When it comes to cardio machines, two share the top position when it comes to most people’s go-to choices: treadmills and ellipticals.
But which one is the best cardio machine for weight loss? There’s actually a considerable amount of debate on the subject – with a little bit of bias on either side.
If fat loss is a goal, which one is best for you? And what style of training should you do – long, short, fat-burning, or interval training workouts?
We’re going to sort it all out now.
Specificity Is Key
First of all, when we’re talking about your workouts (both strength training and cardio) here’s a useful fitness tip: consider specificity when you’re designing your program.
Basically, your workouts should fit your goals.
That means if you’re a runner, a treadmill will help you most closely mimic the movement that you need to train.
Of course, that doesn’t render the elliptical useless, because it could be an excellent way to cross train. But the treadmill would be your primary tool.
Meanwhile, elliptical machines provide full-body resistance, which make them a great choice for certain athletes who need to constantly work against outside forces, like cross-country skiers.
So if you have a specific goal, it’s a good idea to keep that in mind when choosing your cardio machine workouts.
A common sight in most commercial and home gyms, the treadmill has long been a staple piece of fitness equipment.
And, in large part, this is probably due to the fact that it so closely resembles running, which is a familiar movement that people are ready to accept into their routines.
Here’s the issue with treadmills, and running in general, though: It’s an inefficient way to lose weight.
Why? For one thing, you are really only engaging the muscles of your legs (beyond the obvious use of your heart muscle).
That’s important to consider because the number of calories that you burn during a particular activity is directly affected by the number of muscle fibers that the activity challenges.
Here’s one way to think about it: Which burns more fuel, a big-rig truck or a lawnmower?
The truck has a much bigger engine and therefore requires more energy to get its job done. Similarly, when you engage more muscle fibers, you are using a bigger engine and burning more calories for fuel.
Treadmills only work the muscles in your lower body – neglecting a good portion of your musculature.
Plus, running is typically a low-resistance exercise, meaning that it doesn’t really challenge any muscles very well. (Hint: there are ways to get around that, which I’ll cover shortly.)
It’s also important to note that treadmills are fairly high-impact. Running places your joints under an enormous amount of stress – equal to several times your own body weight (1).
Even though most treadmills provide some cushioning, it’s not usually enough to significantly reduce those impact forces.
Running, then, can be a pretty risky activity for people with knee and joint problems.
Treadmills can be even more problematic, because runners tend to lengthen their strides when using them (2).
Even with healthy joints, this flawed form can be an issue. Things just get worse if you already have weak knees.
So, are treadmills good for weight loss?
They can be. As mentioned, a lot of it really depends on you – how you use the machine and your individual needs.
- Specific training for runners
- Increases endurance
- Easy to learn
- Ineffective for weight loss
- Negatively affects stride
- Neglects strength
The distinguishing feature of the elliptical is the unique movement that the machine creates, resembling a cross-country skiing stride.
That elliptical path creates virtually no impact force against your joints, which is one major advantage ellipticals have over treadmills.
Then, there are the elliptical’s crazy-looking handles, which serve a purpose beyond just giving you something to hold on to. By increasing resistance against the handles, the machine challenges your upper body – in both pushing and pulling movements – in addition to your legs.
This means that elliptical machines have a strength-training element that treadmills lack, which is a pretty big deal.
Remember what we said about what it takes to burn more calories – and how important it was to activate as many muscles as possible?
Ellipticals do an excellent job of that.
However, that being said, there are some things to watch for when using the elliptical.
The suspended, elliptical nature of the foot pattern is both unfamiliar and a little unnatural, especially because your feet are held in place, causing a limited range of motion.
Plus, people often lean forward slightly when using the machine, putting stress on their low back.
Both of those factors can lead to your hip flexors becoming tight, as well as impacting your overall hip mobility. That makes your post-workout recovery (stretching and foam rolling) even more important.
- Incorporates strength training
- Burns more calories
- Low impact
- Full-body movement
- Unfamiliar motion
- Unspecific training
- Possible hip flexor tightness
Treadmill vs. Elliptical?
Now that we have all the details, we can address the question that’s at the core of this whole discussion:
Which is the best cardio machine for weight loss: the treadmill or elliptical?
The truth is, that they both have merit … if they’re used correctly.
Again, the primary fault of treadmills is that they do not provide enough resistance. But they can.
Many treadmills can simulate inclines, making your run more challenging and helping to burn more calories.
We also have to reiterate the topic of specificity.
If you are concerned with improving your running, well … you need to run.
When it comes down to calories burned, though, ellipticals have a clear advantage. By placing resistance on most of your major muscle groups, ellipticals provide a type of training that treadmills just cannot duplicate.
If your primary goal is to shed some pounds and you aren’t planning on running any races any time soon, then, ellipticals are most likely the best cardio machine for weight loss.
That being said, however, I see a lot of people using ellipticals inefficiently. To fully benefit from the fact that ellipticals offer resistance, you have to actually turn the resistance up.
Otherwise, if you simply hop of the machine, the flywheel that creates the characteristic movement will actually carry you through the rotations, which doesn’t require much work from your muscles.
As a general rule, keep the resistance up high enough that it’s actually a struggle for you to follow the workout. Don’t fall into the trap of coasting through your workout while watching TV, reading a magazine or talking on the phone.
If you’re even able to do these things, it’s a pretty strong indication that your workout isn’t challenging you enough to help you lose weight.
Cardio: Getting It Right
If you’re going to take the time to do cardio, here’s an important tip to get the most out of it.
Ditch the long, moderate-intensity, steady-state (MISS) workouts and ramp up the intensity.
Why do MISS workouts miss the weight-loss mark?
This type training doesn’t create lasting changes in your metabolism – in fact, it actually increases levels of cortisol in your system, causing your body to break down muscle for fuel and even store more belly fat (3).
Meanwhile, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) burns more calories and helps you avoid muscle breakdown.
When you do HIIT workouts, the basic idea is to push yourself for brief, intense periods and then take short breaks of active recovery.
A simple HIIT workout could look like this:
- Sprint – 30 seconds
- Jog or walk – 1 minute
Ellipticals For the Win(-ish)
Now that we’ve looked at the details, let’s go back to the main question: which is the best cardio machine for weight loss? Which one should you use?
Both treadmills and ellipticals have merit, but ellipticals do tend to go easier on the joints and burn more calories because they use more muscles.
No matter which machine you go with, though, remember to use HIIT to maximize your weight loss efforts.
Crank Up the Cardio
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Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.