Elliptical vs Treadmill


Walk into almost any gym or specialty fitness retailer and you will be confronted with row after row of treadmills and ellipticals. Although these machines are both classified as “cardiovascular equipment,” both have individual qualities that will suit some exercisers better than others.

Before purchasing a piece of equipment this fundamental to a balanced exercise program, it’s important to consider which would be best for your fitness level, workout style and budget.

Elliptical Machine Benefits

The elliptical features two pedals that move in a smooth, uninterrupted circular motion that allows for an impact-free workout. This can be invaluable for individuals with injuries or weaknesses in their knees, ankles, hips and lower back.

Additionally, two long handles extend upward from the base of the machine and place resistance on your upper body. This full-body workout means that you have the potential to burn significantly more calories per hour with an elliptical than if you were to use a treadmill or exercise bike.

There are some potential drawbacks to ellipticals. Because the structure of the elliptical machine controls and limits your range of motion, the movement may take some getting used to. The stride length is also built into the machine, although some allow for slight adjustments, and exercisers with shorter strides may find themselves hyper-extending their knees, which can be problematic over time.

Another factor to consider is that you set the pace on an elliptical (unlike a treadmill, which provides a motorized speed). This can sometimes make it challenging to maintain a constant speed, and if you aren’t highly self-motivated, it can be tempting to go easy.

Selecting an Elliptical

As with any piece of exercise equipment, it’s important to compare elliptical machines until you find one that perfectly fits your needs. Look for a durable machine that will be able to fully support the weight of all its users and has a heavy enough flywheel to offer a smooth, quiet workout. Quality ellipticals are designed to mimic your natural body posture and movement.

Benefits of Treadmills

Apart from the benefits associated with all forms of cardiovascular exercise, the key benefit of treadmills is accessibility. The running or walking motion required to use a treadmill is natural, comfortable and familiar.

Many home treadmills also fold up for easy storage. While running outside can be made difficult by terrain or weather, treadmills offer an even surface and the climate control of your home or gym.

Another advantage is that treadmills can have a built-in motivation factor. The belt speed and the incline will adjust automatically when you follow a program, reducing any tendencies to relax during a workout. Although you can stop or slow the machine at any time, the automated pace prevents you from easing up unintentionally.

The treadmill running surface is cushioned to reduce the stress on your joints from repeated impact, but this is still a concern for exercisers with a history of joint problems. Also, some people find treadmills repetitive, making them less likely to exercise as often as they should.

Finding the Perfect Treadmill

When shopping for a treadmill, look for a machine with a solid frame and a wide running belt. These features will allow you to use the machine comfortably without modifying your natural stride. The highest rated treadmills have larger motors that allow the belt to rotate smoothly and quietly.

Integrated support for media players is an additional feature that may help to alleviate some of the boredom experienced when running indoors. Features that allow you to track your progress through multiple workouts will also make your routine more enjoyable.

Which is Best for You?

If you already enjoy running outdoors but find that your cardio routine suffers because of the weather, a treadmill might be your best choice. People who suffer from joint pain, however, would likely benefit from using an elliptical. Also, if you have difficulty incorporating an upper body workout into your schedule, you may find that the elliptical helps you save time by including these muscles in your cardio.

Regardless of which machine you chose, you’ll want to select a quality model that will last you a long time and help you reach your fitness goals.

Choosing the Right Fitness Equipment

HorizonEllipticalChoosing the right piece of home fitness equipment—whether that’s a treadmill, elliptical, or exercise bike—depends on what you wish to accomplish from your home training sessions. As you set up your training plan, here are a few things you might want to consider:

Treadmill: Providing a natural workout (as simple as heading out for a walk!), a home treadmill means that your fitness is not at the mercy of weather or daylight. Cushioned treadmills are also a bit easier on your joints compared to walking and running outdoors. You can use your treadmill as a back-up to your regular, outdoor sessions or schedule it into your training plan as an active recovery that takes advantage of the added cushioning and controlled environment. You can also push yourself by including challenging interval runs or hikes, adjusting the incline and speed to push your heart rate and your fitness. Many treadmills also fold, making them easy to move out of the way, a particular advantage if your home gym space doubles as a living area.

Ellipticals:  Elliptical trainers offer a simple, no impact movement, while continuing to burn serious calories and challenge your cardiovascular system. If you’re new to exercise, are concerned about the impact of running, or simply want to burn as many calories as possible while minimizing the wear and tear on your joints, an elliptical is a great option. Additionally, you have the option of strengthening the upper body at the same time, improving your posture. Ellipticals can also be used in a backwards pedaling motion –a benefit unique to this piece of equipment. This allows you to strengthen muscles on the back of your body, improving your ability to spike a volleyball or run downhill, while allowing the quads time to recover.

Indoor Bike:   Indoor cycles are also a great, no impact option for continuing to work out through or following injury or to mix in recovery workouts with a higher impact program. If you’re vulnerable in your low back and knees, you may especially appreciate the natural seated position of the recumbent bike. Recumbent bikes, however, can make it harder to get your heart rate up if you don’t make a conscious effort to overcome that through increasing the resistance and speed of your workout. All indoor bikes are a great option if you’re looking for a convenient, no-impact workout that you can use for cross-training or recovery if you can see yourself branching out into road races or triathlons.

Looking for more tips? Check out our buying guides for treadmills, ellipticals and exercise bikes for videos and what you should consider before making your purchase.

Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor, and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. To find out more, visit the Meet Our Writers page.