Elliptical vs. Treadmill: Which Cardio Machine Is Best for Your Training Goals?

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If you're looking to optimize your cardio routine, ellipticals and treadmills are both solid options to get you there. While they'll both get your heart pumping and increase your endurance, there are some notable differences—and some similarities—between them. One isn't necessarily better than the other, it really comes down to what you're hoping to get out of your cardio machine.

Ellipticals are low-impact machines that force you into a gliding motion that feels almost like a cross between running and stair climbing. The major benefit of ellipticals (besides the heart pump, of course) is that there's a pretty low risk of injury. Since your feet never leave the pedals, you can get an effective cardio workout without a lot of pressure on your joints. Ellipticals also work your whole body, targeting major muscle groups in your upper and lower body, as well as your core.

Treadmills are considered higher impact, but you do have some control here. For example, if you stick to mostly walking, your workout will still be low impact but you'll likely have to sacrifice some calorie burn. Running on a treadmill will increase your energy expenditure, but it's harder on the joints than elliptical training. (For the record, high-impact exercise isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you have joint problems or overdo it, it may cause pain).

One major benefit of treadmills is their simplicity and versatility—you can walk, jog, or run; set it on an incline or decline (depending on the model); and/or get a serious HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout in. If you're looking to change your body composition, treadmills may also be more effective for fat burning (more on that later). Treadmills offer more of a lower-body workout, primarily engaging the major muscle groups in your legs and glutes.

To help you compare an elliptical versus a treadmill, we've highlighted the major differences between the two machines, looking at various aspects of the training experience, such as the number of calories burned, muscles worked, impact, and footprint. We'll also dive into the pros and cons of each to help you make a decision about which machine is better for you.

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A Quick Look at Ellipticals

Ellipticals, sometimes called cross-trainers, are stationary machines that provide a low-impact cardio workout. They utilize a gliding motion that's similar to a running stride but doesn't require you to lift your feet off the pedals. Most elliptical machines also have movable arms that engage your whole body in the workout.

Fundamentally, ellipticals are a form of cardio exercise, so they come with all the related benefits, such as increased cardiac output, better endurance, and improved heart, metabolic, and mental health.

A Quick Look at Treadmills

Treadmills can be low or high impact, depending on how you use them. You can run, jog, or walk, and stick to a flat surface or simulate a hill on an incline (and possibly decline, depending on the model). Treadmills can lead to greater fat oxidation than ellipticals, but they primarily engage the lower body.

Ellipticals vs. Treadmills: The Training Experience

The training experience differs on an elliptical versus a treadmill; they both provide all the benefits of a cardio workout, but there are variations in calories burned, muscles worked, impact, and safety. If you're considering purchasing one of these machines, you'll also need to think about their footprint and any space constraints you have.

Calories Burned

Exact calorie burn depends on a number of factors such as your weight, body composition, and intensity of activity. That being said, research shows that ellipticals and treadmills have a similar calorie burn when the exercise intensity is the same.

But calories don't show the whole picture. In a small 2021 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine researchers compared the rate of fat oxidation—or how much fat your body burns—between a treadmill and elliptical at the same level of intensity. They found that while heart rate tends to get higher during an elliptical workout, a treadmill may burn more fat.

Muscles Worked

If you hold onto the handles, ellipticals provide a full-body workout, engaging the quads, glutes, hamstrings, chest, back, biceps, triceps, and core muscles (abdominals and obliques). Treadmills engage your lower body the most, mainly working your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

Impact

No matter your speed, an elliptical provides a low-impact workout since your feet never leave the pedals. A treadmill can have varying levels of impact, depending on whether you're walking or running. Walking is considered a low-impact exercise but jogging or running on a treadmill is classified as high-impact.

While ellipticals exert less force, they do require greater flexion in the knees, hips, trunk, and pelvis compared to walking. In other words, ellipticals are lower impact than treadmills, but the movement requires more bending of the knees and hips than walking.

Footprint

There are treadmills and ellipticals in all sizes, but if you're looking at more durable, commercial-style machines, you'll have to give up a decent amount of floor space.

Treadmills are generally a little more manageable because many of them have a foldable belt that minimizes their overall footprint. On the other hand, commercial-style ellipticals take up a lot of space and typically don't have any foldable features. They also prop you up higher, so you'll have to consider your ceiling height and make sure you have the right amount of overhead clearance.

Safety

Ellipticals have a slight edge here since your feet don't ever leave the pedals. Because your feet leave the training surface on a treadmill—and the belt is moving beneath you—there's more opportunity for a mishap.

Ellipticals also run on your effort, while treadmill belts are motor-powered. If you reach exertion at a fast pace on a treadmill, you have to manually turn the speed down—it won't adjust automatically—which can present another opportunity for injury.

That being said, both machines are safe as long as you use them correctly. Just make sure you get the OK from your healthcare provider before starting a new workout routine.

Ellipticals vs. Treadmills: Pros and Cons

When figuring out which cardio machine is right for you, you'll want to weigh the pros and cons of each.

ELLIPTICAL

PROS

  • Low impact
  • Can provide a full-body workout
  • Slightly safer

CONS

  • Larger footprint
  • Not as versatile

Our Top 3 Elliptical Picks

TREADMILL

PROS

  • Greater fat oxidation
  • More versatile
  • Many models are foldable

CONS

  • Can be higher impact
  • Focus more on the lower body

Our Top 3 Treadmill Picks

Final Thoughts on Ellipticals vs. Treadmills

Ellipticals and treadmills are both top-notch cardio machines. Treadmills have a slight edge when it comes to fat oxidation, but ellipticals work more muscle groups and provide a lower impact workout that's easier on the joints. However, ellipticals generally have a larger footprint since you can't fold them, and require more overhead clearance. If you're looking for an effective cardio workout, either machine will deliver. It simply comes down to your personal preferences.

FAQs About Ellipticals vs. Treadmills


Will I lose more weight on an elliptical or a treadmill?

Ellipticals and treadmills burn a similar number of calories, so if weight loss is your main goal, you can get there with either machine. However, treadmills do seem to burn more fat, according to limited research. The main thing to remember is that weight loss requires a multi-faceted approach: exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and stress management.

Are ellipticals or treadmills better for my back?

Ellipticals are lower impact and put less stress on your back. That being said, walking at a slower pace on a treadmill exerts a similar amount of force. If you have back pain, consult your healthcare provider before using either machine.

Is a mile on an elliptical the same as a mile on a treadmill?

As far as distance goes, a mile is a mile, but the measurement on an elliptical versus a treadmill isn't exactly the same. Since you can measure steps on a treadmill, a mile is easier to calculate—it's around 2,000 steps, depending on your individual stride.

A mile on the elliptical depends on the machine's stride length, which can fall somewhere between 16 and 22 inches, depending on the machine. In general, elliptical strides are shorter than walking or running strides, so it will take more to reach a mile—around 2,241 at an 18- to 20-inch stride length.

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