Elliptical Machines vs. Treadmills – Pros and Cons of Each
Elliptical trainers and treadmills are the primary cardio machines you’ll find in any gym. Both pieces of equipment provide a workout experience that’s closest to walking and running on a natural surface.
Your physical health and workout goals will determine which machine will work best for you. Do you want to know which of the two machines you should invest in? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each.
The Pros of Elliptical Machines
Ellipticals are suitable for individuals with musculoskeletal conditions like hip or knee pain, lower back pain, or health conditions like osteoporosis and arthritis. The joints and ligaments don't get the same stress associated with running, so it's a good machine to use when recovering from an injury or suffering from over-fatigue.
Total body workout
The pedals of the elliptical machine tone your lower body, while the arm handles work out your core and upper body.
You can pedal forward and backward with an elliptical machine, putting some variety on your workout compared to using a treadmill.
Because your feet never leave the pedals when using an elliptical, it’s slightly safer than using a treadmill, where you could lose your balance or fall if you misstep.
A good-quality elliptical trainer costs less than a decent treadmill. You will get great value for your money by buying an elliptical in the $1,000-$2,000 range, although there are already good quality products in the $500-$1,000 range.
The Cons of Elliptical Machines
Unnatural body position and movement
You may feel awkward when using an elliptical for the first time because it places your body in an unnatural posture. You have to make sure that you’re standing upright and not bending or leaning forward while using it. Get help from a trainer if you need to know how to use the machine properly.
Less muscle development
You could include weight or strength training in your routine if you want to continue using an elliptical but need greater muscle development.
Burning sensation in the legs
An elliptical trainer can cause your legs, particularly your quadriceps, to experience a burning sensation when you’re a new user of the equipment. You will feel less of this pain after several sessions and your muscles have adjusted to the new challenge.
Your feet may feel number the longer you work out since they stay on the pedals. Try moving your toes and shifting your feet to allow circulation and prevent the numbing.
Fewer calories burned
Unless you set your elliptical on high resistance, the machine won't be able to burn as many calories as a treadmill workout would. Raising your feet from the ground always uses more energy than when they stay in place on the pedals. The arm poles which most ellipticals have will help burn additional calories as well.
Requires more room
Ellipticals are taller than treadmills and would require more room as the pedals rotate. It wouldn’t be ideal in a low-ceiling room, because users need additional headspace when they reach the apex of the rotation.
The Pros of Treadmills
Treadmill users exert substantial effort to propel their body through running. The weight-bearing effect of either walking or running strengthens your bones and muscles, especially your glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. Running also actively engages your core and abdominal muscles. If you have joint issues or a past injury though an elliptical may be the better choice as they are low/no impact.
The treadmill simulates natural movements for jogging, sprinting, or walking. Hence, there's not much of a learning curve involved except for getting used to a moving belt.
You can adjust the speed of a treadmill and change the incline depending on the intensity of your workout.
Good for heart health
Brisk walking and running will improve the health of your heart muscles and increase blood circulation by raising your heart rate and activating your lungs.
More calories burned
You can generally burn more calories on a treadmill than on an elliptical by not holding onto the sides of the treadmill.
Less space requirement
Treadmills can easily fit and be used in a room with an average ceiling height compared to ellipticals that would need additional headspace when you "bounce" at the apex of a rotation.
The Cons of Treadmills
Running close to the monitor can cause you to arch backward, altering your posture. Aim to run in the middle of the belt or about a foot back from the monitor. The quality of the treadmill and the size of the belt can also change your natural gait.
Staring down the monitor, looking at a TV screen that’s positioned too high above your head, or looking down at your phone or tablet can overextend your neck, resulting in a condition called "tech neck."
Tough on joints
Using the treadmill without a proper warm-up or little to no stretching, as well as running at a high speed or intensity can stress your knees, hips, ankles, and spine.
Mainly works out the lower body
Treadmills primarily target your abdomen, glutes, calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
Safety and injury risk
You can fall or slip when you miss a step while the belt is moving or when you’re adjusting to a higher incline.
Unable to totally simulate outdoor running
Treadmill use can’t totally replicate running outdoors because you get help from a moving belt, which reduces the effort that you would exert on a real road or surface. Most treadmills don’t have a decline or downhill function.
You may need tactics to prevent boredom as walking and running to nowhere can become monotonous.
The features and quality of construction of treadmills worth $1,000-$1,500 are good enough for everyday use. But if you’re going for durability, go for machines worth over $1,500. Higher-priced treadmills also have special features, such as a touchscreen entertainment system.
Treadmill owners need to regularly lubricate the treadmill belt and center it. An elliptical trainer doesn’t need periodic maintenance.
Which Is Better for Losing Belly Fat?
Both machines help burn overall body fat, but neither can "spot reduce" fat in your abdominal area.
The amount of calories burned varies from one person to another, depending on your weight, metabolic rate, workout duration, speed, incline, and intensity. Moreover, your exercise routine on either machine must be supported by a healthy diet for you to shed off fat effectively.
A person weighing 160 pounds can burn an estimated 328 calories an hour through a low-intensity treadmill workout. Meanwhile, the same individual can burn 457 calories during a high-intensity workout.
Individuals who work out using elliptical machines can burn more calories in a shorter amount of time because they exercise both upper and lower body muscles. Depending on the intensity of your routine, a 155-pound person can burn about 355 pounds within 30 minutes.
Which Is Better for Toning Muscles?
Ellipticals are able to tone different muscle groups in your upper and lower body.
Used on their own, treadmills can work out your core/abdomen, buttocks, quads, and calves. But you can also tone your arm muscles if you carry small hand weights while using the treadmill.
How to Get a Good Workout on an Elliptical
Certified personal trainer Meg Lappe and health coach Daniel Bubnis share the following tips to maximize your workouts on the elliptical bike:
- Have an exercise plan before starting.
- Keep your feet flat on the pedals.
- Don’t slouch.
- Step off the machine every three minutes to perform a 30-second plank or side planks for your core muscles. You can also do body-weight exercises like lunges or squats.
- Adjust the incline to tone your glutes. The higher the incline, the more you're able to work your butt muscles.
- Alternate forward and backward motions.
- Alternate 30 seconds using the handlebars only with one minute of total bodywork or using your legs and repeat for 20 minutes.
- Keep light dumbbells nearby. Pause every 30 minutes to do a set of shoulder presses or bicep curls.
Ellipticals vs. Incline Treadmill
Only higher-end elliptical trainers have rear-drive units that allow adjustable inclines, with some offering up to 20-degree inclines. The movement is like climbing stairs, and you extend your hip quads and knees more. You also have to flex your calves and ankles more to counter the resistance.
Meanwhile, the slope of an incline trainer, a special type of treadmill, can go as high as 40 degrees.
HIIT on Ellipticals vs. Treadmill
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is made up of short but intense bursts of physical activity with intervals of quick rest or low-intensity exercise. HIIT is usually a combination of aerobic and resistance training. It was voted as the third top fitness trend for 2019, according to an American College of Sports Medicine poll.
As HIIT is usually a series of jogs with intervals of faster running and brisk walking, treadmills are more suitable for HIIT.
Elliptical trainers are effective for people who want to improve their cardiovascular health with minimal impact. For the best weight-loss results, elliptical machine workouts should be partnered with HIIT.
But to avoid monotony and to activate different muscle groups, you can incorporate both pieces of equipment into your routine and attain your fitness goals.