Stepper Vs Elliptical – Is the Stair Stepper Better Than an Elliptical?

A stair stepper and an elliptical trainer give a very similar first impression. The foot placement on both machines look the same when stepping on for the first time but the platforms on them are used in very different ways.

In this article we look at the stair stepper vs elliptical to determine which is best for you.

They both offer a fantastic cardiovascular workout and because they offer different types of workout they both bring individual and unique benefits. If you are looking to find the best stair stepper on the market, check out our round up article.

Let’s look at the differences between the two types of machine.

Muscles Recruited

The beauty of both of these exercise machines is that they work a number of muscles in the body.  They both target the lower body but one machine outshines the other with the upper body. Let’s look at both in more detail.

Stair Stepper

The stair stepper is predominantly a leg heavy workout. When performed correctly it targets the hamstrings, glutes, quads and calves.

Check out our article answering the question – does the stair stepper make your thighs bigger? For full info on how this engages the lower body.

Typically the stair stepper doesn’t engage the upper body in any way. The reason being is that most stair steppers are built with a stable handlebar for you to hold onto while stepping.

Elliptical

Elliptical trainers, sometimes referred to as cross trainers, provide a full body workout. While the elliptical trainer has moving handlebars which you can simultaneously push back and forth while pedalling. This offers both an upper body and lower body workout. 

stepper vs elliptical cardio

This arm movement engages your chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps and upper back. You do have the option to hold onto the stationary handlebars instead to put all the focus on the lower body but doing this you miss out on the upper body benefits.

The leg movement on an elliptical is very similar to the stair stepper because the stair stepper mimics stair climbing and the elliptical mimics walking/running. 

This motion also engages the leg muscles – hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves.

Conclusion

Both machines offer fantastic lower body workouts that engage all muscles in the legs

But I have to go with the elliptical on this one as it extends the muscle recruitment benefits offering a full body, cardiovascular workout. 

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is to move with proper form. On both the stepper and elliptical it’s important to keep your form at the forefront throughout you workout. Move with intention to get the most out of each workout. 

Avoid using momentum to carry you through the movement, use the muscles in your legs to control the machine through the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement.

Brace you core and push with power into the pedals. Doing this will not only reduce your risk of injury but also engage your muscles as much as possible.

Cardiovascular Work

Stair Stepper

As mentioned the stair stepper provides a lower body cardiovascular workout. With this in mind, it can only really offer a steady state form of cardiovascular work.

You could argue that you can do this at high intensity for a given period but it’s quite difficult to vary the workout on the stepper due to its rigid and repetitive motion.

stair stepper calories in comparison to elliptical

Elliptical Trainer

The elliptical offers a much more versatile and dynamic movement. You can do the same steady state cardio workout but can incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT) into your workout routine. This type of workout is much more effective in weight loss and calorie burning than steady state cardio.

The other bonus of this is you can reduce the overall duration of your workout because you are working out at an “all out” intensity during the high intensity phase. Unfortunately, HIIT training isn’t possible on a stepper.

Another option on the elliptical is to pedal backwards which puts more emphasis on the quads.

Conclusion

Both exercise machines offer a suitable cardiovascular workout routine providing you are doing it at an appropriate intensity and effort level. But given that you can perform HIIT training on the elliptical makes it a superior choice for your cardiovascular needs.

If you are just interested in getting in the minimum amount of recommended exercise to achieve the daily recommended health and fitness goals you can achieve this using stepper.

According to the physical activity guidelines, adults should perform at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of high intense activity per week. This can be performed on the stepper if this was your goal.

Stair Stepper vs Elliptical Calories

Calories Burned

The amount of calories you burn on each machine depends on a number of things when you workout. This isn’t an easy question to answer because it wont be the same every time you perform a workout. 

Here are a list of factors that affect the amount of calories your body has the ability to burn:

  • Fitness Level
  • Your Weight
  • Intensity and duration of your workout

But luckily for us there have been some studies into this exact comparison to see which burns more calories, the stair stepper or the elliptical. A 2004 study by Harvard medical school looked into the amount of calories burned in 30 minutes for 3 people in different weight classes, 125lb, 155lb and 185lb.

Stair Stepper

This study confirmed that in 30 minutes of moderate exercise on a stair stepper the 155lb person burned 216 calories.

Bear in mind that this number can fluctuate depending on the exercise intensity and your fitness level but this gives you a good idea how effective the stair stepper is in burning calories and burning belly fat in comparison to an elliptical.

stepper vs elliptical muscles used

Elliptical Trainer

For the same person performing a 30 minute moderate workout on the elliptical, they burned 324 calories, this equates to a 50% additional calories burned on an elliptical machine.

This was for the same intensity and time as the stair stepper so you get an idea of how much more effective the elliptical trainer is at burning calories at a moderate intensity.

The reason for this is (that we have already shown) is the elliptical recruits more muscles in the body.

Conclusion

Both are effective exercise machines for burning calories. But it goes without saying that due to the results of the Harvard study the elliptical is better at burning calories than the stair stepper.

Do keep in mind that it depends how intense your workout is as well as your fitness level. But even at a moderate intensity for both you will experience better results with your calories burning. Exercising is what you make it so whichever you choose, go for a high intensity to burn as many calories as you can!

A note about calorie counters

It’s worth including this information for those who currently own either a stair stepper or an elliptical and think that the amount of calories burned seems to be a lot lower than what theirs shows. Calorie counters built into fitness equipment are well known to be inaccurate.

If you have a fitness tracker like a fitbit or a smart watch, use this to compare it to the equipment calorie display to see how they differ.

The amount of calories you burn on both pieces of fitness equipment are typically overestimated by their built in counters. Which can be frustrating especially if this is the main thing you are tracking to achieve you weight loss goals.

The best way to get around this is to either use a smartwatch or fitness tracker app. You can also use apps like Myfitnesspal to gauge a more accurate calorie consumption with all the food you consume throughout the day. 

If you prefer to use the machine to give you a good idea, maybe reduce this by 20% from what it shows to give you a better idea of how many calories you have burned during your workout, in short – don’t rely on this too much.

Stepper vs Elliptical For Knees

Both the stepper and elliptical are considered low impact exercises in comparison to other cardio equipment such as the treadmill, but how are they for joints like the knees?

Stair Stepper

When you walk on a stepper you strengthen and work out the same muscles you would when walking up a flight of stairs. These muscles include the muscles that surround the knee and support knee health.

The leg muscles stimulated help support knee joints, but because you press up and down if you have pre-existing knee conditions its likely that you might feel some pain in doing the movement.

Stepper vs Elliptical For Knees

Elliptical Trainer

The elliptical doesn’t cause as much pressure on the knees as you are not pressing down. As you glide your leg muscles feel the force which takes any pressure off the knees during the movement.

Therefore you receive the benefit of strengthening the muscles around the knee to support knee health but do not suffer any pressure on the joint during the movement.

Conclusion

Although both machines are considered low impact and strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee. The elliptical is considered a better option as you are not putting any pressure on the knees during the motion, if you suffer from knee pain you are likely to aggravate this more on a stepper than an elliptical.

But if you suffer from any pre-existing knee condition, always consult your doctor before partaking in any form of exercise.

Cost

This is a difficult comparison to make because there is a big variety of different machines offering different features and benefits. The most important thing to consider is what suits your needs, what are you looking for? 

Nowadays you can find a high quality stepper for around £400 ($550). Elliptical trainers fall into a similar price point. As more exercise brands have entered the market there has been a demand to create high quality cardio equipment at a reasonable cost.

Similarly you will be able to find low quality models for as little as £150 ($220). But if you are going to invest in a piece of home cardio equipment I’d strongly suggest pushing the budget to buy a piece that lasts.

Is A Stepper Better than an Elliptical

I’ve compared the stair stepper and elliptical in a lot of detail and broken down the main parts you should consider with both. So which is better? In my opinion it depends what you’re looking for!

If you want a low intensity, steady state cardio fitness equipment that targets just the muscles in your lower body then I would recommend choosing the stair stepper.

If you prefer a full body workout that has more dynamic options with your workout such as high intensity and a high calorie burn, choose the elliptical.

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An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!