Treadmills and Ellipticals – Which Are Better?

One of the most common fitness questions we get here at St. Lawrence Pools is which is better, treadmills or ellipticals? The answer is that it depends on what you’re looking to get out of your workout. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and each will suit some people’s needs better than others. In this entry we will explore what those advantages and disadvantages are to help you decide which will better suit your needs.

The first thing to do when deciding between purchasing a treadmill and elliptical is to assess what kind of a workout you’re looking to get and what your workout tendencies are. Are you looking for a full body workout? Are you a very motivated person that doesn’t need help maintaining the intensity of a workout? Do you have any injuries or health concerns? These are the kind of questions you need to ask yourself before starting to shop.

Now that you have a better idea of what you’re looking for you can start comparing machines to see what best fits your needs and workout habits. Before we start I will explain a concept that I will be talking a lot about in this article, which is something that is user-driven versus something that is machine-driven. Something that is user-driven is controlled by the person that is using the equipment. For example, user-driven speed means that the person using the fitness equipment is responsible for how fast or slow the machine moves. Something that is machine-driven is controlled by the piece of fitness equipment. Machine-driven speed means that the motor will set the speed, which the user then has to follow.

User-Driven Motion vs Machine-Driven Motion

The biggest difference between ellipticals and treadmills is the motion of the machine; with treadmills generally considered to be a more natural feeling than ellipticals. This can be broken down as the user-defined motion versus machine-defined motion. With a treadmill the user is in complete control of their motion. They are free to determine their stride length (the distance between their feet when walking or running) when using the treadmill; so they are free to move using their natural stride length. This freedom to choose your own stride length also comes in handy when switching between walking and running, as people’s stride lengths will vary depending on their speed. Many ellipticals have a fixed stride length. If your natural stride differs from this fixed value the machine can feel unnatural or awkward to use.

People with a natural stride length that is shorter than the stride length of the machine might also run the risk of hyper-extending their knees. With all that said, there are many different styles of ellipticals offering different stride lengths. It is important to test different ellipticals to determine which one feels the most natural. Some ellipticals, like Octane’s Q47, offer variable stride length, and include programs that will vary stride length to allow you to comfortably change speeds throughout the workout.

Muscle Groups Used

Another major difference between a treadmill workout and an elliptical workout is the muscles that are being used. With a treadmill you are predominately working your lower body and core. With an elliptical you are also able to get an upper body workout by using the handles to push or pull yourself against the resistance created by the machine. Some ellipticals even allow for independent changes in resistance between the handles and the feet so you can focus more on your upper or lower body. By moving your legs backwards on an elliptical you will also target different leg muscles then when moving forwards.

By using an elliptical backwards, or in a squat position, you can target different muscle groups

User-Driven Workouts vs Machine-Driven Workouts

When deciding between treadmills and ellipticals you should consider your own workout tendencies. Treadmills provide a machine driven workout providing a consistent pace for you to maintain. If you use one of their built-in programs, the speed and incline of the workout will automatically vary requiring you to adjust. By contrast, ellipticals offer a user driven workout. This requires you to set and maintain the pace of the workout. While the machine may vary the resistance throughout the program, it is up to you to set how fast, or slow, you go. If you are very self-driven when you work out this is not an issue. You will push yourself to maintain a set pace, regardless of the resistance set by the machine to get the most out of your workout. On the other hand, if you find that you need to be pushed more, the machine driven workout of a treadmill forces you to maintain your pace, and get the results you are looking for


True Fitness Soft Select adjustable cushioning

Some treadmills offer adjustable cushioning to optimize comfort when walking or running.

Treadmills and ellipticals also differ in the amount of impact they place on your joints when used at higher intensities. While walking on a treadmill will exert about the same force as using an elliptical at a lower intensity, running on a treadmill will place more stress on your joints than using an elliptical at a higher intensity. For this reason, heavier people, or people with lower body injuries may benefit from using an elliptical. People suffering from arthritis will also appreciate the lessened joint stress that an elliptical will provide. With that said, the added impact of a treadmill workout actually helps to promote bone growth and can help people with low bone density. Higher end treadmills, like the True Fitness PS800 do offer features designed to greatly reduce the amount of impact experienced by the user, such as orthopedic belts and adjustable cushioning.

So which one provides the better workout?

As you probably now know, the answer is dependent on what you’re looking for. If you’re used to running outside, or are training for a 5km or marathon, you’re probably better off going with a treadmill. If you’re looking for more of a cross-training, full body workout, than an elliptical might be the better choice for you. Treadmills force you to maintain their pace so you don’t slow down without realizing it. This can be a benefit to those who have a tendency to slow down during workouts. Treadmills have also been shown to burn more calories on average than ellipticals when used at similar intensities, although it must be said the difference is not very large. Ellipticals on the other hand, have a lower perceived exertion than treadmills. This means if you were to burn the same amount of calories on both machines, you will perceive that you worked harder on the treadmill than on the elliptical. For this reason, more motivated people will push themselves harder on an elliptical. On the flip side of that, at lower levels of exertion the momentum of the machine can take over, reducing the benefit of the workout. People not motivated to continue pushing themselves can therefore coast through part of the workout and not get as much out of it.

I’m still unsure which one is right for me

If after reading this you are still unsure about which machine to purchase, the best way to figure out which is best for you is to go to your local fitness retailer and try both machines out. The best thing to do is to try each one out for at least a couple of minutes to get the feel of each machine at different speeds. At this point, you should only be concerned with how each machine feels, and ignore things like number of programs offered and touch screens. User comfort is the top priority when purchasing exercise equipment. Fitness equipment that is not comfortable offers a barrier to use, you will use it less, and therefore will get less out of the money you invested in that piece of fitness equipment. Once you have picked your 2 or 3 favourites, than you can then look at the additional features that each machine offers in order to see what best fits your needs, and budget.

St Lawrence Pools fitness display

At St Lawrence Pools, we offer free demos on all of our in-stock fitness equipment.

Deciding between an elliptical and treadmill can seem confusing at first, but by first putting some time into figuring out exactly what you’re looking for, you can usually easily narrow down the options. If you still have any questions you can call one of our fitness experts at any of our four locations in Kingston, Belleville, Brockville, or Cornwall. If you liked this entry, follow us on Facebook or Twitter for more fitness tips, promotions, and updates when new blog entries are posted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *