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Comparing Treadmills, Ellipticals, and Bikes: Which to Purchase?

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

The days of having only one cardiovascular machine to choose from at the gym are long gone, so there’s a question that needs answering. Treadmill versus elliptical versus bike versus rower versus stairclimber – which is the best?

Certainly, all of these pieces of equipment are categorized as cardio machines, but each has its own pros and cons. Keep reading to determine which of these highly popular options – treadmill, elliptical, or bike – you should choose based on your fitness goals and needs.

Advantages of Using a Treadmill

Whether you’re a walker, a runner, or a dedicated fan of the 12-3-30 workout, the treadmill is likely your preferred choice. The limitless possibilities of a treadmill workout are one of the best aspects of this machine, making it an excellent option for those who easily get bored with repetitive routines.

Treadmill workouts are less risky than outdoor excursions.

If you’re aiming to increase your step count or want to start a running routine, the treadmill is a superior choice compared to the outdoors for many reasons. “Treadmills have an undeserved reputation for being a high-impact training tool, but they’re not,” says Mackenzie Banta, the founder of Cut Flow fitness studio in Washington. “A treadmill has a lower impact on the body, especially the feet, knees, and hips, than running on pavement because it is designed to absorb some of that impact,” she explains.

Furthermore, running on a treadmill is much more predictable than the road or sidewalk – there are fewer obstacles to bump into or trip over, for example. The ability to get a sense of the workout without the fear of injury or distraction is a major advantage of using a treadmill.

Treadmill workouts are highly customizable.

The biggest benefit of running on a treadmill is that they are user-friendly and allow for precise programming, says Banta. Everything you need is conveniently displayed on the screen in front of you.

Thanks to their advanced technology, treadmills are excellent tools for gathering data, according to Karli Alvino, a NASM-certified personal trainer and run coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City.

You can monitor time, distance, segment duration, and speed on the majority of treadmill models, thus facilitating the tracking of your advancement,” she details. The display does not deceive, rendering it an excellent measure of responsibility and a means to observe enhancements on a weekly basis.

On the opposite side, because there is greater variation between different elliptical machines and manufacturers, one mile on one elliptical machine may require a different amount of effort than one mile on another.

Treadmill exercises can be fast and effective.

Because there are countless options for treadmill exercises, you can get a lot of value for your money. Treadmill sprints and running HIIT exercises, for instance, will not require much time but will still offer numerous health and fitness advantages. This can be especially beneficial if you are extremely busy and do not have much time to spend at the fitness center.

Advantages of Using an Elliptical Machine

Elliptical machines are often seen as machines that are overly simple and somewhat monotonous — and while that can be accurate, it certainly does not have to be. You can actually achieve a challenging workout on an elliptical machine while minimizing impact on your joints and receiving an arm-strengthening boost in addition. And if you easily become bored on the machine, simply step on with a book, podcast, or a few episodes of the TV show you are currently watching.

The elliptical machine is beginner-friendly.

If you have never jogged before, it can be daunting to step onto one of the treadmills at your fitness center and dive right in — not to mention, you might get injured. The elliptical machine is intuitive and does not require knowledge of terminology or things such as your running gait, for example. All you need to do is step one foot on each pedal, press the start button, and move.

You can also easily advance to make the workout more challenging without pushing yourself too hard, which can be an issue with treadmill exercises.

The elliptical machine is gentle on your joints.

If the idea of “pounding the pavement” sounds like it would be a nightmare for your joints, the elliptical machine is for you. “(The elliptical machine is) low-impact, so it is good for beginners or those who have joint issues, and it is easier on your hips and knees than running or walking on the treadmill,” Amber Harris, an ACE-certified personal trainer and RRCA-certified running coach, previously told Shape. This is a significant advantage if you are already experiencing joint pain or if you are recovering from an injury.

The elliptical machine provides a comprehensive body workout.

Tired of only working out your legs while your arms hang around like lifeless noodles? Many elliptical machines have handles that move, allowing you to turn a lower-body workout into a full-body activation.

Because there exist handlebars that you advance and withdraw against opposition, you’re obtaining a comprehensive physique training session,” asserts Banta. The identical cannot be declared regarding the cycle or the running machine, which renders this an exceptional attribute of the elliptical.

Advantages of Utilizing a Stationary Bicycle

Home exercise bikes are one of those fitness trends that are here to stay, and for valid justification. Cycling is an exceptional endurance workout, and engaging in it from the comfort of your own residence — or fitness center! — eliminates the potential risks of cycling outdoors. Additionally, you have the flexibility to customize cycling workouts to suit your fitness requirements, whether you prefer a mindless ride or a more challenging one.

Bicycling enhances endurance.

The more you cycle, the more effortless the workout becomes — and that newfound strength contributes to your overall physical fitness. Endurance cardio activities like cycling are also an excellent approach to enhance your VO2 max, also known as the volume of oxygen you intake in one instance. Given that there are limitations to the amount of oxygen you can obtain, increasing this value leads to your body generating additional energy.

“The higher the value, the more cardiovascularly conditioned you become — and the more effortless a lengthier workout will feel,” Allen Conrad, D.C., C.S.C.S., a chiropractor at Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, Pennsylvania, formerly stated to Shape. In other words, you’ll extract more benefits from every breath.

Bicycling can enhance your posture.

If you’re concerned that cycling regularly might cause back discomfort, it is important to note that cycling generally has a neutral impact on your back, according to Matt Wilpers, a former NCAA athlete, IRONMAN-certified coach, and Peloton instructor. As per a previous report by Shape, poor posture is often the result of stiffness, and by correctly adjusting the seat and handlebars, you are likely to experience an improvement in your posture when you commence regular cycling.

Bicycling is low-impact.

Similar to elliptical trainers, stationary bikes provide a healthier alternative if you suffer from joint problems or are in the process of recovering from an injury. Your foot remains constantly on or clipped into the pedal, thereby eliminating the impact of lifting and placing your foot back down with your entire body weight (as occurs during running), as explained by Manning Sumner, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning coach for RSP Nutrition.

How to Decide Between Treadmill vs. Elliptical vs. Bicycle

While each machine boasts its own remarkable advantages, everyone has distinct requirements for their workout routines. These three exercise equipment options — treadmill, elliptical trainer, and stationary bike — offer varying types of workouts and impact the body differently.

You’ll desire to bear that in intellect when determining which contraption to often visit in the cardiovascular space or append to your personal fitness center.

Best If You’re Recovering from an Injury: Elliptical or Bike

The greatest advantage of the elliptical and stationary bike is that they’re lower impact than the treadmill, says Sumner. Since you don’t have to raise and lower your foot with each step or rotation, you won’t exert as much pressure on your lower body as you would while running. This makes it an excellent choice for individuals who are new to exercise, coming back to the gym after a break, or dealing with joint injuries like knee or ankle problems.

“Because the elliptical has a significantly lower impact on the major joints, it’s a safer and more accessible method for individuals with knee, hip, or back injuries to get a good cardiovascular workout,” adds Banta. Even if you don’t have a preexisting lower-body injury, incorporating the elliptical and stationary bike sporadically can help prevent wear and tear on the body.

Best for Race Training: Treadmill

While treadmills may have a higher impact than ellipticals, they offer a lower-impact running alternative compared to running on the pavement, notes Banta. As mentioned earlier, the machine’s surface is cushioned to reduce pressure on your joints compared to the tough pavement you might choose outdoors. Additionally, unlike the elliptical, which operates on a predetermined movement pattern, the treadmill allows you to focus on running form, which will benefit both outdoor running and trail running — a significant advantage for individuals training for outdoor races.

Best for a Full-Body Workout: Elliptical

Most elliptical trainers combine a leg and arm motion. And yes, your arms are indeed moving enough to strengthen your upper body, Conrad informs Shape. Specifically, your triceps, upper back, shoulder, and chest muscles receive a workout. Increase the resistance or incorporate arm-only intervals for an even more effective upper body workout.

Moreover, because you’re simultaneously using your lower and upper body, your core muscles have to engage to maintain balance, says Banta. You can even try pedaling backward to target different muscle groups and work your hamstrings, glutes, and calves in a different way.

Best to Strengthen Your Legs: Bike or Treadmill

Whether it’s on a virtual workout screen or in real life, climbing a hill while riding a bike requires a lot of effort from your lower body (and also your heart, lungs, and mind, but that’s another story). For indoor cyclists, depending on your riding position — sitting in the saddle, standing upright, or leaning over the handlebars — your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves will all feel the burn and need a break. But that’s what going downhill is for, right?

And sorry, folks, but running can’t replace leg day. (Although, why would you want it to, considering all the advantages of lifting heavy weights?) With that being said, the treadmill can strengthen your leg muscles if you utilize the machine’s incline range, explains Conrad.

Advancing on an incline is comparable to performing uphill sprints yet more challenging. Jogging on diverse inclinations will compel you to involve your quadriceps, gluteal muscles, calves, and midsection to a higher extent. Why? Because you must exert effort against gravitational force, regardless of whether the incline angle isn’t extremely steep.

Greatest for Incinerating Calories: Treadmill

Let’s be crystal clear: Calories aren’t everything in fitness. In fact, most measurements on fitness equipment can only provide you with a very broad estimate of calories burned from a workout, so take that information with some skepticism. Moreover, cardio may not actually be the optimal avenue if your goal is to burn the most calories. (Learn more about the afterburn effect of HIIT and strength training and you’ll comprehend.)

However, combining cardio with strength training is the benchmark for a healthy fitness regimen, so the choice between the treadmill, elliptical, and bike still matters. “But when comparing apples to apples, the treadmill will yield a greater calorie burn than the elliptical or bike,” says Alvino. That’s because whenever you have to lift your foot off the ground, your body will expend more energy than when your foot remains planted.

That being said, the intensity of your exertion plays a role: For example, a leisurely, 20-minute run on the treadmill won’t torch as many calories as going full throttle on the elliptical with high resistance.

No matter which machine you select, adhere to interval-based training, which has demonstrated fat-burning and metabolism-boosting effects, according to Alvino’s suggestion. (If you’re on the treadmill, give these interval running workouts a try.)

Greatest for Shedding Pounds: Any

You might be curious as to which machine is superior from a weight-loss standpoint, but there is no definitive victor in this regard, says Sumner. “Neither is ‘superior’ — you simply need to determine what suits you best,” he asserts. This will depend on which machine you prefer, if you have any preexisting injuries, and which machine enables you to personally achieve your objectives.

“Both the treadmill and the elliptical are fantastic tools for weight loss,” agrees Banta. “When combined with a healthier diet, both can assist individuals in attaining the caloric deficit needed for weight loss,” she adds.

To Economize: Elliptical or Bike

If you’re in the market to purchase exercise equipment but are unsure whether to invest in a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike for your home gym, be aware that bikes and ellipticals are usually less costly — and occupy less space — than expensive, bulky treadmills. (If you truly desire a more affordable alternative to the Peloton bike, these Peloton alternatives are available for as little as $300 and the cost of a Peloton membership on the app.)

Note: No treadmill, elliptical, or bicycle workout can replace strength training, according to Banta. So you may want to consider purchasing an elliptical machine and using the money saved to buy other cost-effective home gym equipment such as hand weights or kettlebells.

So, Which Is Superior: Treadmill vs. Elliptical vs. Bike?

“In the end, it depends on your physique and objectives,” states Conrad. The treadmill imitates the natural motion of running outdoors, which makes it a preferable choice for race and sports training. However, the elliptical machine and bicycle are the less impactful alternatives of the three, making them a safer and better option for individuals with ankle, hip, and knee problems.

When it comes to weight loss and calorie expenditure, it’s preferable to choose a workout that you genuinely enjoy doing. So, hey, if you’re not in the mood for either, there’s always the rower, stair climber, or weight room.