Stair Stepper vs Elliptical – Which Is A More Effective Workout?


Cross-training is an important part of fitness for runners. Incorporating another form of training can be a huge help in improving your performance.

The choice between stair stepper and elliptical is a common one for cross-training runners. Both are machines are common at gyms, and you can easily buy and use them at home.

Let’s have a closer look at the similarities and differences between the two. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of which one works best for you!


Cardiovascular fitness is a large part of running. Both the stair stepper and elliptical will help you work on this aspect of getting in shape. But which one offers a better cardio workout?

Although both machines offer a great workout, we recommend the elliptical if your focus is on cardio improvement. Let’s check them both out!

Stair Stepper

The stair stepper gives you more of a cardiovascular boost than you might realize.

But it’s mainly a low-intensity, steady-state form of cardio that’s difficult to increase in intensity as your cardiovascular health improves.


The elliptical, on the other hand, is much more versatile. You can do exactly the same type of workouts on the elliptical as you can on the stair stepper: low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) stuff.

But you can also incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on the elliptical (which you can’t on a stair stepper). It’s commonly accepted (and scientifically backed) that HIIT is more effective than LISS for improving heart rate variability (HRV).


Both machines offer a good cardiovascular workout, as long as you put in effort and intensity. But the elliptical’s ability to do HIIT workouts makes it the slightly better option if cardiovascular improvement is your goal.


Obviously, both of these exercise machines work your muscles. They work similar muscles, but one has an extra advantage over the other! Let’s check out the details.

Stair Stepper

The stair stepper is a leg-heavy workout. When done right, it works the calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes.

Typically, a stair stepper doesn’t involve the upper body at all. You may get a bit of a bicep workout if you’re stepping intensely and hanging on to the handlebars for dear life, but generally, your upper body will be relaxed.


The elliptical is a much more full-body workout than the stair stepper. The leg motion on an elliptical is similar to that on a stair stepper (although not quite the same – the stair stepper mimics climbing stairs, while the elliptical mimics running).

So, like the stair stepper, the elliptical works the calves, quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

But, unlike the stair stepper, the elliptical has an element of upper body training incorporated into it. Because you can use the moving handles instead of just the stationary ones, your arms will be moving much more than they do on the stair stepper.

This arm movement works your biceps, triceps, chest, upper back, and core. Of course, if you choose to hold onto the stationary handles instead, you won’t be getting these upper body muscle benefits.


Both machines are great lower body workouts that engage the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

But the elliptical comes out on top for its inclusion of the upper body, extending its muscle-building benefits to the arms, chest, core, and upper back.

Calories Burned

It’s important to understand that the amount of calories you burn on a particular machine depends on a variety of things. It won’t be the same every single time you do a workout.

Things that play a role in how many calories you burn include:

  • Your weight
  • Your fitness level
  • How intensely you exercise
  • How long you exercise for
  • Your health

That said, there is a general range of calories burned that you can refer to, which we’ll explain down below.

Stair Stepper

According to a Harvard study, you can expect to burn 180 to 252 calories (depending on your weight) in 30 minutes of moderate exercise on a stair stepper.

Obviously, if you increase your speed or intensity, you can burn more. If you take it very easy, you’re more likely to burn calories at the lower end of the range.


The same study referenced above says that you can burn 270 to 378 calories per 30 minutes of exercise, again depending on your personal weight.

This is for the same kind of intensity as the stair stepper above, so already you can see that it’s likely you’ll burn more calories on the elliptical than the stair stepper even if doing it at a moderate pace.

Because the elliptical is more versatile in terms of adding resistance and increasing your intensity, you can generally burn more calories in a shorter period of time by doing HIIT-style sessions.


Harvard is constantly updating their research, so the above figures are the latest (2021). As you can see, the elliptical is the more effective of the two when it comes to burning calories.

But it depends largely on how much effort you choose to put in. You can work out on the stair stepper at a high level of intensity and burn more calories than an elliptical workout at a slow pace. It’s what you make of it!

Take Note

Machines and fitness trackers are notorious for getting calorie counts very wrong! If you do wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker that counts calories, it’s a good idea to compare it to your machine and see how close the two of them are.

Often, these things over-estimate the calories you’re burning. It can be extremely frustrating when you don’t see the progress that you should be seeing because your watch is lying to you!

It’s a great idea to work out how many calories you burn per day, using a calculator like this one. From there, you can work out a nutrition plan that has you at a calorie deficit (if you’re working on losing weight), and tracking how many calories you ingest using an app like MyFitnessPal (Android, iPhone).

Relying on that is much more accurate and you’re likely to actually see your results faster. There’s nothing wrong with checking your tracker or machine’s calorie count for comparison purposes (ie. did you do a better workout today than yesterday?) but we recommend not relying on it much.


There’s no easy way to compare the cost of a stair stepper vs. an elliptical. There is a huge variety of different machines, from gigantic commercial machines to small, “step-only” machines.

Basically, there will be a machine that suits your needs. If you want a large fully kitted-out commercial-grade machine, there’s nothing stopping you from getting one! But be aware that it’s going to cost a lot more than a smaller machine designed for home use.

Typically, ellipticals are slightly more affordable than a comparable stair stepper. Although you can buy a cheap stepper in the form of just the bottom part (the actual steps), if you have your heart set on a stair stepper, we recommend investing a little more and getting a full machine.

Which Is Better for Runners?

Ultimately, if you’re cross-training as a way to improve your running, the right type of cross-training for you really depends on your personal preference.

Whether you choose an elliptical or a stair stepper, as long as you do it with an appropriate amount of intensity, you’ll be getting a good workout, burning plenty of calories, and engaging your muscles.

Final Conclusion

We’ve compared the stair stepper vs elliptical in quite some detail. So, which is better? Well, the answer is not exactly specific. But we can give some guidance!

We recommend choosing the stair stepper if you’re more comfortable with low-intensity steady-state cardio and you want to target your glutes, hips, and quads.

We suggest the elliptical if you want a full-body workout that you can switch up between low and high-intensity!

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.