A treadmill and elliptical can both help you to get a cardiovascular workout. But the machine that’s best for you may depend on several factors.

It’s probably no surprise that when it comes to indoor workouts, the elliptical trainer and treadmill are two of the most popular aerobic exercise machines. Both simulate a natural running or walking motion and, depending on the intensity of your workout, have the ability to boost your cardio fitness.

Treadmills allow you to walk or run on a moving belt. You can control the speed as well as the incline. With an elliptical, you place your feet on a platform and move in an ellipses, or elongated circle.

Although there are similarities between these machines, there are also some key differences. With regards to which one is better, there really isn’t a simple answer. It depends on your workout goals, physical health, and other factors.

Both types of machines have their pros and cons when it comes to working out. Read on to learn which one may be a better fit for you.

Easy on your joints

The elliptical is a low-impact machine. If it’s hard for you to tolerate the jarring motion of walking or running, an elliptical may be a good option.

Low-impact exercise typically puts less stress on your joints than high-impact exercise. This makes the elliptical a safer option if you have a musculoskeletal condition such as low-back pain, knee or hip pain, or other health conditions like arthritis or osteoporosis.

Low-impact exercise may sound like it isn’t strenuous, but it still provides a good aerobic workout. A 2017 study on aerobic exercise found that a 24-week program of low-impact workouts improved the body composition, physical fitness, and cardiovascular fitness of the study participants.

Maintain fitness after injury

Even though an elliptical is a low-impact machine, it still gives you the ability to get a high-intensity workout. This can be especially helpful if you’re recovering from an injury, yet still want to maintain a high level of fitness.

A 2010 study found that calories burned, oxygen consumption, and heart rate were nearly identical on the elliptical and treadmill. The researchers concluded that the elliptical is an acceptable alternative to the treadmill as a form of cardio exercise.

Get an upper and lower body workout

Some elliptical machines have arm handles. You can push these back and forth at the same time as you move your legs. The resistance of the handles helps to work the muscles in your shoulders, chest, and back.

At the same time, the machine can help you strengthen the muscles in your lower body, including your glutes, hip flexors, and quadriceps.

Option to work different muscles

An elliptical gives you the option to switch direction and work backward. This can change up the muscles you work. If you go backward instead of forward, you’ll work out and strengthen your calves and hamstrings.

There’s a learning curve

If you haven’t worked out on an elliptical before, it may take some getting used to. The movement may feel awkward and unnatural at first. Ask a certified personal trainer for help if you’re not sure what to do.

Less muscle development

While an elliptical is a great option for low-impact aerobic exercise, you may not notice the same amount of muscle development as you can get from a treadmill.

If you’re looking to gain more muscle strength and want to continue using an elliptical, try adding weight or strength training to your routine a few times a week.

Lots of control

One of the main benefits of exercising on a treadmill is the versatility you have. Whether you want to do a brisk walk or an uphill run, you have the option to dial in the exact speed and incline of your workout.

Most treadmills also allow you to choose from a variety of training programs. Having more control over your workout may make it easier to reach your fitness goals.

Because you can easily control the speed and incline, treadmills are well-suited to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts. Studies show that HIIT workouts are effective for burning calories, reducing body fat, and improving cardiovascular fitness in a short period of time.

Builds leg strength

Running or walking on the treadmill can strengthen your leg muscles, including your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. A treadmill workout can also strengthen your hip flexors and glutes.

To further strengthen your legs and to help prevent injury, practice doing squats and lunges several times a week in addition to your treadmill workouts.

May lead to injuries

Running or jogging on a treadmill can put more stress on your bones and joints compared to working out on an elliptical trainer. Ultimately, this can lead to injuries. Common running injuries include shin splints, knee injuries, and stress fractures.

To reduce the risk of injuries, always start your treadmill workout with a warm-up and end with a cool down. Also be sure to stretch after your treadmill session.

If you find that running on the treadmill is too hard on your body, you can try switching to cardio workouts that are gentler on your bones and joints, like swimming or biking.

You can also try reducing the number of miles you run each week, or you could alternate between running and walking. Running shoe inserts may also help provide support and reduce injuries.

Works fewer muscle groups

Although a treadmill can help you build strength in your leg muscles, hip flexors, and glutes, it doesn’t target as many muscle groups as an elliptical.

With an elliptical, you can work the muscles in your arms, shoulders, back, and chest, as well as the muscles in your lower body. By reversing direction, an elliptical also helps you to isolate specific muscles, which is harder to do with a treadmill.

Trying to decide between a treadmill or an elliptical depends on your physical health and fitness goals. Both machines can be equally beneficial for burning calories and getting a good cardiovascular workout.

For some people, the elliptical offers benefits that the treadmill can’t. For example, if you’re prone to injuries or have a musculoskeletal condition, the elliptical may be a better choice because:

  • it allows you to get a good cardiovascular workout without putting as much stress on your bones and joints
  • it may reduce your risk for injury while you exercise
  • it allows you to get both an upper and lower body workout in a shorter period of time (if the elliptical machine has arm handles)

The treadmill may be a better fit for you if:

  • you aren’t prone to injuries or joint issues
  • you’re looking to meet a specific goal, for example training for a 5K or 10K race
  • you want to build strength in your glutes and leg muscles

If you follow the safety guidelines, both elliptical machines and treadmills are safe to use.

If you are new to the elliptical, you may want to try using it without the arm handles at first. This can help you get comfortable with the movement. Once you have the movement down, you can add the arm handles.

When using the elliptical, focus on having good form. Keep your posture upright, and keep your core tight throughout the movement. If you’re using an elliptical at the gym, you can ask a certified personal trainer to give you a demonstration on how to use the machine safely.

When using a treadmill, be sure to attach the safety clip to your clothing. This will stop the treadmill if you happen to trip or fall.

Because exercising on a treadmill can put stress on your bones and joints, be sure to warm up and cool down properly before starting your workout. This can help get your muscles and joints ready to work, and lower your risk of injuries. Also stretch after your workout.

Stop using the elliptical or treadmill if you feel faint, dizzy, or lightheaded. And drink plenty of water throughout your workout.

Before starting a new physical fitness routine, always talk to your doctor. They can recommend a fitness routine that’s safe for you.

The treadmill and elliptical are both effective machines to help you to get a cardiovascular workout. Which machine is a better option depends on your individual needs.

If you have a musculoskeletal condition or are injury-prone, you may want to stick with the elliptical. If you want to burn a lot of calories and build up leg strength and speed, the treadmill may be a better choice.