It’s easy to get overwhelmed with options when shopping for a new treadmill. Motor size, belt width, deck cushioning, and programming are only a few of the important things to consider when buying a new motorized treadmill.
But there’s a relatively new type of treadmill where many of those options don’t even exist. It’s called a manual treadmill, and it just might be the perfect treadmill for your garage gym.
What is a Manual Treadmill?
A manual treadmill is powered by walking or running instead of a built-in motor. The runner’s energy is transferred from a curved deck to a flywheel, and the user’s pace controls the speed. Manual treadmills have been shown in studies to burn as much as 30% more calories than motorized ones.
Manual treadmills also have a segmented deck instead of a single belt. This allows the deck to be curved. The curved deck lets the runner manually drive the treadmill and control the pace.
Manual treadmills are fairly simple otherwise. They don’t have a motor or fancy control boards. They don’t have incline motors or specially cushioned decks. They also usually don’t have touchscreens, Bluetooth, speakers, or fans built in.
What they lack in complexity, they make up for in effectiveness. Like most things in life, simpler is often better.
- There are two types of manual treadmill, curved and flat.
- Curved is worthwhile. Flat is not.
- Curved manual treadmills are more efficient than motorized models.
- Manual treadmills burn more calories than motorized ones.
- Manual treadmills cost more, on average, than motorized ones, but the benefits are usually worth it.
Two Types of Manual Treadmills
Manual treadmills have actually been around for quite a while. You can find them on Amazon as smaller, cheaper alternatives to motorized treads.
Those low-priced models are okay if you only want to walk occasionally, but they don’t work well for any other application. Even something like this highly-rated Sunny Health model isn’t a very good solution if you plan on using it regularly.
This is where curved deck manual treadmills come into play. This type of tread is a much more recent and effective machine.
The first glaring difference is the price. Curved deck treadmills are much more expensive than flatbed versions. They are definitely worth their higher price tag, but it can be shocking if your treadmill shopping is limited to Amazon.
The more important difference is in how they work. They not only burn more calories, but for serious runners, they are the closest thing to road running you can do without actually going outside and running down the road!
I’ll focus exclusively on the curved deck manual treadmill in this article. I don’t recommend the flatbed versions at all.
Pros and Cons of Manual Treadmills
As with anything, manual treadmills have their good and bad points. In my opinion, there are many more positives than drawbacks, but it’s important to know both sides before spending this kind of money!
- No power needed
- More efficient
- Up to 30% higher calorie burn
- Helps improve running gait
- Easier to control speed
- Closest thing to road running
- Can be used to mimic sled pulls & pushes
- No iFit or other built-in programming
- No incline or decline
- Distance runners may find them too challenging
- Not ideal for walking only applications
The Benefits of a Manual Treadmill
No Power is Needed. Manual treadmills don’t require a motor to run, so no power is needed to use them. This gives you a lot more flexibility in placement as you won’t need an outlet nearby. They do have small displays that require power, but the display is not needed for the treadmill to function.
More Efficient & Higher Calorie Burn. According to studies, manual treadmills can burn as many as 30% more calories than standard treadmills (source). If you want more results in less time, a manual treadmill is a great solution!
Improves Running Mechanics & Gait. A study published by the NIH shows that running on a curved manual treadmill can help to improve running mechanics and gait (source). Many physical therapists are beginning to use manual treadmills to treat gait imbalances and movement dysfunction.
Safer & Easier to Control Speed. Everyone has seen videos online of people falling on a motorized treadmill. It’s not pretty. With a manual treadmill, your physical pace is what controls the speed. Not only does that make it easier to adjust the speed to fit your needs, but it also tends to be safer in the case of a fall.
Closer to Road Running Than Any Other Machine. If your goal is to train for running outside, there is no better tool than a manual treadmill. It’s the closest you’ll get inside your garage gym to running outside.
Mimic Sled Pushing & Pulling. The sled is widely recognized as one of the best overall lower-body exercises you can do (source). Done right, it can also alleviate knee and hip pain. A manual treadmill (*only models with this feature listed like this one by Xebex) can simulate this without needing another piece of gear, installing expensive turf, or heading outside.
This is my absolute favorite feature of a manual treadmill. Sled work is a vital part of my training. The problem is that getting and using a sled can be a huge pain.
You can buy a cheap one and anger all your neighbors as you drag it back and forth across the concrete near your house. You could install expensive turf in your gym to eliminate that noise. Or you can buy a $1000+ magnetic model that works great at home but is still $1000 or more!
When you factor this function in, it becomes much easier to justify the higher price point of a manual treadmill!
The Drawbacks of a Manual Treadmill
Price. I might as well start with this one. Good manual treadmills are expensive. Typically $3000 or more (although there are usually some smokin’ deals around the holidays) is what you’ll need to spend to get something reliable that also works well.
For me, they are worth every penny. But for those on a budget, the price point can make this type of treadmill a non-starter.
No Programming Built In. The latest craze in at-home cardio is built-in workout programming displayed on a large screen touch display. Peloton and iFit are the two most prominent services in this area.
With one exception noted below, this isn’t something you’ll find (yet) on a curved deck manual treadmill. Manual treadmills are all about simulating actual running. And you don’t have a screen or video trainer outside!
Distance Running is Harder. Part of the 30% higher calorie burn on a manual treadmill comes from the fact that it takes more effort than a motorized one. This is an advantage in almost every respect. If you are a distance runner, though, it may not be.
Some distance runners report being unable to get in the miles they want because of the extra energy needed. I don’t think this is a problem, but I’m not a distance runner. If you are, you may want to head out and try one in real life before buying.
Not Ideal For Walking Only. There was a time when I only used my treadmill to walk. If this is your application, a manual treadmill might not be your best solution.
Walking on a manual treadmill requires much more energy than walking on a motorized treadmill. I even think it’s noticeably more challenging than walking outside.
Personally, I like that it’s a little harder, but for many, this will be a deal breaker. Also, a treadmill at this price point is overkill if all you will be doing is walking. Instead, opt for something like this ProForm. It’s a lot less expensive and will serve you well for years!
Manual Treadmills vs. Motorized Treadmills
So, looking at the pros and cons above, let’s look at when a motorized unit may serve you better.
You might want a motorized treadmill if:
- You are mainly walking
- You enjoy having a virtual trainer like iFit or Peloton
- You like the idea of adding or changing the incline during your run
- You are on a tight budget
If your focus, on the other hand, is getting in a solid run or walk, then a manual treadmill might be a better choice.
Motorized treadmills make running and walking easier. The treadmill is doing the job of moving the ground beneath your feet, and you have to keep up.
Because they work this way, they are much less effective than running or walking outside. Running on a treadmill has been shown to burn 5% fewer calories than running outside (source)
Manual treadmills burn up to 30% more calories than motorized ones (source). This is because you are not only moving the running surface but are also 100% responsible for moving your body. There is zero assistance from the treadmill itself.
Both types are highly effective. Both are considerably better than sitting on the couch too! As I always stress here on GymCrafter, whichever style you will use more consistently is the right one for you.
Not to mention, you can get a really nice motorized treadmill like this ProForm for less than half the price of a quality manual model!
Where to Buy a Manual Treadmill
There are three leading players in the world of curved deck manual treadmills. There are others, but they just don’t compare.
First are the TrueForm Runner ($6899) and TrueForm Trainer ($3999). This company also makes the Woodway models ($3999 and up).
TrueForm is a solid brand, but unless you are outfitting a commercial gym, these are overkill.
Second, are the Assault Fitness models. This is probably the most well-known brand of manual treadmill and the brand you’ll see sold in the most places.
Assault runners are high quality and a good brand to purchase. They aren’t my first choice, but I wouldn’t tell anyone not to buy one. They are also less expensive than my top pick.
My favorite option is made by Xebex. Xebex has two models, but their Airplus Runner Smart Connect is easily my top pick for manual treadmills. What sets this model apart is its variable resistance.
Not only can you vary how intense your running workouts are, but this is the only manual treadmill that allows you to simulate pushing and pulling a heavily loaded sled. It even has several hand placement options to allow sled work from low or more upright positions.
Yes, this model is more expensive than many others, but it’s unique in its capabilities. The fact that it has the functionality of a $1500 magnetic resistance sled built-in makes the price a lot easier to swallow.
The best place to buy the Xebex AirPlus Smart Connect is on GetRx’d. You can check its current pricing and see a ton of images and details here.
The Best of Both Worlds
So what if you just read this entire article and still aren’t sure which type of treadmill is right for you? Nordic Track has the ideal solution for you.
The Nordic Track x32i is the only motorized treadmill with a truly effective manual option. It’s on the pricier side, but if you or your family would enjoy the functions of manual and motorized in one package, this is the perfect way to go!
Do you need a treadmill mat under a manual treadmill?
Yes! A treadmill mat should be used under any cardio machine used in your home. It will keep the unit from moving around and protect your floor and the unit itself. I recommend this one that you can get inexpensively on Amazon.
Do manual treadmills track speed, time, laps, calories, and other training data?
This depends on the model you buy. Basic models will show basic data. Higher-end models will have more stats available; some can even integrate with heart rate monitors.
Is the running surface comfortable on a manual treadmill?
Yes! The running deck is usually made of cushioned rubber. The curved deck matches the ergonomics of proper running form and is very comfortable to train on.