Cardio Showdown: Elliptical Cross Trainer vs Treadmill



​​Treadmills have been THE exercise machine of choice for the best part of a century. But when elliptical cross trainers became available 20 years the fitness world became embroiled in a debate – which is better?

Both machines will improve your cardiovascular health. But which one produces the best cardio workout bang for your hard-earned buck?

We’ll discuss the various features and benefits of each piece of equipment so you can decide which cardio machine is best for you. Let the showdown begin!

History of the Treadmill

The idea of a treadmill has been around since the Romans in the first century AD, long before the idea of a fitness machine became a thing.

Ironically, treadmills were even used as a form of punishment in prisons in the 1800’s. So they must be effective right!?

Treadmill Torture device in Prisons

​While a patent for the first ‘exercise’ treadmill was issued in 1913, the first actual machine wasn't officially released until the late 1960s.

Since then it has been the mainstay of commercial and home gyms all over the world.

History of the Elliptical Cross Trainer

The first elliptical developed in the mid-1990’s was heavy and took up a great deal of space.

Through an internal flywheel, users were able to keep their entire foot in contact with the ‘pedal’ platforms throughout the whole movement. This motion mimicked an exercise bike but in a standing position with a knee movement like running. It was a cross between a stationary bike and a treadmill.

​In 1995, the Precor Elliptical Fitness Cross Trainer launched as the first commercial Elliptical marketed as a so-called ‘zero impact’ exercise machine.

Early elliptical machines proclaimed they were low impact exercise that reduced the level of pounding on muscles and joints. However Elliptical users experienced a lower rate of perceived exertion in comparison to when using a treadmill.

Standard Features of both the Treadmill and Elliptical Cross Trainer

Here are a few basic features that are common to both types of exercise equipment. Many of these features increase in complexity and capability with the price of the each machine.

Computer Display


The display is the most common feature to both types of cardio machine. Nearly every treadmill and elliptical machine will have an LCD or LED display mounted in front of you on a centre console.

York 110 Treadmill LCD

Some consoles have large flat surfaces to put a book, magazine, or iPad tablet securely. The display either attaches across the two handles on a treadmill, or on an upright above the elliptical flywheel.

Some are larger with more elaborate information and functions.

Each display will (at the minimum) calculate your time, speed and distance during each workout.

More complex machines offer additional features – including an estimate of the calories you’re burning, and your heart rate.

Sound System

As you navigate up the ladder of more elaborate machines, the potential for a quality sound system increases. Basic machines have speakers where you can connect to your music on your smartphone, or another audio device.

However, with the popularity of wireless headphones this feature is less important, as you can easily listen to your music without dangling cables or annoying people nearby.

Cooling Fan

This is another feature, which is standard on most mid-range and above machines. The performance of these fans often depends on the complexity of the machine and the model (i.e. price).

These fans usually have multiple settings for when the sweat really starts to pour off you.

Heart Rate Monitor

This is another useful feature in all but the cheapest machines.

The quality and location of the heart rate sensors depends on the machine you buy.

Treadmill manufacturers invariably place the heart rate sensors with the handles. Many models have a pair of sensors just under the display, plus a second set of sensors on the sidebars.

You wrap your hand around these sensors so that your hands grip the reading surface.

Elliptical machines will likewise have a pair of sensors in the handles of each of the moving arms.

For both the readout for your current heart rate shows on the screen. This feature is critical for users really wanting to track their workout progress and improvements cardiovascular performance.

So you really know if it’s getting easier over set times or distances.

Feature Differences between an Elliptical Cross Trainer and a Treadmill

Both are fixed pieces of exercise equipment made from metal and plastic. But the basic hardware and monitoring systems are where the similarities between an elliptical cross trainer and a treadmill end.

The mechanics behind how each cardio machine works produces a dramatically different workout.

It's these differences in operation you should explore and think about before making your final choice.

Unique Treadmill Features and Benefits

Unless the treadmill is a simple manual model, it will have a motor. This motor drives the belt, so you jog at a set speed. On some models, it will also adjust the incline automatically for you.

You can set these two options yourself or pick a pre-set program that will change them throughout a set workout.

The horsepower rating of the motor reflects the top speed possible and usually the long-term durability of the machine. Again, you get what you pay for.

Treadmills have a running deck with a revolving belt. The dimensions of this belt are critical. Bigger machines take up more space, but they offer a bigger and more stable running surface.

The treadmill has a pair of arms on either side. Bigger machines usually offer better support. These sidebars are often appealing to older users and individuals working on some form of injury rehab.

Unique Elliptical Cross Trainer Features and Benefits

Now is where you will begin to see the most profound differences between these two pieces of exercise equipment. An elliptical cross trainer does not have a motor.

Instead of a motor-driven belt that you walk or run on, the elliptical has two platforms (think pedals or steps) for your feet.

Through an intricate set of arms and moving joints, you move your legs in a stepping motion, also holding hand grips that move in time with the footsteps.

The difficulty of each stride can be increased or decreased by adjusting magnetic resistance of the flywheel.

Your feet never actually leave the foot platforms. The motion of an elliptical cross trainer is somewhere between pedalling an exercise bike and running on a treadmill.

Your feet stay secure inside the foot platforms. So, there is less pounding on your joints, and risk of injury from falling off a moving treadmill belt.

You also do not have a set speed to keep up with like on a treadmill. The elliptical pedals and arms move at whatever speed you make them go.

This makes it harder to get a consistent intensity during your workout.

What are the Differences Between a Treadmill and an Elliptical Workout?

Here are a few differences between the two machines regarding each body part worked.

Keying on Your Calves

When you're on a treadmill, walking, jogging or running at full speed, your lower legs will duplicate the same foot roll as if you were running or walking on flat ground. This will require a similar of exertion from your calves.

It is virtually impossible to reach quite the same level of intensity for your calves using an elliptical machine.

While calf development will get some benefit from the stair climbing motion of each elliptical stride, you will not be able to get the same intensity as you do on a treadmill as you don’t have to flex your foot and lift it off the platform.

The Arm Element

This is a something of a dividing line between a treadmill workout and one on an elliptical.

You gain little advantage from the waist up on a treadmill.

It's possible to do arm exercises at walking speed, but you typically need to reduce the speed.

To overcome this some users hold weights in their hands, but this can be difficult for some people.

Elliptical machines employ moving handles.  The pushing and pulling action on the moving handles target your arms. You'll feel the effects in your arms, chest and shoulders as well.

Easy on Your Joints

If you think back to the differences in how each machine operates, you'll appreciate why this is the most profound distinction between the two.

 While treadmills boast many technological advances in deck cushioning, you are still replicating some of the same pounding motion.

High-quality shoes help, but you still cannot avoid the physics of impact.

When you move on an elliptical, there is less impact on your ankle, knee and hip joints. The motions may take some getting used to, but the lessening of gravity’s effects is what makes an elliptical cross trainer easier on your joints.

Some argue that this benefit comes are the cost of not burning as many calories and being less functional. This is a trade-off you will need to think about in your decision.

The Final Verdict

Picking a winner in the cardio showdown between an elliptical cross trainer and a treadmill requires consideration of the multiple factors we’ve discussed. 

Treadmills should be a priority if you want to focus on building the specific leg muscles for hiking, jogging, and especially competitive running.

A treadmill is the only way to duplicate the exact muscle movement to train for any of these activities. If space is an issue, then the idea of a folding treadmill can be very appealing.

Individuals who have serious joint concerns may do well to consider starting with an elliptical machine. The most critical difference between these two pieces of exercise equipment is the reduced impact on your joints, and easier workout when using an elliptical.

That said, most treadmill manufacturers promote various patented deck cushioning systems. There are fancy shock absorbers under the running deck that help to soften the impact when your feet land on the running belt.
Both will ramp up your heart rate, and either one is a better choice than sitting on the couch.

So, what are you waiting for? If you think a treadmill might be right for you check out some of our latest reviews.