The Difference Between a Treadmill and a Stair Stepper

Treadmill and stair stepper

Nejron Photo/

By Simon Gould

Stair steppers were very popular a short while ago and everyone had them. They give a good cardio workout and really work those legs. After all, climbing stairs is hard and that is what the stair stepper emulates. They are still made everywhere but have different names like stair climber or fitness stepper. A popular piece of cardio equipment found in gyms and fitness centers worldwide is the Stairmaster. Here we’ll compare them along with the treadmill.


Treadmill – These cost a bit more than stair steppers. But like them they come in a wide range of prices. You could find a manual treadmill with a small belt and no features for around $200. All you would be able to do with it is walk and not very well or far but it’s still a treadmill. We advise spending $1,000+ to get a good motorized one that will last from walking phase to running.

Stair stepper – These can range from 2 steps of a mini stepper and not much else for around $100 to escalator type machines for $3,000. Then you’ve got everything in between, they’re like treadmills like that. It’s when you start getting motorized and having a console to make measurements as you go that you start to see price increases so you have to determine which you want to go for.


Treadmill – These never do well in this category, it’s not as bad as running outside because of the bouncy deck but there’s still impact. You can get overuse injuries from treadmills like shin splints but you have to run quite frequently and long distances to start suffering from those. Most cardio machines have very little impact but that can’t be said of the treadmill.

Stair stepper – These have barely any impact at all. However, the knee is bent like in squatting so the knees do take some pounding on a stepper but it’s not from an impact. You are just pushing down with your legs, you’re not landing on the step at all. Stair stepping is hard work but you are pushing your body weight through gravity rather than landing on your body weight.

Weight loss

Treadmill – Weight loss can be achieved very successfully with treadmills. The act of lifting one foot above the other and running burns a lot of calories. You burn them even by jogging and walking, gravity and your body weight ensures the treadmill is hard work. You will burn around 130 calories per 10 minutes of running.

Stair stepper – We all know that walking up stairs is hard work, whatever is hard to do burns a lot of calories and that’s good for weight loss. The problem with a stair stepper is when it comes to building muscle or building cardiovascular fitness. It’s difficult to maintain a gentle stair climb over one that requires more energy.

Muscles worked

Treadmill – The legs get a workout on both of these machines. The act of running is different from stair climbing. With both you need to keep your center of gravity and posture over your body. This is so you don’t stress your knees too much. The treadmill works all the leg muscles including the hamstrings, quadriceps, shins and calves.

Stair stepper – Depending on whether you’re using a mini stepper or an escalator type machine will determine what muscles you’re using. If you’re sitting down using a mini stepper you’re pushing down from your knees, this works out the hamstrings, quadriceps in the calves. The shins don’t get much of a look in. This is similar for the large stepper machines.

Assembly & location

Treadmill – These are tough for assembly as they can be quite complicated, that’s why we recommend you pay for it from the manufacturer or whoever you buy from. The location is important because they tend to make a lot of noise, plus you need clearance around the machine for safety. It’s probably best to have it in it’s own room with other gym equipment you may have.

Stair stepper – If we’re referring to a mini stepper then they can be stored underneath a bed and are tiny, location isn’t important either as they don’t make a noise and are portable. When it comes to motorized stair steppers you need to think like the treadmill. There are noise concerns and you’re not going to be able to move the unit very easily once it’s been assembled.

Maintenance & longevity

Treadmill – Longevity is very much determined by how much you paid. If you paid $1,000 or more you’re likely to have a good parts warranty of 5 years and maybe a lifetime on the motor. Most importantly you will have around 1 to 2 years of labor. Maintenance is required of any cardio machine that has a motor and is recommended every 3 months.

Stair stepper – A mini stair stepper for $100 or so will require no maintenance and could last quite well but they’re not going to give you a good workout. Motorized steppers will require regular maintenance like a treadmill where the motor touches other components. Longevity will be like the treadmill as the warranty is very similar for what you pay.


The stair stepper was popular once and I don’t think it will ever be very popular again. I think there is one reason for this and that is people hate climbing stairs. I begrudge having to climb the stairs of my house, the last thing I want to do is pay for something where stair climbing is a workout. It is not something enjoyable.

Stair steppers are still being made and sold but nowhere near in the quantities of treadmills. They both do well when it comes to calorie burn and weight loss. They have the capacity to burn a lot of calories with the incline and speed of the treadmill and the resistance of the stair stepper. But for me the treadmill wins every time.

Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here’s my favorite, I always recommend it when asked.

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