Elliptical vs Treadmill – Which One Is Bestfor You?

Elliptical machines and treadmills are quite similar. It is easy to assume that you get the same out of both. There are some distinct differences between the two. It takes understanding them to know which one will best suit your fitness goals.

Hi, my name is Andy, I work about 14 hours most days. With this kind of schedule, I often find myself with no more than an hour to get that much-needed workoutbefore it is time to head out back to work. When this happens, I have to choose between the treadmill and elliptical.

Which one is better when I am looking for a full body workout with limited time to get my heart pumping and the sweat flowing?

Here is an elliptical vs treadmill comparison to help you decide which machine to pick when you have to choose one or the other.

What Are the Differences between Treadmill and Elliptical?

Impact Level
Moderate to high
Muscles involved
Full body
Mainly lower body
Safety ( risk of accidents)
Low risk
Relative risk
Backward movement
Can pedal backwards
Can’t move backwards
Ease of use
Learning curve required
Easy to use

Elliptical vs Treadmill – How Do They Compare?

Impact Level

Different forms of exercise fall under either high or low impact categories. Low impact exercises generally have gentle, fluid motions which have minimal demands on joints. Using an elliptical machine is a low impact exercise because your feet are attached to the pedal throughout the workout.

Running on a treadmill is considered high impact exercise because it requires you to repeatedly lift your feet off the belt with the knees required to support your weight with each stride.

This creates significant strain on the hip, knee and ankle joints. Walking on a treadmill does not cause as much strain as running does, but still has more impact on joints than the elliptical.

This makes elliptical machines a good choice for people recovering from injuries. It is also ideal for people who suffer from musculoskeletal conditions like osteoporosis or arthritis.

If you have any concerns about pressure on your knee and hip joints, the elliptical is a better choice for regular exercise.  

Muscles involved

An elliptical machine gives you a full body workout provided you use the handles. These handles require you to push back and forth as you pedal, therefore engaging the same lower body muscles engaged on a treadmill as well as upper body muscles like biceps, triceps chest, back muscles and core muscles.

If you pedal on an elliptical without supporting yourself on the handles, you work the core muscles even more in order to maintain balance.

The treadmill primarily works the lower body muscles and cardiovascular system. It involves the thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings), the glutes and calves. More demand is placed on these muscles as you increase resistance and incline levels. Upper body muscles are involved but to a low intensity.

To further involve upper body muscles on a treadmill, users typically run or walk with weights in hand.

Pedaling backwards. It is worth noting that ellipticals allow you to pedal forwards as well as backwards. Backward motion causes higher muscle activation and is said to cause increased heart rate compared to similar forward motion. When pedaling forward on an elliptical machine, it is easy to find yourself leaning forward especially with fatigue. This could disengage core muscles. With backward pedaling the core muscles are highly activated throughout in order to maintain balance.

If you are looking for a full body workout so that you don’t have to use another machine to work your upper body, the elliptical is a better option than the treadmill.


What are the chances of injury when working out on either of these machines? Although accidents are not common on either machine, the elliptical is generally considered safer than the treadmill. This is not a surprise considering treadmill accidents are the most common form of accidents reported in gyms today. We do recall the tragic death of American tech veteran Dave Goldberg who suffered trauma to his head in a treadmill accident.

Treadmills require you to lift your feet off the belt as you walk or run. On an elliptical, you move in an ellipses circle with your feet placed on a platform.

A missed step or poorly timed one on a treadmill could easily cause a fall and result in anything from minor to serious injuries. Common injuries caused by treadmill accidents are wrist, forearm and knee injuries.

Chances of injuries on elliptical are reduced by the fact that your feet are constantly attached to the pedal so you don’t have to think about timing your step right. It also ensures proper balance so it is almost impossible to fall off the machine.

Although they are not very common treadmill accidents do happen. This makes the elliptical the safer option.

Elliptical Vs Treadmill – A Comparison Overview

Elliptical overview

Elliptical Vs Treadmill

Elliptical machines, also known as cross trainers first came into the market in the 90’s. They can be self-powered through user-generated motion or plugged in for power supply to their electronic consoles and resistance systems.

Elliptical machines have over the years gained popularity for their ability to provide low impact exercise with varying intensity based on speed and resistance levels set. They are an example of weight-bearing exercises. These are exercises which force you to work against gravity and are highly recommended for their bone strengthening ability. They have proved effective in inhibiting onset of osteoporosis.

Unlike most other exercise machines, there is a learning curve to be taken when you first start using an elliptical. Beginners often complain that motions feel awkward and unnatural though it doesn’t take long before you become accustomed to these unique motions.

One of the main setbacks experienced with elliptical machines is that they move in a locked pattern so they cannot be used by people looking to practice running form.


  • Gives a full body workout
  • Allows backward pedaling
  • Low impact exercise
  • Low risk of injury
  • Don’t require much maintenance


  • Takes time to get used to
  • Not effective for technique training

Treadmill Overview

Elliptical Vs Treadmill

Treadmills are perhaps the most common piece of exercise equipment found in commercial and home gyms. They are popular because they mimic the natural movement of walking or running outside. There is no need for learning so even beginners can hop on and get started.

The fact that there are lots of options to choose from in the market also makes sure there is a treadmill available for every pocket. When they first came into the market space was a major challenge because one had to have sufficient space to store the machine. Space which was required whether the machine is in use or not. Today you can get a foldable treadmill which can be used and stored away to save on floor space even in small apartments.

One of the reasons treadmills are so popular is because of the amount of control you have with this machine. You not only get to continue with your workout routine even when the weather is terrible. You also get to control speed, incline, warm-up and cool-down periods and the amount of energy you expend.

It also reduces the risk of tripping because the belt is a predictable smooth surface.


  • Easy to customize workouts
  • Good for technique training
  • Easy to use


  • High impact on joints
  • Relative risk of injury


Elliptical machines and treadmills are two of the most popular indoor exercise machines. Both simulate the natural motions of walking or running and can provide good quality cardiovascular exercise.

Both machines allow you to control aspects such as resistance to make the workout more challenging and are ideal when it is blistering hot or freezing outside.

Verdict: So which is better? Elliptical or treadmill?

We can conclude that the elliptical is a better choice for anyone looking for general, indoor exercise. It involves more muscles (provided the handlebars are used) therefore giving you a more wholesome workout. It also proves to be safer than the treadmill since it is almost impossible to lose balance and fall off the machine.


Do I burn more calories on a treadmill than elliptical?

You burn more calories on a treadmill. An elliptical moves at your pace and obviously slows down as you tire. The velocity of a treadmill belt is generated by the machine’s motor and not your own horsepower. This forces you to keep up until the end of the workout session and therefore burn more calories.

Which is better for overweight users, treadmill or elliptical?

One of the reasons elipticals are so popular is because they allow for low-impact exercise. This is the reason they are better for overweight users who are more prone to joint pain and injuries due to the extra weight they carry.

Which machine is better for muscle toning, treadmill or elliptical?

Both treadmill and elliptical do a decent job at muscle toning. If you want to focus on hamstrings, quadriceps and hip flexors, the treadmill is a better option.

The elliptical becomes a better option when you want to focus on these muscles as well as lower leg muscles because you can pedal backwards.

Both machines engage abdominal and lower back muscles but not enough to give you a fully toned mid-section. For this you will need to incorporate additional abdominal work.