Stair Stepper Vs Treadmill

treadmillStair steppers and treadmills are found in most gyms around the country and individuals who already use one or other of these exercise machines often imagine they are too similar for both to be incorporated into a routine. Likewise, people looking to buy one or the other are often at a loss to explain the real difference in the type of exercise these machines offer. We will compare stair steppers vs treadmills to see if these machines can be used in a complimentary manner and to identify whether either machine has distinct advantages.

Good For Cardio

Both these machines are well known for offering a high intensity cardio workout. Simply upping the pace from walking to running on a treadmill will set most users heart rates rising. Similarly, stair steppers (particularly those that are never ending staircase) have the ability to raise the users heart rate. Few people would argue that running up or even walking up numerous flights of stairs will get a heart rate moving up. Both these machines offer great cardio workouts although stair steppers are so intensive beginners would be wise to improve general fitness before use by following a walking and running interval training programme on a treadmill before hitting a rolling staircase hard.

Muscles Used

Stair StepperBoth these items of fitness equipment use lower torso muscles groups primarily. Glutes, quadriceps, calves and hamstrings are the major muscles used. Stair steppers place more emphasis on the glutes and quadriceps and the action of vertically lifting body weight onto each leg at a time generally means steppers are far more likely to tone and build muscle in these areas as opposed to treadmills where your muscles develop forward rather than upward momentum. It could be argued that treadmills are more effective at exercising core muscles used for balance as stair stepper users often used handrails to aid balance during the exercise.


Treadmills are known to be a form of high impact exercise, although some treadmills have cushioned decks to alleviate some of the impact you might get from road running. High impact means joints take a jarring during exercise. On a treadmill ankles, knees and hips joints are the worst areas affected. High impact exercise of itself may not be terribly bad for the participant, some studies have shown that high impact exercise improves cartilage health and regeneration over time, but for those who already have damaged or degenerating cartilage, high impact exercise should be limited in duration.

Stair steppers are not as high impact as treadmills. This is not to say stair steppers are truly low impact exercisers like an elliptical machine or rowing machine might be. Stair stepping does require some element of lifting off equipment and placing down but the action is far less jarring than on a treadmill. However, stair steppers are more likely to cause lower back strains than treadmill use might.

Calories Burned

Because both items offer high intensity cardio workouts you can be sure you can burn lots of calories on either machine. The Journal of the American Medical Association made a comparative study of the calorie burn that could be achieved on various types of exercise equipment in 1996. The study found that at a hard intensity the treadmill was the better calorie burner with users burning up to 700 calories per hour. Stair stepper users burned 625 calories, those using rowing machines burned 600 calories and users operating exercise bikes burned 500 calories.

Weight Loss

A key factor in weight loss is burning calories. As we can see from the above, both machines are effective calorie burners. Treadmills offer the quicker route to overall weight loss but steppers can achieve a similar result with lower impact to the joints.

The current thinking is that safe weight loss amounts to losing about 1lb per week. To achieve this weight loss you have to burn an extra 3500 calories per week or eat 3500 calories per week less than normal. Alternatively you can use a combination of exercise and diet to eliminate the 3500 calories.

Toning Or Stamina

Different forms of exercise achieve different results. Steppers are well known to tone and eventually build muscle in the legs, hips and rear. By using a stepper the operator is effectively weight lifting on each leg using body weight as resistance to tone and build muscle. This exercise is great for cardio, shaping and power but not conducive to increasing stamina.

The treadmill offers greater flexibility with regard to stamina. The action of the muscles is to push forward and develop momentum so shaping and toning is not as likely with a treadmill but improvements in stamina will be far more apparent.

The Final Word

These machines are complementary to a degree. Both offer high intensity cardio to improve heart fitness, burn calories and contribute to losing weight. If you are after tone and increasing muscle mass then stair steppers are ideal, if you are after stamina and a machine that offers greater flexibility in use the treadmill is for you. Using both together should develop strength and tone as well as improving stamina. Check out our recommendation for the best small treadmills for home use.