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“You choose the red pill and you get horsepower, incline options, and a machine that will set the pace for you. You choose the blue pill and you get unlimited speed—you can run as fast as you want and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
In my cardio-inspired rewrite of this iconic scene from The Matrix, the pills aren’t actually pills, they’re types of treadmills. The red pill describes electric, or motorized, treadmills, and the blue refers to manual, or non-motorized treadmills.
Just like in the movie, the choice is all yours, and there are benefits to both options. In this comparison of manual vs electric treadmills, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about both to help you find the right home treadmill for your gym.
What Is a Manual Treadmill?
A manual treadmill, or non-motorized treadmill, is a treadmill in which you’re responsible for moving the belt on your own. There’s no motor moving the belt for you, so the belt will move at different speeds depending on how fast you’re running, walking or jogging. For this reason, there’s no maximum or minimum speed on manual treadmills, you can move as fast as you’d like and work out completely at your own pace.
There are two types of manual treadmills, curved and flat, which I’ll discuss more below.
Curved Manual Treadmills
Curved manual treadmills are a pretty recent development in the fitness landscape. They function as any manual treadmill does, but feature a concave, curved belt that’s designed to promote a more natural stride and thus take stress away from your joints while running. Instead, a curved treadmill will demand more from your glutes and hamstrings.
This category of curved treadmill is more geared towards runners, and athletes often use them as a training tool. Since you control your pace, they can be a great option for HIIT workouts and quick intensity changes.
Curved treadmills can get pretty expensive, especially as you stray into the higher-end models. The luxury options often fall into the same price range as the highest-end motorized treadmills.
Flat Manual Treadmills
Flad manual treadmills function the same way a curved treadmill does, except—get this—they have a flat belt. As a result, they don’t boast the same ergonomic benefits as curved treadmills and are generally used for walking or jogging purposes.
Of the two types of manual treadmills, this is often the more affordable option. Flat manual treadmills are not typically heavy-duty machines meant for intense cardio, and there are generally very few—if any—tech features or add-ons. You get a frame and a belt and not much else.
The most expensive flat manual treadmill you’ll find is around $300. It’s a good budget option as long as you’re aware of the machine’s intended purpose as well as its limitations.
Manual Treadmill Benefits
There’s a lot to like about manual treadmills. First of all, there’s no power source required, which means you can place them anywhere in your home gym and get right to work without having to worry about finding an outlet. Also, since the belt moves in response to your motion, there’s no limit to how fast or slow you can move, potentially allowing you to reach higher speeds than on electric treadmills. Your workout is truly yours to control, and the ability to change pace at will brings HIIT treadmill workouts into the fold.
Some curved treadmills like the True Form Trainer offer an added benefit in that using one can actually improve your running form. Models with a shallow deck like this one help promote proper gait and body position, decreasing the risk for injury in the process.
Also, since you’re responsible for moving the belt yourself, you have to exert more effort than you would on a motorized treadmill, giving you a high-intensity lower body workout. As a result, you could see increased calorie burn when using a manual treadmill, one study showed.
Lots of manual treadmills take up less space or are even foldable, which is great for portability or if you don’t have much room to work with in your home gym.
If you’re looking for a budget treadmill, a flat manual treadmill might be your best option. There are a plethora of options available at or under $300, while most motorized treadmills will run in the thousands of dollars.
Manual Treadmill Disadvantages
You won’t get many tech features or bonus add-ons with manual treadmills, as they’re designed to be a more minimalist piece of fitness equipment. Aside from the frame and the belt, there probably won’t be much else to look at with a manual treadmill.
Since there’s no motor powering the belt, it could take more exertion to actually get the belt moving and begin your workout. This process could lead to increased impacy on your joints and potentially put you at risk for injury, especially on a flat manual treadmill.
In flat belt models, you could encounter more frail construction (hence the low price points) that might result in early malfunctions or breakage in the model. Curved treadmill prices, however, are often on the complete opposite end of the spectrum and can run you multiple thousands of dollars. In other words, it can be hard to find a suitable middle ground option when dealing with manual treadmills.
What is a Motorized Treadmill?
A motorized treadmill is the kind of treadmill you’ll find in a lot of commercial gyms. The belt is powered by an electric motor, so it moves at a consistent speed that can be adjusted incrementally. The incline settings on motorized treadmills are often adjusted at the push of a button as well. Many motorized treadmills have a maximum speed of 10 to 14 MPH, which means that’s where you’d be forced to cap your pace.
Motorized treadmills are much different from manual treadmills, often built with different features and a more evenly distributed price range.
Motorized Treadmill Benefits
One of the best things about motorized treadmills is that they can provide a lower-impact workout than some manual treadmills, especially flat-belt models. You won’t have to work to keep the belt moving since it’s powered by a motor which can relieve some joint stress. The belts also may feature a bit more cushioning.
Motorized treadmills are also more likely to come with extra tech features that manual treadmills won’t have, such as built-in LCD or LED display, Bluetooth connectivity, and preset workout programs. Since it’s easy to change speeds on many motorized treadmills, you can easily incorporate both HIIT and more endurance-based workouts.
It’s also much easier to maintain a consistent pace on a motorized treadmill because the moving belt sets the intensity level for you. You can complete your workout at the desired level without having to worry about unconsciously slacking.
In terms of cost, there’s a more extensive selection of options available in all price ranges. You have your budget options, your mid-range options, and your luxury options, whereas with manual treadmills you’re mostly looking at either ultra-cheap or very high-quality.
Motorized Treadmill Disadvantages
Motorized treadmills do require a power source most of the time, so you will have to find a place to plug them in in your home gym. This can cause issues if you don’t have a lot of electrical outlets available in your workout setting.
Also, a motorized treadmill can have a larger footprint than a manual treadmill, which can make them difficult for home use. If you’re facing a space constraint in your home gym, make sure to take stock of the room you have available before you buy.
Though the motor can be nice, it also means you’ll be capped out at whatever the maximum speed is, unable to push yourself beyond that. This is a limitation to be aware of during your workout. Also, though it’s relatively easy to change speeds on a motorized treadmill, it won’t happen instantaneously like on a manual treadmill since you have to reach out, push a button, and change to a higher or lower speed yourself.
Manual vs Electric Treadmill: Price
As cool as I think curved manual treadmills are, boy are they expensive. The cheapest model I found was around $1,500, with the luxury models stretching well over $3,000. I wouldn’t recommend going this route unless you have a solid budget to work with.
Flat belt manual treadmills, on the other hand, are very affordable. Plenty of manual models will sit around $300 or below, though this does bring durability and quality of construction into question.
Electric treadmill models have a more evenly distributed price range. You can find models at all costs, from under $500 to multiple thousands of dollars like the Bowflex Treadmill 22. As with any piece of exercise equipment, you’re paying for quality: the more you’re willing to spend, the more your treadmill will do for you.
Manual vs Electric Treadmill: Workouts
Flat manual treadmills are best used for walking or jogging, while curved models are designed for flat-out running. Motorized treadmills can be effectively used for both depending on where you set your speed.
If you’re looking for preset workouts or interactive workout programming, a motorized treadmill is almost always the way to go.
Manual vs Electric Treadmill: Technology
Electric treadmills will almost always come with more technological features. Popular add-ons in this department include LCD or LED displays, preset and interactive workout programming, heart rate monitors, and sound systems that can connect to your smart device.
You’ll likely have fewer features on a manual treadmill, especially a budget one. Most manual treadmills don’t require a power source, which takes some of these items out of the equation.
Manual vs Electric Treadmill: Health Benefits
Both manual and electric treadmills give you the opportunity to get a good cardio workout in, which can improve heart and lung health and increase your overall fitness level. However, manual treadmills—especially flat ones—can sometimes be higher-impact since you have to make the extra effort to move the belt yourself. This can provide a more intense workout, but may also strain your joints.
Electric treadmills are inherently more low-impact because the belt is powered by a motor. You don’t need to move the belt yourself, which can give your lower body a bit of a break during the workout.
Manual vs Electric Treadmill: Adjustability
In theory, you can adjust the speed of a manual treadmill to whatever you want just by changing the pace at which you’re moving. For electric treadmills, the speed level can be changed at the push of a button, but there’s eventually a maximum speed you’ll reach. Both machines are very adjustable in this facet, just in different ways.
Incline is a different story. Most manual treadmills offer few, if any, incline adjustments, with only one or two levels available. Curved models probably won’t offer any incline changes due to the built-in concavity of the belt. Electric treadmills take the cake here, as many models have plenty of incline levels you can shift at the push of a button.
Treadmill running in general is a cardio staple and an awesome way to get a solid workout in and get your heart rate up. Concerning the different types, that really all comes down to personal preference.
If you have trouble setting your own pace, maybe consider going with an electric model. If you’re looking for something promoting a natural stride and have a big budget, a curved manual treadmill might be best for you.
As always though, the choice is yours…which “pill” will you decide to take?
Manual vs Electric Treadmill FAQs
What is better: a manual or motorized treadmill?
Neither is inherently better than the other. Each type is suited for a different demographic based on budget, features, and desired type of exercise.
Is a manual treadmill better?
Not necessarily. Flat manual treadmills can be great for walkers and joggers, while curved belt treadmills are more geared towards runners.
Why are manual treadmills better?
They aren’t necessarily better, but they can provide a more intense lower-body workout since you have to make the effort to move the belt yourself.
Is it harder to use a manual treadmill?
Yes, it can require extra effort from the user to initially move the belt and then keep it moving throughout the duration of the workout.
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