When it comes to getting a good cardio workout, your training options are virtually endless. In terms of cardiovascular training machines, the most popular options are the treadmill and the elliptical. That's why you'll see more ellipticals and treadmills in the cardio sections of your local gym than any other type of machine. So, which is better?
In this article, I'll put the treadmill and the elliptical head to head to discover which comes out on top in terms of ...
- Burning Calories
- Cardio Fitness
- HIIT workouts
- Low Impact Exercise
- Weight Loss
If you’ve ever stepped foot inside a commercial gym, it’s a sure bet that you’ve seen ellipticals in action. They’re those upright cardio machines that provide you with a striding movement workout in an elliptical action. There are a couple of major benefits to using an elliptical.
Firstly, they are very low impact (especially in comparison to a treadmill or an exercise bike). So, if you are a person who has ankle, knee, or lower back concerns, an elliptical will allow you to get the cardio workout that you otherwise might not be able to achieve. The other benefit of elliptical training is that it allows you to target the muscles at the back of your legs (glutes, hamstrings, calves) more than most other forms of cardio. This is especially the case when you put the elliptical into reverse stride action.
Elliptical machines also provide you with movable arms so that you can move your arms back and forth as you are striding. This gets the upper body involved in the workout, providing a great full body workout.
The treadmill is the most popular cardio machine on the planet. That popularity is based on its easy learning curve, the ability to train at all levels, from very light to extremely intense, and the convenience of being able to get a walking or running workout in when it's pouring down outside.
Treadmills also allow you to have an entertainment experience and exercise intensely at the same time. The monitors on treadmills tend to be more complex than other cardio machines, with built-in workout programs, WiFi access, app syncing, and a place to put your tablet.
Elliptical vs Treadmill
Best for Burning Calories - Elliptical
Both the treadmill and the elliptical are very good calorie burners. But when you put them head to head, the elliptical comes out on top. If you spent 30 minutes on each machine at the same work rate, you would burn about 70 more calories on the elliptical than on the treadmill.
The reason that the elliptical is a better fat burner is that it lets you work both the upper and lower body together. That's thanks to the movable arms which bring your chest, backs, arms, and core into action. Working the lower and upper body as a unit provides a more natural movement that will also increase your fat burn. As a result, you will lose weight faster when you do your cardio on an elliptical.
Best for Muscle Building - Elliptical
Both the elliptical and the treadmill are primarily designed to improve your cardio fitness and burn calories. However, they will both also contribute towards muscle building. The treadmill will focus on the lower body, with an emphasis on your quads and calves.
When your train on an elliptical machine, you will be able to achieve muscle development throughout your entire body. That's because it is a full body exercise. The movable arms work your lats, deltoids, biceps, triceps, and core, while the lower body elliptical motion targets the legs. The unique movement pattern of the elliptical does a better job than the treadmill at hitting your glutes and hamstrings.
Best for HIIT Workouts - Treadmill
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a cardio workout method that involves quickly moving from a fast pace to a short pause for repeat cycles. This has been shown to ramp up the training intensity and lead to greater long term fat burning.
Treadmill running is the best option for interval training. That's because you can more easily switch from fast running to pausing simply by throwing your legs out to the side of the moving belt. Many treadmills will also provide you with a speed adjustment button on the side rails, making it easy to adjust your speed.
In contrast, you'll find it impossible to make a fast transition from fast to slow (or pause) on an elliptical machine. That lack of continuity of intensity will prevent you from getting into a good HIIT fitness routine.
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Best For Low Impact Exercise - Elliptical
Most treadmills will feature some type of shock absorbing technology. That will ensure that you minimize your risk of stress fractures in the ankles that can be an issue when running outdoors. However, an elliptical trainer is an even better option to prevent injury.
The unique elliptical elongated circle motion is more biomechanically natural than the back and forth running motion. That makes it easier on your hips and pelvis. Another low impact benefit of the elliptical is that it is a closed chain exercise where your feet do not lift off the foot pedals.
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Best for Injury Recovery - Elliptical
If you are coming back after a lower body injury, you need to use a cardio machine that has the lowest impact stress possible. When it comes to the treadmill vs elliptical debate, the elliptical wins out here. That's because your foot never actually leaves the footplate, so there is no impact stress at all.
In contrast, running on a treadmill involves a degree of impact on the ankles, knees, and hips with every step you take. This may be minimized by advanced shock absorbing running mat technology, but it will not be eliminated.
Best to Track Progress - Treadmill
One key to making progress and achieving your fitness goals is to be able to accurately monitor your progress. Modern treadmills do a great job of doing just that. Their monitors provide you with all the training data you could ever need. Most treadmills will also pair with a manufacturer's app which will allow you to drill down even further.
Ellipticals also provide you with a range of training data on the console but this is, on the whole, not as detailed as you find on a treadmill. There is also quite a bit of variance between ellipticals when it comes to things as calories burned.
Best for Race Training - Treadmill
If you are a competitive runner, then you are far better off training on a treadmill than an elliptical. The movement patterns between the two exercises are quite different, so the elliptical pattern will not translate to your running form.
When you run on a treadmill, however, you will be able to improve your running form while also getting a good aerobic workout. The treadmill console will give you more feedback than you'll get when running on the road, with less joint impact. If you position your treadmill in front of a mirror, you will also be able to analyze your running posture.
- Lower Impact
- Greater calorie burn
- Less stress on hips
- Works leg muscles and upper body muscle groups
- Better biomechanical motion
- Better to target glutes and hamstrings
- Best for active recovery
- Greater learning curve
- Not ideal for HIIT
- Best for HIIT
- Better lower body workout
- Best for race training
- Improves running form
- Can be used on an incline
- Constant pounding may cause joint issues
- Works fewer muscle groups
From the above breakdown, we can see that the elliptical vs treadmill debate is a tough one to score. Of our 7 key categories, the elliptical comes out on top 4 times, with the treadmill taking the other three. This tells that neither is outrightly better than the other; it all depends on the purpose for which you intend to use it.
The main treadmill benefits are that it is more natural to use, is great for basic aerobic workouts, it allows you to run when it's raining outside and without as much stress on your joints, as you'd get with outdoor running.
On the other hand, elliptical exercise works the entire body, burns more calories, and is more joint friendly. That makes the elliptical a great piece of exercise equipment for weight loss, rehab after joint injuries, strength training, and muscle building.
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Which is better for losing belly fat, treadmill or elliptical?
The elliptical is better for losing belly fat than the treadmill. That's because it allows you to work both your upper and lower body, burning more calories. The action of your upper body when you are pulling and pushing on the movable arms also directly stimulates your core muscles.
Is a treadmill safer than an elliptical?
No, a treadmill is not safer than an elliptical. When you train on the elliptical, you do not actually lift your foot off the footplate. As a result, there is less chance of tripping or falling when you perform this exercise.