Treadmill vs. Elliptical Machine: Which is Better?
There are many advantages to using a treadmill and an elliptical machine for your fitness goals. Which one is better of these popular machines?
On the fitness scene, there’s always something new happening. From fads such as Bowka and Zumba to plyometrics and Tabata workouts, it seems everyone is still searching for different ways to change things up and challenge their bodies.
But, while many of these trends will come and go, two cardio classics will always be around. They’re staples at health clubs and popular in home gyms: the treadmill and the elliptical machine.
These fitness machines are tried and true for a reason -- they work. You can find both in every gym, and they make for excellent home exercise options as well.
But have you ever asked yourself which one is better? Questions often come up, such as:
- Which machine is better for weight loss?
- Which offers a broader range of exercise options?
- Which targets more muscle groups?
- And which is “better” for your body overall?
There are many factors to consider when comparing the two fitness machine options. Let’s dig in and take a closer look at each one.
Benefits of Elliptical Machines
One of the main advantages of the elliptical is that it goes easier on your body. Running on the treadmill can do a number on your hips, knees, and ankles.
On an elliptical, you can still get a great cardio workout but with little-to-no impact on your joints since your feet never leave the pedals. A 2014 study confirms that using an elliptical reduces weight-bearing compared with running.
Additionally, the range of motion on an elliptical allows for hip flexion but with less extension compared with running on a treadmill. This reduces the strain on the body.
The elliptical is ideal for maintaining your fitness level after suffering an injury, as it’s a low-impact exercise machine that still lets you improve your power, speed, and endurance.
Another benefit is that you get a full-body workout on the elliptical. Not only are you working your lower body, but you’re also strengthening your upper body as you pump your arms. Not many cardio machines offer this kind of range.
The possibility of working your arms is particularly interesting for women since this helps to strengthen the thoracic spine, which is typically the first place where osteoporosis develops.
In short, one workout on the elliptical lets you target a wide range of muscle groups, including your glutes, hamstrings, back, chest, core, quads, biceps, and triceps.
Another exciting feature of the elliptical machine is that you can run backward. Doing this works an entirely different part of the body—your calves and quads—and changes up your workout, which has a very positive effect overall. It can also lead to a notable calorie boost.
A study at the University of Wisconsin revealed that people who ran backward on the elliptical burned 7% more calories than when they ran forwards.
If you're looking to purchase an elliptical machine, make sure to read this complete elliptical machine buying guide.
Benefits of Using a Treadmill
If you’re wondering which machine torches calories, you’re going to want to step on the treadmill.
While both offer a great cardio workout, any time you’re picking up your feet, as you do when you’re running, you’re going to burn more calories.
Another benefit of using a treadmill is that it mimics running outside, which is ideal for people who are training for a marathon of any size. If that’s your case, you’ll be far better prepared if you train on a treadmill.
That being said, running inside means you don’t have to battle it out with changes in terrain or wind resistance.
Also, you don’t have the sensation of running downhill on the treadmill, and the movement of the belt helps you pull your leg back. Your body will feel these differences once you head outside. Still, the treadmill is more similar to running outside than the elliptical.
The impact on your body that comes with running does have some upside. Studies show that running on a treadmill (and running in general) can help with bone density, helping you develop stronger bones overall compared with the workout you might have on the elliptical. Keep in mind it’s important to run with proper posture.
Another factor to consider with treadmills is that they’re quite versatile.
Think about it: you can walk, jog, run, or sprint. You can walk backward and target completely different muscles. You can shuffle sideways to work your inner and outer thighs and your obliques, among other parts of the body.
You can use the machine's frame to do tricep dips and chest presses. You can walk uphill holding weights. The possibilities are endless.
With a little bit of imagination, there’s no shortage of new, interesting, and challenging things you can do on a treadmill.
Although you may be focused on your legs, using the treadmill also gives a good workout to your core.
While you run, your abs are engaged, and running regularly will help you not only strengthen that muscle group but also improve your tone and posture.
I own a treadmill and use it daily -- make sure to look at this comprehensive treadmill buying guide.
Which is More Expensive?
If you’re in the market for one of the two and you’re wondering which machine aligns best with your budget, most likely, the elliptical is going to be less expensive than the treadmill.
Broadly speaking, you can get a quality elliptical trainer for a few hundred bucks, but a quality treadmill will set you back a pretty penny.
Also, keep in mind that a treadmill will probably be more expensive to maintain compared with an elliptical machine.
Which is Best for Weight Loss?
When it boils down to it, losing weight actually depends on three factors: the intensity of your workout, how much you weigh, and your exercise efficiency.
You can get a great cardio workout on both the elliptical trainer and the treadmill, so you can lose weight using either machine. It’s ultimately a question of which one you prefer (and how much space and budget you have if you’re looking to buy one or the other). Having an injury should also be a determining factor in your decision.
Doing interval training on either machine and changing up your speed and incline will help you shed pounds. In this sense, both are equal.
In fact, a study that compared energy expenditure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption on a treadmill compared with an elliptical, with the same perceived level of exertion, concluded that the “elliptical is an acceptable alternative to the treadmill.”
There are many advantages to using a treadmill and an elliptical machine, from enjoying a low-impact workout to increasing bone density.
Both let you work a range of muscle groups, and both can be modified to make your exercise session more or less intense. And, of course, both offer an excellent cardio workout.
In reality, each machine is an excellent option for different reasons. Whether you decide to use one or the other or buy one of the other will ultimately come down to your personal preferences and fitness goals.
Tony Lee, MS, RD
Tony Lee, RD, MS, is a highly qualified and accomplished Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Sciences from Arizona State University. Tony brings over two decades of experience in dietetics, specializing in sports nutrition. Interests include studying all aspects of wellness, fitness, genetics, and peak health performance.