Climbing Workouts vs. Elliptical: Which Is Better?

Elaine K. Howley
·7 min read

So many of us are trying to get fit and shed some pounds, and working out on a cardio machine such as a vertical climber or an elliptical trainer can help achieve those ends. The two exercise machines share some similarities, but one may be better suited for your specific needs and goals than another.

Climbing and Stepping Workouts

A climbing workout can take place on either a vertical climbing machine or a stairstepper. Stair steppers are fairly common in commercial gyms, but the more robust versions of these machines may take up more room than you're willing or able to set aside at home. (Many smaller versions exist, though, and some can even be deployed under your desk while sitting at work.)

These machines typically have two pedals that you stand on and move up and down in a stair-climbing motion. With some versions of stair steppers, your feet never leave the foot beds. With others, a rotating conveyor of steps mean you have to physically step from one pedal or stair to the next. Some of these have bars to hold on to, while others offer resistance bands or poles that can be moved back and forth to work out the upper body.

Another other category of climbing workouts involves a machine that moves you through a sort of upright crawling motion, with your feet on foot pedals that move up and down with your stepping motion and your hands on handles that move up and down in rhythm with your feet.

"Historically, climbing has been something that elite athletes are very familiar with," says Christa Dellebovi, director of training and education at CLMBR, a Denver-based startup that's releasing a digitally-connected, vertical climbing machine for home use in 2021. But because it's a low-impact, high-intensity type of movement, it's gaining followers outside of professional sports teams and rock climbers.

"It's really great for athletes who are trying to get that cardio conditioning without pounding the pavement or putting extra strain on their bodies. But it's also great for a casual exerciser," she says. "We see a lot of people that are coming over from a spin background who want to get more upper body work in."

Climbing can be a great way to torch calories, build stamina and get fit quickly because it forces you to work against gravity, says Chris Kolba, a physical therapist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. The exercise mimics the motion of climbing a staircase or a ladder, and "many people find that when they climb a lot of stairs, their legs are burning a little bit and they're out of breath."

Another benefit for these standing workouts is that your lower body is bearing your entire body weight, and you need to work to stay up right. This is good for building core strength.

On steppers that involve lifting your feet to get to the next pedal or stair, there is some impact involved with that movement. With climbers where your feet stay planted in the food beds, there's virtually no impact, making them suitable for people with injuries or other problems in the lower body that make walking or running painful or difficult.

Vertical climbing machines don't involve lifting your feet out of the foot beds, so also offer very low impact approach to weight-bearing fitness.

[Read: Peloton vs. Echelon -- Which Exercise Bike Is Best?]

Elliptical Workouts

A similar type of upright, standing workout can be achieved with an elliptical trainer. These gym staples can provide an excellent lower body workout and some also provide moveable arm poles that can incorporate the upper body too for a full body burn. As with a climber, your core will have to join in to help keep you stable and upright while using the machine.

Similarly to a stepper, to use an elliptical, you'll step into the foot beds and start moving your feet back and forth. The arm movement can be added in synch with the sliding motion, approximating a movement that's reminiscent of cross country skiing.

Elliptical machines can provide a very efficient, total body workout. As with climbing fitness equipment, you'll be bearing your own weight while on the elliptical. There's virtually no impact because your feet don't leave the foot beds, making an elliptical workout a good option for people with foot, ankle, knee or hip problems.

[READ: Rowing Machine Workout Benefits.]

Which Is Better?

Kolba says that if you're looking for efficiency in your workout, climbing may be the way to go. "You're going to get a little bit more bang for your buck in terms of cardiovascular benefits and muscular strength and endurance benefits because of the fact that you're working against gravity."

Dellebovi agrees that climbers are an efficient means for working out the entire body. "You're really able to accomplish more in less time when you're climbing because you're getting the upper body workout as well."

Because of this efficiency, "if you're really serious about fitness, I would lean towards the vertical climber or a stepper," Kolba says. This means that you're liable to experience more muscle strength and endurance gains more quickly on a climber than on an elliptical.

An elliptical machine provides support and some machines actually assist the gliding motion, making for a gentle movement that may be less intensive than you can achieve when trying to climb upwards on a climber or stair stepper.

With an elliptical trainer, Dellebovi says you'll still get a great cardiovascular workout, but the effort against gravity is typically less. "An elliptical has a lot of momentum. You build that up while you're working out. But on a climber, the vertical nature of the machine means there's no momentum. As soon as you stop moving, the machine completely stops."

On the flip side, because of the momentum an elliptical can offer and the smooth motion it supports, this option may be better suited for people who are new to working out or those who are rehabbing after an injury.

Both types of machines offer variable resistance levels and some with more advanced computers and tracking systems offer programmable workouts that can vary intensity throughout your workout.

Dellebovi says the connected aspect of CLMBR allows fitness enthusiasts access to classes and interactive workout options.

If a connected, interactive workout experience is what you're after, you can also find this with some elliptical trainers. NordicTrack and Precor (which was recently acquired by Peloton) both offer such options.

At the end of the day, the best option is the one that you're going to use regularly.

[READ: Best Foods to Eat Before and After Your Workout.]

Cost Comparisons

If you're looking to work out on a budget, a mini-stepper might be right for you. These tend to clock in at less than $100 and are often portable. But from there, more sophisticated steppers can get much more expensive, with high-end machines that you might find in a state-of-the-art gym (the kind that are essentially a staircase on a rotating conveyor belt) clocking in at more than $10,000 each.

Similarly, vertical climbing machines can vary widely in price. Small, foldable options that take up less space in the home can cost less than $150, while high-end options cost several thousand dollars each. The CLMBR is currently available for $2,999 for pre-order, with a retail price of $4,999.

Elliptical machines can also range widely in price, from about $200 for the most basic options to $3,299 for the high-end NordicTrack FS14i, a connected device that can work as a stepper, an elliptical and a treadmill.

In other words, there's something for every price point and budget limitation when it comes to climbing and elliptical workouts.