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Treadmill Vs. Stair Steppers

author image Andrea Johnson
Andrea Johnson is a certified personal trainer and lifestyle and weight management consultant through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). She has a B.A. in biology from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., and also a J.D. from the University of Minnesota. She began writing for various online publications after four years working as a personal trainer and wellness coach.
Treadmill Vs. Stair Steppers
Should you abandon the treadmill for the stair stepper? Photo Credit IT Stock/Polka Dot/Getty Images

Two long-term cardio staples at the gym, the treadmill and the stair stepper persist as favorites for good reason. They both elevate your heart rate, burn calories and improve cardiovascular endurance. Examining the similarities and differences between them, as well as the benefits and disadvantages of each, can help you decide which one to incorporate into your workout routine.

Basic Machine Anatomy

The treadmill allows a person to walk or run in place on a moving belt that, theoretically, mimics natural walking or running on the ground. Most have an incline feature that allows the user to create the effect of walking or running uphill and a speed function to manage pace.

On a typical stair stepper, the user stands on two platforms supported by a given level of resistance and alternates lifting her feet, as if walking up a set of stairs, to keep up with the machine. Some stair steppers,called step mills, have a belt that folds out into a small flight of stairs as they circulate through the machines to create a genuine stair-stepping effect.

Muscle Activation

Both the treadmill and stair stepper work the major muscle groups of the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals. The stair stepper generally places greater resistance on the quadriceps and gluteals than the treadmill. This can result in stronger and more toned glutes and thighs, but may also cause these muscles to increase in size.

Calorie Burn

Calories burned on these machines depends on your size, intensity level, and skill. On average, however, a 130-pound woman burns 207 calories working for 30 minutes on the stair stepper. The same woman would burn 250 calories in 30 minutes of running at 5 mph, or about 300 calories in 30 minutes at 6 mph. The treadmill seems to edge the stair stepper out just slightly in terms of calories burned.

Treadmill Benefits

The treadmill allows a high degree of variability in your workout. You can adjust speed, switch from walking to running, and adjust incline, which allows many types of workouts and accommodates a broad range of fitness levels.

The stair stepper offers less variability in speed and resistance. Beginning exercisers often cannot spend much time on the stair stepper before exhaustion sets in. The treadmill makes it harder to "cheat" the exercise, too. Stair steppers have hand rails, and exercisers tend to lean on them or support much of their body weight with their arms.

Stair Stepper Benefits

The stair stepper is better than the treadmill if your goal is to build muscle in your legs and glutes. This strengthening effect also makes the stair stepper a very useful cross-training tool, even for loyal treadmill users.

The stair stepper is also a lower-impact alternative to running, which can make it useful for those dealing with leg injuries. If you have knee problems, however, the stair stepper should be used with caution. Allowing the knee to press forward over the toes as you step or inadequately activating your glutes can place additional stress on the knees.

Concerns Before Hitting the Gym

If you've been sedentary or taken a long lapse from exercise, consult your physician before beginning any weight loss, diet or exercise program, and stop doing an activity if you experience pain. Exercise is most effective when it is part of a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition. Make sure to also take time to stretch at the end of your workouts to prevent overuse injuries.

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