Elliptical vs Bike: Which Is Better for Weight Loss?
Cardio exercise has long been touted as an indispensable method for both dropping pounds and maintaining fitness. Ellipticals and stationary bikes are two of the most popular cardio machines in gyms and homes today. This makes sense: both offer a low-impact alternative to running, a popular activity that is nonetheless inaccessible to many people due to joint strain and prior injuries.
Does an elliptical or a bike work better for weight loss, and how can you interpret the research to best serve your unique circumstances and preferences? This article aims to help you do just that by empowering you with education and direction, two tools that will serve you well throughout your weight loss journey.
What Are the Main Differences Between Bikes and Ellipticals?
Most cardio machines look fairly similar upon first perusal (within their own category), but there are subtle variables that can change the focus of your workout. Here’s a basic overview of the different types of ellipticals and bikes you’ll encounter in a standard gym.
In general, ellipticals are stationary exercise machines that improve cardio fitness by mimicking the movements of running, walking, or stair climbing in a supportive, zero-impact fashion. Zero-impact means your feet don’t leave or strike the ground at any point during the stride.
Elliptical cross trainer models require work from both the arms and the legs, while elliptical incline trainers allow users to vary the climbing capacity of the machine and challenge their posterior chain (the muscles in the back of the body) to a greater degree. Users can change the resistance on most ellipticals to make the movement easier or harder.
Stationary bikes allow you to recreate the movement of biking outdoors, something most of us are familiar with, while indoors. Some exercise bikes even have attached screens that display moving videos of scenic trails and city streets that slow down and speed up as you do! These machines have gear or resistance adjustments that allow users to vary the difficulty of pedaling throughout workouts.
An upright bike is set up like a traditional bike, with no support for the torso and a small, potentially uncomfortable seat. It allows you to stand up and pump your legs for a more challenging ‘hill-climbing’ movement. A recumbent bike, with a seat that supports the low back and a movement angle that can be less straining for the upper body and neck muscles, is a favorite of physical therapists and older exercisers.
How Does Exercise Promote Weight Loss?
Before answering whether an elliptical or stationary bike will help you lose more weight, we first need to understand exercise’s role in weight loss in the first place. Most of us have heard sayings like “abs are made in the kitchen”, or “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet”, and while true to some extent, regular exercise does play an important role in losing weight and maintaining weight loss.
Keep these three principles in mind when planning a cardio regimen to support your weight loss goal.
Hopping on a cardio machine and moving at a leisurely pace while flipping through a magazine is not an effective weight loss technique, though it’s something you’ll see at the gym frequently. Burning more calories in your workout indicates a greater potential for sustained weight loss. 
Sweating, breathing hard, and feeling your heart pounding (during portions of the workout and all within reason) are good indicators that you’re pushing yourself appropriately.
Aim for 200 or more minutes of cardio per week, split amongst three to five days. This is a challenging but sustainable quantity that’s been shown to promote weight loss. 
According to a 2017 study,“consistently performing exercise of a duration greater than the basic recommendations for health (150 min/week of moderate-intensity exercise) does appear to be more likely to contribute to weight loss and weight maintenance efforts over the long term.” 
Working out regularly is strongly correlated to maintenance of weight loss.  This means consistency not just from week to week but from month to month and year to year as well. It’s important to find a schedule that you can fit into your life and then make it as much of a priority as work and family commitments.
The Biggest Question: Which Machine is Right for You?
Now that we’ve clarified the differences between bikes and ellipticals and the role of exercise in weight loss, we can answer our big question. Which machine is better for weight loss?
Some research indicates that the elliptical might create greater muscle activation in the legs, and while this is worth taking into consideration, the following questions will help you determine the right answer for you individually. 
1. Which machine do I enjoy more?
We’ve seen the significance of consistency over the long haul when it comes to exercise. Most people won’t stick with something they don’t enjoy, so while this question might seem frivolous, it’s actually the most important consideration.
2. Which machine feels more comfortable?
Depending on your age, size, body type, and fitness level, an elliptical or a bike might not feel great. Experiment with different styles of machines to find one that keeps your joints happy.
3. Which machine allows me to commit to increased intensity, duration, and consistency?
This is correlated to the question of enjoyment, but it’s a little more specific. You might enjoy the elliptical but find it hard to push yourself to an appropriate intensity level for weight loss. Or you might enjoy a stationary bike but struggle with committing to longer workouts due to boredom.
Remember that if you’re going to spend the time and effort to work out anyway, you ought to do it in a way that will create the best possible results.
4. Do I respond well to the motivation and structure of group fitness classes?
If the answer to this question is yes, a bike might be the most effective weight loss option for you. There is a wide variety of both in-person and virtual cycle classes available today (sometimes referred to as ‘spin’), while similar resources for the elliptical are harder to find.
Elliptical vs. Bike: Workout Ideas for Everyone
Here are three fun, challenging workouts that you can try today.
Create or find a 30 minute upbeat playlist. Alternate between zero resistance and the highest resistance possible on your elliptical between songs (first song = no resistance, second song = highest resistance, and so on) for the duration of the playlist. Aim for an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) of Somewhat Hard to Hard. 
Recumbent Bike Workout
Complete a moderate 5 minute warm-up on the bike. For 21 minutes, alternate between 1 minute of pedaling as fast as you can and 2 minutes of recovery pedaling. Finish with a 5 minute cool-down.
Stationary Bike Workout
Try a pyramid-style workout. Complete 5 minutes at an RPE of Somewhat Hard, 4 minutes at an RPE of Hard, and 3 minutes at an RPE of Very Hard. Work your way back down the pyramid by completing the 4 minute interval and the 5 minute interval again. Repeat this pyramid 2-4 times.
1. Donnelly, J. E., Honas, J. J., Smith, B. K., Mayo, M. S., Gibson, C. A., Sullivan, D. K., ... Washburn, R. A. (2013, April 16). Aerobic exercise alone results in clinically significant weight loss for men and women: Midwest exercise trial 2. Retrieved March 26, 2020, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.20145
2. Swift, D. L., Johannsen, N. M., Lavie, C. J., Earnest, C. P., & Church, T. S. (2014). The role of exercise and physical activity in weight loss and maintenance. Retrieved March 26, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3925973/
3. Cox, C. E. (2017, August). Role of Physical Activity for Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance. Retrieved March 26, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556592/
4. University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. (2019, March 29). Exercise is more critical than diet to maintain weight loss: Physical activity helps to prevent weight regain when previously overweight. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 26, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190329130227.htm
5. Prosser, L. A., Stanley, C. J., Norman, T. L., Park, H. S., & Damiano, D. L. (2011, February). Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking and overground walking. Electromyographic patterns. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3299003/
6. The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion. (2012, September 18). Retrieved March 26, 2020, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/borg-scale/