The elliptical trainer and spin bike are both excellent options for working out. But which one is best for you? In this guide, we compare both so that you can maximize your time doing cardio.
The elliptical machine is one of the most popular cardio machines in the gym, but the spin bike isn’t lagging too far behind.
Both offer a truly effective workout, amazing cardiovascular conditioning, great calorie-burning, and an excellent means of increasing muscular endurance.
But a lot of people want to know: which is better?
That’s what we’ll find out in this article!
Below, we’ll stack up all the various important factors to consider, evaluating the two workouts side by side for things like calories burned, cardiovascular conditioning, functional fitness, muscles worked, impact, and so on.
By the time we reach the end, you’ll have a much clearer idea of which of the two workouts is better for helping you reach your specific fitness goals.
Let’s jump right in!
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Calories Burned
I always like to start off talking about how many calories a specific workout can burn because, when it comes to weight loss, the formula can be fairly simple: calories burned > calories consumed = weight loss.
Below, we’ll talk a bit more about the specific weight loss effects of the two workouts, but for this one, we’ll keep it all about the numbers.
According to Harvard Medical School1, in just a 30-minute workout, a 185-pound person can burn around 294 calories at a “moderate” pace.
Raise the pace a bit—to factor in the times you’ll pedal harder, faster, stand up, or increase the resistance to simulate hills—and your “vigorous” spin bike workout will burn around 441 calories.
Of course, it’s difficult to sustain the “vigorous” pace for the full 30 minutes, so it’s likely you’ll spend most of your time in the “moderate” stage with a few periods of higher intensity.
For the sake of fairness, let’s split the difference and say that you’ll burn around 367 calories (rough napkin math) in a 30-minute, fast-paced spin workout.
Now, let’s compare that to the calories burned on the elliptical machine.
In the same amount of time, a 185-pound person will burn 378 calories. That’s going at a “general” pace, probably leaning more toward moderate than vigorous. Add in a bit faster-paced training, raise the incline, or increase the intensity, and you’ll burn even more calories.
Right out of the gate, as you can see, the elliptical takes a slight edge.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Weight Loss
Time to discuss the specifics of not just burning calories, but actually losing weight.
When we talk about losing weight, really what we mean is burning fat. There are a lot of incredibly complex details that go into fat-burning, but really, it can all be boiled down to the same formula as used for calorie-burning.
As long as your body is at a caloric deficit every day, it will have no choice but to tap into stored fats to produce enough energy to sustain you. Over time, you’ll burn through most of the fat you have stored, and thus you’ll lose weight.
The more energy you use during your workouts, the more your body will be forced to tap into stored fats. But there are some workouts that specifically activate fat for energy over the sugar-based energy available in your bloodstream.
These workouts tend to be lower-intensity, with your heart rate in a zone roughly 55 to 70% of your Max Heart Rate. If you can keep your heart rate there for the full duration of the workout, you’ll see better fat-burning results.
Both the spin bike and the elliptical are great cardio machines for weight loss. They both allow you to work your body hard enough to push your heart rate into that fat-burning zone, then keep it there for your full workout.
You can see great fat-burning and weight loss while spending time on these machines.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Cardio
When we talk about “cardio”, really what we mean is “cardiovascular conditioning” to build cardiovascular endurance.
Exercise increases the activity in your body, forcing your body to send additional energy to replace what is being burned. It also needs to send more oxygen to keep your muscles functioning.
In response to this increased demand, your heart pumps harder, your lungs absorb more oxygen, and your blood vessels dilate to allow more blood to pass. The more you do this, the more efficient your cardiovascular system becomes at delivering those nutrients and oxygen to the muscles that are working.
As you saw in the elliptical vs running article, most “cardio” workouts are great for increasing your cardiovascular endurance.
Spinning is another one of those workout that will do wonders to strengthen your cardiovascular system and make it highly effective at keeping up with the stressor that is exercise.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Functional Fitness
I’m all about functional fitness, which is fitness that translates into more efficient movement and greater resilience through your activities of daily life.
For example, playing with your kids, chasing after your pets, lifting heavy objects around the house, carrying the groceries, etc.
The elliptical is one of the best machines for training functional fitness because of the way it forces your body to move. Not only is the stride fairly natural, but every movement involves a twisting of your core that will strengthen your abs, obliques, and lower back muscles.
All of these are recruited to stabilize your spine, so strengthening them will actually make you more resistant to back injuries.
Plus, you’re walking more, so your leg muscles grow stronger and better-able to support your weight when walking out in the real world.
One very neat benefit of the elliptical: you can walk backwards!
Going backwards on the elliptical will do wonders to strengthen your lower quads, the muscles that support your knees. People with knee injuries or weak knees will notice huge improvements just by changing the direction they walk.
With spinning, there’s less functional fitness developed overall. Really, it will only benefit you functionally if you spend a lot of time cycling around town.
Spinning is a great workout if you spend a lot of time on bike—commuting to and from work, mountain biking, distance biking, even just cycling with your kids around the block—but otherwise, elliptical training definitely has the edge for functional fitness.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – HIIT Workouts
Both the spin bike and elliptical are pretty great HIIT machines.
With the spin bike, you pedal at top speed, raise the resistance to simulate hills, or stand up to cycle. All three actions will help to push your heart rate toward max capacity and give you a truly amazing HIIT workout.
For an elliptical trainer HIIT workout, you can pedal faster or raise the incline and resistance. You’ll find that it’s easy to push your body into high-intensity territory, and the effort will lead to huge improvements in your fitness.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Muscles Worked
In this specific aspect, no other cardio machine in the gym can come close to competing with the elliptical!
To give you an understanding of why, let’s start off by looking at the muscles worked on the spin bike.
Typically, your average spin workout will focus on your legs—your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves—with some engagement of your core and maybe a bit of upper body recruitment (of your shoulders and triceps) as you lean on the bike.
Like most forms of cardio, it’s all about that lower body, and your upper body gets largely ignored.
But once you look at the muscles worked on the elliptical machine, you see quite a different story!
For the pedaling, your lower body has to do a lot of work—quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, all working together to keep you striding forward.
To work the handles, your chest, triceps, and shoulders engage with every push, and your upper back, shoulders, and biceps engage with every pull.
Then, to keep your body stable through the twisting movement, your abs, obliques, and lower back are engaged.
Really, it’s every muscle in your body working together in the elliptical training.
What’s more, you can easily pay certain parts of your body more attention.
For example, let’s say you want to give your upper body a better workout. Well, try to reduce the effort in your legs, and focus on really pumping the handles (like you would with an assault bike). You’ll feel the burn in your arms and shoulders in no time.
Or, if you want to really pay attention to your core, squeeze your abs, obliques, and lower back with every step. Talk about game-changing!
And if your goal is to build monster quads, try squat-walking for even a full minute. Guaranteed it will have your legs burning in far less time.
With the elliptical machine, you can work more muscles and work them more effectively than the spin bike. It’s clear which is the winner in this one, for sure.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Impact
One of the best benefits of the elliptical trainer is that there is virtually no impact on your joints. Because you never remove your feet from the pedals, there is no impact on your foot bones, ankles, knees, and hips with every step.
This makes it an excellent workout for people who are worried about existing joint problems, recovering from surgery or injury, or just want to protect their joints.
Don’t get me wrong: high-impact exercise like running and jumping is excellent for strengthening your joints, muscles, and bones. The microscopic damage it causes to your skeletal system compel your body to rebuild that joint, muscle, and bone tissue back stronger.
But high-impact exercise can be painful, even dangerous for people who are suffering from existing joint pains or injuries. A smart trainee will combine low- and high-impact exercise to push their bodies hard one day and give it a break the next.
Spinning, like elliptical training, falls into the “low-impact” category. Because you never lift your feet off the bike’s pedals, there is no impact on your joints through the cycling.
There may be an increase in strain on your knees, hips, and back when you cycle standing up, but overall, spinning is as good for your joints as elliptical training.
Elliptical vs Spin Bike – Enjoyment
Interestingly enough, this is one area where spinning may actually take the edge.
If you look in on any spinning class, you’ll see a lot of people drenched in sweat, gasping for air, and working their hearts out, but rarely will you see them looking bored.
The very nature of spin class brings in an element of challenge—against yourself and those around you—and the encouragement of the trainer will keep you pushing hard.
With the elliptical, you tend to do mostly solo training, which means it’s easier to stop really pushing hard, paying attention to what you’re doing, or engaging with the exercise. The repetitive nature of the training can lead to boredom fairly easily.
Elliptical machines try to solve that by adding screens and places where you can set up your phone or tablet to watch TV, as well as built-in speakers that let you play music. Heck, you can even read a book on the elliptical (I know I do!). There are plenty of ways you can stay engaged with your workout and avoid boredom.
But if you’re looking for a lot of fun, there’s something quite wonderful about partaking in a spinning class alongside a group of dedicated, hard-working people willing to sweat their hearts out on an exercise bike.
The Bottom Line
As you can see from the factors I shared above, the elliptical definitely is the better of the two workouts in a number of different ways—from the number of calories it burns to the muscles it works out to the low-impact nature of the training to the way it develops functional fitness.
However, spinning can be just as good for weight loss, can do a pretty good job of pushing your cardiovascular system, and may even be more fun to do as part of a spinning class rather than training solo.
At the end of the day, both are amazing workouts, and deserve a place in your weekly training regimen. Spend a bit more time on the elliptical machine, but if you’ve got the opportunity and the time, why not participate in a spin class once or twice a week?
Whatever helps you to keep up with your cardio and burn calories—it’s a win-win all around!
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