Elliptical Versus Treadmill: Which Is A Better Workout For You?

If you’re about to embark on a fitness plan to boost your cardiovascular fitness and lose fat, one question you may be asking yourself from time to time is which piece of cardio equipment is better for you: the elliptical or the treadmill?

To answer this question, you have to consider many things. It’s not a simple black and white answer and for some people, there is no ‘best’ workout, it’s which workout they enjoy more.

But to help you decide, let’s look at a few of the things that you’ll want to consider.

Calorie Burn

The first thing you’ll want to consider since for most people, it is one of the biggest determinants of which type of cardio they do is the calorie burn they receive from it. Since the more calories you burn, the faster you lose weight, it only makes sense that most people would be antsy to burn calories rapidly.

So how does the treadmill and elliptical fare when faced side by side?

If you exercise at the same intensity level, the elliptical may come ahead slightly because both the upper body and the lower body are utilized.

The more muscles you work in any given workout session, the more calories you are going to burn. While the treadmill will have your upper body muscles working ever so slightly as you move back and forth with each stride, it’s simply not going to be to the same degree that the elliptical will have those muscles working.

So for this reason, if your primary goal is weight loss, you may want to get used to using the elliptical trainer instead.

This said, if you are someone who finds the elliptical trainer a bit awkward and are a runner at heart, there’s a very good chance that you would actually burn more calories running because you can push yourself harder, therefore work at a higher intensity level.

So in that scenario, the treadmill is best. As you can see, it’s not black and white. You need to factor in YOUR situation as well.

Muscles Worked

When you hit the gym, one of your primary goals should be to create a balanced workout session that is going to strengthen all the main muscle groups in the body. For most people, functional strength is what they are after (the ability to be fitter in everyday life) and if you only work one or two muscle groups, you are not going to gain much functional strength.

Here, the elliptical really takes the cake. The treadmill, as noted above, doesn’t really work the upper body that much, so it’s just not a full body workout like the elliptical trainer is. If you choose to do the treadmill as part of your workout sessions, you will need to also include some upper body strength training for sure in order to be able to create that total body plan.

If you choose to use the elliptical trainer, you can forgo strength training if you wish since you will be hitting those muscle groups as well.

This said, do keep in mind the fact that while the elliptical trainer will work the upper body muscles, you won’t gain as much strength as you would if you had done a full on strength training session. So evaluate your goals and consider whether this will be sufficient for you.

Most people will still want to do a strength training session regardless of whether or not they are using the elliptical or the treadmill, making this a point that isn’t so applicable to them.

Each situation is unique, so evaluate yours when making a decision.

The Fatigue-Factor

The fatigue factor is also something that you’ll want to consider. Which machine leaves you the most tired?

Here, you’ll probably find that the elliptical does, again because it’s working the upper and lower body. So what makes the elliptical great, may also serve as a drawback.

This said, again, this doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people find running simply exhausting. If they run for more than 10-15 minutes, they are winded and ready to call it quits.

But yet, they could exercise for 30-45 minutes at a similar intensity level on the elliptical just fine. Know your own body.

While one might think you are getting a better workout on whichever machine tires you out faster, but this isn’t always the case. In some situations, it’s the way your body naturally likes to move in relation to the movement pattern created by the machine that is having an impact.


The next workout factor we should consider is customizability. How much can you customize the machine that you are using?

Here, the elliptical also wins out. The treadmill can be customized in two different variables: speed and incline. Those are the two you have to work with to make your sessions unique and different.

The elliptical on the other hand has three different variables: speed, incline, and direction. Adding that third variable in there can help make your workouts that much more interesting and ensure that you keep coming back for more.

While many people never even think of pedaling backward while using the elliptical, it’s a great way to get different muscle groups engaged and ensure that you are not overworking any one muscle while underworking any other.

One of the primary reasons that people fail to see results with their workout program is because they simply aren’t changing their workouts around often enough. They go into each session and do the same thing over and over again, then wonder why they aren’t making progress.

In order to make progress, you need to do something different. Changing your routine is what helps you make further progress, whether this means getting stronger, improving your cardio, building agility, or enhancing your range of motion or flexibility.

So any workout that allows you to change more variables is going to be a good thing.


Which brings us to the next factor to consider, boredom. If you are bored with your workouts, how likely is it that you will stick with them?

Not likely at all. There is no clear winner here however as it really depends so much on your own individual preferences.

Are you someone who likes to zone out while on the treadmill, forgetting everything stressful about your life while experiencing the runners high?

Or are you someone who prefers to change things up and gets bored just walking along on the treadmill for seemingly hours at a time?

Some people will cite the elliptical as the less boring of the two methods because of the fact they have been walking all their lives. Walking is something we do everywhere so it’s just more of the same when you hit the gym. At least the elliptical is a brand new movement pattern. So for some, this makes all the difference.

Injury Risk

Also think about your injury risk. Here, there is a clear winner: elliptical trainer. The elliptical trainer is basically built to help reduce your overall injury risk. It’s non impact in nature, meaning you won’t get that stress placed on your knees, ankles, and back like you would with walking or running.

Furthermore, the elliptical trainer can be used both forward or backward, which will also decrease your risk of injury. Since with the treadmill, you are always doing the same movement pattern over and over again, this is what will lead to overuse injuries, which can become very chronic and hard to get rid of.

When you do the same movement pattern over and over again, you tend to strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments involved in that movement pattern. This may seem good, but the other muscles, ligaments and tendons may grow weaker and weaker. Soon injury occurs and unless you go on to correct those weaknesses, chances are you will just keep getting re-injured if you keep doing the same thing over again.

The elliptical presents a slightly lower risk of this, so for those who have dealt with injuries and would rather not deal again, this is definitely something that you’ll want to think about.

Strength Development

Finally, lastly consider the strength development element of things. It’s important that a well-balanced workout routine focus on strength progress as well as cardiovascular fitness, so this makes it essential that if you aren’t doing weights, you choose a mode of cardio that offers.

The elliptical shines here. While you can put the treadmill on an incline and get some strength progression in that way, you just aren’t going to see the level of resistance that the elliptical gives.

As noted earlier however, if you are performing strength training, this won’t be a factor that you really need to worry about.

So there you have a long list contrasting the pros and cons of the elliptical versus the treadmill. At the end of the day, you really need to take an inventory of your own situation and use that information to help dictate your choice over what to do.

Photo credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock; George Rudy/Shutterstock; kurhan/Shutterstock

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