Many owners reason that since a manual treadmill is small and light, with no motor and fewer moving parts, less can go wrong than with a conventional treadmill. This usually isn't true; the typical manual treadmill's price point ($200 or less) virtually guarantees weak build quality, including poorly machined parts or misplaced holes that make assembly a challenge. We also found many complaints across the board of belt slippage, unacceptable noise levels and troublesome, rudimentary consoles.
Manual treadmills have some other disadvantages compared to motorized treadmills. It can be hard to get the belt moving when you start your workout, which can add stress to your joints. One recommendation is to use a high incline with a manual treadmill to make moving the belt easier, but then that makes maintaining your workout harder -- and unlike a motorized treadmill, you need to get off the machine and manually reset the incline if you want to change it, bringing you back to square one. In addition, some manual treadmills only have one incline level. Still, if budget concerns put even the cheapest motorized treadmills out of your range, it's possible to get a good walking workout with a manual treadmill -- just maybe more of a workout than you intended.
Expert reviewers largely ignore manual treadmills, though an older round up at Livestrong.com provides some information on some of the top options -- and most of the manual treadmills listed there remain available. User reviews are more plentiful, however, and there's a good amount of feedback at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and similar sites.
In this category, we rate the Weslo CardioStride 3.0 (Est. $90) the best choice. The short warranty (90 days) is a concern, and the maximum user weight of 250 pounds is indicative of a treadmill that might not stand up well to heavy use. However, user feedback is okay for a manual treadmill -- 3.4 stars following more than 215 reviews at Walmart.com. Negative reviews are plentiful and reflect some of the issues noted at the start of this section, but other owners -- especially ones with realistic expectations -- seem pleased.
Unlike some manual treadmills, the CardioStride 3.0 has a fixed 15 percent incline. That limits flexibility but enforces an exercise set up that makes putting and keeping the manual belt in motion easier. The LCD display is basic, but tracks speed, distance and calories burned. The tread belt is very short -- just 17 by 41 inches -- but that helps keep the unit's size and weight down for easier storage.
The chief advantage of the CardioStride is its low cost. At under $100, it's tough to find a less expensive treadmill. That makes it an ideal entry-level choice for those on the tightest of budgets or who want to give a treadmill a try before moving on to more capable and sophisticated machines.
There are a few other manual treadmills to consider as well. The Stamina InMotion II (Est. $120) is a bit more expensive. Pluses include a tread belt that's just a tiny bit longer (42 inches) than the Weslo. It also has two incline settings (8 degrees and 10 degrees). The warranty is longer as well -- one year. However, once again, the weight limit is specified as 250 pounds.
User satisfaction is about on a par with the CardioStride 3.0. We see complaints about durability and issues with belt slippage. Others seem happier -- especially those with previous experience with manual treadmills. It rates 3.2 stars at Amazon.com after more than 255 reviews. While there certainly are some pluses with the InMotion II, its higher price keeps it from rising to the top in this category.
We actually saw the highest user satisfaction for the Phoenix 98510 Easy-Up (Est. $130), 3.7 stars at Amazon.com, but some drawbacks prevent us from naming it the best choice for most. Notably, Gina Battaglia at Livestrong.com points out that the belt is a bit narrower than either of the two manual treadmills above -- just 13 inches compared to 17 inches. That can "lead to a feeling of instability" in some individuals," Battaglia says, and some users mention difficulties in maintaining their stride. Also, while the Phoenix 98510 draws more favorable reviews than some manual treadmills, durability complaints are on a par with other options. We saw concerns about wires that broke or fell out of place, and a belt that often won't stay put. It's the only manual treadmill in our report that requires you to remove two screws every time you fold it up, and replace them when you lay it flat again.
Having made the above recommendations, you also may want to consider, before you pay for a manual treadmill, checking Craigslist or thrift stores in your area. Many people who end up not using their motorized treadmill will unload one in great condition for less than the price of a manual -- often pennies on the dollar.
Elsewhere in this report: