Two common forms of cardio exercise—and commonly purchased exercise machines—are the stair stepper and the elliptical. Both can be good workouts, but which should you choose if you want a home cardio machine?
I recommend the elliptical, but in this stair stepper vs elliptical roundup, you’ll understand the mechanics of both and the small details that make up the difference.
If you’ve been exercising for any amount of time, you know how beneficial cardio workouts are. But, if you’re like me, you may have realized there are many ways to skin a cat and wonder which form of cardio is best—and why.
Great Cardio Options
Cardio can take on many forms, and they can all be effective as long as you get your heart rate pumping. The stair stepper vs elliptical is an interesting comparison, but they are quite different machines.
The option that’s best will depend on your exercise goals, the cost, the space and maybe what you’re familiar with.
I’ll be comparing the two so you can see them side by side and get a good idea of their capabilities. But don’t forget each model and maker may have small differences that may play a part in your choice.
For instance, some elliptical machines are smooth in the way the legs move back and forward but some are more clumpy and are a mix of smooth lateral running with an up and down motion.
Here’s a short intro to each piece of equipment.
The stair stepper began as the StairMaster, an innovative creation by three entrepreneurs. In the 1980s, their oil business was in crisis, so they turned to making something they knew would sell—an exercise machine.
It’s a simple but ingenious design. Anyone who has climbed a flight of stairs knows that it’s great exercise, and that’s what the stair stepper recreates. It comes in elevator-like varieties or something that has only two pedals but still mimics the same movement.
What makes the stair stepper stand out in this comparison is its targeting of the lower body, the glutes in particular. The motion mirrors an everyday movement—not only climbing stairs but stepping up any platform.
- Low impact.
- Replicates an everyday movement.
- Builds endurance.
- Provides a good cardio workout.
- Compact versions are portable.
- Reach the desired work rate fast.
- Resistance options on more expensive models.
- The more expensive of the two.
- Excludes the upper body.
- Full size stair steppers are big and heavy.
- Compact stair steppers are less effective.
The elliptical machine appeared on the exercise scene later than the stair stepper, in the 1990s. In the beginning, it also only targeted the lower body. In 1997, its inventors reimagined it to include both an upper body workout as well as lower body movements offering a full body workout.
It’s a low-impact cardiovascular exercise machine that comes with pre-programmed workouts, or you can customize your settings to suit your own needs better. It’s versatile and has a range of movement similar to that of running, but without any of the pressure placed on the joints.
What stands out in this stair stepper vs elliptical review is that you can do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions on an elliptical. You can increase the resistance to make your workout harder, and some ellipticals even have an incline function.
- Can do HIIT or Low-intensity steady-state (LISS) workouts.
- Provides an upper and lower body workout.
- You can reverse-step, which adds another dimension to the workout.
- Can increase resistance for an even tougher workout.
- There are compact elliptical machines and even under desk ellipticals available.
- Not best for those with knee problems.
- Some machine designs are slightly off from the natural running/walking movement.
Face to Face Comparison
Now I’ll get into the star stepper vs elliptical comparison. We’ll go over which muscles get worked during each, what cardiovascular benefits they have, and how many calories you can burn on the stair stepper vs the elliptical.
There’s a noticeable difference between the two pieces of equipment when it comes to the muscles worked. The elliptical takes the prize for most muscles worked.
- Biceps and triceps.
- Upper back muscles.
- Core muscles.
Both machines offer excellent cardiovascular benefits if used correctly. The elliptical once again comes out on top, purely for its ability to incorporate high-intensity interval training.
Climbing stairs causes your heart rate to increase rapidly, giving your cardiovascular system more of a boost than you may think. The stair stepper will provide you with a low-intensity, steady-state cardio workout.
You can go faster, but it’s tough to do any form of interval training on a stair stepper. That’s a disadvantage in terms of cardio.
Although get up to maximum sweat on a stair stepper takes no time at all.
Another machine, similar to the stepper and as ferocious for cardio as well as the legs and glutes is one of my favorites, the vertical climber.
The elliptical machine is equally good for steady-state cardio or interval cardio workouts. It’s easy to maintain a steady pace, but it’s also possible to complete a series of 60–90-second bursts, which doesn’t really work on the stair stepper.
The elliptical also allows you to change the resistance so that you can maximize your workout. Some of the more high-end ones even allow for incline changes.
Stair Stepper: 180 to 266 calories per 30-minute session.
Elliptical: 270 to 400 calories per 30-minute session.
These figures depend very much on individual traits like weight and fitness level. It also depends on the intensity of the workout. But based on the fact that the elliptical engages more muscles and is great for high-intensity workouts, you’ll naturally burn more calories than on the stair stepper.
It’s worth noting that fitness trackers and the trackers on the machines are notoriously inaccurate. They often over-report the number of calories burned, and this can mean that you don’t see the results you want to because you’re burning fewer calories than you thought.
They are a reasonable guide and good for comparing improvements on the specific machine rather than between fitness equipment. Having said that check out our guide to cardio machines that burn the most calories.
I advise you not to rely on the machine or FitBit too much. It’s a great idea to work out exactly how many calories you burn per day using a reputable calculator, like this one. From there, you can work out how many calories you need to burn and adjust your exercise accordingly by estimating a rough calorie count.
Remember: high-intensity is likely to burn more calories in the same time period than low intensity!
Stand Out Features of the Stair Stepper vs Elliptical
Of the two, the elliptical stands out for its:
- Full-body mechanics.
While the stair stepper will give you a great behind, the elliptical will give you a better workout overall. Your chest, arms, and shoulder muscles will get some exercise, as well as your glutes and legs.
Not only does this build muscle and tone you nicely all over, but it means this is a more comprehensive workout that will end up burning more calories.
- Ability to do HIIT.
High-intensity interval training is a powerful weapon in the athlete’s arsenal. It burns fat quicker than LISS (low intensity steady-state) or moderate-intensity continuous training (MOD).
The great thing about the elliptical is that you can mix it up between LISS and HIIT. It’s recommended to do a combination of both throughout your week, and it’s easy to do both of them on the elliptical.
Price and Build
To get the best out of an elliptical or stair-stepper it might mean a trip to the local gym as the commercial machines of this type are well-built solid beasts with a variety of functions. And they’re often big.
We’re not here to advocate the time and fund-sucking use of a commercial gym here though – it being tryHOMEfitness, a site about getting fit from home – so there are a couple of product ideas which although not perfect go some way in providing a similar experience to what you would get from a large, heavy and expensive piece of fitness equipment.
This article includes affiliate links. If you choose to purchase any of the products we have discussed in this article, we may receive a small commission.
Reasonably Priced Stair Stepper & Elliptical
The elliptical seems to have better potential as a full-blown cardio machine, although they both have merit and it depends on what your workout goals are.
Use the stair stepper if you want to target your glutes and quads and prefer doing lower intensity, steady-state cardio.
- Great lower body builder.
- Low intensity, low impact.
Check out this stair stepper, for a compact, reasonably priced option if you want to give it a try at home.
Use the elliptical if you want a more full-body workout that you can do at low or high intensity.
- Full-body workout.
- Can do high-intensity workouts.
For home workouts at a good price, this elliptical machine is a great choice.
Whichever one you choose, be sure to get your heart rate up when you’re on it, and you’ll know you got a good workout!
The Final Solution
The best outcome would be to combine the benefits of both the stepper and the elliptical into a compact package that wouldn’t break the bank and it would not be too bulky to have in your home or workout area.
One that would have the dual-action, that worked the leg muscles as hard as a stepper and also gave the arms a good workout with flexibility with the hand position.
Although some fitness machine vendors have come out with a solution, we felt that most were a half-hearted attempt at filling a niche.
However, Nautilus, under their brand Bowflex, a company with a great pedigree for building quality fitness trainers, has come up with a group of machines, the Max Trainer Series.
In the range, there is also the M3 (cheapest), M6, M7 and M8 (the most expensive).
They range in price depending on functionality and for that reason, we went for the Max Trainer M5, a more reasonable offering with all the base functionality including Bluetooth and interactive streaming options.It’s a machine that is even better than the sum of its stepper and elliptical parts.