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.
Thanks for the analysis, Kevin. I prefer doing interval training sprints on a treadmill with an incline, but I’m sure to do a bunch of foam rolling/stretching to help make sure my body is in alignment to reduce pressure on hip/knee/ankle joints.
Due to an ankle injury, I was ordered to only perform low-impact exercises for a number of months. I’d been running up to that point, so after research, I found that the elliptical would be a good alternative, as long as I implemented HIIT while elliptical training. Additional research into HIIT led me to your article (https://www.builtlean.com/2010/06/04/high-intensity-interval-training-hiit-best-cardio-to-burn-fat/) and your site in general.
I’m now about four weeks into the built-lean program, and the results have been fantastic. All of my pure cardio has come from HIIT elliptical training and a weekly low-impact boot camp session. I can testify that HIIT elliptical training is highly effective for low-impact cardio. Thanks for the article, and for the program in general! 🙂
Awesome Farseer! Really happy to hear the program is working well for you. Keep up the great work!
Fabulous! Great that you mention striding in reverse with elliptical…it amazes me how much i focus and pay attention in reverse developing control, balance and coordination as well. Now it is time to apply that to interval training. Thanks for the continued challenges!
Thanks for your comment. I agree with marc and implemented interval training to my clients workouts and my own workouts and they have seen fantastic results. Farseer, keep up the great work and Fran, let me know how it goes.
Marc! This was a totally brilliant article. Super helpful and extra relevant. Thanks for all of the great content!
Thanks Della. Have to give props to Kevin for writing a solid article.
Marc, helpful article and I also enjoy the striding in reverse tip that many are unaware of. I know this by the many stares I get and “helpful” comments they offer by informing me I’m doing it wrong….lol. Question, if I’m looking to gain muscle mass verse weight loss, which machine would be better suited? Thanks for your dedication in helping us achieve our goals!
@Rod – I really have to tip my hat off to Kevin Deeth for writing this solid article. I think either machine would work fine during a muscle building program, but I prefer sprinting on a treadmill, because it can create more of an anabolic response. So my answer is treadmill, but again both can work fine and if you are building muscle, I wouldn’t be doing too much cardio.
I personally like the treadmill rather than the elliptical even tho they both offer great benefits health wise.
treadmill I already own but its old model and the one shown here is good one. It is good to maintain health.
I prefer treadmills. Stay in one place and doesnt feel like i going to fall sideways or something.
there is a small typo in the article
With a treadmill, adjusting the incline and speed can lead to exceptional variation in intensity, whereas most treadmills either lack this incline feature, or it is not nearly as effective.
I believe it was to read,”….whereas most ellipticals…”
I understood it either way, thanks for the information and the fact that it was unbiased without treadmill or elliptical ads.
@yeuphonic – Thanks for the tip. Change made!
I have been using the treadmill @4.5 speed and the ellipitcal track feature 3 times per week for 30minutes on each machine for two or three years and just last week I have started to feel sudden moderate streaks of pain in my left hip when I pivot my body in a certain direction during normal walking. Could this be caused by too much treadmill and elliptical activity? I am 71yrso and feel great otherwise. I even take 5 to 7 mile walks 3 times per wk on the days when I don’t excercise at the gym. I certainly don’t want to develop a serious hip problem.
@Beth – It sounds like you should be evaluated by your doctor and/or a physical therapist. You don’t want the injury to worsen. If you are not doing any squats with an exercise ball to help strengthen your hips, that’s something I would discuss with your doctor. Unfortunately, the elliptical and treadmill will not strengthen your hips and other muscles that are important for the normal functioning of your body.
Please give me your opinion on the elliptical. I thought it did a better job than the treadmill of tightening the butt? I was told this many years ago. I run on treadmill & outside. I do elliptical just to change up my program & focus on rear end. I also do weights 2-3 x per week. Focus on squats, lunges, leg extension etc. I’ve also added Pilates 1x per week. Firming the butt seems to be the most challenging thing… Sometimes I do the gauntlet as well. Thought’s?
@Pam – Firming up the butt (which in my mind means losing fat and/or building some muscle) requires doing leg exercises as you are doing, then creating a calorie deficit. I certainly wouldn’t rely on an elliptical to help “firm” your glutes, leg exercises like deep squats and walking lunges are 10x more effective. Also, running outside will burn a lot more calories and work your glutes a lot more than a treadmill (especially if you sprint). Also, keep in mind an exercise cannot remove fat off a certain part of your body (i.e. lunges do not remove fat off your legs), that’s not physiologically possible. Good luck!
Thanks for all this info. I had a C5-C6 surgery and now a lower back issue. I use to love to go to Spin Class and worked out 5-6 days a week. I have gained over 30 lbs, can I lose this weight using an elliptical for my cardio.
@Josephine – I think a structured exercise plan that is approved by your doctor combined with a sensible nutrition strategy to limit calorie intake while still providing a balance of nutrients will help you lose all the weight healthfully. Consider checking out our free Get Lean Guide for more information.
I have a bad L5 and S1 disc. Usually its tolerable but there are time where simply bending over slightly to pick up my backpack will knock me to the floor writhing in pain. Just standing at the sink peeling potatoes or doing dishes will cause my back to “tense up” as it were.
Back Dr says a treadmill would do wonders. Physical therapy has been a bust as far as long term goes. I’ve been looking at Nordick track of course, and saving up for a treadmill, but now wondering if an elliptical might be better. Ive tried them at gyms in the past, but using the bars and walking at the same time is just awkward. Treadmill as stated offers more variety, which is more important to me as I get bored. Any advice/suggestions? TIA
Hey Mike, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’ve had low back surgery – microdiscectamy L4-L5 – and have overcome significant low back issues. Fortunately, my body is stronger and more flexible than ever now. I do kettlebell swings with 106 pounds no problem! I do think the key is to address your body’s limitations. An elliptical or treadmill will not address the source of your problems. For example, can you pass the lying leg raise test? If you are lying on your back with your arms at your sides, can you comfortably lift your right leg off the ground like this => Lying Leg Raise Test If the answer is no, that’s a great place to start. I learned I didn’t have a bad lower back, I had tight hips and shoulders which put undue pressure on my low back. Also, check out this article about low back pain => 7 Best Exercises to Relieve Low Back Pain. Lastly, if I were you, I would stick to an elliptical before you can improve the flexibility in your hamstrings / hips.
I’d argue that treadmill doesn’t offer more variety. The backwards elliptical option makes up for it’s lack of incline, probably more than makes up for it.
I’ve just been doing some research on ellipticals and have found that several of them do in fact offer the ability to simulate an incline, so this is not something specific to a treadmill alone.
Thanks for sharing! I just came across a study that found that when participants exercised at the same RPE (rate of perceived exertion) on an elliptical and a treadmill, their oxygen consumption and energy expenditure were similar. This means that an elliptical workout is a comparable substitution for a treadmill workout. And if you increase the incline resistance on an elliptical, you should get good glute and hamstring activation.
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor
Its Mahmud from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
To reduce my obesity, i am planning to start doing some exercise.
So, i would like to buy a Machine, but cant decide, which one i should go for ?
A Elliptical or a Treadmill ? Here i must mention that, im 6’2″ tall & my weight is 108 KG ( Opsssss ). I can manage 60 – 90 Minutes a day for Exercise. One of my friend also gave me an Idea to buy a cycle & start cycling for 60 minutes a day. So please help me with some suggestions.
Hey Mahmud, thanks for stopping by. It mostly depends on what exercise you want to do. If you don’t want to do either, then I recommend finding other exercise. For someone just starting out, an elliptical can work well because perceived exertion is often less than how hard you are exercising. In other words, you are exercising harder than you think you are, so you train for longer and burn more calories. Also consider a simple walking plan, where you walk for 30 to 60 minutes a day, or shoot for 10,000 steps a day. It’s a simple protocol that is very effective. Combined with smart nutrition, you can definitely lose the excess weight.
Great article, thanks guys! I decided that I will buy the treadmill (as I also want to improve my run records). I want to buy something around $2000. What do you think about this Sole Treadmill: ? Is it good for this price? If not what would you recommend?
Thank you for your help!