These days, fitness fanatics have an abundance of ways to break a sweat. But, even with all of the new equipment available, two classic cardio machines still hold water: your good ol' pals, the treadmill and the elliptical.
In a P.E. popularity contest, these two OGs would be neck and neck. While indoor runners live and breathe by their favorite tread, other cardio-doers may prefer an easy going ride on the elliptical. I mean, is there a better way to binge Grey's Anatomy? Answer: nope!
Here’s the thing: Though both pieces of equipment have a lot in common, they’re not exactly the same. “Treadmills and ellipticals are both cardio machines that can help you burn calories, increase heart health, and decrease the risks of chronic disease,” says trainer Brittany Watts, CPT. The most significant difference, she says, though is that one (ahem, the treadmill) will strengthen your bones with more pacing and interval options, while the other (the elliptical) is lower-impact and easier on joints.
So, while both machines promise to offer cardio benefits—and most gyms dedicate equal space to both—they differ in a few other key ways. Which one is right for you, then? Glad you asked. Here, trainers put the whole elliptical vs. treadmill debate to rest and break down which cardio machine to opt for when.
The Pros Of The Treadmill
First things first: You don’t have to identify as a “runner” to reap the serious treadmill benefits.
Another pro: Because running is high-impact (one of its many benefits), treadmill workouts stimulate your muscles and bones to grow stronger over time because both are stressed by having to bear your weight with every stride, Watts explains. But that's a good thing—both for improving your fitness and maintaining your ability to move well for the long haul.
The Cons Of The Treadmill
While the impact of the tread can be one of its biggest benefits, it can also be one of its biggest drawbacks. The running's repetetive movement pattern combined with the increased impact means that there's a risk of knee, ankle, and hip injuries, compared to the elliptical, according to Kat Ellis, CPT.
Another con of the treadmill: It’s not *quite* the same as running outdoors. “On a treadmill, you’re bouncing up and down on an automated belt instead of propelling forward horizontally,” Watts explains. This means it's not a true replacement for running outside.
That said, running on a non-motorized treadmill better mimics the sensation of pushing off the ground, so you can get closer to that outdoor training experience if you're hopping on one of those. Watts loves the Assault Fitness AirRunner Curved Treadmill, in particular. “This machine mimics the mechanics of running outside because your feet have to drag the belt backward as you propel forward,” she says.
The Pros Of The Elliptical
The elliptical’s biggest pro is that it's a low-impact cardio workout. Since there’s less stress on your joints, the elliptical has a lower risk of injury to the ankles, knees, or hips than running, Watts explains. This doesn’t automatically make the elliptical safer than a treadmill, but it does lower risk of strain.
Plus, unlike the treadmill, the elliptical gives you the option of manipulating the resistance, which you can use to your advantage when you want to up the ante and put a little more power behind your movement.
The Cons Of The Elliptical
One major drawback of this low-impact cardio machine: It does a lot of the work for you, meaning you ultimately burn fewer calories. “The elliptical is designed to allow for a lot of the force moving the pedals to come from momentum,” Watts says.
Another downside of this extra oomph from the elliptical is that you’ll build less muscle and bone strength than you would running, which involves greater bodyweight resistance. “Since your feet are anchored to the elliptical, it’ll keep moving with you regardless of whether you decide to actually the put in the work,” says K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS.
Another issue? Holding onto the handles eliminates the core rotation you'd get if your arms were to naturally swing at your sides, Fetters says. Translation: The elliptical doesn't engage your abs as much as running on a treadmill. Plus, using the handles distributes some of your weight to the hand rails, which means less of a leg workout. Womp. Womp.
You can totally get around some of this, though, by learning to let go. “If you only use the pedals, your body has to work harder to stabilize your core and maintain balance, increasing the number of calories you burn,” Watts explains.
So, is the treadmill or the elliptical better?
The short answer? It comes down to personal preference, desired intensity, and skill level. Basically, whatever works best for your bod.
The treadmill does, however, have the edge over the elliptical when it comes to calorie burn and bone strength, Ellis says since it's high-impact, whereas the elliptical is low-impact. The intensity level of workouts on either cardio machine can be either high or low, depending on how hard you go.
Then when should you opt for the elliptical vs. the treadmill?
If you're not sure which cardio machine to use, let your goals and body guide your decision.
For example, if you’re overcoming an injury or are at high risk for an energy because you are new to exercise or haven't worked out in a while, start with the elliptical, Watts says. If you want to build stronger bones and muscles and feel healthy as a horse, though, opt for the treadmill.
Ultimately, at the right time and intensity, both the treadmill and elliptical fit into any well-rounded workout routine.
The bottom line: The elliptical vs. treadmill debate dates back as far as cardio machines themselves. While the high-impact tread is better for burning calories and strengthening bones, the elliptical is a master of injury-prevention and low-impact cardio.
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