Understanding Elliptical Trainers
All elliptical trainers work the same way: The pedals guide your feet through an elliptical path meant to approximate a natural stride, allowing you to walk or run without generating a lot of impact on your joints. Some ellipticals also have moving handlebars you can push and pull as you pedal. An elliptical trainer only works if its stride length matches your natural stride length; some models are adjustable, to better suit a variety of exercisers.
Stairmaster’s basic stepper has two pedals mounted on levers; you step back and forth on the pedals to simulate the feel of climbing stairs. A second type, called a stepmill, is like a very short escalator: You climb up the stairs as they roll down toward you. The latter machine more closely simulates the actual motion of climbing stairs and also challenges your balance more than the former type of machine.
Elliptical trainers and both types of Stairmaster work your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. The stair-climbing motion of a Stairmaster tends to emphasize the quads and calves. Elliptical trainers are more versatile because they allow you to pedal forward, which emphasizes glute and hamstring involvement, or backward, which emphasizes quadriceps involvement. Certain elliptical trainers also have an adjustable stride length that allows you to shift the emphasis from one muscle group to the other.
In general, an elliptical trainer burns more calories than a stair stepper. If you weigh 155 pounds you can burn about 335 calories in half an hour of pedaling an elliptical trainer, or 223 calories using a stair stepper, according to Harvard Health Publications. If you crank a stepmill up to a jogging speed, a 150-pound exerciser can burn more than 500 calories in half an hour.
Ultimately, elliptical trainers are more versatile than either type of Stairmaster. Ellipticals usually sport a variety of already programmed workouts that adjust resistance and, if available, incline automatically as you exercise. You can also alternate between pedaling forward and backward, and vary your pedaling speed in accordance with the resistance levels. The only way you can really adjust a Stairmaster is by changing the speed at which the pedals or steps sink beneath you.