Elliptical vs. Stationary Bike: Which Cardio Workout Machine Is Better?
Whether you’re trying to decide which cardio machine to head for at the gym or what to add to your home workout set-up, the elliptical and stationary bike are both popular options. I mean, you can cue up the latest ep of Grey’s Anatomy and watch the time fly as the sweat drips on either, but are they created equal?
In some ways, yes. “Both are great for cardio because you decide the speed and cadence,” says trainer Taylor Rae Almonte, CPT, founder of anti-racist wellness program ACTIV-ISM. “Unlike on the treadmill, you aren’t keeping up with the machine, but the machine is adapting to your level of effort.” Of course, you can adjust the resistance on both the elliptical and stationary bike to level up the difficulty as you like.
That said, though, the elliptical and bike don’t quite offer the same fitness benefits, so which you should select for your sweat really depends on your unique goals (and preferences!). Here’s everything you need to know about an elliptical vs. stationary bike when it comes to cardio training.
The Pros Of The Elliptical
Exercising on the elliptical feels a bit like a remix between cross-country skiing and stair climbing, so if you dig that whole gliding-through-space vibe, it’s a lot of fun.
Plus, since it’s low-impact (your feet never leave the pedals), it’s easy on your joints, Almonte says.
And if you hold onto those moving handles and really pump your arms and engage your core as you glide your feet, the elliptical can truly be a full-body workout, she adds. The muscles that feel the burn the most: your glutes, hamstrings, quads, triceps, and deltoids (top of your arms and shoulders).
The result of that total-body effort? You can burn between 270 and 400 calories on the elliptical in 30 minutes, according to Harvard Medical School’s estimates. (They reached these numbers by calculating the average burn for a 125-pound person, 155-pound person, and 185-pound person.)
The Cons Of The Elliptical
As fun as the elliptical may be, it isn’t exactly functional, meaning the fitness machine’s movement pattern doesn’t replicate anything you do IRL. Since it doesn’t translate to the real world, “the elliptical isn’t ideal to use to train for any sort of specific event,” Almonte says.
For example, “since the movement pattern isn’t the same, using the elliptical won’t result in you being a better runner or drastically increase your ability to run or jog for long periods of time.” So if you’re training for a 5k or want to work on your running skills, you’re probably better off on the treadmill.
The main reason Almonte doesn’t personally use the elliptical for cardio, though, is exactly why so many exercisers love it: It’s SO easy to zone out on. Totally fine if you just need a break from the world but not ideal if you want to notably improve your fitness or heart and lung health.
The Pros Of The Stationary Bike
Like the elliptical, the stationary bike is a low-impact, joint-friendly way to get your cardio in, Almonte says. Though it places greater emphasis on your lower-body (think glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves), the bike can get your upper body in on the action a little bit, too, if you get up out of the saddle and engage your core.
Put in a moderate effort on the exercise bike for 30 minutes and a 125-pound person will burn 210 calories while a 185-pound person will 311, Harvard Medical School suggests. Crank up the intensity to a vigorous effort though, and the calories burned increase to 315 and 466, respectively.
The Cons Of The Stationary Bike
Of course, like the elliptical, the stationary bike can be pretty easy to zone out on. Some people also just find the bike, particularly the seat, downright difficult to get used to. “Before I was a spin instructor, I really wondered how it was possible to sit on a bike for an hour,” Almonte says. “I had so many first-time clients tell me the seats were uncomfortable.”
One solution? You can opt for padded bike shorts for a little extra cushion. But Almonte says that she found that time and good form definitely improved the comfort factor.
The Bottom Line On The Elliptical Vs. Stationary Bike Debate
Look, folks, as long as you put in equal effort, the elliptical and stationary bike boost your cardiovascular endurance and tone your muscles in a similar way, Almonte says.
Though the elliptical trainer has a ~slight~ advantage when it comes to engaging your upper body, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for the bike. “You’re not really getting a killer upper body workout on the elliptical because the machine is helping you,” Almonte explains. Meanwhile, “on the stationary bike, keeping the upper body engaged and riding out of the saddle is helpful, but again, it’s also never going to be a rocking upper-body workout.”
With that in mind, it’s ultimately your effort that determines the calorie-burning, weight-loss, or overall cardio-fitness-level benefits you reap from either the bike or elliptical, says Almonte. “It depends on your settings in terms of incline or resistance,” she explains.
Of course, your preference plays a role, too. “I personally find the stationary bike to be better, but that’s solely because I enjoy it more and put in more effort than I would on an elliptical,” Almonte says. “You’ll always get more out of the workout that you like. Yes, we are looking for efficient and effective workouts, but to boost your mental and emotional health, as well, opt for the cardio that’s the most fun for you!”
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