When it comes to getting your cardio workout there are several good choices. Running, aerobic exercise, dancing, swimming, and of course, elliptical machines and treadmills. Many people gravitate to the machines instead of the other options because they are already in the gym. While you are at the gym you can also access your strength training machines. It is very convenient to use an elliptical or a treadmill to get your heart pumping due to the ease of use and wide availability.
Before we try to figure out which cardio machine is better for your workout, first we must define each machine.
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What is a Treadmill?
A treadmill is an upright exercise device with a rubber mat on a conveyor belt system that will simulate the ground moving underneath your feet. Essentially it just a ‘running in place’ machine. These machines are found in gyms all over the world, and in many homes. If you have ever considered getting one for your home, make sure you check out our comprehensive treadmill guide!
The flat platform where your feet go can sometimes move up in an incline, simulating the feeling of going uphill. Not every treadmill has this capability.
Most treadmills have a monitor panel that will track time and other important metrics, like fitness trackers. Treadmills have been around since 1913, although the modern form got popular in the late 1970s. These machines are well known in our culture.
Treadmills are somewhat similar to ellipticals, but there are some key differences.
What is an Elliptical Trainer Machine?
Ellipticals are machines that are sometimes called cross-trainers. These are exercise devices used to simulate stair climbing, jogging, walking, or running. They are sometimes confused with recumbent bikes, but they are completely different.
Elliptical machines are well known for the fact that unlike treadmills, they have a low to no-impact workout. Your feet never have to slap down on a platform with this type of machine.
These are newer to the market than the treadmill, so they do not have quite as much name recognition, while everyone knows what a treadmill is.
Much like treadmills, most ellipticals will have a small monitor section that shows important metrics such as time and speed, and other data.
Some ellipticals have the added benefit of handles that move and allow you to also get an upper body and lower body workout at the same time.
Key Differences Between Ellipticals and Treadmills
- Treadmills are an older technology than ellipticals and more well-known and accepted
- Ellipticals are low impact workouts that are easier on your joints, while treadmills are more jarring
- Some ellipticals will give you a fuller workout (upper and lower body)
- Ellipticals allow you to switch directions moving backward, which works different muscles, while most treadmills do not do this
- Treadmills have incline control while ellipticals typically do not
These are just some of the most obvious differences between the two machines. Each one has its own loyal group of fans and for good reasons.
When to Use a Treadmill Over an Elliptical
Treadmills can provide an extremely high-intensity workout. Pushing your body weight forward requires a lot of muscle power and energy. Treadmills excel at one thing, allowing you to run in place for a long period of time.
This high-intensity exercise can provide a serious cardio workout and burn boatloads of calories in a noticeably short period of time. With the innovation of the incline, treadmills offer even more intensity to your workout.
If you need a super high-intensity calorie-burning workout in a short amount of time, jump on the treadmill or a rowing machine!
When to Use an Elliptical Instead of a Treadmill
Because of the no-impact nature of working out on an elliptical machine, they are a much better choice for people with sensitive joints or other issues. The workout can feel a little awkward at first since the movement is foreign, but there will be no jarring movements.
People with recent hip or knee injuries are often encouraged to stay off the treadmill for a while and to use an elliptical instead.
If you need a full-body workout instead of just a leg workout, the elliptical is the best choice. Because of the arm handles and multiple movements involved, the elliptical will work all parts of your body much more than the treadmill can.
Strengths and Weaknesses
By now, you can see that both machines have their own specialties and weaknesses. Treadmills are simpler machines that are streamlined to work your legs in an intense workout. Ellipticals are more versatile full body workout machines that provide a non-jarring workout experience.
But there are specific activities that each one excels at.
Best for Training for A Sprint or Race – Treadmill
Treadmills are not as low impact as ellipticals, but they are much lower impact than concrete or asphalt. This makes them ideal for training for a sprint or marathon run. Treadmills are custom made to work your legs and develop your muscle tone. The high-intensity nature of a workout on this machine will also prepare your lungs for a long marathon or short sprint.
Best Low Budget Option – Elliptical
In general, you will spend more on a good treadmill than an elliptical. The best selling and most popular elliptical sell for under 300 bucks on a popular website, while the top treadmill will set you back over 500 bucks! If budget is your main concern and you are not specifically looking for a race training machine, an elliptical is your best choice for sure.
Best for Weight Loss- Both!
When it comes to losing weight, there really is not a wrong choice between these 2 popular machines. The high intensity running motion of a treadmill will keep you sweating and burning calories, but the multiple movements and upper and lower body exercise of an elliptical will shed the pounds quickly as well.
Depending on your preference and budget, if just shedding pounds is your top priority, either one is going to fit your needs just fine.
Best for Recovering from an Injury- Elliptical Machine
If you have recently hurt your knee or hip, jumping on a treadmill is not a good idea. You can make your injury worse! It is a much better idea to get your workout on an elliptical if you have recently hurt yourself. Even on this machine you still need to take it easy and be careful not to move wrong or push your body too hard. In general, ellipticals are recommended over treadmills for people who are recovering from an injury but still need some safe exercise.
Pros and Cons of Ellipticals and Treadmills Compared
- No impact workout good for injury recovery
- Upper and lower body targeted
- Less expensive than a treadmill
- Can move both directions working all leg muscles and butt
- Great for race training
- Helps with running form
- Can incline to simulate uphill running
- Will improve running speed more than elliptical
- Does not strength train legs as much as the treadmill
- Does not incline
- Mileage tracking is not accurate
- Not as good for runners
- A good one will cost more than the same quality elliptical
- More impact training can be harder on joints
- Not as good for beginners because it can be way more intense
- A bigger machine takes up more space (unless it is a folding treadmill)
Alternatives to Ellipticals and Treadmills
Both machines are popular and great at providing a safe workout. Some people are more suited to one or the other, but there are plenty of alternatives to these machines if you simply can’t decide on one or the other.
Actually running– Put on some running tights and get out of the house! Find a trail or a quiet street and just start running. This is a great workout for your entire body and will help you lose weight just like a cardio machine. Running has the added benefit of scenery and fresh air. If you have never really been a runner, check out our guide on how to start running!
Cycling or Recumbent Bike- If you have a bicycle (it does not have to be fancy), just get on it and start riding. Cycling is well known to be a great workout for your legs and your heart as well. In fact, cycling is what recumbent bikes and certain elliptical movements are modeled after. If you cannot ride your bike outside you could pick up a recumbent bike for cheap, but you will miss out on the fresh air and scenery.
Aerobic Exercise Workouts- There are lots of classes at gyms all over the world that will teach aerobic workouts in groups. This is a fun way to get your cardio in while meeting others who have similar fitness goals (assuming there is not a global plague ruining everything). One of the most fun aerobic workouts is the kickboxing type which will teach you some basic martial arts moves and get your heart pumping.
Swimming- Nowadays there is an indoor pool in almost every neighborhood. Swimming works a lot of muscles and will work your heart and lungs as well. This is a fun activity that will not cost money (in most cases) and you can do it almost any time.
Jump Rope- Jumping rope is a fantastic cardio workout that you can do at home. This activity involves swinging your arms and jumping the rope which works your legs as well. Jump ropes are not expensive and will provide an excellent workout in the comfort of your home.
Rowing Machines- Rowing machines provide a full-body workout. It has low impact movements that will not hurt your joints. There are some tricks to effectively using a rowing machine and keeping proper posture can be a challenge until you get used to it. Keep your back straight or you are asking for an injury. A good rowing machine can set you back a significant amount of money, but many people prefer these to treadmills.
Summary- Which is Better Elliptical Machines or Treadmills?
As you have learned by now there are different machines that are better suited to a given situation. That being said, there is a clear winner for serious runners.
The Case for Treadmills
If you are a serious runner, you are going to get more out of a treadmill. They are designed specifically to train you for races and can accurately track your distance. They can simulate going up hills and will give you a lower than real pavement impact training session which can strengthen your bones and ankles. The only shortcoming of a treadmill for the purpose of running is that your arms are not swinging by your side because they are holding the handles which are awkward and not like running.
The Case for Ellipticals
Unless you are a runner, an elliptical is going to be the better choice for an overall workout machine. It can work your core, arms, legs, and many muscles the treadmill just cannot. It has its shortcomings like the fact that it feels really weird until you get used to it.
Frequent users of ellipticals also complain that over time your toes can get numb from being jammed in the little pedal clips. Your body will be moving in ways you are not used to moving and will work muscles you have never worked before.
The elliptical workout will definitely give you some good cardio but will not hurt your joints like actually running or using a treadmill can. There are plenty of people that do not like ellipticals for some of these reasons but overall, it is a more versatile cardio workout machine. It will cost less than a treadmill and get more use in your home.
The point of exercise equipment is to help you get in shape and stay healthy. There is no need for any kind of equipment, however, they do make exercise easier and more convenient. Never forget that there is a whole world out there to explore and running, swimming, and walking the trails is going to give you something that working out at home on a machine never can, fresh air.