Stairmaster vs Treadmill: Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 28, 2022

If you’ve ever been to a gym, chances are that you’ve seen all the different aerobic exercise machines that have been developed over the past few decades. It can get quite overwhelming for some, especially if they are unfamiliar with the differences between these machines.

Two of the most commonly encountered aerobic exercise machines are that of the stairmaster and the treadmill, of which function on similar principles but are nonetheless quite different in their application.

To put it simply, the stairmaster exchanges impact and speed in trade for greater muscular recruitment, making the treadmill the more appropriate choice if these factors are not something you wish to focus upon.

The Stairmaster - an Overview

The stairmaster in an aerobic machine that - as is implied by its name - features an endlessly moving set of stairs, quite similar to that of an escalator. 

stairmaster
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Stairmasters are most often used for the purposes of weight loss or low impact leg muscle hypertrophy because of their capacity to both train the muscles of the lower body while simultaneously increasing the metabolic expenditure of the exerciser.

Who Should Use the Stairmaster?

The stairmaster is an excellent choice for individuals seeking greater caloric expenditure in their workout, or those that wish to “tone” their lower body through bodyweight resistance and aerobic training stimulus.

Furthermore, certain types of endurance athletes may wish to also make use of the stairmaster, as its capacity to induce both aerobic and anaerobic training stimulus simultaneously is quite effective when used properly.

Advantages of the Stairmaster

Apart from greatly aiding in lower body muscular development or weight loss, stairmasters also allow for certain types of interval training to be performed, especially in regards to the more modern stairmaster models that feature programmable intensities.

In addition to this, stairmasters are generally lower risk in terms of injuries than other types of aerobic equipment, and are known for their low physical impact on the body - reducing wear and tear on the joints of the knees and hips.

Finally, there is also the niche case of the stairmaster being an excellent method of training the muscles of the calves - so much so that many elite level bodybuilders will choose to use a stairmaster instead of resistance training methods like weighted calf shrugs.

Disadvantages of the Stairmaster

When speaking of disadvantages associated with the stairmaster, one glaring point is that stairmasters are monotonous in their performance, and generally give little space for creativity or more complex training. They’re escalators, in essence.

Furthermore, the stairmaster is a poor choice when combined with resistance training modalities like free weights or resistance machines, as the albeit minor anaerobic stimulus it places on the lower body can affect recovery.

The Treadmill - an Overview

The treadmill is an aerobic exercise machine primarily used for developing an exerciser’s cardiovascular capabilities, or otherwise inducing significant caloric expenditure in a relatively short length of time. 

treadmill

Treadmills are among one of the most commonly seen kinds of fitness equipment due to their ease of use, convenience, and relative simplicity - beaten out only by outdoor jogging in terms of how easy they are to get into.

Who Should Use the Treadmill?

The treadmill is a particular favorite of many aerobic athletes, as it allows seamless and highly effective development of cardiovascular abilities. 

In addition to these sorts of individuals, the treadmill is also a particular favorite of exercisers seeking to shed their body fat by inducing caloric expenditure - something the treadmill is particularly adept at, as it strikes a balance between cardiovascular stress and muscular recruitment.

Advantages of the Treadmill

Apart from the unparalleled convenience offered by the modern treadmill, the majority of treadmill brands are also quite easy to integrate into interval training programs like HIIT or cross training. This makes the treadmill an indispensable piece of equipment in many gyms.

In addition, there are few methods as effective for inducing weight loss as that of running, something that is not always accessible to everybody when performed in an outdoor setting. 

The usage of a treadmill mitigates this issue, allowing anyone to run wherever and whenever they wish.

Furthermore, running on a treadmill is distinctly less damaging to the joints than running on other surfaces, allowing exercisers to perform cardio for longer periods without risking chronic injuries of the lower body.

Disadvantages of the Treadmill

The primary disadvantage of the treadmill is in its impracticality. Unless there is a distinct reason why one cannot do so, running outdoors is cheaper and arguably more effective at improving certain aspects associated with running itself.

Furthermore, the fact that the treadmill is simply a flat plane with little to no variation makes it poorly suited for training in real-life environments, where such factors like air resistance, curves in the trail and even rough terrain can all be factors that a runner will have to adapt to.

Muscular Activation Differences Between the Stairmaster and the Treadmill

Though both the stairmaster and the treadmill make use of the muscle groups that make up the leg (apart from the core muscles), the extent to which they do so is not equal.

In general, the treadmill is less effective at inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength improvements in the muscles of the lower body, as the exerciser does not leverage their entire body weight with each step, as is the case with the stairmaster.

Both the stairmaster and the treadmill recruit the musculature of the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors and the calves to a certain degree - with the stairmaster surpassing the treadmill in intensity with practically every muscle group.

One method that can mitigate this discrepancy is to simply utilize the treadmill at a higher incline, which will partially close the gap of muscular recruitment intensity between the two pieces of equipment.

It should be noted that the higher level of muscular recruitment in the stairmaster will likely also lead to a shorter length of time exercising, as the muscles of the legs will reach the point of exhaustion sooner. While this is good for inducing muscular hypertrophy, it is not as suitable for weight loss as the treadmill.

Fat Burning Potential of the Stairmaster and the Treadmill

Though both the stairmaster and the treadmill can vary in terms of intensity, it is the treadmill that beats out the stairmaster as a general rule. 

This is simply because of the fact that the stairmaster will surpass the treadmill in terms of exertion per muscle group, resulting in the exerciser’s body fatiguing before sufficient enough time has passed to burn the same amount of calories as the treadmill.

Of course, it is difficult to truly pinpoint the amount of calories an individual will expend within a training session, as a multitude of biological factors come into play in such a scenario. 

On average, most individuals will burn approximately 200 calories per half-hour on the stairmaster, whereas they can burn up to 300 on the treadmill within the same length of time.

At the higher levels of intensity, the treadmill still wins out, as it is capable of raising the lifter’s heart rate to a far higher degree than the stairmaster as a natural consequence of its greater aerobic intensity.

In short - for the purposes of fat loss? Both are excellent, but the treadmill is better.

Impact and Stress Differences of the Stairmaster and Treadmill

Neither the stairmaster nor the treadmill are considered to be no-impact cardiovascular exercise. 

However, for individuals with poor mobility or a history of leg joint injuries, it is the treadmill that is likely to be the more comfortable choice, as it involves less extension of potentially sensitive areas, as well as a greater level of adjustability in terms of the incline the exerciser will climb.

This is especially applicable for individuals with knee or hip issues, as the stair-climbing motion of the stairmaster will easily aggravate these areas as the lifter leverages their entire body weight on such joints.

Training Compatibility Differences of the Stairmaster and Treadmill

For Interval Training

Both the stairmaster and the treadmill are equally applicable in interval training - however, it is the treadmill’s greater versatility that allows it to integrate far better in training programs like HIIT or similar methodologies.

Furthermore, the very nature of the stairmaster itself as a stair-climbing machine can make it quite difficult to switch between intensities and tempos, potentially even putting the exerciser in danger if they are not careful.

For Athletic Training

Athletic training requires a combination of speed, strength and technique work within a training structure so as to maximize the effectiveness of the athlete.

While the treadmill can easily surpass the stairmaster in terms of speed, it in fact falls behind in terms of developing more athleticism-specific skills, as well as in terms of developing muscular strength. As such, the stairmaster is a somewhat more appropriate choice for athletes than the treadmill.

For Bodybuilding

As was covered previously in this article, the stairmaster is superior to the treadmill in terms of muscular recruitment intensity. 

However, this is only truly applicable during the bulking phase of a bodybuilder’s dieting routine, and it is unlikely that the comparatively minor training stimulus of the stairmaster will cause muscular development when in a caloric deficit.

As such, when in the cutting phase, the bodybuilder may in fact see better results with the treadmill for their goals - so long as those goals are inducing a caloric deficit. Otherwise, the stairmaster is better for developing muscle mass.

In Conclusion

As you can see, neither the stairmaster nor the treadmill are entirely superior over the other, and it is in fact up to your training goals and circumstances. 

For bodybuilders and certain types of athletes, the stairmaster is better - whereas the treadmill is superior for fat loss and general interval training methods.

Much like in any other form of exercise, it is advisable that you tailor the intensity of your workout to your current training level, and as such it is our advice that you try both types of equipment at your desired intensity so as to see what is most comfortable.

References

1. Loy S F, Holland GJ, Mutton DL, Snow J, Vincent WJ, Hoffmann JJ, Shaw S. Effects of stair-climbing vs run training on treadmill and track running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1993 Nov ;25(11):1275-8. PMID: 8289616.

2. Amitava Halder, Chuansi Gao, Michael Miller & Kalev Kuklane (2018) Oxygen uptake and muscle activity limitations during stepping on a stair machine at three different climbing speeds, Ergonomics, 61:10, 1382-1394, D OI: 10.1080/00140139.2018.1473644

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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