Fitness Equipment Reviews

Which Gives You the Best Workout: Treadmill, Elliptical, Stepper, or Bike?

Life’s busy. We’ve only got so much time to work out. So, it makes sense that we want to get the best bang for our buck when on the gym floor. When it comes to strength training, it’s pretty simple – going hard and heavy with cable resistance is number one. But what about cardio? Should you jump on the treadmill, elliptical, stepper, or bike? Read on to discover which one will produce the maximum benefit from your sweat equity.

Best Calorie Burner

Let’s face it – the reason that most people spend time on a cardio machine is to get rid of body fat. The cardio machine that requires the most energy to operate for the same level of performance is the one that will burn the largest number of calories. So, how do our four cardio machines compare?

Earlier this year, Harvard Health Publishing compared the calorie burn of a range of exercise activities and sports. Here is what they found regarding the most popular gym cardio machines, based on an exerciser who weighs 185 pounds:
  • Running on a treadmill for 30 minutes at 5 miles per hour will burn 336 calories.
  • Riding an exercise bike at a moderate speed will burn 294 calories.
  • Walking on a stair stepper will burn 252 calories.
  • Using an elliptical trainer will burn 378 calories.
According to Harvard Health, then, the elliptical burns the most calories when you are exercising at a moderate pace. That is because the elliptical works your entire body, whereas the other three are strictly focused on working your lower body. That means that you are moving more muscles when you train on an elliptical machine. The forward and backward action of your arms works the latissimus dorsi, the deltoids, the core muscles, the biceps, triceps, and trapezius muscles. None of those muscle groups are worked when you run on a treadmill, walk on a stepper, or pedal a bike.
However, the other three machines provide more intensity increase potential. At a fast pace, the treadmill, stair stepper and bike will all burn more calories than the elliptical. The stair stepper is the best calorie burner at high intensity, followed by the spin cycle, and then the treadmill.

Best for Muscle Strength

When it comes to gaining muscular strength from your cardio workout, we need to drill down a little. If you are interested in overall skeletal muscle strength, then the elliptical will give you the best results. As we’ve already mentioned, the elliptical requires you to work both the muscles of your upper and lower body, whereas our other options are exclusively lower body focused. To get the most muscle strength benefit, though, you will have to work at a relatively challenging resistance level.
If you are mainly interested in gaining strength and size in your lower body, the best cardio exercise choice is the stair stepper. This machine will give an intense workout to your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. It will shape your buns while also getting the biggest muscle group in your body, the glutes, a whole lot stronger.
The next best lower body strengthener is the exercise bike, especially the spin cycle version. When you are simulating an uphill sprint on the bike, you will be putting some serious stress on your quads and calves. That will make them both bigger and stronger. If you are, like many guys, struggling to pack size onto your calves with your regular calf workouts on the gym floor, throw in 2 or 3 short, sharp bike sessions each week and your calves will be shocked into new growth!
The treadmill will also deliver a good workout to your quads and calves. However, it has the highest impact of our cardio machine options, which may be problematic for people with pre-existing ankle or knee joint problems. However, there have been big strides made in treadmill shock absorption technology in recent years, making running on a treadmill a far better option than doing so on concrete.

Best for Your Joints

Joint friendliness is an important aspect of assessing how effective a workout machine is. There is no point in choosing an exercise that burns more calories if, at the same time, it is playing havoc with your joints. Before long, you’ll suffer an injury that will put you out of action, completely negating that extra calorie burn.

The best overall joint friendly option is the exercise bike. Cycling is a low impact activity that actually enhances the knees movement through their natural range of motion. That contrasts with the elliptical which, while also low impact, involves an elliptical motion which is not as natural. Some people find the elliptical more natural to perform than others. The best type of elliptical to use for a free natural range of motion is one that had a user defined rather than a machine defined motion. An example of this is the Adaptive Motion Trainer (AMT) by Precor. 
The best type of exercise bike for people with lower back problems is the recumbent, which has a large chair back and is lower to the ground, allowing the person to pedal with their legs in a horizontal position.
The worst of our four cardio options in terms of impact is the treadmill. Constant pounding on a treadmill running bed can lead to shin splints, knee and ankle pain and, if your posture is not on point, your lower back. As mentioned earlier, however, modern treadmills feature advanced running bed cushioning, so if you are going to run, doing it on a treadmill is way better than running on concrete.


  • Best calorie burner at moderate intensity = Elliptical
  • Best calorie burner at high intensity = Stair Stepper
  • Best for overall muscle strength = Elliptical
  • Best for lower body strength = Stair Stepper
  • Best for your joints = Exercise Bike 
So, which cardio machine is best overall?
While the elliptical scores well in terms of working the entire body and being low impact, it simply does not offer enough intensity. Many people also struggle with the unnatural elliptical motion. If you had to choose just one cardio machine, it should be the stair stepper, which provides the best balance between calorie burn, intensity, strength potential and joint friendliness.
At the end of the day, however, the best cardio machine for you is the one that you enjoy the most and that is the most comfortable for you. What hurts the joints on one user may be fine for another. So, experiment with all of the machines we’ve discussed to find the feels best and that you enjoy spending time on the most. After all, if you enjoy it, you are more likely to stick at it – and consistency is the key to success.

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