Stair Stepper Vs Elliptical Machine: Which is Better?

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Elliptical PedalsA common question that people looking to lose weight, increase stamina, tone some muscles or just get fitter overall by working out in a gym or at home ask is which fitness equipment is most effective to use for that. However, some people prefer to eliminate the treadmill because they may have joint problems and want to minimize the impact that running has on them. If you’re in that bracket, you may already be asking about a choice between the stair stepper vs elliptical machine.

If you’re looking for a good form of aerobic exercise, you can’t go wrong with walking, running, climbing stairs or a combination of all three. All these activities can get your heart rate up so that you get a good cardiovascular workout to burn calories. However, the speed at which you walk, jog or climb and the distance that you cover have a lot to do with how many calories you can burn per workout. If you can’t walk and jog outdoors everyday or don’t have access to regular stairs, you can still do these indoors if you have access to either an elliptical or a stair stepper.



Running, Walking and Climbing Stairs for Weight Loss

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to lose weight is to do it by making a lifestyle change with steady and gradual weight loss rather than intensive short term training. Lifestyle changes ensure long term healthy weight maintenance. In addition to getting a good amount of regular moderate exercise, you also have to adopt healthy eating habits. The goal is to take in fewer calories than the amount you burn.

Walking is an easy lifestyle habit to adopt. It is also a good beginner’s exercise because it is safe on the joints and easy to do even for the most out of shape person. Anyone can start with just a few minutes a day on level terrain and at a moderate pace just to get used to exercising and getting fitness levels up before undertaking harder exercise like jogging. However, if you’re not a beginner and weight loss is your main reason for exercising, then walking/jogging up an incline or going faster and longer should be the ultimate goal so that you burn enough calories to offset the amount you take in. If you have weak knees, hips, or ankles then you should not be jogging at all. Even the small bones in the foot are impacted by running.

If running is out of the question, then a better option for calorie burning is climbing a hill or walking up stairs, as you’re working against gravity for an even greater cardiovascular workout. According to Harvard Health, you can count on burning two to three times more energy climbing stairs than walking for the same amount of time just because it’s a more taxing activity. Take note that climbing is not completely no-impact, as there is some strain on the knees if you climb regularly for a long time. That’s why it is better to start with short periods to strengthen the knees and gradually work your way to longer workouts.

Combining walking and climbing is a good way for you to add variety to your workout. You mix in more strenuous activity with slowing down to catch your breath. Climb stairs for a few minutes and then walk on the level to bring down your heart rate a bit before taking it back up again by climbing. This is a form of interval training, which means you mix bouts of low intensity training with bouts of high intensity training. There are machines that come with inbuilt programs designed to help you do interval training indoors, like interval training treadmills and incline trainers, but they tend to be expensive.

Running, Walking and Stair Climbing Indoors

EllipticalWhile you can use a treadmill for indoor walking, most models are built for running and can’t handle long but slower running of the belt. While you can buy a decent manual treadmill for walking, you can likely get better overall results with an elliptical, as you have the ability to work your arms as well and control resistance offered. An elliptical machine, also called a cross trainer, is great for beginners as well as fitness enthusiasts and can stay your primary fitness equipment for the long term. You can go pretty fast on it too, so you can get similar benefits to running but without the high impact. If this is something that you’re looking for, then read our elliptical machine buyer’s guide to see which kind would best suit your needs.

If you don’t have access to stairs or just prefer to watch TV while climbing, a stair stepper is what you want. A stair stepper can be basic, where all the effort and variability comes from you as the user and it’s up to you to step higher or faster to gain more from the workout. You may want a higher end model, however, where you can select a resistance level to mimic climbing steeper stairs or hills, or the speed.


Elliptical Basics

There are two main moving parts to an elliptical – the pedals or foot plates and the handlebars. The pedals are for you to stand on while moving them forwards and backwards but in an elliptical motion. This motion mimics walking and running very closely as you lift one foot and bring it down in front of you to support your weight, while the other pushes backwards to propel your body forwards.

Doing it naturally on the ground involves keeping only one foot on the ground at a time but when exercising on an elliptical, both feet are always in contact with the pedals. This is what makes it low-impact.

In addition to going faster to burn more calories, some elliptical machines allow you to adjust the incline as well to mimic walking up an incline. Depending on the incline, you’ll tone different muscles more.

Most ellipticals also feature moving handlebars in front of you. If you engage them while you move your legs, then you can also work some upper body muscles and burn even more calories.


Stair Stepper Basics

There are some differences in the types of stair steppers available on the market. Traditional stair steppers have two pedals or platforms that you place your feet on and you push down on one while the other lifts your other foot up. Either the entire foot or just the ball of the foot is always in contact with the pedal. There is a pair of stationary handlebars in front of you to loosely rest your hands on if you need help with keeping your balance. Some steppers are called vertical climbers and have a large maximum step height so that you can get close to mimicking steep hill climbing or ladder climbing. These models usually do have moving handlebars that go up and down and can give you a decent arm workout.

Some steppers come with speed adjustment via a control panel, but many leave stepping speed up to you and you can speed up or slow down like you would when climbing a real staircase.

Stair MillA stair climber or stair mill is like a mini escalator with a set of moving stairs that move downwards while you mimic walking up stairs. Side handrails are present but only for help with balance and not to aid you with exercising. The difference here is that while one foot pushes down to climb, the other foot leaves one step behind and is placed on the next step coming towards you. It’s the closest action to real staircase climbing and each step height is fixed at around 8 inches or so. If you want to speed up or slow down you have to select the speed using controls on the panel in front of you. The other difference here is that you can also climb sideways or backwards, thereby working different muscles for each way.

Both, the stair stepper and stair mill can be adjusted for resistance and speed. The latter is what has become more popular in most modern commercial gyms but there are usually one or two traditional stair steppers present too. For the home, a stair stepper is usually the more popular choice of the two because it takes up less space and costs less.

The third stair stepper is a mini stepper. This is only good for those who want to get some activity in while working at a desk, watching TV or rehabilitate their muscles after surgery or a prolonged illness. While you can stand and step on these, their main purpose is for moving your legs while sitting down. For the sake of this article, we’ll ignore this type of stepper and focus more on a traditional stair stepper and vertical climber since we’re helping you choose fitness equipment for the home.


What Muscles Does a Stepper Exercise Machine Work?

Cardio Stepper MachineStair steppers primarily work all the major muscles in the lower body. The first muscles that you’ll feel the burn in are the quadriceps. Those are the front thigh muscles. As you go longer you’ll feel the burn in your hamstrings as well. The stepper can also target all your gluteal or butt muscles, as these muscles along with the hip flexors work to stabilize your body through your hips in addition to helping extend your legs. Your calves only get a good workout if you step with just your toes and ball of your foot instead of the entire foot, which is what you should use for the quads, hamstrings and glutes.

While stepping on this machine will not tone your upper body muscles, you will burn fat overall through the cardio exercise. So you indirectly also burn belly fat even if those muscles don’t firm up.

The other benefits you get by using a stair stepper is that you get your cardio workout with relatively low impact on your joints. While there is some strain on the knees because you bend them more, this is not jarring and any discomfort usually disappears once you put in some regular use and get used to the exercise. Those who need to strengthen their bones will also benefit because stair stepping is a weight-bearing exercise as long as you maintain proper form, which we’ll get to later in this article.


What Part of the Body Does An Elliptical Work Out?

An elliptical will workout all those lower body muscles but will also add some upper body benefits too because you also move your arms. These include the biceps and triceps, the trapezius muscles in your back which stabilize and move your shoulder blades, your chest pecs, and your core muscles, which keep you balanced while moving both your arms and legs.

The benefits of elliptical machine exercise can also include more targeting of certain muscles by adding incline and even reversing direction of your pedaling. By moving forwards you target your hamstrings more, while pedaling backwards targets your quads more. Of course, these added benefits depend on you using a more advanced elliptical like the kind usually found in club gyms. These are generally quite expensive so you have to take that into consideration when comparing equipment.


Which Burns More Calories and Which is Better for Cardiovascular Exercise?

According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Each interval should be no less than 10 minutes for it to count.

On average, an elliptical workout will burn more calories than a stair stepper workout unless you’re using a vertical climber, in which case it will be about the same. When it comes to cardiovascular exercise, a stair stepper gives you a bit more for the same effort. That is evident in how fast you start panting when you’re on the stepper. However, neither of these stats hold up if you cheat and you don’t use proper form, which we’ll explain later.


Advantages of the Elliptical

There’s a lower perceived rate of exertion on an elliptical because you don’t get winded too fast and there is almost no joint impact. This can encourage you to workout more and for a longer period of time. Very overweight people also like it for this reason.

If you use a high enough resistance and maybe even set it at an incline, you can burn a lot of calories.

Since it is a weight-bearing exercise, you have the ability to strengthen your lower body bones as well as your muscles.

You can get a decent upper body workout with an elliptical. You can also vary your stride length and take shorter but faster strides for more endurance training, and longer and more deliberate strides for strength training. You can also target different muscles by going backwards and forwards.

The variety that you can get helps keep you motivated.


Advantages of the Stair Stepper

You’ll get an excellent cardiovascular workout on a stair stepper as your heart has to pump more blood as you work against gravity.

Your butt will get trim in no time with a stepper, particularly if you take deep steps like on a vertical climber.

You don’t need much coordination to use a traditional stepper, as there is no arm movement, therefore it is great for beginners.

It takes up very little floor space and can even be moved to a corner once you’re done exercising. It is also not expensive.


Disadvantages of the Elliptical

It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re working out very hard on the elliptical if you don’t add enough resistance or use an incline setting instead of only going flat. This lower perceived rate of exertion is likely because of its very low impact form of exercise and because it’s easy to fall into a rhythm without noticing. However, if you do add that extra level of intensity, you can burn a lot of calories by doing your aerobic exercise solely on the elliptical.

Some beginners dislike the movement initially because the need to coordinate your legs and arms makes it feel unnatural and uncoordinated. That’s why beginners should not work their arms and instead just rest their hands on a stationary spot until you’re comfortable with just the leg movement.

It is quite bulky and takes up quite a bit of floor space unless you choose a center drive elliptical. A model that offers inbuilt programs and incline settings can be quite expensive.


Disadvantages of the Stair Stepper

While you can get a very good lower body workout and lose weight, your upper body muscles don’t get the same toning benefit, so you do have to supplement it with another type of exercise if you want to strengthen your upper body. However, a vertical climber that has moving handlebars is better in this regard than a traditional stair stepper with stationary handlebars.

You also don’t work your core muscles much because balancing is quite easy while moving as long as the machine is stable. It’s also quite easy to lose focus and intensity without even realizing it by leaning forward or resting your weight on the handlebars in front. You may think you’re working hard even if you’re not. That’s why maintaining good form is important and we explain that in the next section.

While stair stepping is kinder to the knees than cycling, it is still not completely low impact so very overweight people are better off not starting with a stepper.


Correct Form

Whichever equipment you choose, form matters a lot if you want to see good results and get the most out of the time you spend on the machine. You also avoid injury when you use an elliptical or stair stepper correctly.

The main thing to keep in mind for both machines is that your body should be upright at all times while facing forwards. Don’t slouch over the handlebars or lean forward, as this transfers your weight onto the machine instead of you supporting yourself. This is especially true when using a stair stepper. The handlebars should only be held loosely and used for maintaining your balance. If it’s a vertical climber or elliptical where the handlebars also move, your arms should do the work without you pulling or pushing with your body weight. Leaning forward often happens if you’re moving too fast, so slow down a bit and see if that helps you keep upright.

Do not rock from side to side while on the stair stepper because that means you’re cheating yourself by allowing your body weight to push down on the pedals rather than making your muscles do the hard work. If you’re not moving up and down smoothly then try taking smaller steps.

On an elliptical, your legs should fully extend with each stride without over-extending, so if you’re on the shorter stride, you should choose a machine that offers an average to short stride. If you’re quite tall, then the stride should tend towards a longer one.

If you want to work your buttock and thigh muscles more on either machine, step evenly with your entire foot on the stepper or put more weight on your heel on the elliptical. Otherwise, if you want to work your calf muscles a bit more, put more weight on the balls of your feet.


Which Should You Choose?

After comparing the elliptical vs. stair stepper, it should now be clearer as to which piece of equipment is better suited to your needs.

If you have the budget and the space and your main goal is to lose weight and tone as many muscles as possible, then choose an elliptical. It is great for those looking for gentle exercise that returns good overall results.

If you’re on a tight budget, live in a small apartment or have a small gym room, or want to increase endurance and cardiovascular performance, then choose a stair stepper.


How to Properly Use Your Stair Stepper


How to Properly Use Your Elliptical


Featured image: Elliptical Pedals by Oregon State University
Stair Stepper by A Healthier Michigan
Both licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0
Stair Mill by Benjamín Núñez González | CC BY-SA 4.0

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