Elliptical Vs Treadmill for Cardio – Which is Better?

Elliptical Vs Treadmill for Cardio – Which is Better?

When you walk into most gyms and health clubs these days, you’ll notice all of the different types of weight training equipment and cardio machines to help get you looking trim, toned, and terrific. When it comes to cardio equipment, the traditional treadmill has a rival in Elliptical trainers. In fact it’s now common to see at least as many ellipticals as treadmills in most clubs. Both machines are designed to improve our cardiovascular health, while burning calories to lose those stubborn stores of fat. Research and anecdotal evidence show they both do this very well. Which leads us to the burning and hotly debated question:

Which is better: an Elliptical Trainer or a Treadmill?

To answer that question, let’s start from the beginning. Hopefully, this will help you make a well informed decision about which cardio machine is best for you, whether using it at the gym or buying one for home use.
Using Treadmill


Treadmills have been around since the mid-late 1800’s. They were originally designed for use with animals to generate power. It wasn’t until much later, around the 1950’s, that they were used in medicine for stress testing of patients. The first commercial treadmills for gym and home use soon followed in the 1960’s and have since become a mainstay for club and at home fitness.
Elliptical trainers are the new kid on the block, making their debut in the 1990’s. They were designed and promoted as a training machine to give a high intensity workout, while reducing impact on your body’s joints, bones and connective tissue.

Calorie burning abilities

Your ability to burn calories during a cardio workout doesn’t depend as much on which type of equipment is used as it does on our own physiology. Your body type, resting metabolic rate, lean muscle mass and age all play their part. A person with a higher body weight or more muscle mass will burn more calories per hour using an Elliptical trainer than someone of lower weight and muscle mass. The same goes for treadmill workouts.

The Compendium of Physical Activities shows that people of the same body weight and sex exercising at the same intensity, burn the same calories on a treadmill or an elliptical trainer.

Pros and Cons: Elliptical Trainers Vs Treadmills

The Pros: Treadmills

  • Versatility: Treadmills give you a range of options from a leisurely stroll to an all out Olympic sprint or uphill climb. Some top end models are programmable, allowing you to simulate cross country running, where the incline and speed automatically adjusts during your workout. This is great for interval training.
  • Natural Movement: Using a treadmill is exactly like walking or running in the open. So all the movements you make are natural. There’s no need to adjust from your natural rhythm and posture to suit the machine.
  • High Calorie Burn: Moving your body requires effort. A lot of it. By propelling yourself to keep up with the pace of the machine, you burn calories at a high rate.
  • Weight Bearing: Walking, jogging and running can help to strengthen muscle tissue and strengthen bones by increasing bone density. This is thanks to bearing the load of your own body weight.

The Pros: Elliptical Trainers
Elliptical Trainer Machines

  • Cross training: Most modern elliptical trainers are equipped with moving handles to work your arms and upper body and your lower body at the same time. Here the elliptical trainer is clearly the winner and while you can use dumbbells or similar weights on a treadmill, they are cumbersome.
  • Reverse Stride Mode: Most ellipticals give you the option of striding in reverse. This means you use and place the emphasis on different muscle groups, especially your quadriceps. If you are doing leg training, switching between forward and reverse stride at regular intervals will bring better lean muscle gains than forward alone. You can walk backwards on a treadmill, but it’s not as comfortable as with an elliptical’s fluid motion. Here it boils down to personal preference.
  • Zero Impact Training: Elliptical trainers allow you to “run” without the impact and stress that occurs outdoors and on treadmills. This is especially beneficial if you have pre-existing problems with your joints or connective tissues or are recovering from injury.

The Cons: Treadmills

  • High Impact: Even on treadmills with shock absorbing running surfaces, running can put a lot of stress on your joints, spine, hips, ankles and knees. The risk of stressor shock injuries is magnified if you don’t warm up and stretch properly before your workout or if you are on the heavier side.
  • Posture Problems: If your posture is not correct, using a treadmill can increase your risk of injury, especially at higher intensity. Also, the design of some cheaper treadmills limits your natural posture due to hand rails to narrowly spaced or the running deck not being long enough for your natural gait. Make sure you test for freedom of movement and stride before you hit the “on” switch.
  • Running: Running itself is a difficult exercise, especially running uphill. A lot of people like to exercise with equipment they’re comfortable with. If running isn’t your “thing”, or you’ve never tried it, ease into it. You really do need to learn to walk before you can run! If you don’t feel comfortable, try ellipticals or other machines until you find the one that suits you.

The Cons: Elliptical trainers

  • Momentum: Using an elliptical, especially at low resistance settings, can sometimes allow you to use the machine’s momentum to power your workout. This means your calorie burn and conditioning effort are greatly reduced.
  • Less weight Bearing: Because elliptical trainers have their foot plates suspended above the ground, there is less weight bearing compared to treadmills or outdoor exercise. In effect, your movements are done while “floating”. Therefore the bone strengthening benefits of exercise is reduced.
  • Fewer intensity options: On treadmills, you can adjust the incline and speed almost infinitely, while most elliptical trainers aren’t as flexible. Many of the best elliptical machines do have an incline feature, but the range is generally not as broad as treadmills.

The Bottom Line

Elliptical trainers are a great option for people who want to improve their cardiovascular health with a minimum impact on their bodies. If you’re recovering from an injury or suffer inflammation of an old one as an effect of running, then an elliptical trainer is probably the best option for you.

Treadmills come with an increased risk of shock and stress related injuries, so depending on how susceptible you are to aches and pains, this might not be an appropriate choice. A big plus is that they offer the extra versatility of being able to fine tune the incline and speed to suit your fitness level. When you’re working out to a higher intensity, it forces you to keep up with the motor to avoid ending up on YouTube zooming off the back of it.

So which Is better?

If a prior injury or condition isn’t an issue and if you really want to boost your fitness level, try using both an elliptical trainer and a treadmill. By mixing up your workouts between machines you’ll avoid becoming bored and you’ll also be using different muscle groups helping to create muscle confusion. In addition to more balanced muscles and decreased risk of injury, this will lead to adding lean muscle mass and avoiding plateaus.

For Home Cardio:

If you are choosing a cardio machine for home use, get an elliptical machine. It’s unique combination of low-impact, calorie burning power that feels easier than it is, is hard to replicate– while a treadmill is relatively easy to replicate– hint: run outside 😉

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