I hear this question all the time from people who are trying to get into the whole fitness world. Which is better for losing weight, which is more fun (yes running can be fun on some treadmills), which is best for toning up? What about cost?
The treadmill vs. bike debate has been going on for as long as I can remember
Today, I'm here to clear things up for those who might still feel torn between these two fat burning cardio equipment options.
Why a Treadmill?
Everyone and their mother have heard about the treadmill and how great an exercise equipment it is for getting fit and doing cardio. It is one of the best cardio machines for weight loss to ever be created.
It helps build bone density in the lower body and improve the muscle tone of that region.
The treadmill has stood unrivaled for as long as it came around. By using a treadmill, the average person can burn anywhere between 50 and 250 calories an hour more than you would by using an elliptical machine or a stationary exercise bike.
And why is that?
One of the secret behind the treadmill's efficiency when it comes to burning calories is the fact that it creates more impact on your joints and bones than such exercise machines like an elliptical machine or a stationary bike would. This slows your momentum down and requires more effort. This is running in general though.
Furthermore, on the contrary though, many high-end professional treadmill brands design treadmills with cushioned deck surfaces that absorb some of the pounding and impact, which makes them a more comfortable option and actually safer option over running outside.
Besides there are specifically designed treadmill running shoes for women and guys alike. Get yourself a pair and this adds even more comfort to your treadmill running workouts.
A lot of treadmills also feature settings that allow you to personalize your own workouts and tailor them to your needs. Most of the models you'll come across will feature speed and incline settings and can even be programmed for speed, mileage, and calorie-burning and fitness goals.
The most expensive treadmills, that ones that come with screens and big displays built in, also feature live interactive training programs and sport features that allow you to workout with live trainers and in live classes with other people right next to you (on the screen).
Zwift treadmills in specific are the ones that I prefer, these treadmills allow you to virtually compete with others in races, events, go running for fun with new people you meet within the app and allow you to see and run in cities all around the world, making for a better workout experience.
Benefits of Using a Treadmill
(Other than what I just mentioned Above)
- A treadmill is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to speed up your calorie burn process. Once you get used to the exercise machine and start to get into more advanced and intense cardio workouts, you'll be able to burn calories like there's no tomorrow, shake that belly fat and tone your core muscles.
Since most incline treadmills come with both incline and decline settings, you can simulate outdoor conditions and get workouts with similar intensity. You also get to choose your own pace and how intense the workout is depending on your fitness level.
By giving you real-time data on your stats such as calories burned, heart rate, and pace, you'll be able to track your performance as well as your progress.
Most treadmills feature some form of cushioning on the moving belt, which is meant to reduce injury risk and make it much more comfortable than running outside by making it easier on the joints.
Drawbacks of Using a Treadmill
- If you have knee pain, a muscle or joint pain, or you're recovering from an injury, I advise against using a treadmill. Even though treadmill belts are cushioned, they won't negate the pounding and impact that your joints will be subjected to.
While the treadmill's aim is to provide an efficient and comfortable way of working out, it can be quite boring since you won't have any scenery to admire. There's also something about the fresh outdoor air that gets me in the mood, unlike when I'm using a treadmill.
If you don't live in a spacious place, then you might find it difficult to manage and maintain a treadmill since it takes up a lot of space. Thankfully, foldable treadmills are a thing, and they do alleviate this problem a bit.
Why a Stationary Bike?
Stationary bikes have been around for quite a while. However, they've been gaining more and more traction as of late. As technology evolved and started becoming part of most fitness equipment, spin bikes became more and more sophisticated. This made the spin bike a very attractive workout machine for many people.
Nowadays companies are even making higher end spin bikes that work with Zwift gaming app which has taken the fitness world by storm.
What makes these bikes special?
What separates a stationary bike from other "weight-bearing" exercises (like in the case of bike vs treadmill) is that spin bikes offer low impact exercise, meaning upright bikes don't put much stress or tension on the feet, hips, ankles, or knees. In fact, recumbent exercise bikes can aid in knee rehabilitation because it allows you to work your knees without putting any undue stress on them.
Stationary bikes also have built-in resistance features that let you customize your own workout intensity to match your fitness goals. You can simulate hills, rolling terrain as well as flat ground.
Outdoor models like hyper bikes are good if you want to experience the beauty of outdoors, but stationary bikes take the dangers of the road and inconveniences of the weather out of your riding sessions. Most models out there also have features that allow you to program it for a given goal or workout.
You'll mostly find stationary bikes with an upright or recumbent design. They are usually aimed at everyone, no matter their body design and level of performance.
Advantages of Using a Stationary Bike
- Stationary bikes are one of the most efficient ways to burn more calories, and lose weight without putting undue stress on your lower or upper body.
- Thanks to their non weight bearing exercise, stationary bikes don't put as much pressure on the joint as other weight-bearing and body weight exercises. You'll be able to have longer workout sessions.
- Stationary bikes are one of the most accessible home gym equipment out there. No matter who you are and what your body type and performance is, you'll be able to get a great workout out of the stationary bike.
- Stationary bikes are also great for people who suffer posture problems or back pain as they can be easily adjusted. Most exercise bikes are also great for people who are tall and for those that are short as well because they can be adjusted to fit a wide range of heights.
- Modern stationary bikes feature LCD screens that showcase many useful stats such as heart-rate, RPM, distance traveled, and calories burned. These stats can help you track your performance as well as your progress over time.
Drawbacks of Using a Stationary Bike
Stationary bikes don't involve the entirety of the lower body region. They mostly focus on quad building. This means that you won't be able to improve muscle growth for your hamstrings or glutes, for example. Although they are worked, these are not primary muscles that are worked by an exercise bike.
If the bike height is not correctly adjusted, it can detract from the exercise's efficiency and will instead place more pressure on your hips and knees, which can be dangerous.
Which is Better for Weight Loss?
If your aim is to lose weight and you're not sure whether the stationary bike is better than the treadmill or vice versa, use a treadmill. Since the treadmill offers more of a full body workout, it will result in more calories burned during the same amount of time.
While indoor cycling is a great exercise for burning calories and losing weight, walking and running are objectively more efficient, and more so for athletes who want to build on their stamina and endurance, running on a treadmill will get you there. But overall, a treadmill or exercise bike are great total body workout workout machines for hitting several muscle groups.
Bikes Focus on Legs
As I mentioned before, the main focus of the stationary bike is building quads. It does also focus on other lower body muscles such as the calf muscles and hamstrings, but they won't be getting the most amount of growth. If you have smaller calves and think that an exercise bike is going to pack on size to them you might find yourself disappointed.
Most modern stationary bikes feature some workout programs that aim to simulate interval training, speed work as well as hill climbing. They also track time, calories burned, and distance. Since cycling doesn't involve much impact, your muscles and joints won't be under a ton of stress.
Treadmills Engage You Entire Body
Treadmills are among the most common cardio machines in most home gym setups, and for a good reason. Even if you have a low-ceiling basement gym, you can get yourself a low profile treadmill, but that's not what makes this machine the go-to for many - after all, there are similarly cool space saver exercise bikes out there. It's the perfect combination of simplicity and efficiency.
What's even better is that besides the incline function, newer treadmills come with built-in walking and running programs, which simulate any workout as long as it involves running or walking.
Most higher end treadmills also come with a screen that show you important stats such as distance walked, how many calories you've burned, as well as other stats depending on the model.
Unlike stationary bikes, treadmills involve all of the body muscles and are better when it comes to burning calories. It also helps maintain bone mass and prevent osteoporosis. With that said, if you use high speeds and inclines, you run a bigger risk of injury as your ankles and joints will be under more strain.
So, Which Is Better for Weight Loss?
The treadmill is better for burning fat and losing weight, and if you are looking to take matters a notch higher, this form of cardio can also help you build muscles if you run for long enough on your treadmill. If you're looking for the best way to lose weight and you're stuck between the treadmill and the stationary bike, go with the treadmill. It's better when it comes to burning calories and losing weight.
Which Is Better for Toning Muscles and Building Strength?
Wait, Don't the Treadmill and Stationary Bike Work the Same Muscles?
While both cycling and running involve the legs and both raise your heart rate, there are subtle differences in how they activate the muscles in your body.
Cycling Targets Thighs Front and Center
When you're cycling, you're mainly working the muscles of your front thighs. These include the Sartorius, tensor fasciae, and the quadriceps. It's also worth noting that the tibialis anterior in the front of the shin is also being engaged whenever you stroke the pedal.
Treadmill Walking and Running
Cycling is better when it comes to working the quadriceps. While walking or running on the treadmill, you're using the same muscles, with the soleus muscle (smaller muscle of the calf) being more active during walking.
The hamstrings are also more involved when using a treadmill when compared to using a stationary bike. This is not to say that running on a treadmill does not work your legs, because obviously running does, and in fact running alone can make your butt bigger, not to mention the legs - provided you do it right, but when comparing these two machines closely, the exercise bike works the front part of your legs slightly more.
Running on a flat treadmill involves the semimembranosus of the hamstrings, the gracilis, and the adductors of the inner thigh as well as the bicep femoris of the quadriceps. Uphill running engages these muscles further and involves the glutes and the gastrocnemius of the calf.
If you change the grade on a stationary cycle from level grade to 8 percent, there won't be much of a change in muscle activation. Your biceps femoris and gastrocnemius both work at the same intensity in both cases. If you want to involve the hip and knee extensors more when you're cycling, change the pedaling position from seated to standing at an 8 percent grade.
So, Which Is Better for Building Muscle and Strength?
Naturally, the ideal solution would be doing both running and cycling if you can include them in your workout routine. The two exercises, while similar in which muscles they activate are different in how they activate your lower muscles.
With that said, we don't live in a perfect world, and the ideal scenario is rarely attainable. If your goal is to put on muscle mass and strength, use the stationary bike. It allows you to add a lot of resistance, which is the key element of building strength and muscle. You are not going to have some crazy muscle growth like these stories here from doing an at home exercise bike workout but you will see some nice results if you are training correctly.
If you still want to use the treadmill and build muscle that way, your best bet is to perform sprint training. It will help you stimulate the secretion of muscle-building hormones, which will end up helping you attain a chiseled physique as you'd see on a sprinter.
However, running alone is not enough as it will only boost your muscle growth but won't build muscle. This is why most sprinters always include a wide range of weight lifting exercises to build their muscles.
Which Is Better for Low Impact, High-Intensity Workout?
Even though most treadmills come with some form of cushioning on the belt to lower impact, they are still far from negating it. This means that the treadmill puts you at a higher risk of injury or discomfort if you choose to go for high-intensity workouts.
Stationary bikes have been growing in popularity, which due in part to the ever-rising trend of spin classes.
Here's what science says in the matter
Research (1) in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that doing interval training on a bike burns fat 36% faster and improves one's cardiovascular fitness by 13% in comparison to just staying at the same pace. Spin classes are not only great for burning calories faster. They also sculpt your leg muscles and help you build strength and endurance.
Something to keep in mind if you're the type of person who likes to go fast is not to pedal too fast. An Oxford University UK study (2) found that if you pedal at 110 RPM, only 40% of your effort will go into driving the bike forward while the rest will be spent on spinning your legs faster.
Stationary bikes also involve less impact than any treadmill out there. They're much easier on your knees, joints, spine, and ankles.
Which Is Better for Runners?
The treadmill is the obvious winner in this situation. It's the closest you can get to actual running. Furthermore, most modern treadmills include features that are meant to simulate outdoor running.
You can mess around with speed and incline while getting real-time stats on your performance and vitals. This allows you to track your progress and work on your weaknesses.
There's also the fact that treadmills combine the best of both worlds, which are running outdoors and the comfort of one's own home. What's even better is that treadmills have cushioned belts that reduce impact.
Which Is the Cheaper Option?
Treadmills tend to be the pricier option between the two.
For instance, the same money that would get you a lower end self propelled treadmill could get you a decent beginner exercise bike. If you're solely limited by the budget, then you might want to invest in a stationary bike instead.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule, for example the Peloton bike, other alternatives, and cross trainers like the Teeter Freestep, but these are on the high end of the spectrum and are unique style of exercise bikes.
Verdict: Which Is Better?
While there is no objectively better option, each one is better in certain aspects. Both work roughly the same muscles but engage them in different ways.
If you're fit and strong, the treadmill might be the better option for you. Running can boost your muscle growth hormones and will help you get more out of your other workouts.
If you're struggling with weight issues, then you might want to start with a stationary bike instead. You'll be able to burn calories pretty quickly without putting much stress on your joints.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is that stationary bikes are also safer than treadmills. While all treadmills come with safety features to prevent you from falling, and even some senior treadmills will even come with rails, the risk is still there.
The fact of the matter is that you're much more likely to fall from exhaustion when you're on a treadmill or even just make 1 little mistake and you could be wishing you got yourself an exercise bike instead.
Additionally, treadmills usually require more space. Even though there are foldable models, space still remains an issue.
All in all, both machines are an excellent means of working out and burning calories. However, stationary bikes are a more accessible option.
If you are curios to see which brand of home exercise bike is best then give our Peloton vs Nordictrack vs Echelon post a read.
Hint, just cuz something is expensive doesn't always mean it's better.
Hi there! I'm Ben, main author and chief editor at Fitlifefanatics.com. I have been obsessed with Strength Training and Fitness for 16 years now.
My passion for living a happy fit lifestyle is what made me realize that fitness is what I wanted for my future.
I went on to earn my Masters in Sports Training & Biomechanics.
My passion for Strength training & fitness and my love of helping others is what made me start Fitlifefanatics.
Here, myself, and a team of specialist aim to provide the most accurate, and actionable information possible in hopes to help foster the fitness community forward.
You can learn more about Fitlifefanatics on our About Page