Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Battle for the Ages!

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When Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient wise men created the first fitness machines, they had regular, physical activities in mind and magically converted them into gym equipment.

It’s a true story…although the actual story is probably somewhat less interesting.

That being said, some of these machines were taken to the extreme. Who would have imagined that we will now willingly climb endless flights of moving stairs without getting anywhere? Or that the same (well…similar) “Wheel of Pain” exercise that was used to torture a young Arnold in Conan the Barbarian would become a gym superstar?

Well, these “simple” devices are now recognized as some of the most storied and popular electronic fitness machines in the world.

Of course, I’m talking about StairMasters and treadmills. Both are (in)famous for their cardio-enhancing abilities. But which one is better?

Today, we’re finally going to give a definitive answer as we provide to you, dear reader, the long-awaited StairMaster vs treadmill throwdown!

What is a StairMaster?

StairMaster is a company located in Vancouver, Washington that produces fitness equipment. However, this name is generally used in conjunction with a brand of exercise machines that resemble an escalator staircase, which you can commonly see in globo gyms.

It’s actually not such a new invention. The first rotating staircase machine, “StairMaster 5000,” was made back in 1983. Its inventors, Lanny Potts, Jim Walker, and George Schupp, founded a company called Tri-Tech and launched their first invention with the name “Ergometer 6000” (later renamed “StairMaster 5000”).

stairmaster vs treadmill

The idea behind this invention was to create an exercise machine that would mimic stair climbing minus the joint-straining walking downstairs. Basically, it has an infinite loop of stairs that move like an escalator. This simulates climbing the stairs for one who uses it.

StairMaster 5000 was followed by “StairMaster 6000” in 1984, which had a digital screen that showed calories burned and alerted you when you “climbed” a certain number of stairs. After this one came “StairMaster 4000 PT,” which had a pair of pedals that were supposed to simulate stair-climbing without actual stairs. This invention allowed you to adjust the resistance level and choose the height of the stairs individually according to your height.

By the late 1980s, StairMasters were staples in gyms across the United States. Nowadays, “StairMaster” refers to the company that produces much more than the staircase machines. You will find everything from treadmills to assault bikes in their assortment. However, we still use this name to refer to the original stair-climbing or pedaling machine.

In its essence, a StairMaster provides a demanding cardio exercise and activates lower body muscles. The machines we see in gyms today might change their appearance compared to the first models, but they can still be seen as a set of rotating steps or pedals that you can adjust regarding the resistance level you want.


  • Great cardio
  • Effectively works lower body muscles
  • Burn calories
  • Low impact


  • Doesn’t offer full-body engagement

What is a Treadmill?

A treadmill is a popular exercise machine that simulates running, walking, or climbing. As popular as a Stairmaster machine is, treadmills are approximately 23449295 times as numerous . However, not many people know its long history.

@mannat bhasin

In the 1st century, a precursor to the treadmill was used to produce power for lifting heavy objects. Of course, this device was nothing like what we know today. It was a large wheel attached to a crane (think of a hamster wheel).

A while later, in the 19th century, another version of the treadmill was used as a power source for machines. This one was operated by horses, and it more closely resembled the treadmill we know today. It featured a horizontal belt on which the horse was placed.

Later on, we have a somewhat dark history of treadmills. Another type of this machine was invented by William Cubitt in 1818 in England, and it was used in prisons as a form of punishment and labor. Prisoners were using the treadmill in groups for long hours. They were grinding grains or pumping the water with the power of the treadmill. This was physically and mentally exhausting because they were doing it sometimes for 10 hours straight! It was becoming more of a torture device than a work machine. Finally, it was banned in 1898.

(See! My Arnold/Conan reference from earlier wasn’t totally random!) 

It wasn’t until 1913 that the treadmill resurfaced, but this time as a patent for a training machine. Later on, engineer William Staub created the first home fitness treadmill machine under the name “PaceMaster 600.” Fast forward to today, a treadmill is the top-selling training machine in the world.


  • The cushioned tread provides slightly low-impact training
  • You can program speed and incline settings according to your goals
  • It can track distance, calories burned, and heart rate
  • Beneficial for cardiovascular health and lower body muscles


  • Can be monotonous

StairMaster vs Treadmill: How They Compare

This won’t be an easy comparison because both machines essentially have very similar benefits. However, let’s put them head to head and see which one is better for you.

Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Cardio Benefits

Both machines are equally successful in improving overall cardiovascular endurance.

Since a StairMaster mimics stair-climbing, it has similar benefits for your cardiovascular health. Research shows that high-intensity interval stair climbing is an effective option for increasing cardiorespiratory fitness. It strengthens the heart and lungs, which allows you to breathe in more oxygen and pump oxygen-rich blood more efficiently across your body.


The treadmill was actually developed as a device for diagnosing heart and lung conditions and diseases. Cardiologist Dr. Robert A. Bruce co-invented the first motorized treadmill in 1952 and created the “Bruce protocol” – a protocol for the exercise treadmill test, which is still a widely used method for diagnosing ischemic heart disease. During the test, the patient was hooked to an ECG machine and conducted physical activity on a treadmill while the electro-cardiogram changes during the exercise were being tracked.

So, it’s clear that a treadmill will get your heart pumping. That’s why many people use it as a cardio exercise, pre-training warm-up, or low-impact recovery training. A study showed that ten weeks of brisk treadmill walking showed improved cardiorespiratory function in patients with pulmonary hypertension.

Winner: A tie in this area since they both provide excellent cardio training.

Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Strength & Muscular Development

Both machines are focused on lower body muscles, including:

  • quads
  • glutes
  • hamstrings
  • calves
  • hip flexors
  • core

However, StairMasters really focus on the posterior chain muscles. The treadmill, if used for walking or running on a flat surface, works these muscles less than a StairMaster. The situation is different when using the treadmill at an increased incline. This puts additional strain on the muscles needed for climbing. However, the stepping movement that StairMasters require creates greater muscle compression.

Running on a treadmill additionally activates your back, shoulders, pectorals, and arms, but at a lower intensity. StairMasters can do the same if you don’t hold onto the handrails.


Both machines offer adjustable resistance. If you use a treadmill without an incline, it will give less resistance, and it will be more of a cardio workout than a muscle-strengthening exercise. However, with a steep incline, it will offer the same muscle-strengthening benefits as a StairMaster.

Winner: The StairMaster has a slight edge here when it comes to building muscles.

Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Impact

Since you are using only your body weight for resistance, both StairMasters and treadmills have a low impact on your joints. However, StairMasters put slightly more strain on joints (especially knees) than treadmills since you are going up instead of straight. However, an inclined treadmill will have a higher impact than a regular one.

On the other hand, running on a treadmill can have a more consistent impact on your muscles and make them more sore than the StairMaster does. Still, it all depends on the level of resistance you choose for your training.

Winner: The StairMaster has a higher impact on your joints compared to walking on a treadmill. However, an inclined treadmill will have a higher impact than a regular one. Ultimately, there is less of an overall impact from a Stairmaster than there is from a treadmill. As such, the treadmill wins this round.


Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Weight loss

It has been proven time and again that exercises burn calories, which aids in weight loss. So which one of these machines does the best job? Let’s do the math.

According to Harvard Medical School, a 125-pound person will lose 180 calories, a 155-pound person will lose 216, and a 185-pound person will lose 252 calories with a 30-minute workout on a generic Stair Stepper (like a Stairmaster). 

How many calories you will burn on a treadmill depends on if you are walking, jogging, or running on it. Walking or jogging for ~ 15 min/mile will burn 180, 216, and 252 calories. However, slow running will have higher numbers: 240, 288, and 336 for 5 mph (12 min/mile). 

In general, the treadmill burns more calories than StairMaster and, therefore, is better for weight loss.

Winner: Treadmill wins this round as it burns more calories than a StairMaster if you are running faster than 5 mph.

Stairmaster vs Treadmill – Cost

Both machines come in various types. Depending on the features of the machines, the price can vary from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.


However, treadmills tend to be cheaper than StairMaster, at least the simpler models. Still, if you want good quality and all bells and whistles, treadmills can become very pricey, too.

Winner: Treadmills tend to be less expensive than StairMasters.

Overall Stairmaster vs Treadmill Winner: King Treadmill (and it really wasn’t even that close!)

Frequently Asked Questions

Any additional questions about the Stairmaster vs Treadmill debate you need cleared up? We got you covered here!

Yes, due to the inclined movement, a StairMaster requires more effort than walking, activating lower body muscles more and providing a more vigorous cardio session.

This depends on your goals. 5-10 minutes (aiming at 50-60% of your maximum heart rate) should be enough for a warm-up. If you want to improve overall cardiovascular endurance and lose weight, you should use a treadmill for a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes a day, five days a week, aiming at 64-76% of your maximum heart rate (MHR).

Depending on how you use your treadmill, a StairMaster could replace it. If you plan on walking, a StairMaster will be more effective. However, you cannot “run” on a StairMaster, so in that case, it couldn’t really replace your treadmill.


What a showdown that was!

A StairMaster may be more effective for building lower-body muscles, but it puts more strain on joints and burns fewer calories. On the other hand, a treadmill can be slightly cheaper and better for weight loss but is less effective for building muscle strength and for toning.

Both machines do wonders for your cardiovascular health, and that’s their main purpose. However, the choice is up to you regarding which is better for helping you to reach your fitness goals. 

…except you might be bored to death….

…and neither of these are the most space-efficient pieces of equipment, either…

In that case, try some of the CrossFit Open Workouts. No Stairmaster vs treadmill debate necessary with these WODs!

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Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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