Whether you’re a first-time gym-goer or a complete cardio buff, you’re bound to use—at some point—either a treadmill or elliptical to torch those calories. So which one is the better workout?
“Choosing between the treadmill or the elliptical is similar to choosing between snacking on an apple or an orange,” says John Urena, CPT, CES NASM, Level 1 Precision Nutrition coach and owner of Start to Fitness Training in Los Angeles, CA. “Both fruits offer tons of nutrients and benefits and both are low on the glycemic chart,” Urena says. “Similarly, both the treadmill and the elliptical will offer the ability to raise your heart rate and increase your oxygen consumption—and of course, burn calories,” he says.
But there are some notable differences. Here are five good-to-know facts about the merits and drawbacks of both machines.
1. The elliptical may actually activate more muscles.
Unless you’re always cranking up that incline when you hop on a treadmill for a walk or run, you’re only going to be activating certain muscles.
“The treadmill doesn’t allow for the person running on it to produce power through their hamstrings or get full hip extension,” Urena explains. “That’s important, because most of us are sitting all day, which shortens your hip flexors. And when you’re on a treadmill, you’re not getting full extension of those hip flexors. The treadmill belt moves during the planting phase of each step and minimizes glute and hamstring recruitment.”
On the other hand, an elliptical workout not only offers you the option to stretch and extend those hip flexors, but you’ll get more glute and hamstring activation, Urena explains. This is because you’re forcing the pedals to go forward and back (while it’s giving you resistance), whereas the treadmill is propelling the belt for you.
That said, if you prefer the treadmill, Urena has a piece of advice: “Use an incline of at least six—if not higher. The higher the incline, the more recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings.”
And while you’re working out on the elliptical, “you’ll want to make sure you’re pushing evenly with both legs so there’s not a jerking motion with every stride,” advises FitFusion trainer Kenta Seki. “It’s very common for people to push more with their more dominant leg.”
2. The treadmill demands proper form.
We tend to think of the treadmill as an easy, accessible, low-pressure machine, but that’s a bit of a misconception—and one that could set you up for injury. “People want to run to get in shape, but you should be in shape to run,” Urena says. “People don’t realize how important proper form is when you’re doing any type of running.”
To that end, there are certain precautions you can take to ensure your form is on-point while on a treadmill: “It’s very common for people to lean forward while running, which can strain your lower back and knees,” Seki says. “To prevent this, make sure you ‘lead with your hips’ the whole time. Keep your glute muscles engaged and push your hips forward, especially if you’re at an incline. Also, try not to bounce while running—ideally, your head shouldn’t be going up and down, but rather staying at one level.”
3. The elliptical may be better for folks with injuries.
According to the Journal of Exercise Physiology, people with injuries may want to skip the treadmill for the mostly low-impact elliptical. “[The elliptical] may be a more favorable exercise modality for overweight patients or individuals with back, knee, or other lower-leg limitations,” the research says.
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Urena agrees, especially when it comes to people who suffer from back pain. “The discs in your spine are essentially cushions,” he explains. “Over time, when you run and land—whether out in the world or on a treadmill—you’re compressing those cushions. For someone with back problems or lower back strain, what will happen is that the discs will keep compressing and compressing, which could set you up for a herniated disc.”
4. For serious, athletic runners, the treadmill may be the ideal choice.
Running hard on a treadmill should not be something someone does when first starting, Urena notes, but if you’re a well-seasoned runner, you can hit your sprinting goals more easily while on a treadmill. “You can somewhat sprint on an elliptical, but it is not the most rhythmic motion,” he says.
5. Both the treadmill and the elliptical offer a great aerobic workout.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research involved 18 college-aged people without much training on either machine. They worked out at the same level of effort for 15 minutes, and the results showed similar caloric expenditures. However, the heart rates were higher for the elliptical group.
Also worth noting: In a study by the journal Gait & Posture, it was found that elliptical training resulted in greater quadriceps activity and hamstrings use.