can adjust and adapt quickly, thanks to its non-weight-bearing option.
- Quiet. The elliptical is quiet and won’t wake up sleeping house members while you’re trying to sweat.
- Upper body workout. Hey, upper body - the elliptical does not forget about your sculpting needs. The handles allow you the option to tone the top half of yourself, too.
- Less natural range of motion. You have to move in an awkward way that is not functional, and it can be difficult for those with ankle, hip, or back problems.
- Less versatility. There is less versatility in the workouts; you can only do one motion, although you can change directions.
- Takes up space. The elliptical can take up more floor space than the treadmill, since it does not fold.
Again, the most important thing to remember is that neither the treadmill nor the elliptical is better or worse than the other; it all depends on YOU! Let us know if you’re Team Treadmill or Team Elliptical in the comments!