It’s likely that you’ll come across both treadmills and elliptical machines (or cross-trainers if you’re in the UK) in just about any gym and typically, these are the two most popular choices when it comes to cardiovascular workouts.
Obviously, these aren’t the only two options as a lot of gyms also have exercise bikes (typically a much less popular option) but for most of us, the choice will be between the elliptical and the treadmill when it comes to performing a gym-based cardiovascular workout.
The question is which is better; the elliptical or the treadmill?
Before we go any further, I should stress that both of these machines are perfectly capable of providing a hugely effective cardiovascular workout that will not only burn a significant amount of calories but also, improve your overall personal fitness levels (although that goes without saying I’m sure).
Having said this, there are a number of benefits and drawbacks to each of the machines and in most cases, your choice will be dependent upon exactly what you want to achieve from your workout along with your own personal health and fitness levels.
So, let’s take a deeper look into the pro’s and con’s of each.
Treadmill Pro’s & Con’s
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Here are a few benefits to using the treadmill for your cardiovascular workouts:
They’re natural: Human’s have been running, walking and jogging for hundreds and thousands of years and because of this, it’s something we know exactly how to do without having to consciously make much of an effort. Running is a natural movement for the body.
They’re versatile: Whether you’re looking to go for a lazy walk, a short jog or a speedy sprint, the treadmill can offer what you need.
Modern treadmills are packed to the brim with various power settings, speeds and inclinations. You have a lot of flexibly over your workout and can literally replicate and kind of terrain you like.
They’re easy to use: Treadmills have been around for hundreds of years (in their simplest form at least) and because of this, most of us already know exactly how to use them. Even if this isn’t the case for you personally, let me explain the process: you stand on it and you run.
They burn calories relatively quickly: Compared to the elliptical (and other cardio machines), treadmills burn calories much more quickly. The reason for this is that generally, you have to work harder on a treadmill than on the elliptical.
They can strengthen bones and muscles: It’s a common belief that treadmills can be harmful to bones and muscles but this is generally incorrect. In most cases, running, walking or jogging on a treadmill will not only help to strengthen your bones and muscles but also, aid your posture (which many of us could do with a little work on!).
Here are a few drawbacks to using the treadmill for your cardiovascular workouts:
They can be hard work: Obviously, in order to burn more calories than an elliptical, treadmills are going to be harder work.
The problem is that typically, most people are attracted to the machines that they find the easiest and therefore, they’re only suited to the most serious “gym goers” that thrive on intense workouts (although they can be used for jogging and walking of course).
They can be tough on joints: Treadmills can put a lot of stress on many of your joints including your ankles, knees, spine and even your hips. While you can’t avoid this completely, you should make sure to do a proper warm-up and cool down (complete with stretches) in order to minimise the damage.
Some treadmills offer some shock absorption but still, the stress can never be removed completely.
They can be unsafe: If you’re performing high intensity workouts on the treadmill, it can be risky. If you misplace your foot for just one second or fail to tie your shoelaces properly (a more common problem that you’d care to believe), chances are that you’re going to fall pretty hard and in some cases, seriously injure yourself.
They can be loud: When you first start using a treadmill, you might feel as though you’re creating a lot of noise. Compared to the elliptical, treadmills are pretty loud but luckily, in a gym environment, it isn’t really noticeable to others around you.
It might be worth taking your iPod if you plan to use the treadmill so you can drown out the noise with some Daft Punk (or another equally fantastic song).
They can feel unnatural: A lot of modern treadmills have a heart rate monitor but the problem is that in order to utilise this feature, you usually have to hold on to a pair of handles which can feel unnatural; especially while you’re trying to run.
Elliptical Pro’s & Con’s
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Here are a few benefits of using an elliptical cross trainer for your cardiovascular workouts:
They cause less impact: One of the great things about the elliptical is that they remove the risk of excessive joint stress that can occur when exercising on a treadmill. Elliptical machines allow you to perform a relatively natural running motion without being subjected to the constant repetitive impacts that occur when your feet hit the floor on a treadmill.
They offer reverse functionality: Many modern elliptical offer a reverse function which essentially, allows you to replicate a backwards running motion (something that’s totally impossible to do on a treadmill). By doing this, you can shift the focus of your workout to a slightly different set of muscles including your hamstrings and calf muscles.
They offer cross-training functionality: These days, most elliptical machines in almost all modern gyms come equipped with handles. Essentially, holding on to these will allow you to work your upper body and lower body at the same time, thus helping you to tone your upper body to a certain extent.
They feel easier: According to one study, it was found that it generally feels easier to burn a set amount of calories on an elliptical than it does on a treadmill. I won’t go into exactly why this is the case but if you’re feeling intrigued, take a look at the study for more information.
Here are a few drawbacks of using an elliptical cross trainer for your cardiovascular workouts:
They aren’t as flexible: With a treadmill, you can adjust the intensity of your workout by changing the incline, speed and other factors. While you can adjust the difficulty on the elliptical, very few of them offer options for incline variation and because of this, they’re generally not as effective and/or flexible.
They don’t burn as many calories: Compared to a treadmill, exercising on the elliptical generally burns less calories. There are a few reasons for this including the fact that to some extent, the elliptical is powered by its own momentum.
They can cause foot numbness: For a lot of elliptical users, foot numbness can be a common problem. Generally, this occurs around half an hour into a workout and is caused due to the fact that both feet are planted in a stationary position throughout the workout, thus causing circulation to the area to decrease significantly.
Calorie Expenditure: Treadmill Vs. Elliptical
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According to the Medical College of Wisconsin, jogging for approximately one hour on the treadmill will burn somewhere in the region of 705 and 866 calories. According to the Health Status Organisation, you’ll burn an average of 773 calories per hour on an elliptical machine.
Clearly, these numbers are pretty similar and we also have to remember that they’re only estimates. In reality, the exact number of calories burned per hour (on the treadmill or elliptical machine) will vary slightly from person to person. This is due to the fact that fitness levels vary slightly between individuals.
Not only this, but there are also a number of other factors that make calorie expenditure extremely difficult to estimate. Personal trainer Ben Greenfield noted in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post (well worth a read by the way) that walking on a treadmill will only burn around 150 – 400 calories per hour. Similarly, running on a treadmill with a steep incline could burn somewhere in the region of 1,200 calories an hour.
Having said this, it’s generally thought that running on a treadmill will burn more calories per hour than an elliptical machine, simply because an elliptical machine will use its own momentum to keep it going to some extent (as noted earlier in the article).
The Final Verdict: Which Is Better?
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Personally, I don’t believe that there’s a definitive answer to our original question; your choice will depend almost entirely upon your own personal preference and your own personal level of fitness.
You certainly shouldn’t be basing your choice on the fact that on average, the treadmill will burn a few more calories per hour than the elliptical as to some extent, this is irrelevant. Working out in the gym should be an enjoyable experience and there’s nothing worse than basing your workout routine around a machine that you don’t find enjoyable, especially the difference in calorie expenditure per hour is hardly worth worrying about.
Having said this, it’s important to take the pro’s and con’s of each machine into account when choosing the right machine for you. If you do experience joint problems (or have had injuries in the past), it would be a wise choice to use the elliptical rather than the treadmill as the impact caused on the treadmill will only serve to make matters worse.
If you don’t have any joint issues and you’re serious about your workout routine, the treadmill can be a great option as it allows greater versatility, greater calorie expenditure per hour (on average) and also, can force you to step outside your comfort zone.
I personally believe that the best option is to incorporate both machines into your workout routine if possible. This will not only provide the most variation in the muscle groups being worked on a regular basis but also, keep things interesting and ensure that your workout routine doesn’t become stale and boring.