Elliptical vs Treadmill: We Compare The Fitness Benefits

Is one better than the other? How do the workouts differ for each of these?

Most people know that consistent aerobic exercise benefits the cardiovascular system.

However, choosing the best type of cardio exercise is often a question that beginners get hung up on.

Therefore, as a certified personal trainer (CPT), some of the most common questions regarding choosing a type of cardio machine at the gym are: Is it better to use the treadmill or elliptical machine? Or will I get a better workout on the treadmill or elliptical trainer?

Ultimately, there are pros and cons of both, so choosing the best cardio machine in this head-to-head matchup of the elliptical vs treadmill is primarily a matter of comparing the benefits of each piece of fitness equipment relative to your own fitness goals, preferences, and potential physical limitations.

In this elliptical vs treadmill guide, we will discuss the benefits of both pieces of cardio equipment and compare and contrast each to help you decide whether you should use the elliptical trainer or treadmill in your fitness routine.

We will cover: 

Let’s jump in!

People running on treamills.

Elliptical vs Treadmill: What Are the Differences?

Before we can look at the benefits of the treadmill and the benefits of the elliptical trainer and help differentiate how these two pieces of cardio equipment differ, it is helpful to briefly discuss each piece of exercise equipment separately.

The Treadmill

The treadmill is one of the most basic pieces of cardio equipment at the gym.

You can use a treadmill for walking or running as long as it is a commercial treadmill or a higher-end home treadmill that is more than just a basic walking pad.

Users can adjust the speed on the treadmill and often use an incline so that the entire walking surface of the treadmill, known as the running deck, is slanted up.

The treadmill also will have handrails.

As long as you are not holding onto the handrails, you can get a full-body workout on the treadmill.

Running is considered a high-impact activity because you are using the muscles in your lower body, such as your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, as well as upper body muscle groups, such as your shoulders, triceps, pecs (chest), core muscles, and back to propel yourself into the airborne phase before you land on your foot. 

This is where the high-impact nature of running vs walking comes into play.1NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x

‌When you set the treadmill speed to a slower speed, you can do a walking workout either on the flat treadmill, or you can set the gradient to a certain percentage and do incline walking.

Treadmill walking is still a full-body workout, but because one foot is always in contact with the treadmill belt, it is considered low-impact rather than high-impact.

You can target different lower body muscles by adjusting the incline on the treadmill.

A person on an elliptical.

The Elliptical

The elliptical trainer, also called the elliptical machine or just the elliptical, is another piece of cardio exercise equipment.

There are different types of elliptical machines, but most provide a full-body workout because handlebars for your upper body move in opposition to the foot pedals much in the way that you utilize a reciprocal pattern with your opposite arm and leg as you walk or run.

The elliptical machine will have an elliptical stride pattern where you will press and push on the foot pedals as you pump your arms on the handlebars to move the pedals back and forth.

Some elliptical trainers also have an incline and more of a ramp rather than pedals that move in an arc pattern through the air. These types of elliptical machines with the ramp setting can be used for an incline elliptical workout.

Users can adjust the resistance level to get a high-intensity workout or a more easy beginner workout, depending on your fitness level.

Because your feet are always in contact with the foot pedals on the elliptical machine, the elliptical trainer is considered low-impact exercise.

A person on an elliptical.

Which Is A Better Workout, Elliptical Or Treadmill?

The treadmill and elliptical machine are both considered cardio equipment because you can use either exercise machine to increase your heart rate (aerobic exercise).

As long as you increase your heart rate to at least 50% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate, using either the elliptical or treadmill can help you reach the physical activity guidelines for adults for aerobic exercise.

Both the elliptical machine and the treadmill can theoretically be used for high-intensity interval training (HIIT workouts).

For some people with osteoporosis, joint pain, or other contraindications to running, it can be easier and safer to do HIIT workouts on the elliptical vs treadmill.

This comes back to the fact that the elliptical machine is a low-impact exercise, so there is much less pounding on your bones, joints, and connective tissues. 

If you have osteoporosis and cannot run on the treadmill, to effectively do high-intensity treadmill workouts, you would need to be of a fitness level where brisk walking up an incline is enough to increase your heart rate to at least 85% of your maximum heart rate.

For beginners, this is generally possible, but for more advanced athletes, you might need the added resistance and the ability to move vigorously and at a fast pace to increase your heart rate enough to be considered high-intensity interval training. 

If you cannot run on the treadmill and need to do low-impact workouts, the elliptical might be a better option.

People on treadmills.

Should I Start With The Elliptical Or Treadmill As A Beginner?

Beginners often gravitate towards using a treadmill vs elliptical machine or stair climbing machine because we intuitively know how to walk or run.

This is why people say that the elliptical has more of a learning curve; using the elliptical machine is not as intuitive, and every elliptical machine can be different in terms of how it works, what level of resistance to use, and even the movement pattern.

However, I often encourage beginners to try the elliptical trainer once they feel comfortable.

With excess body weight, arthritis, or joint pain, the elliptical trainer can feel better on bad knees for a longer cardiovascular workout because of the lower-impact elliptical movement pattern relative to jogging on the treadmill.

A person on an elliptical.

Is An Elliptical Or Treadmill Better For Losing Weight?

The number of calories you burn on the treadmill or elliptical will depend on your body weight as well as the duration and intensity of the workout.

Studies have shown that at a similar effort level, the number of calories burned on the elliptical and treadmill per minute is nearly identical.2Brown, G. A., Cook, C. M., Krueger, R. D., & Heelan, K. A. (2010). Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(6), 1643–1649. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181cb2854

‌Therefore, whichever piece of equipment you can use longer, more frequently, and at a higher intensity will better help you burn calories and lose weight.

However, one study found that running on a treadmill increased fat oxidation (fat burning) more than exercising on an elliptical.3Filipovic, M., Munten, S., Herzig, K.-H., & Gagnon, D. D. (2021). Maximal Fat Oxidation: Comparison between Treadmill, Elliptical and Rowing Exercises. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 170–178. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.170

What Are The Differences In Muscle Activation Between Using An Elliptical And A Treadmill?

It can be helpful to compare the muscles worked by each piece of equipment.

Both the treadmill and elliptical machine can provide a full-body workout, and both primarily target the lower body muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, calves, quads, and hip flexors.4Prosser, L. A., Stanley, C. J., Norman, T. L., Park, H. S., & Damiano, D. L. (2011). Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking and overground walking. Electromyographic patterns. Gait & Posture33(2), 244–250. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gaitpost.2010.11.013

‌As long as you are using the handlebars on an elliptical trainer and not holding onto the handrails on the treadmill, you can also work your upper body muscles.

Dialing up the resistance level on an elliptical machine can potentially help you get a better upper body workout and may help strengthen even your lower body muscles more because you are working against more resistance than just your body weight.

Generally, different elliptical machines might target slightly different muscle groups depending on the specific movement pattern or stride used and the resistance levels you use during your cardiovascular workout.

However, although the treadmill doesn’t have discrete levels of resistance, you can work different muscles walking versus running and using the incline versus flat treadmill belt, adding to the versatility in the leg muscles you will target.

People on ellipticals.

How Does Using An Elliptical Compare To Running On A Treadmill In Terms Of Joint Impact?

Having a lower-impact cardio workout (elliptical vs treadmill) isn’t always more beneficial for your health.

High-impact exercise is more effective at building bone density to help prevent osteoporosis in the future.5Gómez-Cabello, A., Ara, I., González-Agüero, A., Casajús, J. A., & Vicente-Rodríguez, G. (2012). Effects of Training on Bone Mass in Older Adults. Sports Medicine42(4), 301–325. https://doi.org/10.2165/11597670-000000000-00000

‌In this way, habitually using a treadmill for some jogging or running intervals is a great way to add high-impact exercise for osteoporosis prevention. 

However, the risk of injury is higher with high-impact exercise versus lower-impact exercise.

Thus, if you already have existing joint pain or osteoporosis, the risk of injury with treadmill running vs elliptical workouts may actually outweigh the benefits of the bone-stimulating nature of a treadmill.

Finally, treadmill running will be a more effective workout if you are training for a race because running will translate to improved performance, whereas a cross-training workout provides a good cardiovascular workout but won’t necessarily directly improve your running.

People on treadmills.

That said, for marathon runners or runners who are doing a lot of mileage, low-impact cross-training on an elliptical machine is often better than running on a treadmill as an occasional alternative (1-2 times per week) to reduce your risk of injury.6Bosch, A. N., Flanagan, K. C., Eken, M. M., Withers, A., Burger, J., & Lamberts, R. P. (2021). Physiological and Metabolic Responses to Exercise on Treadmill, Elliptical Trainer, and Stepper: Practical Implications for Training. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism31(2), 135–142. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0155

‌Adding versatility to the movement pattern can also decrease the risk of injury from overuse and will help strengthen your leg muscles in different ways.

The bottom line is that either piece of equipment can help you reach your fitness goals, whether you are trying to get a good cardio workout, support weight loss, burn calories, strengthen different muscles in your body, or improve overall health and wellness. 

Thus, there isn’t really a definitive winner in terms of the best piece of cardio equipment.

Each machine will provide a good cardiovascular workout and can generally be scaled to users of different fitness goals and fitness levels. 

You can do a high-intensity or lower-intensity workout on either the treadmill or the elliptical machine. 

Both machines will help increase your heart rate, work different muscle groups, and offer an option for either a warm-up before exercising or a full aerobic workout, depending on how long you use the machine and what types of settings you use.

If you want to purchase either an elliptical machine or a treadmill for your home gym, it is important to consider which type of exercise you prefer.

A person on a treadmill.

If you like running or walking, it is better to go with a treadmill vs elliptical trainer, but if you need a lower impact workout because you have joint pain, osteoporosis, or want a low impact cross training option instead of running outside, I would suggest buying an elliptical vs treadmill.

For home gym cardio equipment, you also need to consider the cost and footprint or size of the machine. 

Generally, an exercise bike (stationary bike) will be the most affordable and compact piece of equipment, and ellipticals tend to be more expensive than treadmills.

Overall, choosing between the treadmill vs elliptical will primarily depend on your preferences, fitness level, fitness goals, and whether you need a low-impact or high-impact workout.

If you have chosen a treadmill, here are some suggested workouts to get you started:

References

  • 1
    NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x
  • 2
    Brown, G. A., Cook, C. M., Krueger, R. D., & Heelan, K. A. (2010). Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(6), 1643–1649. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181cb2854
  • 3
    Filipovic, M., Munten, S., Herzig, K.-H., & Gagnon, D. D. (2021). Maximal Fat Oxidation: Comparison between Treadmill, Elliptical and Rowing Exercises. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 170–178. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.170
  • 4
    Prosser, L. A., Stanley, C. J., Norman, T. L., Park, H. S., & Damiano, D. L. (2011). Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking and overground walking. Electromyographic patterns. Gait & Posture33(2), 244–250. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gaitpost.2010.11.013
  • 5
    Gómez-Cabello, A., Ara, I., González-Agüero, A., Casajús, J. A., & Vicente-Rodríguez, G. (2012). Effects of Training on Bone Mass in Older Adults. Sports Medicine42(4), 301–325. https://doi.org/10.2165/11597670-000000000-00000
  • 6
    Bosch, A. N., Flanagan, K. C., Eken, M. M., Withers, A., Burger, J., & Lamberts, R. P. (2021). Physiological and Metabolic Responses to Exercise on Treadmill, Elliptical Trainer, and Stepper: Practical Implications for Training. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism31(2), 135–142. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0155
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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