We can’t tell you how to use a treadmill - or how to care for it - that’s information you’ll find in the manuals for the specific machine that you purchase. And, we can’t tell you which workout is best for you either - that’s something you should discuss with a trainer or healthcare professional that can assess the specifics of your situation.
But, we have all the information you need when it comes to purchasing a treadmill that’s right for you.
What are your fitness goals?
It’s easy to make price the biggest deciding factor on which treadmill to buy. And, cost is obviously a big factor in any decision. But, the most important question to ask yourself before purchasing a home treadmill relates to your fitness goals.
What do you want to achieve with your treadmill workouts?
If you don’t know the answer to this question now, take a few minutes to consider it. Without a fitness or workout goal in mind, you’re likely to choose the wrong machine… and that means it may well end up in the garage collecting dust for a few years before you desperately try to sell it on Craigslist at a price well below value.
No matter how much or how little you pay for your home treadmill, no one wants that - especially you, at this moment, when you’re totally motivated to get your workout on at home.
General fitness goals and broad guidelines on the right treadmill for each one
Everyone has their own fitness goals and that’s not something we can determine for you. (And, if you have any health concerns, including extreme weight loss, it is imperative that you consult a professional to help form your workout goals and capabilities.) But, we can help you make a sensible choice about the home treadmill you purchase based on your workout goals.
We’ll dive deeper into the relevant features below, but these basic guidelines will allow you to get started on the search for a perfect home treadmill.
Walking or general increase in physical activity: If you want to increase your activity level, your healthcare professional has recommended walking to improve your general health, or you just know walking is all you’ll ever do with your treadmill, you’re in luck.
You can opt for a machine with a shorter and thinner belt than running requires. This definitely saves you when it comes to the space factor, and it means you can opt for a more basic machine - as long as it fulfills all your other requirements.
Walkers can consider any treadmill with a length over 48” and a width over 18” - though anyone with long legs (and therefore long strides) should increase their minimum requirements accordingly.
Additionally, you don’t need to consider a machine with high speeds; 8 mph is more than enough for you. And, unless you plan to walk for several hours a day, every day, then a motor with lower horsepower (between 1.5 and 2) will be sufficient.
Weight loss: If you’re hoping to loose weight by working out on your treadmill, you’re going to be very interested in maintaining your target heart rate through varied workouts. While this may mean walking at the beginning, hopefully, you’ll soon reach a point of running.
If you can afford it, you will want a treadmill that enables you to create workouts based on your heart rate. If that’s not in your budget, you will at least want to invest in a machine that achieves speeds up to 10 mph and has a minimum horsepower of 2 (though 2.5 is a much better bet). But, be sure to check the minimum weight supported by a treadmill, as you may need a machine with a higher horsepower to support your weight without overtaxing the motor. Look for belts that are at least 54” long - and the wider, the better.
Strength training: If strength training is what you’re after, then incline features will be most important for you. There is a big range of treadmills with incline capabilities, however, so you may need to consider other features that will help you remain motivated.
You do have the choice of manual incline machines, although these probably aren’t your best option for the long term, especially as you’ll want a range that reaches 12 degrees to build your strength levels. While you may not need top speeds, you will still need a machine that can reach 10 mph and has the width and length of running machines.
Endurance: If you’re running - or even walking - to increase your endurance levels, you can bet you’ll be on your treadmill for long periods of time on any given day - and that necessitates a machine with higher horsepower speeds. Indeed, the higher the better. You will easily wear out any motor under 2.5 and you should make horsepower your primary deciding factor when choosing a machine for home use.
Runners: Runners - and by that we mean people who believe running is a way of life and not just an exercise or means of achieving a fitness goal - should only consider machines with long belts, high speeds, a wide range of incline options, and probably computer tracking for personal goal achievement. This does mean that you’re looking at more expensive machines, but, hey, if running is part of your life then you’re probably ready to invest in a solid treadmill.
Size is always the second most important factor (and you’ll need to consider storage and safety alongside size)
If you have a large home gym, a dedicated room for fitness, or a seemingly endless number of square feet at your disposal - you probably don’t need to worry about the space your treadmill will consume, nor will you worry about machines that fold and roll. If you also don’t have small children or pets that can access your workout space, then skip this section entirely - and consider yourself exceptionally lucky.
Everyone else needs to think about size of their future treadmill as their second biggest concern.
There are options, but you should know that any quality treadmill is going to take a fair amount of space when fully set up - and you need some additional space on the sides and behind the machine for safety’s sake. Unless you are of average (or short) stature and only plan to walk on your treadmill (in which case you can choose something slightly more compact), you can anticipate any treadmill to take up 70” by 33”. Larger options offer more comfortable workouts (everything else being equal), and generally come with more of the features that you want.
Before you look at a single treadmill, it’s important to know where you’re going to put it and exactly how much space you have. And, if you’ve allocated space in your basement or attic, be sure that you have enough height to run without banging your head.
And then there is storage… and safety
Folding treadmills have definitely come a long way in the past several years. But, while you can find a few that can become very compact, you are still more likely to find those that fold in half to take up less floor space. They will be tall however, and this can become a whole new challenge. Sure, it won’t be in the middle of your living room, but will it fit in a closet?
On that note, how easy is it - and how likely are you - to fold your treadmill away? If you only need to pack your machine away when you have company, and you have the floorspace available, the simple fact that you can move it may be enough for you. But, if you have small children or rambunctious pets, safety dictates that you’ll need to store your treadmill daily if they have unsupervised access to the space.
If you have a small space or one of the above concerns, it’s critical that you measure your storage space as well as your workout floor space before you begin narrowing down the treadmills that work for you. It may come down to budget in the end, but it’s pointless making a purchase that you can’t fit into your home - and, therefore, your life.
What’s in your budget?
Finally… the money question!
If money is no object - at least where your new treadmill is concerned - then you’ll probably be able to get all the bells and whistles you want without compromising performance, safety, or size. And, once again, you can skip this section if you have at least $5,000 to spend on a home treadmill. (Incidentally, you may still have to make a few choices until you reach the $8,000 mark.)
Treadmills span a huge price range. Huge. You can find a few quality no-frills options between $300 and $400, though you’ll need to put in some time to ensure you have the best one for you. The same goes for machines in the $600-$1,000 range, though you’re more likely to find a motorized machine that will adapt to changing fitness needs. Over $1,200, the options really begin to open up.
If you have a fixed budget on the low end, it’s critical to look for the machines that match your fitness needs. You probably won’t get a lot of extra features like cup holders and multi-user settings, but you will get the workout you want. So, someone that just needs a walking machine, may be able to pay a little more for a heart rate monitor as they don’t need a lot of horsepower. But, if you need an incline machine, you might not have a cup holder built into the console.
Although manual machines under $200 may appeal to your budget, these are often tedious to set up and use. If you really want to save a few bucks, you may actually want to investigate gently used automatic machines instead.
When you’re willing to pay more for extras, it’s still better to consider your fitness goals above convenience. A built-in fan may sound like a benefit, but you can work around that easier than you can program courses based on your target heart rate range.
What about warranties?
If you're interested in a warranty, then you'll probably want to consider splashing out a little extra on extended plans too. The machine you really want has a lifetime warranty, though many of the best quality machines only have 10-year warranties.
As you move down the scale, you’ll start seeing differentiated warranties - a few years for parts and, perhaps, one year for labor or electronics. Although there are a few treadmills with 90-day warranties, you do want to avoid these unless the machine is really special and you’re willing to put a lot of effort into the first 90 days to ensure nothing is wrong. Given any choice, a longer warranty is still a better option than built-in speakers.
If you’re using your treadmill regularly during the first few months, you will find that any issues covered under the warranty will be obvious. Once you get past three months (of regular workouts), you can expect at least a few years of trouble-free use.
It should go without saying that you will need to assemble, maintain, and clean your treadmill according to the manufacturer’s instructions to keep it in working condition - and to ensure you don’t inadvertently void your warranty.
Getting into the nitty-gritty of the machine you really want
Your workout goals, size constraints, and budget will frame the direction of your search, but you still need to understand the specifics of what’s out there so you know you’ve found the best possible workout equipment for you.
More about the motor
The power of treadmill motors is provided in horsepower units. (You may see HP on specs sheets.) The higher the number, the more robust the machine, but you’re not looking for exceptionally high numbers here. You can expect to see something between 1 and 4, though treadmills designed for communal gym use may have higher numbers.
For treadmills, horsepower should be expressed as continuous duty HP rather than peak HP, though the latter is useful for those that push themselves excessively every once in a while.
Average weight walkers that workout for less than 30 minutes a few days a week can get away with a horsepower of 1 to 1.5. But, you will not be able to up your fitness game if this is all your motor can handle.
If you’re hoping to work out a little longer or walk every day, you will need a horsepower of at least 2 for walking speeds. Joggers should and strength trainers shouldn’t look under 2.5. If you use your machine for daily runs, especially if you like longer sessions, then you shouldn’t consider a machine with a HP under 3.
Keep in mind that your weight, your speed, and the duration of your workout have an impact on the motor’s ability to perform. Given the option (which, here, usually means budget), a higher horsepower is usually better. But, if a machine has everything you want at a price you can pay, you can consider what the manufacturer has to say about the motor’s cooling mechanism. If it is top-notch and your weight isn’t an issue, then you should be able to get away with a machine with a slightly lowered continuous duty HP.
The belt and the deck
You’re buying a treadmill so that you can walk or run while staying in the same place, so the belt makes a big difference. While it is a matter of comfort, it should go without saying that the longer and wider the belt is, the more comfortable your workout will be. But, there are a few minimum guidelines to keep in mind.
- Walkers need a belt length of 48” to accommodate those strides safely. The minimum recommended width is 18”.
- Runners should have no less than 54” lengthwise and 20” widthwise, though longer lengths are generally preferred.
- Tall runners will want a belt closer to 60” with a width of 22”.
The deck is the platform the belt runs along. The smoother the deck (ie, the more lubricated), the less the stress on the motor. Either way, you’re looking for strong powder-coated steel or laminated wood. The thicker the deck, the less the pressure on your joints, though the perceived smoothness of your run has everything to do with the shock-absorbing pads underneath the deck.
When it comes to the deck and the shocks, these details usually only become important when you’re comparing two almost identical machines within your price range. If it comes down to that, just take a look at the thickness of the deck to see if that can help you make your decision. Shocks vary widely between brands, so it’s really a matter of checking the shock absorption system before making your final determination.
Understanding incline differences
The most basic treadmills won’t have any incline options - you’ll be walking or jogging on a horizontal belt only. If your goal is simple movement and walking will achieve that, you don’t need to worry too much about the incline.
However, anyone looking to increase their strength and endurance - or really challenge themselves - will want to have at least the option of an incline. And, there are two different ways to achieve this: manually and automatically.
Manual incline machines require you to adjust the position of the deck using your own two hands - so you either need to complete your entire workout on an incline or you will need to stop your workout to make adjustments. But, the obvious benefit of this option is price. Manual incline machines are much less expensive than automatic options - but you’ll also have a smaller range of options to choose from.
The good news is that there are plenty of reasonably priced treadmills with an automatic incline feature. Typically, you can expect incline angles somewhere between 10% and 15% - and you may also find decline options between -1 and -3% on the better machines. Decline angles require you to use different muscles and also build strength, even if it feels easier.
When deciding on the incline, it’s totally a matter of personal preference, though the wider the range, the longer you can expect your treadmill to challenge you. And, if you can afford it, programs that stimulate actual running paths with a combination of inclines, declines, and flat grounds are a real bonus.
Most modern treadmills have a mix of safety features beginning with their actual weight. While heavier machines are obviously more difficult to move should you need to do that, the weight usually translates into a more stable frame which is less likely to shutter during a workout, causing missteps.
Another safety feature to consider is the length of the handrails. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but you may find that slightly longer ones will make you feel more comfortable, especially if you need to build your endurance or are recovering from an injury.
But, it’s the safety key and stop buttons that matter the most. Stop buttons should be accessible and responsive so that you can almost throw your hand at it to stop the machine.
If you have small children or pets, a safety key ensures the machine will only operate when it’s in place to complete the circuit. In addition to hiding the key when not in use, these often have a cord to attach to your clothing or wrist while working out. If you slip you’ll disengage the key, causing the treadmill to stop automatically.
Beginners and those with children in their home should strongly consider the safety key and stop buttons when making their final purchasing decision, however, even seasoned runners should not take these features lightly (and preferably choose a safer machine over one with extra features).
Weight, assembly, and folding options
If you’re buying a stationary treadmill that will only move from its position when you move to a new house, you only need to consider the weight of your machine when it arrives. And, even if it is light enough for you to move on your own, it’s always a good idea to have someone to help rather than straining yourself.
The weight of your treadmill becomes more important if you plan to pack your treadmill away from time to time. Few users unpack and repack their treadmill for each workout; most leave the machine in place most of the time. All the same, you will want to consider the folding mechanism. Some are entirely manual, while there are those that operate with release buttons that do much of the folding work for you.
If you’re buying a folding treadmill, be sure to consider the overall ease of this procedure rather than the specific mechanisms. And remember that you will also need to unfold it. If you are uncertain that you will be able to safely lower the deck on your own, it is better to pay for a machine that handles the hard work with hydraulic lifts.
Also look for locking features that secure it in either position. And, if you need to move the machine rather than just folding it, you absolutely want wheels that allow you to shuffle the machine without assistance.
Whether you choose a folding machine or a stationary one, you will definitely need to worry about assembly. Very few (if any) machines arrive fully assembled and ready to go. If you’re not confident about assembling your machine, look for one that offers it for an extra fee.
Otherwise, you should plan to spend a few hours assembling your treadmill. Most machines come with explicit instructions and any reputable manufacturer will also have tutorials, guides, videos, or one-on-one chat help on their website. Make use of these services if any of the instructions are unclear; if you don’t assemble your treadmill properly, you could negate your warranty (or worse, injury yourself when attempting your first work out).
Keep in mind that specialized tools needed will arrive be in the package, but you may be expected to supply your own screwdrivers or basic tools.
When it comes to the weight capacity of your machine - rather than its weight, keep in mind that the max weight really is the max weight. It’s actually better to subtract 50 pounds from the stated weight to get a more realistic idea of weight capacity.
What about the fun stuff?
It’s almost difficult to believe that questions of display and programs haven’t come up yet. But, while these are the features you’ll interact with most, they’re nowhere near as important as the physical and practical considerations.
All about the monitor and control panel
The sophistication of your monitor and control panel is usually (but not always) related to the amount you’re prepared to pay. At the very least, you should expect start and stop buttons along with speed and incline controls (if the latter are applicable). On the display you should expect at least a basic readout of speed and/or time. Even on basic machines, you should expect the display to be large enough and easy to read.
If you’re looking at machines above the base level, you should look for stats relating to distance and calories burned. Many reasonably priced machines will have heart rate monitors (either in the handles or something that is attached to your wrist or clothing).
It’s usually not worth it to pay for more advanced monitoring unless your fitness goals demand it - or the improvements come with other extras that appeal to you.
Programs, programs, programs
With treadmills, you can expect to pay more for machines that have more programs. A variety of programs can keep your workouts fresh (and provide motivation to workout as planned) and they do become more useful as you achieve your primary goals and look to challenge yourself in new ways without upgrading your equipment.
However, the number, variety, and ease of working with preset programs is completely individual and you should start by looking at those that match your goals. Standard options include: weight loss, calories, cardio, intervals, heart rate, and quick start programs. Treadmills that allow you to customize these programs are usually more expensive, but they also lengthen its lifespan in terms of viability in your workouts.
No one but you can answer questions about the programs you should have, but if it comes down to two machines that are almost equal in your eyes, consider the one with more options.
The extras that make working out fun (or at least doable)
Once you’ve covered all your workout needs, you may still have some space in your budget to think about your workout wants. All of these are bonuses that you might want to look for - though you are unlikely to find machines in the lower price ranges that make use of many or all of them.
- Low-noise operation. Many treadmills strive for it, few achieve it. If you can find a quieter one, great.
- Tracking programs. Built-in data collection is a big plus for anyone targeting a specific goal but there are ways around this, including apps that allow you to manually enter your workout stats.
- Multi-user profiles. If you share the use of your treadmill with someone, user IDs become useful with customizable programs and tracking.
- Cup holders
- Tablet, phone, or magazine holders for entertainment
- Cooling fans (for you, not the motor - you definitely need the latter)
- iPod docks or USB ports
- Headphone jacks
- WiFi connections and integration with exercise apps
As you would expect, you will pay more for these extras, but if they keep you on track and excited for your workout - and you can afford them - then it’s worth it to indulge.
But, you should never sacrifice the features that directly speak to your primary fitness goals for something like a cup holder (which you can always work around). So, now, it’s off to refining your fitness goals so you can find the very best treadmill for home use.