Which is better elliptical or treadmill? The Ultimate, No B.S. Guide

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Which is better elliptical or treadmill

Which is better elliptical or treadmill? Ellipticals tend to be better for people who are overweight or experience joint pain. Ellipticals are also smoother which is nice if you are looking for a way to unwind while watching ‘something’ after work. Treadmills are likely better for people who are training for a race and for those who prefer the motion of running or walking.

I found that many of the articles comparing ellipticals and treadmills sounded more like a sales page for one or the other. In this article, I provide an honest and comprehensive overview with plenty of scientific evidence to help you make your decision.

Research has shown that the elliptical and treadmill are equally effective for burning fat and improving cardio fitness (Bosch et al., 2021; Brown et al., 2010).

Keep reading to discover the No B.S. answer to the question: Which is better elliptical or treadmill?

Which is better elliptical or treadmill? The answer depends on your goals and personal preferences.

What is your main fitness goal?

  • Are you wanting to run a marathon or other race?
  • Look better in a swimsuit?
  • Improve your overall health and live a longer life?
  • Wanting to keep up with the little ones?
Which is better elliptical or treadmill: Pros

Pros of Elliptical: Which is better elliptical or treadmill?

The elliptical is great in that it is:

  • Lower impact. Provide a low-impact workout that is easy on the joints (Bosch et al., 2020). This can be helpful for those with joint pain in the knees, ankles, or hips
  • Feels easier to burn the same amount of calories. At the same level of intensity, research has shown the elliptical feels easier than the treadmill. (Brown et al., 2010).
  • Less likely to cause shin splints. The smooth motion tends to be better for people who get shin splints when running 
  • A form of rehabilitation. Ellipticals can be a great alternative for runners who are rehabilitating after an injury (Barak et al., 2014; Bosch et al., 2020)
  • Usually quieter. This can make it better for people living in upper floors of condos or apartments and those who have basement renters (hello house hackers!)
  • A strategic break from training runs. According to Dr. A. de Wijer et al. (2015), “Eighty percent of running disorders are overuse injuries.” Elliptical sessions can be mixed in with outdoor training runs as a proactive measure when training for a race.
  • Often preferred by heavier people. People who weigh 250lbs or more find the elliptical to be less jarring and kinder to the joints compared to running (Barak et al., 2014).
  • Easier to enjoy a movie or show while working out. The smoother motion makes it a better option for those looking to stream a show or movie
  • Great for HIIT – the handles often have heart-rate monitors. This feature can be nice if you are looking to track your heart rate and for high intensity interval training
  • Provides an upper and lower body workout. Dr. Hasan Sözen (2010) explains that “all of the measured upper extremity muscles were more activated by [the] elliptical trainer compared to treadmill.” The motion is similar to cross-country skiing – which is known to be one of the most effective forms of cardio.
  • Awesome way to burn off stress. I asked my friend Danny – a social worker with a highly stressful job how to de-compress. His secret: after work listen to loud music while sweating it out for 30-60 minutes on the elliptical. This is a helpful way to burn off the stresses of the day and for leaving work at work.

Dr. Gregory Brown et al. (2010) explains in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (p. 1647) that:

“At the same level of perceived exertion, exercise on an elliptical device results in a higher heart rate, higher percent of maximal oxygen consumption, and higher respiratory exchange ratio than does exercise on a treadmill” [6].

Dr. Andrew Bosch et al. (2021), explains in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism:

“Both physiological measures (oxygen consumption and heart rate) as well as carbohydrate and fat oxidation did not differ between the treadmill, elliptical trainer, and stepper” [11].

Dr. Gregory Brown’s et al. (2010) findings align with this research.

In the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the researchers reveal the elliptical is just as effective as the treadmill for improving cardio fitness and volume of oxygen uptake [12].

Which is better elliptical or treadmill: Cons

Cons of Elliptical: Which is better elliptical or treadmill?

Some cons of ellipticals:

  • Less natural movement. The motion can feel a bit awkward at first until you get used to it
  • It ain’t running. People who enjoy the natural motion of running often find the elliptical motion boring and less effective
  • Not as good for setting a pace. If you are looking to get in great shape, it takes some focus to push yourself since the elliptical doesn’t set the pace the same way as a treadmill. It is easy to let momentum and the flywheel do much of the work. This means you would burn fewer calories and miss out on many of the benefits of a more intense cardio workout.
  • Numbness. Some people find their feet get numb on the elliptical. Moving your feet and wiggling your toes may help with this
Which is better elliptical or treadmill: treadmill pros

Pros of Treadmill: Which is better elliptical or treadmill?

Treadmills are:

  • Great for accountability. treadmills are better for setting the pace so you can consistently push yourself. This can be super helpful for maintaining consistent progress towards your running goals. It can be too easy to start fast but then slow down on the elliptical. Treadmills also usually have a screen that easily tracks distance and time. You can use this to track and incrementally improve your speed, distance, or endurance with each workout.
  • Better for training for a race or marathon. If you are training for a race, the treadmill is likely the better training option. But it should also be combined with running outside (unless it’s a virtual race on a treadmill).
  • Can help you increase running speed. Compared to running outside, treadmills can help you better track your speed, resistance, and other variables such as incline. This can help you progressively increase your speed throughout your training (Assadi et al., 2017).
  • More effective for improving bone density. This higher-impact workout can strengthen bones and muscles more effectively (Lorincz, 2006).
  • Easier to learn to use. Since the motion is more natural, it tends to be easier to learn to use compared to the elliptical. Simply start the tread at a slow walking speed such as 2 mph until you get used to the motion. Then, gradually increase the speed. The trickiest part is getting on and off the tread – so be careful!
  • Some can be easier to store. Many models of treadmills can be folded up for storage and might be a better choice if you are looking to store it to free up space in your home.
  • Great for managing emotions. People looking to burn off some steam or angry emotions often find the running motion more in tune with the vibe they are going for
Which is better elliptical or treadmill: treadmill cons

Cons of Treadmill: Which is better elliptical or treadmill?

Treadmills also are:

  • Higher impact. Although gentler than running on pavement, the treadmill is higher impact than the elliptical. It might not be as good for people who are overweight, experience joint pain, or just don’t like that jolting feeling
  • Louder. If you live in a condo, have a basement renter, or are a house-hacker, then running on the treadmill can reverberate throughout a building
  • More expensive. If you are looking for a treadmill that you can sprint on or do HIIT workouts on, you won’t want to go too cheap. Ellipticals can provide an equally intense workout, at a lower cost.
  • Have a higher risk of injury. While the higher impact can help strengthen bones, it can also cause injuries or joint pain.
  • Do not fully replace running outside. Because the belt assists in pulling your feet, training outside works the muscles differently (Assadi et al., 2017). Running outdoors can also help you get used to running down hills, on pavement, gravel, ice, snow, dirt, etc. Additionally, treadmill running won’t be as effective in helping you prepare for heat, wind, and rain that might occur on race day.

Other Tips

Which is better elliptical or treadmill: other tips

Whichever machine you use, make sure to learn how to use the controls and get a quick run-down of how each function works. If in doubt, ask a personal trainer for a quick tutorial. 

Here are a few more tips:

  • Safety tip – don’t forget the basics. Stay hydrated, warm up, and cool down. Take the time to learn proper form and posture. 
  • Safety tip – take time to familiarize yourself. Both the treadmill and elliptical are fairly user-friendly. It is still important to learn how they work before jumping into a cardio workout.
    • Get familiar with the treadmill. Start on a low speed you can safely walk on before speeding up. Practice getting on and off a few times at lower speeds and always use the safety clip. Learn how to properly get off the treadmill at higher speeds as people have fallen and been seriously injured.
      • insert gif of someone falling
    • Get familiar with the elliptical. The elliptical can feel a bit awkward at first. Give it time. After a few workouts, you may forget that it ever felt unnatural.
  • Unsure which one to buy? Go to the gym and trial each one for a week to find out whether you prefer the treadmill or elliptical. Some people find the elliptical boring. Others find the treadmill too high impact. And other people don’t like either and would rather use an exercise bike or stick with walking or running outside.
  • Start small. While it can be tempting to go all out on the first workout, this can lead you to feel pain and associate negative feelings to working out. You will likely see better results if you start small and plan intentionally. Check out this article for some tips on how to make your cardio workout a long-term habit.

Next steps: Which is better elliptical or treadmill?

Which is better elliptical or treadmill? Now that we have con through the pros and cons of each – what is your next step?

If you are looking to speed up progress towards your fitness goals, read this article to learn which exercises or activities are best for fat loss.