When it comes to gym equipment, it's safe to say that cardio machines get a lot of use. There is no shortage of machine varieties available, but you may have noticed that treadmills and ellipticals are two very popular choices that can be found at nearly any generalized gym or fitness studio. Both are accessible machines that can be used by beginners with little fitness training, but that can also be beneficial for more advanced exercisers.
We wanted to find out if treadmills or ellipticals reign supreme when it comes to your fitness goals, so we asked two personal trainers, Amy Morris and Steve Stonehouse, for their input. Should you stick with one or the other? Is it a good idea to mix and match between both? Read on to discover all we learned about treadmills and ellipticals, from what they can contribute to your fitness routine to whether one or the other is safer.
Meet the Expert
What Is the Elliptical?
If you think the elliptical machine is a little odd-looking, you aren't alone. This contraption is designed with ergonomics in mind more than a sleek appearance. "An elliptical is a piece of gym equipment used for lower-impact cardiovascular exercise which simulates and combines a natural running movement with stair climbing by placing your feet on a platform moving in an ellipsis or constant circular motion," says Morris. "Your upper body is also worked with a push/pull pump of the handlebars."
"The user's foot never hits the ground on an elliptical trainer, so the impact of walking or running on a hard surface is eliminated," adds Stonehouse. "The suspended pedals move on an oval-shaped (elliptical) track and provide a workout for the lower body. Most elliptical trainers are designed so that the resistance can be changed to make the workout easier or more rigorous. Because the elliptical motion is fluid, movement on the trainer does not jar or stress the spinal structures."
Benefits of Ellipticals
- Minimal impact: Stonehouse notes that an elliptical machine will "place a low level of stress on the spine and other joints."
- Cross-training: You're able to work your arms and legs at once, making this a varied workout rather than single-motion. Ellipticals "offer good cross-training for both upper and lower body," says Morris.
- Control: Morris notes that ellipticals "allow you to control incline and resistance for variation."
- Many muscle groups are used: "Some models allow the pedals to move in both directions (forward and backward) to exercise more muscle groups and add variety," says Stonehouse. "Some elliptical trainers have handles to challenge upper body movements as well."
What Is a Treadmill?
Ellipticals are typically confined to gyms, but treadmills appear in places like physical therapy and doctor's offices, too. Because they're fairly ubiquitous, you're likely to have encountered one in life, even if you have never gotten on. Stonehouse describes a treadmill as "a piece of exercise equipment with a motorized, continuous looping belt that allows the user to walk or run in place." You can use a treadmill to walk slowly, to run fast, and everything in between. You can use it as a flat road, a gentle incline, or even a steep hill.
Benefits of Treadmills
- No outdoors needed: "Treadmills offer a great alternative to running outdoors as they mimic the same natural movement pattern," says Morris. "Training on a treadmill also allows you to run if there is inclement weather or if don’t like running when it’s dark outside."
- High customization: "One of the main benefits of exercising on a treadmill is the versatility you have," says Stonehouse. "Whether it’s a quick run or an uphill walk, you have the option to dial in the exact speed and incline of your workout."
- HIIT ready: Thanks to how customizable the settings are, you can use a treadmill for a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.
- Time management: Morris explains that "the treadmill keeps the runner honest with their pace and hill work without having to regularly check their watch."
Ellipticals vs. Treadmills
There are numerous benefits to both ellipticals and treadmills. Ellipticals offer a low-impact workout that uses many different muscles throughout your body, while a treadmill is a highly customizable way to walk, run, or jog, and can be used as a flat road or a steep hill. So which is better? That depends on what your goals are, and what your body needs.
For anyone looking for the safest possible way to do cardio exercise, an elliptical is the better choice. That's because "an elliptical offers slightly less risk since your feet are placed on a platform in a fixed movement pattern," says Morris. Additionally, treadmills are high impact if you're using them for running, which can spell trouble for anyone with joint issues. On the other hand, ellipticals involve minimal impact, so "an elliptical might also be the better option if you prefer a lower-impact workout as it is easier on the joints," says Morris. To further prevent injury, "it’s also important to have a good strength training routine, especially for those who pick the treadmill to reduce running and walking injuries," adds Stonehouse.
There isn't really any fitness race that an elliptical can get you ready for. A treadmill, however, is a perfect tool for competition. "The treadmill might be the better choice if you are training for a race since there is more similarity to running outdoors and it can mimic the natural movement pattern of running and incline hill running, and [can help you] practice holding a steady pace," says Morris.
You might expect that a treadmill would burn significantly more calories than an elliptical machine, but that isn't necessarily the case. One study showed that when letting users self-select settings, the results of energy expenditure were fairly similar. However, people tend to work out harder on treadmills, and that study didn't specifically compare running on a treadmill to walking on one. Morris says that a "treadmill run will also burn more calories if your goal is to lose weight. "
You can customize your treadmill workout more than you can an elliptical one. That's because there is such a range for speed and incline, while an elliptical's controls create less change in the machine. "You have more controls (speed/incline) with a treadmill and it represents movements that are required in your daily routine," says Stonehouse. "For function and familiarity, I recommend a great treadmill; it can easily become your best friend."
The Final Takeaway
Ellipticals and treadmills are gym staples for cardio exercise. An elliptical is a piece of equipment that mimics stair climbing and running, without the impact of either, and also has handles for upper body movement. A treadmill is a device used for walking and running, with a looping continuous belt. Treadmills allow you to walk or run, on flat land or an incline. Both are safe for the average person to use, and have minimal injury risk.
As for which is better, that completely depends on your goals. If you're looking for safety, an elliptical is your best bet. But if you want to train for a race or have a highly customizable HIIT workout, a treadmill is a better choice. Morris recommends "both the treadmill and elliptical, as they are great tools for clients to utilize to add some cardio into their daily routines and complement strength training," and we think that's perfect advice.
Brown GA, Cook CM, Krueger RD, Heelan KA. Comparison of energy expenditure on a treadmill vs. an elliptical device at a self-selected exercise intensity. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(6):1643-1649.