Which Is Better: The Treadmill, Elliptical, or Bike?
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.
Best for Tracking Progress: Treadmill
The biggest benefit of running on a treadmill is that they're easy to use and micro-programmable, says Mackenzie Banta, a personal trainer with Trainiac, a personal training app-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 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." The screen doesn't lie, which makes it a great accountability tool and way to see improvements week over week. (Related: The 30-Day Treadmill Workout Challenge That's Actually Fun)
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.
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 Manning Sumner, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning coach for RSP Nutrition. 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 bodyweight (which happens while running), he explains. This makes it a great option for both people who are workout beginners, returning from a gym hiatus, or who have joint injuries such as of the knee or ankle.
"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. (Related: This Boxing-Style HIIT Workout Is Designed for People with Knee Pain)
Best for Race Training: Treadmill
While treadmills may be higher impact than ellipticals, they're a lower-impact running option compared to the pavement, explains Banta. "Treadmills get a bad rap for being a high-impact training tool, but they're not," she says. "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."
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. (Related: 8 Treadmill Mistakes You're Making)
Best for a Full-Body Workout: Elliptical
Most elliptical trainers combine a leg and arm motion. "Because there are handlebars that you push and pull against resistance, you're getting a full-body workout," says Banta.
Yes, your arms are indeed moving enough to strengthen your upper body, agrees Allen Conrad, D.C., C.S.C.S., a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning coach. (Specifically, your triceps, upper back, shoulder, and chest muscles.) 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 for 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 heck, that's what going downhill is for, right? (Related: The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Indoor Cycling)
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 on steroids. 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 to Burn More 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 of salt. What's more, cardio might not actually be the best outlet if burning the most calories is your goal. Read 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. (Related: The Best Recumbent Bikes for Low-Impact Workouts, According to Reviews)
"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. (Here are some tips to max out your treadmill workout for even more benefits.)
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 H-A-M on the elliptical set to high resistance.
Whichever machine you opt for burning calories, Alvino suggests sticking to interval-based training, which has been shown to burn fat and boost metabolism. (If you're on the treadmill, try these running interval workouts; if you're on the elliptical, try this interval plan.)
Best for Weight Loss: Any
You're probably wondering which machine is better from a weight loss perspective. Sumner says there's no clear winner on this front. "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." (More: How to Create Your Own Workout Routine for Weight Loss).
To Save Money: Elliptical or Bike
If you're reading this because you're not sure whether to purchase a treadmill or 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. For instance, the top-selling elliptical on Amazon only costs $260, compared to the top treadmill's $600 price tag.
However, if you really want a lower-cost dupe to the latest trendy machine — aka the Peloton bike — these Peloton alternatives available for as little as $300 and the cost of a Peloton membership on the app.
Note: No treadmill, elliptical, or bike workouts 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 like 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 option of the two, so they're a safer and better option for folks with ankle, hip, and knee issues.