Ever find yourself staring down the row of cardio equipment in the gym, wondering which fitness contraption to hop on? When deciding between the elliptical vs. treadmill — two of the most popular (and common) options — it helps to consider the type of workout you’re looking for and the muscles you’d like to hit before hopping on either.
If your goal is to focus on cardio, either one will do. You could run, jog, power walk, or increase the incline on a treadmill to get your heart rate up. Or, you could increase the resistance on an elliptical and be sweating in no time. But, beyond that, treadmill workouts and elliptical workouts are two different things.
Here, fitness pros break down the unique benefits of ellipticals vs. treadmills to help you decide how to get your sweat on.
Elliptical Workout Benefits
Even though it may seem slightly easier than full-on running, the main benefit of an elliptical is that it can provide a full-body workout. “In addition to the cyclical leg motion, ellipticals also have swaying arm holds that the user can manipulate in a push-pull fashion,” says Jack Craig, a certified personal trainer. “This helps the elliptical target not only the lower body but the arms and chest as well.”
As you’re moving on the machine, you’ll hit the glutes, calves, hamstrings, and quads, as well as your biceps, pecs, and traps. Oh, and your core muscles, since you’re keeping yourself upright. And you can make it even more targeted since the elliptical lets you increase the incline and the resistance of the pulling and pushing motion. “Most ellipticals have various settings that let the rider decide where they want to put on the pressure,” says Traci D. Mitchell, M.A., M.S., a personal trainer and health consultant. “The more resistance, the more those muscles get engaged.” Pro tip: Up the incline for some serious glute work.
Another perk of using an elliptical? It’s low impact — so it’s not going to mess with your joints. Thanks to the rhythmic way it moves your arms and legs, and because your feet remain in constant contact with the pedals, you’ll get a great workout without putting too much pressure on your body, says Dr. Allen Conrad, D.C., CSCS, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist.
The gliding motion is gentle on the feet, ankles, knees, spine — you name it — which also makes it a great option for those dealing with injuries. “I’ve even had clients with stress fractures on their foot work out on the elliptical and still maintain their fitness,” Mitchell says.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a great way to cool down after a sweaty workout class? A quick spin on the elliptical is where it’s at. “The purpose of a cardio cooldown is to keep the blood flowing a little bit so it doesn’t pool and create dizziness,” says Mitchell. “The elliptical is perfect for that, especially if someone just hopped off the treadmill, finishing a harder run with more impact.” That means it’s good for active recovery days, too, when you just want to get your blood pumping without too much intensity.
Treadmill Workout Benefits
Treadmills are, of course, all about stationary walking, jogging, and running. Most machines let you increase your incline, which adds to the burn (especially in your glutes). When you work out on a treadmill, you effectively strengthen the glutes, quads, hip flexors, and calves — on top of improving your cardio health, especially if you do HIIT training.
Besides your major lower body muscles, you’re also sneakily working your core — more than you would on an elliptical. “One other muscle group a lot of people don’t think the treadmill works is the abs,” Mitchell says. “Because the treadmill doesn’t involve holding onto paddles, like the elliptical, the runner really needs to rely on their abs to keep them upright.” You can amp up the core work by increasing the incline, Craig says, which will cause your body to lean forward in a way that strengthens the ab muscles.
If you’re looking to get your steps in without as much wear and tear on your joints, a treadmill is a perfect solution. Though it has some impact on joints (like your knees and hips), it’s less than you’d experience when running or walking outside — though it still has more of an impact than the elliptical.
Ellipticals Vs. Treadmills
What else sets these two machines apart? Perhaps one of the main differences is the ease of use. While it’s completely up to personal preference, ellipticals are typically considered a little more awkward. “The coordination of the arms and legs motions feels difficult and unnatural for some people,” Conrad says. Treadmills, on the other hand, can feel less intimidating since you’re replicating movements you’d make off the belt, says certified trainer Kimberly O’Laughlin. “They give you a really consistent exercise,” she tells Bustle.
Elliptical workouts are also less sports-specific. Unlike traditional running on a treadmill, the gliding motion of an elliptical doesn’t really translate to other athletic pursuits. While you’ll tone muscles and increase cardiovascular health on an elliptical — and that’s always worth it — you won’t necessarily be training the body, says Conrad.
Running on a treadmill, on the other hand, is almost identical to running outside, which means treadmills can help you prepare for 5Ks, marathons, or jaunty jogs around the neighborhood. “Since they provide a consistent speed, they can help runners get used to what it takes to maintain a pace,” Craig says.
Finally, it could be argued that it’s easier to “cheat” yourself out of a good workout on an elliptical. “Treadmills use the big muscles of the legs, which requires a lot of blood to keep moving,” says Mitchell. “The more blood those muscles need, the more oxygen is needed, too. This is why it’s much more common to see people completely winded on a treadmill versus an elliptical.” Running is also harder than gliding, she says, meaning working out on a treadmill may give you more bang for your buck.
If you’re just looking to get your heart pumping and body moving for a cardio sesh, though, either machine will do the trick.
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Van Hooren, B. (2018). Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response. Sports Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5999142/
Jack Craig, certified personal trainer
Traci D. Mitchell, M.A., M.S., personal trainer and health consultant
Dr. Allen Conrad, B.S., D.C., CSCS, chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist