Recumbent Bikes vs. Treadmills vs. Ellipticals

If a person is planning to start serious exercising, maybe to lose some extra pounds, or to strengthen heart or core muscles or any particular muscle group, or to strengthen overall body, they are bound to get confused with the numerous options available today on the market.

The major among these exercise machines are recumbent bikes, treadmills and elliptical trainers. While recumbent bikes cause low impact on joints, they can hardly offer an intense exercise for upper body. Treadmills are good for intense workouts but can cause impact on joints. While ellipticals are low impact machines and also great for intense workouts, they may be costly and may not be affordable to all.

All in all, all these machines have their own pros and cons. Therefore it’s advisable to compare these three and decide which one is the most suitable to one’s needs.

Updated: June 30, 2020.

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Exercise Impact Level

Recumbent Bike: When it comes to impact level, recumbent bikes are known for their extremely low impact level, which is their most prominent advantage over treadmills and ellipticals.

Due to their low impact level, a recumbent bike is highly useful for those who have undergone injuries, but need exercise to keep them fit. This machine is great for rehab exercise and physical therapy. Unlike ellipticals, recumbent bikes are to be used while sitting which causes the least impact and pressure on back and knees.

Elliptical: An elliptical trainer is also meant to deliver cardiovascular workout without causing too much impact on joints. It simulates stair climbing, walking or running, but lets one avoid the pounding associated to these activities. It doesn’t eliminate impact totally, but if one uses it correctly, it causes minimal impact on the joints of hips, knees and ankles.

Treadmill: In case of a treadmill, although its surface is cushioned, it may cause a significant impact on back, hips, knees and ankles.

Range of Usage

Recumbent Bike: When it’s about variety and range of usage these exercise machines can provide, a recumbent bike can be used in the beginning as well as in the end of the exercise, because it offers many levels of resistance to make pedaling easier and tougher with the help of which users can increase their pulse in the beginning and lower it in the end. This helps users warm up their muscles and thus, lowers the risk of injuries during other high impact workouts like weight lifting.

A recumbent bike can be used for a great cardio exercise, for burning calories, and for losing weight while gaining lean muscle mass.

Elliptical: Unlike a treadmill, an elliptical has the ability to deliver a full-body exercise provided the user uses the handles too. To make the workout more effective, one has to actively pull and push the handles while engaging their core muscles. If this is done in conjunction with the action and power produced from the user’s legs, it can offer all-around muscle toning. Thus the user can also target their upper body in addition to their glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles. However, if one wants to target only their lower body, they can forgo the usage of handles.

Some models of elliptical machines offer reverse pedaling, so that users can directly target a different group of leg muscles.

Treadmill: A treadmill offers users all the benefits of running at the comfort of their home. It lets users target hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves and hip muscles.

Unlike an elliptical, a treadmill needs a user to lift their feet completely to run on the treadmill belt. This makes users to engage their ab muscles more to keep their body stable and centered on the treadmill belt.

Usually the types of exercise offered by a treadmill are limited, like from walking to running. Hence some exercise enthusiasts may get bored after a while.

Storage and Exercise Footprint

When it comes to footprint, a treadmill and an elliptical have more or less the same size, while a recumbent bike has a smaller footprint.

However, an elliptical machine is taller than the other two. In addition, a person tends to ‘bounce’ while using an elliptical, particularly at the apex of the rotation needing extra head space. Thus if a person has a small space, a recumbent bike is perfect for them. But if they are looking for more intense workout in addition to having shortage of space, a treadmill is preferable, but still should allot a significant space for the machine in advance. If their ceiling is high enough, they can even go for an elliptical.

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Some models of all these machines are foldable, especially treadmills. In that case, they can be folded and stored away after the usage. Thus users have only to think on where to position them during workout.

Exercise Safety

Recumbent Bike: Regarding safety, a recumbent bike is the safest exercise equipment of all three. A user can comfortably sit on it and pedal and there is a least risk of losing balance or tripping or falling off. Most recumbent bike models are designed to be quite stable and sturdy. They are also made with easy-to-access designs like step-thru.

So, it’s safe for all kinds of users, and especially the elderly and injured needing rehab exercise or physical therapy.

Elliptical: In general, an elliptical can be a bit safer than a treadmill because the user’s feet never leave the pedals. This eliminates the risk of misstep that can cause loss of balance and eventually a fall.

Treadmill: Of all the three machines, a treadmill can be said to be the least safe. The user has to maintain a proper balance; otherwise they may fall down and can be thrown off the machine. However, it should be also considered that a treadmill is designed for individuals who are at least a little more advanced and/or physically more fit, and thus can cope up well with such accidents.

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Maintenance

Recumbent Bike: Since the resistance system of most recumbent bikes is belt-driven and come encased in strong boxes, these bikes don’t need lubrication of internal parts for a long time. Thus regular cleanup and checking loose nuts and bolts are the only maintenance tasks required for recumbent bikes.

Elliptical: An elliptical machine doesn’t require periodic maintenance. Users just have to clean the machine after every usage and lubricate parts, nuts and bolts once a year, or if a squeaking sound occurs while pedaling.

Treadmill: Depending upon its type, a treadmill may require regular maintenance. While the maintenance of certain models of treadmills only involves lubrication and possible centering of the machine belt, if a user is looking for a no-maintenance unit, they may consider an elliptical or no-maintenance treadmill.

Ease of Use

Recumbent Bike: Among all the three types of exercise equipment, a recumbent bike is the easiest to use. Users just have to step in, sit on the seat and start pedaling. There is no learning curve as such except they may have to adjust the seat height to their height and learn how to do that and how to fit the seat on their desired position. Some models may come with preset workout programs but they are easy to learn.

Elliptical: Elliptical trainers are also easy to use, since there are very comfortable and wide pedals on most models, and may even be handles to hold onto. Here too, some models may have preset workout programs which users may need to learn.

Treadmill: A treadmill is also quite easy to use. It may come with preset programs. Users may have to adjust inclination which may be automatic or manual. Some treadmill models may come with Bluetooth connectivity and ability to store the fitness data on online apps. Here users may need to be well-versed with their usage or may have to learn.

Price

Recumbent Bike: Recumbent bikes being the most basic exercise equipment among all the three are also the least expensive too. They start from $140 and can go up to $500. However, some high-end recumbent bikes may even cost $2500-3000.

Elliptical: Elliptical trainers start from $500 and can go beyond $3000.

Treadmill: Treadmills start from $500-1000 and can go beyond $2500.

Of course, there are cheaper models of both treadmills and ellipticals, but they come with less features, including lower supported user weight, lower number of exercise programs and similar.

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Weight Loss and Calorie Burn

How much weight a person can lose with any exercise machine depends on many factors including their weight, gender and fitness level, and whether they are taking a healthy diet or not. Thus,

- The heavier the person, the more calories will they burn during workout.

- Individuals with more muscle mass typically burn more calories.

- Also, because men can have more muscle mass and be heavier than women, they can burn more calories from the same exercise.

- The higher the activity of the upper body, the more is the calorie burn.

- Higher resistance, greater heart rate, faster pace and vigorous intervals increase calorie burn.

- Similarly, the longer the duration of the exercise, the more calories are burned.

Recumbent Bike: A recumbent bike can do a significantly good job in terms of calorie burn and weight loss. A recumbent bike can help user lose up to 500 calories per day which means the user can lose up to 3,500 calories in a week. Thus the user can lose 1 pound fat in a week because 1 pound equals to 3,500 calories. However, for such results, the user has to work quite hard along with taking a healthy diet. Slow pedaling for ten minutes at an easy resistance level won’t help user burn enough calories. Such low intensity exercise is right only for a beginner or a person with a medical problem.

In general, a 175-pound person can burn around 570 calories by exercising for 60 minutes at a speed of 12 mph, whereas a 150-pound person can burn up to 264 calories with a moderate workout for 30 minutes. Overweight individuals can lose weight faster with the help of a recumbent bike.

Elliptical: Regarding calorie burn and weight loss with elliptical machines, users should remember certain facts. It’s important to input one’s body weight before starting the workout; otherwise, the machine typically calculates calories for an “average” 150-pound person, by default. Thus, if the user weighs less than 150 pounds, the machine will note an overestimated calorie burn and if user weighs more, their actual number will be underestimated.

It should also be noted that these numbers are just estimates and can vary between elliptical manufacturers. Thus one cannot know the exact number of calories burned unless they measure them in a lab. As per the Harvard Medical School, one burns around 2.16 calories for every pound of body weight on an elliptical during 30 minutes of workout.

Approximately, a 120-pound woman can burn 250-310 calories within 30 minutes and 450-600 calories within 60 minutes, whereas a 150-pound woman can burn 300-400 calories within 30 minutes and 550-800 calories within 60 minutes of elliptical workout. Similarly, a 180-pound man will burn 375 to 500 calories within 30 minutes and 750-950 calories within 60 minutes, whereas a 200-pound man can burn 400-550 calories within 30 minutes and 800 to 1000 calories within 60 minutes of elliptical exercise.

Treadmill: On a treadmill, one can either walk or jog. Jogging at 5 mph on a treadmill for 30 minutes burns about 400 calories for an average person. Doing this 5 times a week can burn 2,000 calories which is a quite good beginning. The heavier the individual, the more calories will be burned. It’s important that whatever one does on a treadmill, they should breathe heavy and start sweating. Increasing the incline and setting a tougher speed are useful for this purpose. Experts suggest various treadmill workout plans to lose weight. Users can take help of these programs.

Muscle Toning

Recumbent Bike: Unlike other exercise bikes in which the user has to use the cycle in an upright posture, a recumbent bike lets the user use it in a comfortable reclined position, with their feet extended forward towards the pedals. This posture takes away pressure from hips, knees and ankles, and doesn’t put any strain on the lower back and postural muscles. Therefore recumbent bikes are believed to be perfect for the overweight, and pregnant ladies and people suffering from lower-back pain.

All types of cycling, including recumbent biking, engage all the main muscles in the legs, including quadriceps and hamstrings in thighs, gluteal muscles in the hips, calves and foot muscles that bend and stretch against the pedals.

Elliptical: The ellipticals are the best for quickly strengthening hip flexors, thighs, glutes, and lower as well as upper body. They typically target quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, anterior tibialis, adductors and abductors. When the user’s leg moves forward, their quadriceps get worked, whereas when it moves backward, their glutes and hamstrings are worked upon, the calves and tibialis contract and work to stabilize lower legs, and core muscles get worked to maintain the body aligned and balanced. Plus, if the user uses the handles on the machine, their biceps, triceps and shoulders are worked upon too.

Treadmill: Treadmills mainly work the cardiovascular system and lower body. Major muscles involved in treadmill workouts are both quadriceps and hamstrings in thighs, glutes and calves. Also muscles in shoulders, back, arms and pectorals are used. However, if a user is serious about working their upper body during a treadmill workout, it’s better to carry hand weights.

Cardiovascular Endurance

Recumbent Bike: Cardio workouts on a recumbent bike are less intense than riding other types of exercise bikes. While riding a recumbent bike, oxygen consumption, heart rate and perceived exertion are all low.

Elliptical: Ellipticals are great to enhance cardiovascular endurance. They activate major muscle groups thereby increasing calorie burn, but are limited when it comes to strength training. Regarding cardio exercise, the ellipticals increase one’s heart rate, activates most areas of the body and leaves the user breathing heavily at the end of the workout. All in all, ellipticals can provide good cardio workout.

Treadmill: Treadmill running can increase cardiovascular endurance but not as effectively as ground running. If a user aims at increasing endurance, they should train intensely.

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Rehab

Recumbent Bike: A recumbent bike is supposed to be the best tool for rehab training. It puts the least strain on any body part of the user, yet provides right amount of muscle activation and exercise when one is injured or physically disabled.

Elliptical: When it comes to rehab training, ellipticals are good for athletes suffering from various injuries. They help them maintain their cardio health, work their muscles and keep them motivated sans the risk of further injury. Ellipticals can offer a low impact exercise option. Moreover, the smooth action of the elliptical simulates running which ensures one is still working on the same muscle groups.

Treadmill: Rehab training can be obtained with a treadmill. In fact, for injured runners and others, a treadmill is a useful tool to minimize downtime and get back soon to action. One of the key factors the treadmill rehab training offers is specificity of training. This means that all activities such as those for building strength, endurance, flexibility and proprioception are specific to the actions and forces generated while running.

To make rehab training possible with treadmills, following unconventional types of treadmills are now available:

- Treadmills with suspended decks that reduce impact of running

- NASA designed and patented Anti-Gravity Treadmill which “un-weights” the user from 20% to 100% of their body weight to make exercise pain-free for patients with joint replacements, ankle sprains, sports injuries, Achilles injuries, arthritis and many other ailments

- Underwater treadmills where the buoyancy of water reduces stress on joints, its viscosity provides resistance needed for strength training and hydrostatic pressure helps support body, offering a safe exercise environment.


Bottom Line

elliptical mConsidering all the factors that a user may be concerned with, a recumbent bike seems to the be the best from many points of view such as impact level, safety, footprint, price, exercise options, ease of use, maintenance, and weight loss, muscle toning and rehab training.

However, if a user intends to have vigorous training and muscle toning, strength training and weight loss etc. they have to work very, very hard on a recumbent bike, and sometimes even may not accomplish what they want.

On the other hand, if a user doesn’t have a problem of space and/or price, they can opt for an elliptical or treadmill which are better tools for strength training, muscle toning, and calorie burn and weight loss. While a treadmill presents a limited exercise options, an elliptical is quite versatile and is capable of offering full-body workout.

If space and budget allow, getting a good recumbent bike combined with an elliptical, is an excellent choice for having thorough, low-impact cardio workouts at privacy of Your home.