Treadmill vs Elliptical: Which Is More Advantageous?

Treadmill vs Elliptical: Which Is More Advantageous?

Treadmill vs Elliptical: Which Is More Advantageous?

The following question appeared as I held a Q&A session on Facebook:

I’ve read for years that the elliptical burns more calories than running. Is this true? It obviously doesn’t raise the heart rate as high, so what are the pros & cons?

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This is a great question for the many looking to decide in an investment regarding treadmill vs elliptical, and a great question for those trying to decide between the treadmill vs elliptical machine at their gym. Let’s dive in with use of the most recent research available.

Research Article #1: Sozen, H. (2010). Comparison of Muscle Activation during Elliptical Trainer, Treadmill and Bike Exercise. Biology of Sport, 27(3), 203-206.

  • This study analyzed muscle activation among varying cardiovascular machines. During this study, the upper extremity muscles and the Rectus Femoris (Quadriceps Muscle) were more activated by the elliptical when compared to the bike and treadmill. On the other hand, the Gastrocnemius (Calf Muscle) and Gluteus Maximus (Glute Muscle) of the lower extremity were more activated by treadmill when compared to the elliptical and bike. This study concluded that the elliptical “may be” advantageous to target more muscle groups.

Research Article #2: Kaplan, Y., Barak, Y., Palmonovich, E., Nyska, M., & Witvrouw, E. (2014). Referent Body Weight Values in Over Ground Walking, Over Ground Jogging, Treadmill Jogging, and Elliptical Exercise. Gait & Posture, 39(1), 558-56

  • This journal article looked at how the body weight reacts in regard to overground running vs treadmill vs elliptical. This study found that weight bearing was significantly reduced on the elliptical when compared to the other activities. By reducing the weight during such physical activities, this will aid the individual who has chronic joint pathologies or for those with or looking to prevent overuse injuries.

Research Article #3: Brown, G. A., Cook, C. M., Krueger, R. D., & Heelan, K. A. (2010). Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)24(6), 1643-1649.

  • This study found that there were no differences reported during sub-maximal exercise regarding Rate of Perceived Exertion between the treadmill vs elliptical. When comparing the treadmill vs elliptical, heart rate was found to be higher on the elliptical. When subjects exercised at the same rate of perceived exertion on the treadmill vs elliptical, oxygen consumption and energy expenditure were similar in spite of a higher heart rate on the elliptical.

Research Article #4: Joubert, D. P., Oden, G. L., & Estes, B. C. (2011). The Effects of Elliptical Cross Training on VO2max in Recently Trained Runners. International Journal of Exercise Science4(1), 243-251.

  • During a 4 week study, trained runners were switched to an elliptical cross training program. The results found that runners maintained their VO2 max on the elliptical during this short-term study.

Research Article #5: Carraro, A., Gobbi, E., Ferri, I., Benvenuti, P., & Zanuso, S. (2014). Enjoyment Perception during Exercise with Aerobic Machines. Perceptual & Motor Skills119(1), 146-155.

  • Subjects using the treadmill were perceived to be more enjoyable and “natural” than exercise with the elliptical cross trainer.

Research Article #6: Egana, M., & Donne, B. (2004). Physiological changes following a 12 week gym based stair-climbing, elliptical trainer and treadmill running program in females. Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness44(2), 141-146.

  • In moderately active females, similar physiological improvements were observed using stair-climber, elliptical trainer and treadmill running when training volume and intensity were equivalent.

Research Article #7: Green, J. M., Crews, T. R., Pritchett, R. C., Mathfield, C., & Hall, L. (2004). Heart rate and ratings of perceived exertion during treadmill and elliptical exercise training. Perceptual and Motor Skills98(1), 340-348.

  • No significant differences were reported for overall Rate of Perceived Exertion when using similar heart rates among treadmill vs elliptical. However, significance was found regarding Rate of Perceive Exertion for the legs and was greater on the elliptical versus treadmill. In addition, the elliptical can be advantageous for both rehabilitation and exercise science purposes.

Which Is More Advantageous?

With use of most recent research, one can see that overall treadmill vs elliptical training can be quite similar in regard to physiological effects. For one trying to decide between the two, there are many factors to take into account. For an individual looking to invest in a particular product, it is best to take into account finances, space, and the individual’s physical state: Do their joints ache or do they have joint or muscular pathologies? Are they returning from injury, surgery, or are they injured frequently? Do they enjoy running? Secondly, what are their goals? If their goal is to run a road race of some particular length, then a treadmill would be more ideal in order to prepare for such a specific event.

As mentioned, we can see that the physiological effects are similar. With that being said and if both options are available, I would recommend alternating between treadmill vs elliptical. In doing so, switching to the elliptical will help the runner increase their mileage without the effects of the constant impact, thus, reducing potential overuse injuries. In addition, research indicates that different muscle groups are activated, therefore, by alternating between treadmill vs elliptical, we can target varying and specific muscles.

In conclusion, the concern should not be which is more advantageous, but, should rather be focused on the workout itself. With use of an elliptical, many do not realize that you can incorporate reverse pedaling. Whether you are using the treadmill vs elliptical, or even the bike or rowing machine and are looking for the best means of obtaining great fat-loss results, I highly recommend high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In an article written by Brad Schoenfeld, HIIT incorporates “intersperse bouts of high-intensity aerobic with lower intensity bouts.” The best part is that your metabolism stays elevated for up to “36 hours after exercise, [and burns] up to 150 calories a day beyond resting levels.” Pretty snazzy, huh?

Example of HIIT on either treadmill or elliptical: Depending on your fitness level, shoot for 6-12 rounds of all-out effort for 20-30 seconds (Active Phase) and rest for 30-60 seconds (Rest Phase). Increase resistance during Active Phase on elliptical and increase incline and speed during Active Phase on treadmill.

Note: Remember, all-out effort!

So, the next time you head to your gym facility, whether at home or not, stop wasting time trying to decide between the two and just perform some HIIT! 

What are your thoughts on treadmill vs elliptical training?

Joshua Reed, CPT, Founder of Reed’s Wellness and Fitness Training

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Joshua Reed
Joshua Reed is an Certified Personal Trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and is the owner of Reed’s Wellness and Fitness Training. He currently operates a small space in Ludlow, Kentucky and travels to see clients in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area. He offers both personal, online, and small group coaching from his location, the client’s home, and/or outdoors. He is a 2012 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Adult Fitness and Wellness Management. Joshua currently attends the University of Kentucky’s, where he is earning a Master’s degree in Biomechanics with a concentration in running mechanics and injury prevention.