Treadmill vs. Elliptical: Which One Is Better?

Treadmill and Elliptical

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Go to any gym, and you'll see the most popular cardio machines are usually the treadmill and the elliptical trainer. Both are excellent for cardio workouts and burning calories, but many people gravitate toward treadmills just because they've been around a lot longer than elliptical trainers.

The treadmill mimics your natural walking and running gait, while the elliptical may feel a little more foreign to your body. The best choice for your cardio workout comes down to personal preference.

Treadmill vs Elliptical

Treadmills are more versatile and can used on an incline for a different challenge. They're also ideal if your goal is improve your running or train for a race. Ellipticals are easier on the joints and can provide more of a full body workout due to the resistance in the handles. Ellipticals are also usually cheaper than treadmills.

There are some things you might consider before choosing either an elliptical or treadmill for your home gym. To make the best investment for you, consider your health, goals, and budget.

  • Joint health: Elliptical machines are lower impact and easier on the joints. If you have joint pain or injuries, an elliptical may be a better choice than a treadmill.
  • Goals: If your goals include getting better at races or running times, either indoors or outdoors, a treadmill is the clear best choice. For calorie burn, treadmills typically provide a greater challenge and burn more calories. For overall weight loss, either an elliptical or treadmill can help you reach your goals.
  • Muscles worked: Ellipticals can provide more of a full-body workout due to the handles. However, using a treadmill may provide a better lower-body workout.
  • Budget: Ellipticals are generally cheaper to buy than treadmills.

Treadmill Pros

A motorized treadmill uses a motor to move the belt, allowing you to walk or run in place. As well as changing speeds, treadmills often have the ability to increase the incline to simulate running up a hill. There are some advantages to using a treadmill.

  • Impact: You can do a low-impact workout by walking on a treadmill or a high-impact workout by running, both of which help build strong bones and may help you burn more calories during your workout.
  • Variety: You can walk or run on the treadmill at varying speeds, and you can change up the incline as well for different types of workouts.
  • Better for runners: The elliptical is great for cross-training, but if you're a runner, the treadmill provides sport-specific training.
  • Easy to use: There is not much of a learning curve for treadmill walking, other than getting used to the moving belt.

Treadmill Cons

While the treadmill has some advantages, there are also some downsides to consider.

  • Doesn't always translate to outdoor running or walking: Because the treadmill belt moves, it actually helps pull your legs back, reducing some of the efforts you would normally feel when running outside. There's no wind resistance or terrain change, and most treadmills lack a downhill "decline" function. Moving from indoors to outdoors may be a big surprise for your body.
  • Boring: It can be monotonous running or walking to nowhere on a treadmill, and you may need tactics to prevent boredom.
  • Risk of injury: The belt moves, and there's always a risk of slipping and falling.
  • Cost: You get what you pay for when it comes to treadmills. A treadmill that is suitable for running rather than walking needs a powerful motor and a sturdy frame. This will cost over $1,500. Inexpensive treadmills for home use often will not work well for running.

Elliptical Pros

An elliptical trainer combines arm and leg motion. A flywheel provides adjustable tension. It's a popular choice for home use as well as at the gym.

  • No impact: Your feet never leave the pedals of an elliptical, so it doesn't place your bones, joints, and ligaments under the same stresses as running does. This is a big benefit if you have joint problems or pain.
  • Total body workout: By using the arm handles and the pedals, you work your upper body and core, not just your lower body.
  • Natural movement: The elliptical movement is kind of like riding a bike standing up, so it feels like a natural way to move.
  • Feels easier: Research published in 2010 demonstrated that you can burn the same number of calories with an elliptical as you can with a treadmill, but it may actually feel easier. It may be because ellipticals lack impact and give you the impression that you're putting in less effort.
  • Variety: Not only can you add resistance to change your workouts, but you can also go backward—something you can't easily (or safely) do on a treadmill.
  • Cost: You can buy a good-quality elliptical trainer for far less than a good-quality treadmill.

Elliptical Cons

The elliptical also has some downsides to consider. 

  • No impact: While this may be a pro for people with joint problems, you do need some impact in your daily life to keep your bones strong, something the elliptical doesn't offer.
  • Numb feet: Because you don't have to pick up your feet, they can get numb the longer you work out. You may have to shift your feet and move your toes around to get your circulation going.
  • Burning legs: When you first use an elliptical, you will be using your quadriceps in a new way. This can give you that burning sensation you feel when using a muscle to its maximum. This should subside after several sessions as your muscles respond to this new challenge.
  • Repetitive: There aren't many variations in what you can do on an elliptical machine, and the repetitive movements can get boring for people who need more variety.

A Word From Verywell

The bottom line is, either machine is great. If you're working out at the gym, there's no reason you can't use both machines—either on different days or even in the same workout. If you're looking for something for your home gym, the best advice is to go and use different machines multiple times to help you decide which one you prefer.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Exercise for your bone health.

  2. Panascì M, Lepers R, La torre A, Bonato M, Assadi H. Physiological responses during intermittent running exercise differ between outdoor and treadmill running. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017;42(9):973-977. doi:10.1139/apnm-2017-0132

  3. Kang SH, Lee SJ, Ren Y, Zhang LQ. Real-time knee adduction moment feedback training using an elliptical trainer. IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng. 2014;22(2):334-43. doi:10.1109/TNSRE.2013.2291203

  4. Brown GA, Cook CM, Krueger RD, Heelan KA. Comparison of energy expenditure on a treadmill vs. an elliptical device at a self-selected exercise intensity. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(6):1643-9. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cb2854

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."