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Elliptical vs. stationary bike: Which is a better workout?

Learn whether you should choose the elliptical or stationary bike

Man on stationary bike.
Tima Miroshnichenko / Pexels

Have you ever found yourself surveying your options for cardio equipment at the gym, wondering what will give you the best workout? Or, perhaps, you’re interested in buying exercise equipment so you can do workouts on your schedule in the comfort, privacy, and convenience of your own home. Either way, it’s helpful to compare your options for fitness equipment so you can know what you’re getting into for your indoor cycling workouts.

Elliptical machines and exercise bikes are among the most popular options for cardio at a gym or for home fitness equipment. While both ellipticals and exercise bikes can improve your cardiovascular health and fitness, there are also differences in the workouts and pros and cons to using or purchasing an elliptical vs. an exercise bike.

To help elucidate these differences and to arm you with the information you need to inform your fitness decisions, we’ve put the elliptical and exercise bikes head-to-head below to compare and contrast their assets. Keep reading to see which piece of exercise equipment reigns supreme in the elliptical vs. stationary bike match.

Man riding stationary bike.
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Is an elliptical better exercise than a stationary bike?

It’s not easy to compare the difficulty of a workout on an elliptical versus an exercise bike because it ultimately comes down to how hard you’re pushing yourself, the type of workout you’re using, the resistance, and even the exercise machine itself.

For example, when considering exercise bikes, a workout where you’re just pedaling at a moderate cadence at a low resistance on a stationary bike is going to be much less challenging than a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout on an indoor cycle or spin bike, where you’re coming out of the saddle and standing on the pedals for some intervals, and have your cadence and resistance dialed way up.

Similarly, you can do an easy workout on an elliptical machine by keeping the resistance low and moving at a walking cadence. On the other hand, using the incline, bumping up the resistance, and really getting your upper body involved can make for a vigorous workout.

In general, an exercise bike workout may be slightly easier than an elliptical workout since it uses fewer muscles and you’re in a weight-supported position on a bike seat. That said, give it your all in a spin class, and you’ll have your heart rate skyrocketing and your legs burning.

Man using elliptical.
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Elliptical vs. exercise bike: muscles worked

In general, an elliptical provides a total-body workout, whereas an exercise bike is mostly just a lower-body workout. An elliptical machine works all the muscles in the lower body, as well as the core and arms, provided the machine has movable handrails. Increasing the incline of the ramp on the elliptical machine targets the calves, glutes, and hamstrings more.

Stationary bikes predominantly work the quads, hamstrings, calves, and even glutes (to a lesser extent). Spin bikes also strengthen the shoulders, core, and back to some degree, and standing on a spin bike turns it into a total-body exercise.

Older man on stationary bike.
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Elliptical vs. exercise bike: calories burned

The number of calories you burn depends not only on whether you’re using an elliptical or stationary bike (or performing any other form of exercise, for that matter) but also on your weight and body composition and the duration and intensity of your workout. Therefore, it’s difficult to compare the calories burned on an elliptical versus an exercise bike.

However, Harvard Health Publishing reports that 30 minutes of “general elliptical use” burns 270 calories for a 125-pound person, 324 calories for a 155-pound person, and 378 calories for a 185-pound person, while moderate-intensity stationary biking burns about 210 calories for a 125-pound person, 252 calories for a 155-pound person, and 292 calories for a 185-pound person. This means that elliptical trainers may burn slightly more calories than stationary bikes.

However, it’s difficult to know what “general use” means in terms of intensity. Additionally, a 30-minute vigorous stationary bike workout burns approximately 315 calories for a 125-pound person, 378 calories for a 155-pound person, and 441 calories for a 185-pound person, which is more than the elliptical machine.

The best way to estimate your energy expenditure on either exercise machine is to use a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker and then use the formula for Metabolic Equivalents (METs).

Man and woman on stationary bikes.
Julia Larson / Pexels

Can you lose belly fat by riding a stationary bike?

Ellipticals and exercise bikes can both be used to reduce body fat and lose weight. The more calories you burn, the greater the caloric deficit you’ll generate, which then translates to weight loss, so burning calories on either piece of fitness equipment can get you closer to your body composition goals.

When considering the elliptical versus an exercise bike for weight loss, the winner mostly comes down to which workout you will do longer or more vigorously to burn more calories. For example, if you can push your body through hard or long indoor cycle workouts but only do moderate-intensity exercise or short stints on an elliptical, an exercise bike may result in more weight loss over time.

However, research shows that HIIT workouts are the most effective way to burn belly fat and encourage weight loss because they increase your metabolic rate even after your workout is over, so a HIIT workout on an elliptical or exercise bike will be better for fat-burning than a steady-state effort.

Additionally, increasing your lean body mass is also an effective way to lose body fat because muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue. So crank up the resistance on an exercise bike or the incline on an elliptical machine to help build muscle.

Man on elliptical.
Pixabay/Pexels

Which is better for knees, an elliptical or a stationary bike?

One of the shared benefits of elliptical machines and exercise bikes is that both are low-impact forms of cardio exercise. Compared to a high-impact activity like running on a treadmill, striding on an elliptical machine, or pedaling a stationary bike is gentler on your knees, hips, ankles, bones, and connective tissues. If you deal with chronic joint pain or arthritis, an elliptical machine or an exercise bike may be more comfortable than running or even walking.

That said, the stress on the body from each fitness machine is somewhat different. Stationary bikes are a weight-supported form of exercise because you’re sitting on the seat. In this way, you are non-weight bearing. This can be ideal for those with bone injuries or mobility issues and more severe knee pain. If you have balance issues, a recumbent bike can provide the back support and stability you need to feel safe and secure.

It can be difficult to get on and off elliptical machines, and some are quite high off the ground (step-up height). They also require more coordination and balance, so seniors or those with mobility impairments may feel safer on an exercise bike.

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Elliptical vs. exercise bike: adjustability

Elliptical machines may have different adjustment capabilities. Higher-end machines typically have an incline ramp and various resistance levels to make the workout harder. The user can also stride faster to increase the difficulty. However, most elliptical machines offer little to no size or height adjustments. There’s often one set of stride length and handle height, so if you’re quite tall or quite short, the machine may not fit you well.

Exercise bikes have seat height adjustments, handlebar height adjustments, and resistance adjustments. Some indoor cycles also offer additional adjustments like fore/aft adjustments of the seat and handlebars and a greater number of resistance levels. The rider can also increase the difficulty of an exercise bike by pedaling at a faster cadence (rpm).

Man and woman on stationary bikes.
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Elliptical vs. exercise bike: cost

This one has a clear winner. When it comes to cost, exercise bikes are almost always less expensive than elliptical machines, especially when trying to match the quality between the two. In other words, your dollar will go much further towards buying a nice exercise bike than an elliptical. Spin bikes and upright stationary bikes cost anywhere from about $200-1,000, while elliptical machines usually cost about $500-3,000.

Inexpensive ellipticals are often poorly constructed and have a very short stride length—more like a step motion than a gliding stride. They may also have very limited resistance ranges and few, if any, programmed workouts.

Elliptical vs. exercise bike: space and purchasing considerations

Elliptical machines are far larger and bulkier than most indoor cycles and stationary bikes. They also require power, whereas not all spin bikes do.

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Elliptical vs. exercise bike: enjoyment

Although it might be a stretch to strive to “love” your workout, exercise always feels easier if you enjoy what you do. Fortunately, you can now find both ellipticals and exercise bikes with smart technology and integrated tablets for streaming immersive workouts or entertainment. Some people are also drawn to exercise bikes as a way to train for outdoor cycling or triathlons, which provides greater investment in workouts. However, the elliptical machine is a rather unique movement pattern that does not translate directly to any sport. Ultimately, however, enjoyment is a matter of personal preference, so try both and see which fitness machine you prefer.

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How often should you use the elliptical or exercise bike?

This really depends on your personal lifestyle. It is generally recommended that you engage in cardiovascular activities for 150 minutes per week. This could look like 30 minutes per day, five days a week. This may seem doable for some but overwhelming for others.

Figure out what makes sense for your schedule, and then make it happen. Staying consistent with two workouts per week is better than committing to four and then feeling disappointed when things come up, and you keep having to skip. Combine consistency with a healthy diet and plenty of sleep, and you will start to see results in no time.

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Christine VanDoren
Christine is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with an undergraduate degree from Missouri State University. Her…
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