Gym Equipment

Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Which Is Better For Cardio?

stairmaster vs treadmill

Whether your goal is weight loss or improving cardiovascular fitness, a regular cardio workout is key to achieving these goals.  

In the gym, two of the more common cardio machines are the Stairmaster and the treadmill.  

But which one is the better option for aerobic exercise?  


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The common question of which is the best choice when it comes to the stairmaster vs treadmill debate depends on your ability and fitness goals.  

In this article, we’re going to be exploring the main differences between these two popular machines and answering some common questions to help you choose the next time you’re in the gym.   

What Are the Key Differences Between a Stairmaster vs Treadmill?

First, let’s look at each machine’s overall function and design.  

Man running on a treadmill in gym

A treadmill is a motorized exercise machine that’s designed for walking, jogging, or running.  

They feature a moving belt with many models offering an adjustable resistance level which allows you to change the incline for a more high-intensity workout, such as incline walking.  

The speed of the belt can also be altered so you can vary the intensity of the workout.  

Many treadmills also include features such as built-in workout programs, a heart rate monitor, and the number of calories burned which are shown via a control panel.  

Home use treadmills tend to be more basic but also more cost-effective.

Some are even foldable for easy storage after your workout making them great options for a smaller home gym.  

Treadmills for a commercial gym are designed for heavier and high-impact use and tend to offer more in the way of features.  

Some of the more advanced treadmills have built-in televisions so you can catch up on your favorite TV shows.  

As technology advances, there are now even treadmills designed to offer you a fully immersive experience so you can choose from various destinations around the world ranging from Iceland to the Bahamas!  

Woman using stairmaster in gym

A stairmaster, also known as a stair stepper machine or stair climber, is designed to replicate the motion of climbing the stairs.  

You’d step onto stationary pedals and use your bodyweight as resistance to push each pedal down in a continuous motion to simulate stair climbing.  

Stairmasters look like mini escalators and tend to vary in size with commercial models being much larger and more heavy-duty.  

Most of them feature stationary handrails for balance and support as you train.

Some models may offer adjustable resistance levels so you can increase or decrease the intensity of the workout.  

Unlike treadmills, which primarily focus on a forward movement, Stairmasters engage the muscles differently by targeting the legs and glutes in a vertical motion.

Is A Treadmill Or Stairmaster Better for Calorie Burn & Weight Loss?

When it comes to fat loss and reducing body weight, both the Stairmaster and treadmill can help with this.  

It’s worth noting that one doesn’t necessarily illicit greater energy expenditure than the other or provide quicker results in terms of fast loss.  

How quickly you burn calories and lose weight depends on the intensity and duration of your workout and not whether you use the Stairmaster or treadmill.  

As a Stairmaster workout is like climbing endless stairs this makes it super effective for toning lower body muscles and boosting endurance levels.  

It offers a low impact way of working several muscle groups; your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, providing a high-intensity workout that can lead to significant calorie burn.  

It’s also useful to know that when you increase muscle mass this boosts your metabolism which can increase fat burning.  

What’s more, because it’s weight-bearing, this can also help to improve your bone density.  

If you’re looking to tone your lower body through strength training while shedding pounds, the Stairmaster might be best option.

A treadmill workout can be a great way of burning calories making it a staple for cardiovascular training.  

When you adjust the belt to a steep incline or increase the speed to a faster pace you can undertake a more intense workout to burn even more calories helping you strip away body fat.  

When compared to a stair climber machine, the treadmill has many more workout options making it less monotonous due to the ability to vary the speed and incline.  

It’s also usually easier to perform a hiit workout on a treadmill which is one of the better ways of burning calories and improving your endurance levels.  

The bottom line is that both the Stairmaster and treadmill can offer substantial calorie burn which is important for weight loss.  

The choice between them should factor in your personal preference, joint health, and fitness objectives.  

The best machine for weight loss really depends on how you use it and how often.  

Can Using a Stairmaster or Treadmill Improve Strength and Tone Muscles?

When compared to treadmill walking on a flat surface, the Stairmaster offers more in the way of resistance as you ascend each step and use your body weight to push downwards.

This resistance works several muscles, specifically your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles.  

When you walk on a flat surface you’ll be engaging your hamstrings and calf muscles but there is little in the way of resistance.  

However, when you compare this to incline treadmill walking, you’ll increase activation of your gluteus maximus (your largest butt muscle) making it more challenging.  

That being said, there is still significantly less resistance when using a treadmill whether you walk or run on the flat or set it to an incline.  

So, if your main aim is to tone and strengthen your lower body muscles, then the Stairmaster makes for a better workout option.  

What Is The Impact On Joints Comparing The Stairmaster VS Treadmill

The Stairmaster would be considered easier on your joints when compared to a treadmill due to the smooth climbing motion and the lower impact nature of the workouts.  

This will make it a much better choice if you have joint issues or suffer from joint pain when training.  

When you walk or run on a treadmill this is higher impact compared to the Stairmaster.  

This is because the repetitive movement of your feet hitting the treadmill belt with every step can put stress on your joints, especially your ankle or knee joints. 

While the cushioning of a treadmill belt can help absorb some shock, it may still be challenging for those with joint issues to be able to tolerate extended treadmill sessions.

It’s also worth noting that running on a treadmill is more likely to result in shin splints.  

Can The Stairmaster & Treadmill Be Used In HIIT Workouts?

You can use either the Stairmaster or Treadmill for your High-Intensity Interval Training.  

HIIT workouts are great if you’re short on time allowing you to burn a larger number of calories in a shorter space of time all while improving your cardiovascular fitness.

Let’s look at each cardio machine, in turn, to see how they can be used as part of HIIT training.  

In a HIIT workout, the Stairmaster can be used for intervals of high-intensity climbing interspersed with brief recovery periods.

The continuous climbing motion can lend itself well to a HIIT workout routine, allowing you to adjust the intensity by altering either the speed or resistance level.   

Hiit training on stairmaster

Example Stairmaster HIIT Workout:

  1. Set the speed of the machine so you can comfortably perform a slow-paced walk.  If you find yourself getting out of breath knock it back to a slower speed. 
  2. Continue stair climbing for 2 minutes. To make it more challenging, try skipping a step so take two steps at a time. 
  3. Once complete, increase the speed and continue stepping.  The goal here is to rapidly increase your heart rate.
  4. Carry on walking at this fast pace for 30 seconds then reduce the speed so you can recover. 
  5. Perform 5 to 10 rounds (depending on your fitness level). 
  6. At the end do a 5-minute cool down of 5 minutes steady state cardio.  

Similarly, the treadmill offers endless possibilities for HIIT workouts.

You can vary the speed and incline settings to create intervals of sprinting or running at high intensity, alternating with periods of walking or jogging for recovery.  

Some treadmills will have HIIT workouts pre-programmed or alternatively, you may be able to set the machine program yourself so you don’t have to manually make the speed adjustments. 

Hiit training on treadmill

Example Treadmill HIIT Workout:

  1. Start by setting the treadmill to an incline of 2% – it’s suggested this is more in line with walking outdoors.
  2. Walk at a steady pace for around 2 minutes.  
  3. Then quickly increase the speed so you sprint for 30 seconds.  
  4. Return to walking for 2 minutes and continue repeating this sequence for 15 to 20 minutes. 

What Should Beginners Know When Deciding Between a Stairmaster VS The Treadmill?

If you’re new to cardiovascular training, there are a few things to consider to help you decide between using the Stairmaster or a treadmill.  

If you want to focus on improving your lower-body strength and endurance levels, the Stairmaster may be the better choice as this offers a superior form of resistance training.  

However, if you prefer more variety in your training programs, the treadmill could be your go-to option.  

As with any form of exercise training, it’s a good idea to start with a shorter-duration workout and gradually increase the intensity over time.  

This could be by speeding up the machine, altering the incline, or simply training for a longer period.  

This will keep your risk of injury to a minimum and prevent you from overexertion.  

For many, exercise can feel like a chore.

That’s why it’s crucial to select the machine you genuinely enjoy using, as this increases the likelihood of sticking to regular cardio sessions.

Consider this: completing a 30-minute workout on the treadmill, which you find enjoyable, is far more beneficial than enduring a 10-minute session on the Stairmaster, which you dislike.

Are There Any Drawbacks Of The Stairmaster VS Treadmill

Both the Stairmaster and treadmill can offer enjoyable forms of cardio training but are there any cons to think about?  Let’s have a look: 

  1. Stairmaster machines tend to be less versatile with less options for different workouts.  
  2. It can be boring! Some people may find the repetitive climbing motion uncomfortable or monotonous over time.
  3. It can be more difficult for those with knee or ankle issues to stick to drawn-out cardio sessions due to the constant impact.  The increased resistance can sometimes result in knee pain.
  1. Running or walking on a treadmill can be high-impact, leading to potential joint strain or discomfort, especially if you already have existing joint issues.
  2. If you have a home gym, using a treadmill requires space and can be noisy, which may not be suitable for all living situations.
  3. Beginners may find it challenging to maintain proper form and pace, increasing the risk of injury.

Which One Is Better For Building The Glutes: The Stairmaster Or Treadmill

Both the Stairmaster and treadmill can contribute to developing your glutes, but the Stairmaster is more effective due to its specific targeting of these muscles and the increased resistance. 

There are several ways to target the glutes when using a Stairmaster:

This will work the glute muscles while providing a great cardio workout and boosting endurance. 

As you step up with one foot, take the other foot and kick it back while extending your leg to put a little extra emphasis on the glutes.  

Move slowly and pause while squeezing your glute max at the top of the movement.  

This is a great way of adding a bit more versatility into your Stairmaster training.  

With your feet resting on a step and holding the handlebars, allow it to move downwards.  

As it nears the bottom, squat down slightly then jump two steps up with both feet.  

By simply skipping a step, you can increase the challenge on your butt muscles.  Remember to squeeze the glutes as you power up.

Taking side steps by crossing one foot over the other as you ascend is a great way of working your hip adductors helping to improve strength to your hip flexors.   

However, incorporating incline training on the treadmill can also help activate the glutes effectively but with slightly less resistance.

So, if building your glutes is a goal but you don’t have access to a Stairmaster, then jump on the treadmill but set it to a higher incline to fire up those glute muscles.  

Final Thoughts

Choosing between the Stairmaster and treadmill boils down to personal goals, preferences, and other health considerations. 

If lower body strengthening is your primary focus, especially on the glutes, or you’d prefer something more low-impact with less stress on the joints, then the Stairmaster would give you better results.  

On the other hand, if you want more versatility in your training with the option to simulate different terrains and speeds and you’re not concerned with the high-impact nature, then you’ll be looking more towards the treadmill.  

Both machines have their place in HIIT workouts, allowing for different intensity levels that can help to boost your metabolism and fat burning.  

However, the key to achieving your fitness goals is to continually test and challenge your muscles.  

It’s not uncommon for your body to get used to a certain form of training but by incorporating both the treadmill and stair climber you’ll notice much quicker results.

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