We’ve all been there—you’re at the gym, you want to get your heart rate up, and have to decide whether to head to the elliptical machine or the stationary bike. Or, if you’re thinking of building up your home gym but don’t have room for multiple machines, you also have to face the difficult choice of which equipment to invest your time and money in.
Both elliptical machines and stationary bikes can give you a great cardio workout and are ultimately easier on your joints than, say, running outside, but the way each moves your body and the benefits that follow are different. Part of that has to do with the fact that you’re standing on one and sitting on the other, but the muscle groups they target also vary. But is one necessarily “better” than the other? We talked to three fitness experts to break down what you need to know about using elliptical machines vs. stationary bikes, and how they can each (or both) fit into your fitness routine.
Meet the Expert
What Is an Elliptical Machine?
An elliptical machine is a non- to low-impact stationary exercise machine that simulates walking, running, or stair climb, all while using both the upper and lower body.
The machine gets its name for the pattern of movement you create while you’re on it, explains Cory Becker, a personal trainer through WeStrive, a platform with hundreds of trainers and coaches. You’ll feel like your arms and legs are effortlessly gliding in sync with each other, and you can adjust the difficulty and start feeling your muscles burn (as well as calories).
What Are the Benefits of an Elliptical Machine?
In addition to providing good cardiovascular exercise, an elliptical machine uses your entire body and is non-impact because your feet don’t leave the pedals, says Brooke Van Paris, a certified personal trainer at Life Time. You can also adjust your resistance and speed to increase or decrease the intensity, or vary your range of motion to target different muscle groups.
Says Becker, everything on an elliptical machine is connected through wheels and other mechanics so you can’t move just one arm or leg out of rhythm. “The benefits of this is that for beginners who do not know their pace or have the natural rhythm yet, this gives you half of that in a way you cannot mess up,” he says. The movement is essentially rolling back and forth, which is beneficial for anyone who has joint issues but still wants to do some cardio. Adds Mindy Sartori, XPRO (instructor) at CycleBar GO, because elliptical machines put less stress on your joints, they can also help you maintain fitness after an injury.
What Is a Stationary Bike?
As you can probably tell by its name, a stationary bike is a bike that doesn’t move. It’s an indoors version of a bicycle you can use year-round. According to Becker, there are some that have seats like a normal or racing bike, and others have pedals in front (almost like an adult version of Big Wheels). Both are designed to be adjustable and allow you to get in some mileage without leaving your home or gym.
What Are the Benefits of a Stationary Bike?
Similar to an elliptical machine, a stationary bike can help improve cardiovascular fitness and strengthen your legs, all while being easy on your joints. By changing your speed and/or resistance, you can also increase or decrease the intensity of your workout. Stationary bikes allow you to change your speed relatively fast because they don’t need to wind up like other cardio machines or use momentum like riding a bike on the road, which means you can use them for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and other short bursts of energy, says Becker.
Ellipticals vs. Stationary Bikes
One of the main differences between ellipticals and stationary bikes is that the former works your entire body. Where most machines focus on your legs, the elliptical uses your arms at the same time, which gives you more full-body control and a warm-up, says Becker. However, the downside is that ellipticals are not intense for those same reasons, so they are not very effective for those who have trained a while and can handle the stress of other cardio forms.
If you’re injured or limited in what fitness workout your body can handle, Sartori says the elliptical is a great option because it can help get your heart rate up without putting too much strain on your joints.
When using an elliptical, you’re also standing upright, says Van Paris, which causes the heart to have to work harder as it pumps blood from head to toe. When you’re seated or lying down (also referred to as the “recovery” position), typically the heart doesn't have to work as hard. And because you’re standing, there is more load, or weight on the bones, which can help improve your bone density.
One additional feature of ellipticals is that they’re designed to let users reverse their stride. “This is important because in normal day-to-day life, the human body rarely moves in only one plane of motion, so it’s important to vary in direction as to more accurately simulate real life and work all the leg musculature,” says Van Paris.
Stationary bikes, on the other hand, also provide a low-impact workout, and because it usually requires less coordination and balance than an elliptical, Van Paris says it’s a good pick for a beginner.
But stationary bikes aren’t just for beginners or those who are rehabilitating—they can also be used by people at all fitness levels. Says Sartori, you can increase your resistance or speed to give yourself a lot of different ways to enhance your workout, and if you want to make it more of a total body workout, you can add weights into the mix or come out of the saddle.
If you’re looking for a primarily lower-body workout, stationary bikes focus on your quad and calves. They can be used for sustained cardio, but also for intervals. The short sprints you can do on a stationary bike can give you strength-building effects that are similar to real outdoors sprints, so it’s the next best option if the weather doesn’t cooperate, says Becker.
As always, talk to a doctor or physician before trying either machine if you have any questions, concerns, or any injuries. But both machines are low-impact and have a variety of styles and models, which makes them suitable and adjustable for most everyone.
With both, proper form is important to exercise effectively and prevent injury. For example, on an elliptical machine, Van Paris warns of going too fast, which can cause you to lose control; slouching over and not maintaining optimal posture and core control; or bounding on your toes too much (e.g., having your feet leave the pedals), which can create impact to the joints. With a stationary bike, you need to make sure the bike is adjusted to fit your body (check with a trainer or professional if you’re uncertain), and posture is important for maintaining good core control and preventing leaning too much onto the handles. Sartori recommends watching a YouTube video on bike setup and proper form before riding on a stationary bike for the first time because you can injure yourself if you’re not set up properly.
The Final Takeaway
Both the elliptical machine and stationary bike are going to give you a low-impact cardio workout, making it suitable for beginners, people who have, or are recovering from, injuries, or anyone with joint issues. And if you're not in one of the above categories and want a strenuous cardio workout, both machines have options to increase resistance or speed to ramp up your workout on any given day.
If you’re looking for a total-body workout, the elliptical has a slight advantage because your arms are involved. But keep in mind that the machine guides, or helps, you in moving your upper body. The stationary bike may be better for getting in some high-intensity interval training or sprints to get your heart really pumping.
Ultimately, the best machine for you is going to depend on personal preference and goals, how much effort you put in, as well as which machine you enjoy using more (and therefore are more likely to use consistently). Regardless of what machine you use, too much repetitive motion can create overuse injuries and muscular imbalances, so don’t be afraid to change it up every once in a while, says Van Paris.
And there’s no reason why you can’t use both in your exercise routine. Becker says the elliptical can be a good tool to warm up your body before a workout because you move your entire body, whereas stationary bikes allow you to up the intensity but do not let you move side to side, so the number of leg groups targeted are minimal. “Using different machines regularly to give the same effect of a cardio workout but in different ways, with different muscles, is what will help you build all-around better fitness levels,” says Becker.