Stair Stepper vs. Treadmill vs. Elliptical

If you squint your eyes a bit, stair steppers, treadmills and ellipticals look the same. In fact, they are very closely related because of their targeted muscle group: legs. All three are also used for cardio workouts and low-impact endurance training. So which one is right for you?


Stair Stepper: This piece of equipment was first introduced to gyms in the 1980s. Most models require the user to continue an uphill climb of stairs that are approximately 8 inches apart, which is the minimum standard for steps anywhere.

  • Upper Body: None.
  • Lower Body: The entire exercise is propelled by the legs, working the glutes, quads and calves in a wavelike motion with little release to the muscles.
  • Cardio: No matter what speed you’re working, you’re pumping a lot of blood. This is an excellent cardio workout that can burn around 300 calories in a 30-minute session. Click here to try a 20-minute cardio workout with no equipment required!
  • Special Benefits: The speed of the workout is purely determined by the user. This means that the operator cannot “cheat” by slowing down or stepping off to the side, and all of the power is generated by the legs.
  • Cons: No upper body inclusion. Difficult to maintain for long periods of time due to monotony of movement. Causes a forward-leaning posture, rounding the lower back, and because of this lean, your actual calories-burned number is less.

Treadmill: This is going to sound ridiculous, but the treadmill was originally the “tread wheel,” and was introduced to prisoners in London in the first half of the 19th Century. Fast-forward 150 years, and it split into the treadmill and stair stepper. The treadmill is one the most popular pieces of equipments in a home gym and requires little skill to use it.

  • Upper Body: None.
  • Lower Body: The legs steer the aerobic exercise from walking to full out sprint speeds. Most treadmills offer incline options to increase demand of muscles, especially the calves.
  • Cardio: Interval training is widely popular for treadmill users. Digital screens provide specific MPH speeds, inclines and often have an option to measure the user’s heart rate. Click here to better understand your heart rate during exercise.
  • Special Benefits: All aspects of the workout can be controlled by the user.
  • Cons: Running on a treadmill doesn’t mirror running outside or on a track. Stride lengths are often shorter on a treadmill, and the surface area doesn’t allow for reflex training. (via LiveStrong)

cardio machine

Elliptical: Take the resistance of the stair stepper, the straightforward motion of the treadmill and the cycling of a bike – you get the elliptical. It followed the introduction of the stepper, and became popular due to its higher qualities of safety.

  • Upper Body: The biceps, triceps and upper back muscles are targeted through ski-like motions.
  • Lower Body: Exercise of low or high aerobics can be done without jarring the joints.
  • Cardio: Varies by what the user chooses, but can be an excellent aerobic and total body workout.
  • Special Benefits: Lower impact on the joints makes it a safe machine for those who are overweight and want to introduce cardio, and it balances the work of the quads and hamstrings.
  • Cons: Many people tend to abuse this machine or do not understand how to efficiently use it: not entering information, going too long, not reversing direction or changing workout. (via Prevention)

>> Read more: 13 Elliptical Workouts to Whip You Into Shape