Which Is Better: The Treadmill, Elliptical, or Bike?

Here, fitness experts share which cardio machine is better based on your fitness and health goals.

The days of having just one cardio machine to choose from at the gym are long gone, meaning there's a question that needs answering. Treadmill vs. elliptical vs. bike vs. rower vs. stairclimber — which is the best?

Sure, all of these pieces of equipment are classified as cardio machines, but each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Read on to figure out which of the arguably most popular options — treadmill vs. elliptical vs. bike — you should choose based on your fitness goals and needs.

Benefits of Using a Treadmill

Whether you're a walker, a runner, or an avid fan of the 12-3-30 workout, the treadmill is likely your go-to. The endless potential of a treadmill workout is one of the best things about the machine, which makes it a great choice for those easily bored by repetitive routines.

Treadmill workouts are lower risk than outdoor jaunts.

If you're trying to get more steps in or are interested in starting up a running practice, the treadmill is a better choice than the outside terrain for many reasons. "Treadmills get a bad rap for being a high-impact training tool, but they're not," says Mackenzie Banta, the founder of Cut + Flow fitness studio in Washington. "The treadmill has less impact on the body, especially the feet, knees, and hips, than running on pavement because a treadmill is built to absorb some of that impact," she notes.

It's also much more predictable than the road or sidewalk — there are fewer things to bump into or trip over, for example. Getting a feel for the workout without the fear of injury or distraction is a key advantage of a treadmill.

Treadmill workouts are hyper-customizable.

The biggest benefit of running on a treadmill is that they're easy to use and micro-programmable, says Banta. Everything you need is right on the screen in front of you.

Because treadmills are so high-tech these days, they're incredible tools for data, says Karli Alvino, a NASM-certified personal trainer and run coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City. "You can track time, distance, segment time, and pace on most treadmill models, so you can easily track your progress," she explains. The screen doesn't lie, which makes it a great accountability tool and a way to see improvements week over week.

On the flip side, because there's more variation between different elliptical machines and manufacturers, one mile on one elliptical can require a different amount of work than one mile on another.

Treadmill workouts can be quick and efficient.

Due to the myriad options when it comes to treadmill workouts, you can get a lot of bang for your buck. Treadmill sprints and running HIIT workouts, for example, won't take much time while still providing a ton of health and fitness benefits. This can be particularly advantageous if you're super busy and don't have a lot of time to spend at the gym.

Benefits of Using an Elliptical

Ellipticals are often regarded as machines that are too easy and a bit boring — and while that can be true, it certainly doesn't have to be. You can actually get a tough workout in on an elliptical while minimizing impact on your joints and getting an arm-strengthening boost to boot. And if you're easily bored on the machine, simply step on armed with a book, podcast, or a few episodes of the TV show you're currently watching.

The elliptical is beginner-friendly.

If you've never run before, it can be intimidating to hop onto one of your gym's treadmills and jump right in — not to mention, you might get injured. The elliptical is intuitive and doesn't require knowledge of terminology or things such as your running gait, for example. All you have to do is step one foot on each pedal, hit the start button, and move.

You can also easily progress to make the workout harder without overdoing it, which can be a problem with treadmill workouts.

The elliptical is easy on your joints.

If the thought of "pounding the pavement" sounds like it would be a nightmare for your joints, the elliptical is for you. "(The elliptical is) low-impact, so it's good for beginners or those who have joint issues, and it's 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 huge plus if you're already suffering from joint pain or if you're recovering from an injury.

The elliptical is a full-body workout.

Tired of giving your legs a workout while your arms hang around like limp noodles? Many ellipticals have moving handles that you can use to make a lower-body workout into a full-body activation. "Because there are handlebars that you push and pull against resistance, you're getting a full-body workout," says Banta. The same can't be said about the bike or the treadmill, which makes this a unique feature of the elliptical.

Benefits of Using a Stationary Bike

At-home bikes are one of those fitness trends that are here to stay, and for good reason. Cycling is an excellent endurance workout, and doing it from the comfort of your own home — or gym! — removes the potential dangers of the open road. Plus, you can tailor cycling workouts to your fitness needs, whether you want to mindlessly cycle or get a challenging ride in.

Biking improves endurance.

The more you bike, the easier the workout becomes — and that newfound strength works its way into your overall physical fitness. Endurance cardio such as biking is also a great way to up your VO2 max, aka the amount of oxygen you take in at once time. Since you can't get an unlimited amount of oxygen, increasing this number translates to your body creating more energy.

"The higher the number, the more cardiovascularly conditioned you are — and the easier a longer workout will feel," Allen Conrad, D.C., C.S.C.S., chiropractor at Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, Pennsylvania, previously told Shape. Another way to put it: You'll get more from every breath.

Biking can improve your posture.

If you're worried that your back will hurt if you start biking on the regular, know that cycling is generally neutral on your back, according to Matt Wilpers, a former NCAA athlete, IRONMAN-certified coach, and Peloton instructor. As Shape previously reported, bad posture is usually due to stiffness, and with proper adjustment of the seat and handlebars, you'll likely improve your posture when you start regularly biking.

Biking is low-impact.

Similarly to the elliptical, the stationary bike is a healthier alternative if you have joint issues or are recovering from an injury. Your foot is constantly on or clipped into the pedal, which eliminates the force of picking your foot up and placing it back down with all your body weight (which happens while running), explains Manning Sumner, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning coach for RSP Nutrition.

How to Choose Between Treadmill vs. Elliptical vs. Bike

While each machine has its own stellar benefits, everyone has unique needs for their workouts. These three pieces of equipment — treadmill, elliptical, and bike — offer different types of workouts and impact the body in different ways. You'll want to keep that in mind when deciding which machine to frequent in the cardio room or add to your home gym.

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

The biggest benefit of the elliptical and stationary bike is that they're lower impact than the treadmill, says Sumner. Since you don't have to lift your foot up and down with each step or rotation, you're not going to put as much pressure on your lower body as you would while running. This makes it a great option for people who are workout beginners, returning from a gym hiatus, or who have joint injuries such as knee or ankle issues.

"Since the elliptical has a significantly lower impact on the major joints, it's a safer and more accessible way for people with knee, hip, or back injuries to get a good aerobic workout," adds Banta. Even if you don't have a preexisting lower-body injury, incorporating the elliptical and stationary bike occasionally may help prevent wear and tear on the body.

Best for Race Training: Treadmill

While treadmills may be higher impact than ellipticals, they're a lower-impact running option compared to the pavement, points out Banta. As previously mentioned, the tread of the machine is padded to put less pressure on your joints than the super-tough pavement you may opt for outdoors. And unlike the elliptical, which operates on a set moving pattern, the treadmill also gives you the opportunity to focus on running form, which will translate to both the pavement and the trails — a major perk for folks 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 tells Shape. Specifically, your triceps, upper back, shoulder, and chest muscles are getting a workout. Increase the resistance or add in some arm-only intervals for an even better arm pump.

Plus, because you're using your lower and upper body at the same time, your core has to engage to keep your body balanced, says Banta. You can even try pedaling backward to change the muscles being worked and target the hamstrings, glutes, and calves differently.

Best to Strengthen Your Legs: Bike or Treadmill

Climbing a hill, whether it's on your virtual workout screen or IRL, while riding a bike asks a lot of your lower body (and heart and lungs and mind, but that's another story). For indoor cyclists, depending on which position you're riding — in the saddle, standing upright, or extended over the handlebars — your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves will all be burning for a break. But that's what going downhill is for, right?

And sorry, folks, but running can't replace leg day. (Though, why would you want to, considering all the benefits of lifting heavy?) That said, the treadmill can strengthen your leg muscles if you take advantage of the machine's incline range, says Conrad. Moving on an incline is like doing hill runs but harder. Running on a variety of inclines will force you to engage your quads, glutes, calves, and core to a greater degree. Why? Because you have to work against gravity, even if the incline angle isn't super steep.

Friendly PSA: "If sprinting or running is too hard, you can walk at an incline and still get great strength results," says Sumner.

Best for Burning Calories: Treadmill

Let's be clear: Calories aren't everything in fitness. In fact, most metrics on fitness equipment are only able to give you a very generalized estimate of calories burned from a workout, so take that information with a grain or two of salt. What's more, cardio might not actually be the best outlet if burning the most calories is your goal. (Learn more about the afterburn effect of HIIT and strength training and you'll understand.)

Yet, combining cardio with strength training is the gold standard for a healthy fitness routine, so choosing the treadmill vs. elliptical vs. bike still matters. "But when comparing apples to apples, the treadmill will earn you a greater calorie burn than the elliptical or bike," says Alvino. That's because any time you have to pick your foot up off the ground, your body is going to use more energy than when your foot stays planted.

That said, how hard you're working plays a role: For instance, a slow, 20-minute jog on the treadmill won't burn as many calories as going all-out on the elliptical set to high resistance.

Whichever machine you opt for, stick to interval-based training, which has been shown to burn fat and boost metabolism, suggests Alvino. (If you're on the treadmill, try these running interval workouts.)

Best for Weight Loss: Any

You may be wondering which machine is better from a weight-loss perspective, but there's no clear winner on this front, says Sumner. "Neither is 'better' — you just need to figure out what's best for you," he says. This will depend on which machine you prefer, if you have any preexisting injuries, and which machine helps you personally reach your goals.

"Both the treadmill and the elliptical are great tools for weight loss," agrees Banta. "When combined with a healthier diet, both can help individuals log the caloric deficit necessary for weight loss," she adds.

To Save Money: Elliptical or Bike

If you're looking to buy a piece of equipment but aren't sure whether to purchase a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike for your home gym, know that bikes and ellipticals are generally less expensive — and take up less space — than costly, heavy treadmills. (If you really want a lower-cost dupe of 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 bike workout can take the place of strength training, says Banta. So you might consider buying an elliptical and using the savings on other affordable at-home gym equipment such as dumbbells or kettlebells.

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

"Ultimately, it depends on your body and your goals," says Conrad. The treadmill mimics the natural movement of running outside, which makes it a better option for race and sports training. But the elliptical and bike are the lower-impact options of the three, so they're a safer and better choice for folks with ankle, hip, and knee issues.

As for weight loss and calorie burn, it's best to choose a workout you actually want to do. So, hey, if you're not in the mood for either, there's always the rower, stair climber, or weight room.

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