An elliptical and treadmill are two of the most common cardio machines found in gyms. Both machines can provide an effective cardiovascular workout and help burn calories and improve aerobic capacity, but each machine has unique benefits and drawbacks.
Is an elliptical or a treadmill more effective at burning calories? Which machine should you choose for cardio workouts? These questions and more will be answered in this introductory article, which will examine the pros and cons of each exercise method and explore some research studies.
- Versatility – From a brisk walk to an uphill sprint, treadmills offer a wide range of options in terms of speed, incline, and multiple training programs.
- Emulates Natural Movements – As technology continues to develop, fitness moguls are developing new machines that can be awkward or confusing. The treadmill is familiar and emulates natural movement for walking, jogging, or sprinting.
- High Work Output – Propelling your body weight requires substantial effort. As a result, your body will burn calories at a higher rate.
- Weight Bearing Effect – Contrary to popular belief, running and walking can help strengthen your bones and muscles which can aid your posture and sustainability as you age.
- Well-Researched – Treadmills have been around since the 1800’s and are a staple at every gym and many homes. Naturally, they have been researched, developed, and perfected more than any other piece of cardio equipment.
- Can Be Tough On Joints – Running on a treadmill can put stress on your spine, hips, knee, and ankle joints, especially if you do not warm up, or stretch, or run on it all the time with excessive volume. While some treadmills have more shock absorption than others, the impact is still significant.
- Safety Issue – High intensity training such as incline sprints can be dangerous if your skill level is not adequate to be performing these exercises.
- Unnatural Handles – Often times, people like to know their heart rate and find their target heart rate zone. Trying to hold on to the treadmill handles while you are running can be challenging and awkward.
- Posture Problems – Some studies show that the size of the belt can cause people to change the way they walk or run, leading to muscle imbalances and posture problems. The quality of treadmills can vary significantly.
- Difficulty – Running (especially on an incline) is hard. Most people will inherently gravitate towards machines they find to be the most comfortable and use that specific machine as a way to burn calories.
- Non-Impact Conditioning – The elliptical allows your body to emulate a running motion without causing the strenuous impact on your joints that occurs on a treadmill.
- Cross-Training Ability – Most elliptical trainers are now equipped with moveable handles which allow you to exercise your upper body and lower body simultaneously.
- Reverse Stride – Most elliptical allow you to stride in reverse which can activate different muscle groups and put more emphasis on your quads and offer an adjustable variety mid-workout.
- Perceived Exertion Is Lower – Studies show that people are actually working harder than they actually perceive when operating an elliptical. Subjects in the studies were asked to rate their perceived output when operating an elliptical and the majority of research showed subjects underestimating actual output based on their heart rate. Therefore, the elliptical can burn close to the same amount of calories with less effort.
- Less dynamic – With a treadmill, adjusting the incline and speed can lead to exceptional variation in intensity, whereas most ellipticals either lack this incline feature, or it is not nearly as effective.
- Less Weight Bearing Effect – While less impact can help prevent injury, there is a downside. Because the elliptical pedals are suspended off the ground they lack the “weight-bearing effect” that is utilized when running. Weight-bearing exercises strengthen bones and muscles and are particularly important for older people in preventing osteoporosis.
- Momentum – Operating an elliptical, especially on lower levels, can allow you to use the machines’ momentum to power the machine
Calorie Burn Comparison: Elliptical vs. Treadmill
A study by the Medical College of Wisconsin found the average calories burned jogging on a treadmill for one hour was 705 to 866. By comparison, an estimate by Health Status found using an elliptical trainer for one hour will burn approximately 773 calories. Based on these and other similar studies, the treadmill may have a slight advantage in calorie burn, although oftentimes the amount of variance is considered negligible compared to the elliptical.
In terms of fat loss and increased aerobic capacity, another study found that people using a stair climber, treadmill, and elliptical at similar exercise intensities experienced similar physiological changes in 12 a week program.
Bottom Line: Elliptical vs. Treadmill
The elliptical can be used as an effective cardiovascular machine for those who want to help improve cardiovascular health with minimal impact. For optimal fat loss, high intensity interval training should be implemented when using an elliptical. Beware that the calorie burn calculators on an elliptical trainer tend to overestimate calorie expenditure, which can dupe people into thinking they are burning more calories than they are. Treadmills offer more versatility and the motor of a treadmill forces you to work out of your comfort zone. If you’re an experienced exerciser, the treadmill offers the most calorie burn because you’re supporting your own body weight. The few extra calories you might burn on the treadmill come with greater potential for injury and stress on your joints, which is why the elliptical is an adequate alternative.
If you have a nagging injury that is made worse by the weight bearing effect of running, then the elliptical may be the most suitable option. Consider incorporating both machines into your regimen to reap the most benefit. Varying exercises and machines will help to avoid monotony and activate different muscle groups versus doing the same exercise on a continual basis.
Elliptical & Treadmill ResearchHere are some research reports on elliptical and treadmills:
- Similarity of joint kinematics and muscle demands between elliptical training and walking: implications for practice.
- Joint loading in the lower extremities during elliptical exercise.
- Physiologic response to a prescribed rating of perceived exertion on an elliptical fitness cross-trainer.
- Mechanically Braked Elliptical Wingate Test: Modification Considerations, Load Optimization and Reliability.
- Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking and overground walking.
- Comparison of energy expenditure on a treadmill vs. an elliptical device at a self-selected exercise intensity.
- Physiological changes following a 12 week gym based stair-climbing, elliptical trainer and treadmill running program in females.
- Metabolic cost of stride rate, resistance, and combined use of arms and legs on the elliptical trainer.
If you have any questions or comments, let me know! For an effective workout program that takes the guesswork out of losing fat and getting strong, check out BuiltLean’s 12-Week Body Transformation Program.