Running on a Treadmill VS Stairmaster: Which is Better?

When it comes to highly effective cardio workouts, there are a few different options to choose from. You can go for a run outside, use an elliptical machine at the gym, or hop on a treadmill or Stairmaster.

Drive around or visit a park on any given day, and you’ll see people jogging for miles. It’s an addictive, easily accessible and affordable work out. And if the weather isn’t perfect, it can still be done indoors. In fact, if you have a gym membership, you know there are sometimes waitlists to use the treadmills.

So, then you’ll contemplate the Stairmaster… and you’ll think, “Those people are really working up a good sweat. Maybe I’ll give it a go.”

So, Which One Is Better? Running on Treadmill or The Stairmaster?

In all honesty, the best pick of machines relies heavily on your goals… and what you want to accomplish from your workout. Generally speaking, running on a treadmill is the best cardio workout while the Stairmaster is best for toning the lower body.

What Do These Machines Have in Common?

There are some commonalities between running on a treadmill and using a Stairmaster.

Cardio Health

Both of these exercises are great for your cardiovascular health. They get your heart rate up and help to improve your overall fitness level. Cardiovascular health is extremely important for reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health conditions.

Toning the Legs

Have you ever seen a runner’s legs? They’re often quite toned, thanks to the constant up and down motion of running. The same is true for people who use the Stairmaster.

Both of these exercises work to shape the legs. While running will give you a larger range of motion and work more muscles, the Stairmaster is great for targeting the hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes.


Both of these exercises can provide some resistance training if you use them correctly. Resistance training is normally associated with weight lifting, but it can also come from using machines like these.

When you run, you are providing some resistance to your body weight. Likewise, when you use the Stairmaster, you are providing resistance to the machine.

In addition to enhancing your incline level on the treadmill, you can also manually increase the resistance of the steps. Such resistance can help to tone your muscles and improve your strength.


Both types of machines are very accessible, meaning that just about anyone can use them without much instruction. These machines are the most popular ones to use at gyms for a reason! You can easily fit one of these machines in your home gym as well.

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Both types of machines are very accessible and anyone can use them without much instruction.

Whether you are a body builder, personal trainer, or starting a weight loss program, you can use the treadmill or Stairmaster for your program.

Low Impact

Last, but not least, they are both low-impact exercises. This means that they are gentle on your joints, which is important if you are trying to avoid injuries. Low impact exercises are also great for people who are new to working out or who have joint problems.

Of course, you have the option to increase the impact by running and climbing faster or going up a higher incline, but for the most part, these exercises are gentle on your body. The impact on your knees against a treadmill belt is much gentler than that of pavement.

What Are the Differences?

There are some key differences between running on a treadmill and using a Stairmaster.

Calories Burnt

First, let’s look at the calories burned. Running is the better option to burn calories and lose weight. So, depending on your pace, you will burn more on a treadmill. 

One can burn up to 900 calories per hour running on a treadmill, while you can only burn about 429 calories per hour on a Stairmaster.

Combined with a healthy diet, Stairmaster workouts offer a less expensive, longer-term weight-loss option than treadmills. If you want to build leg muscles without burning a lot of calories on the treadmill, basing a workout program around this machine is a great option.     

If you compare walking on the treadmill with walking on the StairMaster, you will burn more calories on the StairMaster because of the muscles worked during this workout.

However, we are discussing running on the treadmill. Using the treadmill for higher intensity workouts will burn far more calories than using the StairMaster. Using the StairMaster for half an hour can burn over 200 calories depending on exercise intensity and body weight.

The number of calories burned on a StairMaster compared to a treadmill varies from person to person. It depends on the type of exercise and the level of resistance used. Calorie intake for a treadmill will vary based on the range from light to vigorous aerobic activity.

Better Cardio Workout

As mentioned earlier, both machines are good for cardiovascular health, but the treadmill is better. The treadmill is all about cardio and running. If you want to get a good cardio workout, the treadmill is the way to go.

When you are running on a treadmill, your stride length is consistent since you are not relying on gravity to pull you down the stairs. This is why people who are new to running or have joint problems often start on a treadmill.

The treadmill works more muscles than the StairMaster and provides a larger range of motion. This means that you will get a better cardio workout on the treadmill.

While both get your heart racing, the treadmill offers more aerobic focus and allows you to run at a constant speed for longer than stairclimbing.

Muscle Groups Each Targets

Now, let’s look at the muscle groups each target. When running on a treadmill, you use more of your lower body muscles than when using a Stairmaster.

In particular, you use more of your gluteal muscles and your hamstrings. The hamstrings are located at the back of your thigh, and the gluteal muscles are located in your buttocks.

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Running on a treadmill uses more of your lower body muscles than when using a Stairmaster.

This is because when you are running on a treadmill, you are actually moving forward. This means that you are using your gluteal muscles to push off with each stride, and you are using your hamstrings to pull your foot back up to the treadmill.

In contrast, when you are using a Stairmaster, you move upward. So you target your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

The gluteal muscles are responsible for hip extension, abduction, and rotation. The quads are responsible for knee extension, and the hamstrings and calves are responsible for ankle flexion.

When climbing stairs, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings work together to lift the leg, whereas the calf muscles are used to push up on the toes.

So, if you want to focus on your gluteal muscles and your hamstrings, the treadmill is the better option. If you want to focus on your quadriceps muscles, the StairMaster is the better option.

Impact on joints

Running can affect the ankle, knee, and hip joints. When you are running on a treadmill, the impact is distributed over a larger surface area, which is why it is easier on your joints than running outside or climbing stairs.

When you are running on a treadmill, you do not rely on gravity to pull you down the stairs. So, the impact on your joints is reduced. Outside running surfaces, such as concrete, can cause more impact on the ankle, knee, and hip joints.

A Stairmaster may affect the knee joint if you are using the incorrect form by locking it.

Resistance Training

Lastly, let’s look at resistance training. When running on a treadmill, you are not actually using any weights. This means that you are not getting as much resistance training as you would when using a Stairmaster.

In contrast, when using a Stairmaster, moving up and down the stairs provides resistance. It is simple to increase the normal resistance level on the machine. You also get better resistance using the Stairmaster than just climbing normal stairs.

Why The Treadmill Can Be Better Than Running Outside

As you can see, the treadmill has a number of advantages over running outside… or when it’s not an option due to weather or physical limitations. For starters, it is easier on your joints and provides a better cardio workout… while targeting more muscle groups.

You can run on a safer surface, at a constant speed, for a longer period of time. Your running routine won’t stop due to bad weather with a treadmill.

Why The Stairmaster Can Be Better Than Climbing Normal Stairs

The StairMaster has a number of advantages over climbing normal stairs. It is also easy on your joints and gives you an opportunity to increase resistance. You also use more muscle groups when using the StairMaster.

Which Machine Is Best for Beginners?

If you are a beginner, you may want to start with the treadmill. It is easier to use and has less impact on your joints. While it is associated with running, you can simply do walking on the treadmill if you choose.

As you become more comfortable with running, you can transition to running outside or intensely climbing stairs on a StairMaster.

While the Stairmaster is great and helps build the lower body more intensely, it is more taxing on the joints. So, if you’re just starting out and have some joint pain, the treadmill would be a better option.

Final Thoughts on Running Vs Stairmaster

There is no arguing that both the treadmill and Stairmaster are great cardio and toning workouts. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and again depends on where you are at in your fitness routine and what you are looking to get from it… as well as any physical limitations.  

The treadmill provides a better cardio workout without question, while the StairMaster builds up more muscle groups.  Both machines are great for beginners, but the treadmill is a better starting point.

Whichever machine you choose, be sure to use proper form to reduce the risk of injury. If you want to learn more about starting a running program, check out How to Start Running for Beginners.

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