In this article I put the elliptical machine & the stationary bike head-to-head in a comparison of the fitness benefits they provide, including their weight loss & muscle toning potential.
I also compare other factors such as cost, space requirement, maintenance, & ease of use.
Having this knowledge in hand makes it easier to decide which type of exercise equipment is best suited for each of us.
So…who’s better: exercise bike or elliptical?
The elliptical and the stationary bike provide many similar fitness & health benefits and have few qualitative differences between them.
How much these differences matter comes down to our own individual preferences, so which cardio machine is considered better will vary from person to person.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant medical & sports science resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Up ahead we’ll look at each of the 10+ categories where I compared the elliptical & the stationary bike and see how things shake out.
Next I want to provide real brief summaries of the general benefits & drawbacks that exercise bikes & elliptical machines each have.
Elliptical pros & cons
* Ellipticals offer low-impact cardio exercise that’s kind to your joints & bones. (1)
* If you put in enough intensity, your elliptical machine workout will provide a nice aerobic workout with lots of health benefits. (2)
* An elliptical workout can burn off a bunch of calories – close to 400 in 30 minutes for a 180 lb. person like me. (3)
* Ellipticals offer the option of working your upper-body too, if you use its arm handles. (4)
* You can work more leg muscles & improve your balance by adjusting the settings on your elliptical during your workout. (5)
* Elliptical trainers move our legs & feet in a motion that’s different than the way we’re used to when we’re walking or running, and some people may have a hard time adapting to this. (6)
* The width & stride of the footrests on some elliptical machines are fixed in a position that might be uncomfortable for someone. (7)
Exercise bike pros & cons
* Great fat & calorie burning cardio machine. (8)
* 3 bike seating styles offered: upright, recumbent, & indoor cycle (AKA Spin® bike).
* Stationary biking can build leg muscles & strength, even in older people. (9)
* Provides a low-impact cardio workout that’s easy on the bones & joints. (10)
* Depending on the type of bike, being on the seat for an extended time can get uncomfortable &/or make you sore.
* Workouts on Spin® bikes and some upright bikes can aggravate low-back pain issues.
* A moderate level of effort will probably burn less calories than an elliptical workout would. (11)
Elliptical vs. stationary bike
OK, onto the head to head comparison. Here are the 12 categories I’m using:
- calories burned
- weight loss
- cardiovascular benefits
- muscle building
- bone strengthening
- HIIT potential
- low-impact friendliness
- injury risk
- space required
You’ll see that the first seven criteria are fitness-related potential benefits and thus apply the same to all of us.
The remaining 5 are things that may or may not be an important factor depending on a person’s situation.
Spoiler alert: 6 out of the 7 fitness benefits are almost completely dependent on how much consistent effort a person puts in.
Here are a couple of calories burned by activity charts and a couple of calories burned by activity calculators.
You can plug in your own info to get more personalized feedback on how many calories each cardio machine workout burns.
I’ll use me as an example (6’2” 180 lb., 61 year-old guy).
These numbers are for 1 hour of exercise.
Stationary Bike / Spinning (vigorous) 954
Stationary Bike / Spinning (moderate) 588
Stationary Bike 12-13mph (moderate) 671
Stationary cycling, moderate 587*
Elliptical Trainer, general 800
Stationary Bike, moderate 622
Stationary Bike, vigorous 932
* – adjusted to 180 lb.
* Elliptical numbers may be better but are incomplete.
* The range of calories burned between both machines tells me that this is more of a tossup, with no clear winner.
* There’s a wide calories burned range between moderate and vigorous levels of activity, and the terms aren’t clearly defined.
Advantage: Elliptical maybe…by a little.
Weight loss & belly fat loss
The calories burned examples above clearly show that both the bike & the elliptical can provide adequate low-impact cardio exercise that can definitely help lose the weight and the belly fat.
Since the potential calories burned numbers are similar, so is the weight loss potential for both exercise machines.
This puts the onus on the individual & their level of workout enthusiasm again.
Using the resistance settings on the bike & the elliptical can help build muscle tone, which in turn results in an increase in your resting metabolic rate.
This means you will be increasing your body’s fat-burning rate even during the times when you’re not working out. (12)
Calories burned is only half the equation
We see that these two cardio machines can help us burn a ton of calories.
But what about how many calories we’re putting down?
Effective weight loss comes down to one thing:
The calories you burned today has to be higher than the amount of calories you ate & drank today.
To get the most weight loss potential out of an elliptical or stationary bike workout, your diet needs to be on board.
Both the exercise bike and the elliptical offer the aerobic exercise needed to help you & your body receive several cardiovascular & other health benefits. (13)
Unsurprisingly, neither of these exercise machines will deliver a workout that will build muscle as effectively as some form of strength training. (14)
Between the two of them, the stationary bike can build a little muscle (& strength) in your legs with a little bit of focused effort in your pedaling stroke. (15)
Tips for muscle work on the elliptical
And the elliptical can be used to improve your muscle tone by actively engaging your arms, instead of them just going along for the ride like most people do. (16)
The other thing you can do to get your muscles activated is to ratchet up the resistance level and increase the incline setting if those options are available. (17)
Advantage: A tie, or a slight nod to the exercise bikes.
Maintaining bone strength is important, particularly as we age.
Since both the elliptical and the exercise bike are low-impact activities, neither provide as much bone strengthening as high-impact exercises do — like running, aerobics, jumping, even walking. (19)
Yet Harvard Health points out that the downward pedaling motion encounters enough resistance in it to provide a small amount of benefit to our leg bones. (20)
Advantage: Exercise bike
High-intensity interval training (or HIIT) is a great way to kickstart your fat-burning into high gear, no matter if you’re old or young. (21)
It has a wide range of benefits including being very effective at getting rid of belly fat. (22)
It also can reverse some of our aging processes, per Mayo Clinic.
And both the stationary bike & the elliptical machine can be used in HIIT workouts.
As has been mentioned several times so far, bikes & ellipticals are nice forms of low-impact exercise.
The term low-impact exercise just means that the activity you’re doing always has at least one of your feet on the ground, unlike running or aerobics for example.
This makes them kind to our bones & joints, since there’s no pounding of our body weight down through our hips, legs, knees, ankles & feet.
The chance for an acute injury — one happening suddenly — is very low for both an elliptical machine & an exercise bike.
This is because both cardio machines are in a fixed place and not going anywhere, compared to bike riding out on the street somewhere.
And both your feet remain in place while you exercise, unlike jogging on a moving treadmill belt for example.
So falling off either is extremely unlikely.
Overuse injuries do occur
However, the combination of bad form & the repetitive motion of cardio exercise can cause overuse injuries.
On an elliptical your knees could start to feel tweaked if you’re not moving in alignment with the machine.
And your lower back could get sore if you insist on leaning forward onto the fixed handlebars in the front of the elliptical. (24)
Stationary bike injuries
Overuse injuries also apply to the workout warrior who spends a lot of time in a fixed position over their bike.
Low back, wrists, knees — other parts too — could develop some pain from overuse. (25)
Rare & avoidable
Luckily these situations are rare and easily avoidable by always taking the time to make sure you’re body’s in alignment with your machine.
Be aware of your form, and always use proper body mechanics, since you’ll be doing thousands of reps per workout.
Comfort is a somewhat subjective category, since we all have different body shapes, levels of flexibility, & discomfort tolerances.
I’ll offer just my own opinion here, since I can’t speak for anyone else.
One of my biases is that I’ve been managing low-back pain for years from an injury sustained back in the day.
Well there are 3 possible bike types you could be riding on — upright, recumbent, & the indoor/spinner cycle.
And so that means there are 3 comfort levels.
For me, the recumbent bike is far & away the most comfortable of the three.
After all, I’m reclining in a seated position with a backrest and my legs stretched out in front of me.
Next is the upright bike, and the least comfortable of the three (for me anyways) is the indoor Spin bike.
Not all elliptical machines are the same, since there are wide variations on how the fixed pedals are set.
And those have a big influence on how natural the motion is or isn’t.
But in general, using the elliptical is more comfortable for me than the upright & Spin bikes for sure, and about even with the recumbent.
Advantage: Elliptical & recumbent bikes
Cost varies widely for both types of cardio machines as you’d probably guess.
A quick look at their respective product pages on Amazon shows prices that range from around a hundred bucks up to several thousand dollars for bikes & ellipticals:
So it’s hard to say for certain which piece of exercise equipment gives you a better (meaning to me, more reliable) bang for your buck.
Just me guesstimating
I’d like to humbly offer up a personal opinion here, based on my experiences having product-tested dozens & dozens of bikes and elliptical machines in retail stores.
I think, dollar for dollar, that the exercise bike’s cost is ultimately lower than that of the elliptical machine.
Especially down in the low-priced range on up through models costing at least several hundred dollars.
What I mean is that a bike that costs $X will be a better quality exercise machine than an elliptical that also costs $X.
And I think that works whether X is $150, $350, $550…
Advantage: Exercise bikes
Generally speaking, an exercise bike requires less maintenance than an elliptical, assuming they’re within a similar price range.
This is because a stationary bike usually has less moving parts than an elliptical, and its mechanical process to get you going is a simpler one.
Advantage: Exercise bikes
Exercise bikes win here because there are so many models designed for home use that take up very little room.
And many can be folded up if necessary and stashed off somewhere easily, since they don’t weigh much.
The only exceptions are the heavy-duty air bikes and the high-end recumbent exercise bikes like the ones in my heavy-duty exercise bike article.
A few of those expensive recumbent models weigh a lot, and others need as much space as mid-sized ellipticals.
Ellipticals generally are bulkier
Even a cheap elliptical is more cumbersome to relocate, and will likely take up a larger footprint in your home than a cheap exercise bike.
And the larger, more expensive elliptical machines can be long & heavy, while the high-end indoor cycles still only need about 2’ x 4’ or 3’ x 4’ of floor space.
Advantage: Exercise bikes
If you’re thinking about buying a bike for your home exercise program, I can tell you I’ve test-driven & reviewed a bazillion of them.
(OK, maybe between 50 & 100 😄.)
After evaluating them & doing write ups I sorted them into a few different review articles, which you can see listed on this page here if you’re interested:
I hope that my article comparing the features and fitness benefits of elliptical machines & exercise bikes is useful to you.
I wish you well on your fitness journey.