We LOVE lifting heavy weights here at Fitness Volt. Building muscle and getting strong are what we’re all about. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking powerlifting, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, strongman, or even CrossFit; we can’t hide our enthusiasm for all things related to strength training.
That said, we also understand that, of all the 200 plus muscles in the human body, the heart is arguably the most important. While big biceps and a muscular back are cool, it’s your heart that pumps blood around your body 24/7 to keep you alive.
So, as well as a life-long love of barbells, we respect the need to do cardio, too.
There are lots of cardio options to choose from and, so long as they elevate your heart and breathing rate, they’ll all do you good. You can choose between treadmills, rowers, exercise bikes, using a jump rope, or heading outdoors for a run or a brisk walk. Each one is similarly effective.
However, judging by the queues at most gyms, elliptical trainers are especially popular. Every type of exerciser, from beginners to the super-fit, seems to like using ellipticals.
But do ellipticals deserve their popularity?
In this article, we take a look at elliptical training so you can determine if it’s the right cardio machine for you.
What is an Elliptical Trainer?
An elliptical trainer is a cross between a treadmill and an exercise bike. Your feet follow an oval or elliptical path, which is where they get their name. Also known as cross-trainers, ellipticals have only been around since the mid-1990s. The first example of this type of cardio machine was made by the fitness company Precor.
Ellipticals provide a low-impact workout, as your feet stay in contact with the pedals. Your feet roll from heel to toe, just like you are running, but there is no landing force because the pedal moves with your feet. This makes elliptical workouts very joint-friendly.
Many ellipticals have a synchronized arm action so you can train your upper body as well as your legs. Most gyms have elliptical trainers, and there are also models made specifically for home use.
Benefits of Elliptical Machines
What makes elliptical trainers so popular? Good question! Check out these benefits…
1. Easy on your joints
Compared to running and other high-impact workouts, using an elliptical is much easier on your joints (1). With no impact to speak of, using an elliptical puts next to no stress on your ankles, knees, or hips.
With less joint stress to contend with, you should be able to use an elliptical for longer and more often without having to worry about overuse injuries.
Ellipticals are helpful in rehabbing or regaining fitness after injury. They’re also especially useful for heavy exercisers, regardless if that extra weight is muscle or fat.
Check out these Best Running Shoes For Heavy Men Reviewed for 2021
2. Train your upper body and lower body at the same time
Most ellipticals have handles as well as foot pedals, so you can use your arms and legs at the same time. Pulling and pushing on the handles as you drive your feet around means you can exercise your entire body at the same time.
While you won’t build a lot of extra muscle mass using an elliptical, using your arms and legs at the same time could improve muscle tone and increase your potential calorie expenditure. However, to enjoy these benefits, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to actively use your arms.
3. Burn a lot of calories
While your actual calorie expenditure depends on how intensely you work out, ellipticals have the potential to burn a lot of calories. They’re weight-bearing, involve all your major upper and lower body muscles, and, because they’re low-impact, you can crank up the intensity on an elliptical relatively safely.
If you want to burn as many calories as possible per workout, elliptical training would be a good choice.
How many calories can you burn using an elliptical? Check out our Elliptical Calorie Calculator and find out!
4. Suitable for LISS and HIIT cardio
Using an elliptical, you can do either low-intensity steady-state cardio or pick up the pace and do high-intensity interval training. You could even do both types of training in the same workout, e.g.:
- 10 minutes at an easy pace
- 10 x 60 seconds fast with 60 seconds slow between intervals
- 10 minutes at an easy pace
5. Target different muscles
Most ellipticals allow you to go forward and backward. If your elliptical has this facility, it’s worth switching directions from time to time to target different muscles. Going forward tends to focus your workout on your glutes and hamstrings, while going backward works your quadriceps a little more (2).
You can also adjust the incline to increase your range of motion and engage the target muscle more.
6. Build stronger bones
While low-impact elliptical training is easy on your joints, it’s still a weight-bearing activity. As such, using an elliptical will increase osteoblast activity, which are the cells responsible for repairing and building bone tissue.
Bone mass tends to decline with age in a process called osteopenia. If left unchecked, this can become osteoporosis, which is a medical condition characterized by increased bone fragility. Working out on an elliptical provides a safe way to maintain or improve bone mass.
7. Suitable for beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercisers
Most ellipticals have a wide range of settings, so you can adjust your workout according to your current fitness level. This means, providing you make use of these adjustments, ellipticals are suitable for beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercisers.
As such, you should be able to continue using an elliptical as you get fitter. Just increase the resistance to make sure you keep challenging your muscles and cardiovascular system.
Use our target heart rate calculator to determine your ideal workout intensity.
Elliptical Trainer Drawbacks
While elliptical trainer workouts are undeniably beneficial, there are a few drawbacks to consider too:
1. Improvements in fitness may not transfer to walking or running
While elliptical trainer workouts involve the same muscles as walking and running, those muscles are used slightly differently. So, just because you are an elliptical pro doesn’t mean that fitness will transfer perfectly to either walking or running.
Your cardiovascular system will be in great shape. Still, your muscles may lack the specific conditioning required to walk or run long distances.
So, while elliptical training can complement walking and running, it can’t really replace them. If you want to get better at walking or running, those activities must feature in your workouts.
That said, if you aren’t interested in improving your ability to walk or run, this drawback is not really relevant.
2. Not much of a balance component
Ellipticals do not require much balance. Balance is your ability to keep your center of gravity over your base of support. Like muscle and bone mass, balance tends to deteriorate with age and lack of use.
Because you hold to handles when you use an elliptical, the need for balance is significantly reduced, especially compared to walking or running. If you want to maintain or improve your balance, you need to include unsupported exercises in your workouts.
3. It’s easy to cheat
Ellipticals can provide a great workout, but that’s not guaranteed. Used improperly, you can fool yourself into thinking you are getting an effective workout when, in reality, you’re just cheating.
The most common cheat is leaning forward and supporting your weight on your arms. This takes some of the work away from your legs, reduces core activation, promotes poor posture, stops you from using your upper body, and reduces the number of calories burned.
Unfortunately, your elliptical machine has no idea you’re cheating and bases its calorie calculations on the assumption that you’re doing the exercise correctly. As such, if you cheat, you could end up overestimating your calorie expenditure.
Bottom line: Don’t do anything that makes your workout easier! There is no point in cranking up the step height or resistance to burn more calories if you end up cheating your way through your workout.
Elliptical Trainer Dos and Don’t
Get the most from your elliptical workouts with these dos and don’ts!
Do pay attention to your posture
You’ll burn more calories, get an indirect core workout, and improve your posture if you stand up straight during your elliptical workouts. Imagine your head is a balloon floating up from your neck, pull your shoulders down and back, look straight ahead, and engage your core.
If you hunch over, you make your workout less effective and could also make your posture worse.
Most people spend more than enough time hunched over computer keyboards, and the last thing they need is to spend more time with a rounded back. Use your elliptical workout as an opportunity to practice better posture.
Do incorporate intervals and directional changes in your workouts
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing the same elliptical workout over and over again. Hop on, hit quick start, and switch your brain off for the next 20-30 minutes. But, you’ll get more from your workouts if you vary them more and avoid doing the same thing every time you exercise.
Most ellipticals have pre-programmed workouts you can use to keep your training fresh and interesting. Alternatively, you can create your own workouts.
And while there is nothing wrong with low-intensity steady-state cardio workouts, interval training may mean you burn more calories in less time. Also, switching direction now and again will ensure that you develop the muscles on the front and the backs of your legs equally.
Do put away your smart devices
Elliptical machines often have a media shelf so you can put your phone or tablet in front of you while you work out. While this might seem like a helpful feature, it can also be a drawback.
Invariably, this shelf is well below eye level, so you’re going to have to tilt your head down to look at it, adopting poor posture to do so. Also, if you can use your phone or tablet while you are working out, you probably aren’t exercising hard enough to get meaningful results.
Leave your phone/tablet out of reach and sight for your workout and focus on what you are doing. That way, you’ll get better results in less time.
Do roll your feet from heel to toe
A lot of exercisers report that their feet go numb when they use an elliptical. That’s usually because they keep their feet completely flat for the duration of their workout. Avoid this problem by consciously rolling your feet from heel to toe as you work out, just as you would when walking or running.
This rolling action helps maintain blood flow and stops your feet from going numb. Also, reposition your feet from time to time to make your workout more comfortable.
Do monitor your heart rate
Most ellipticals have built-in heart rate monitor handgrips, and some have Bluetooth connectivity so they can detect your heart rate via a compatible chest strap. Monitoring your heart rate will help ensure you are training hard enough to get results from your workout. It will also help you avoid exercising harder than you need to.
Most people need to keep their heart rate between 60-90% of their age-adjusted maximum.
Don’t forget to warm-up
While ellipticals deliver a safe, joint-friendly workout, you should still warm-up before exercising intensely. To do this, simply start off at a low speed and intensity level and then increase gradually over 3-5 minutes. This will make your workout more comfortable and potentially safer.
Don’t become addicted to ellipticals
A lot of exercisers are elliptical addicts. They put on their headphones, hop on their machine, and then zone out for an hour every day. While any exercise is better than no exercise, doing the same thing over and over again can reduce the effectiveness of your workout and could also cause muscle imbalances and overuse injuries.
The best workouts are varied and work your body from all the angles. Also, to be completely fit, your program should include more than just cardio. Strength training, core conditioning, and flexibility are every bit as important.
According to the training law of specificity, you are fit for what you do. So, if you only ever work out with an elliptical, that’s what your body will be good at. Develop all-round fitness by combining elliptical training with other forms of exercise.
Don’t believe the calorie counter
The calorie counters on ellipticals are notoriously inaccurate. They base their calculations on your weight and speed. However, this information is not enough to accurately determine your calorie expenditure. Things like age, heart rate, and oxygen uptake also determine how many calories you burn. The machine has no knowledge of these values.
So, just because your machine says you’ve burned 200 calories doesn’t mean you have. The actual figure may be quite different.
Treat the calorie counter on your machine as interesting feedback and not an accurate indicator of workout performance. An activity monitor watch will give you a more precise calorie expenditure because your heart rate will be part of the estimation.
Sample Elliptical Workout
Not sure where to start with elliptical training? Try this 30-minute HIIT workout!
Warm-Up: 5 minutes, easy incline and resistance
- Min 0-2: Resistance 5, Incline 5
- Min 2-3: Resistance 10, Incline 5
- Min 3-5: Resistance 5, Incline 7
- Min 5-6: Resistance 10, Incline 7
- Min 6-8: Resistance 7, Incline 9
- Min 8-9: Resistance 12, Incline 9
- Min 9-11: Resistance 7, Incline 9
- Min 11-12: Resistance 12, Incline 9
- Min 12-14: Resistance 9, Incline 11
- Min 14-15: Resistance 14, Incline 11
- Min 15-17: Resistance 9, Incline 9
- Min 17-18: Resistance 12, Incline 9
- Min 18-20: Resistance 7, Incline 9
Cool Down: 5 minutes, easy incline and resistance
Elliptical Training Guide – Wrapping Up
Elliptical machines are a great way to develop your cardiovascular fitness and burn fat. Most gyms have them, and they’re popular home workouts, too. Providing a time-efficient, whole-body workout, ellipticals are easy on your joints and suitable for beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercisers, even those that are overweight.
Does this all mean that ellipticals are the best cardio workout? Not necessarily. That’s because the best workout doesn’t exist.
Things like personal preferences and training goals determine how beneficial an activity is. For example, if you are a runner, you’ll get better results from using a treadmill than an elliptical.
That said, for general fitness and fat burning, ellipticals are tough to beat. Just make sure you use them as part of a balanced workout program that also includes strength training. And you don’t be “that guy” who hunches over the console and pumps their legs as fast as they can against the lowest level of resistance. That’s nothing more than a waste of time.
1 – PubMed: Referent body weight values in over ground walking, over ground jogging, treadmill jogging, and elliptical exercise https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24095267/
2 – American College of Sports Medicine: Lower extremity muscle activation during elliptical trainer exercise https://journals.lww.com