The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Treadmill vs. Elliptical: Which is a Better Workout?

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Monday, Jul 26, 2010

Are all cardio machines created equally? Studies have shown that when individuals exercise on different pieces of cardio equipment at the same self-selected effort level, some pieces of equipment result in greater calorie burn. For example, at the same self-selected effort level, most individuals burn more calories exercising on the treadmill compared to the rowing machine, stair stepper, cycle ergometer or cross-country ski machine. However, until recently, newer forms of exercise equipment like the elliptical machine have not been investigated.

A study published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1 examined whether you burn more calories on the elliptical or the treadmill when you self-select your exercise intensity as moderate. In this study 18 untrained college-aged subjects performed 15 minutes of exercise on both the treadmill and elliptical machines. They exercised at the same effort level as determined by their Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The scale is a numerical scale used to rate overall exercise effort level. The scale uses numbers ranging from 6 (no effort - rest) to 20 (maximal effort) as shown in the RPE chart below. Each subject exercised at the same moderate-intensity rating of 12-13 on both machines.

This study found no difference in caloric expenditure between the treadmill and elliptical at the same RPE. Worth noting, although subjects burned the same number of calories, heart rate was higher when exercising on the elliptical compared to the treadmill. They found heart rates were an average of 16 – 18 beats/minute higher on the elliptical machine at the same RPE level. Reasons for this may include a lack of familiarity with the elliptical machine and/or the arms may contribute more work than the legs during elliptical exercise compared to the treadmill. Other studies which examined the heart rate response to combined arm and leg exercise showed that as the amount of work contributed by the arms increased that heart rate also increased2 even though total workload did not change.

These results suggest that when individuals self-select exercise intensity based on rating of perceived exertion, they burn an equal number of calories on the elliptical and treadmill. The elliptical machine is a great cross training alternative to the treadmill as it reduces impact and provides more conditioning for the arms. However, expect higher heart rates on the elliptical machine compared to the treadmill for the same calorie burn. Which cardio machine do you prefer and why?

1. 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 and Conditioning Research, 24(6), 1643-49.

2. Mayo, J.J., Kravitz, L., & Wongsathikun, J. (2001). Detecting the onset of added cardiovascular strain during combined arm and leg exercise. Journal of Exercise Physiology, 4(3), Retrieved from