Out of all the cardio machines, the elliptical probably gets the most side-eye. People tend to think it’s boring and ineffective — research even says so.
It’s the go-to source for an easy, mindless workout, if even that. But it turns out there are plenty of science-backed benefits to the elliptical.
Researchers have found that training on the elliptical improves fitness just as efficiently as using a StairMaster. They discovered this back in 2004, yet the lazy-machine myth lingers.
A few years later, another study showed that an elliptical can raise your heart rate even more than a treadmill.
Newer research has found that the elliptical reduces the load on your joints compared to other high-impact activities like running on a treadmill. The elliptical is a great option for those seeking a low-impact workout with great cardio benefits.
There’s actually a right way and a wrong way to use the elliptical. With the correct form and plan of attack, you can get a truly killer workout on the machine.
To find out how to make the most of every stride, we asked fitness experts for their best advice, plus an effective 20-minute workout. Here’s how to get the most out of your elliptical workout.
DO: Make a plan before hitting “Start”
Before even stepping onto the machine, set an intention for the workout. “Ask yourself what you want to achieve that day,” says Leanne Weiner, a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist with Fit Academy.
“Then monitor your perceived level of exertion — where zero is like going for a leisurely stroll and at 10 you’re completely out of breath — throughout the workout to make sure you’re not just dialing it in. If you don’t feel like you’re working, you’re probably not.”
Not having a goal is one of the biggest mistakes people make on the elliptical, says Marc Santa Maria, a group fitness instructor. “People just hop on and think, ‘If I move, this will be effective,’ but that’s not the case. You have to have a workout plan.”
DO: Use the handles for a total-body workout
“Power is shared between the upper and lower body on the elliptical,” Weiner says.
For the most effective workout, actively push and pull the levers while maintaining an upright posture, keeping your shoulders pulled back and your abs engaged — otherwise your arms are just along for the ride.
Working the machine without holding onto the handrails at all is another option. “In this case, most of the power is generated from the lower body, requiring more core activation and balance,” Weiner says. “Stay upright, keep the abs engaged, and pump the arms forward and backward at a 90-degree angle — as if you were running.”
DO: Put down the iPad
Being distracted by a magazine, your Kindle, or “Orange Is the New Black” is a workout killer, Santa Maria says. Focus on the workout, not a plotline.
It can be easy to fall into bad habits on the elliptical, especially if we’ve been doing them for years. Here are few no-no’s worth mentioning.
With handrails on the machine, it can be tempting to grab on and lean forward as your legs do all the work. But slouching forward will simply make the workout feel easier, so it’s not doing you any favors, says Jonathan Cane, a triathlon coach and exercise physiologist.
“Instead, stay upright with a firm core, without hunching over,” he says. “Poor form is inefficient and can contribute to low back pain and muscular imbalances.”
Plus, those handles aren’t supposed to make the workout feel easy. “I often see people leaning heavily on the handrails or propping themselves up on them,” Cane says. “But all that’s doing is fooling the machine. If you support your weight on the handrails, the machine will tell you your caloric expenditure is greater than it really is.”
DON’T: Repeat your routine
Doing the same workout day after day may be effective at first, but it will eventually lead to a fitness plateau.
“Our body is an evolutionary machine that’s programmed to adapt to new stressors in about four to six weeks,” Weiner says. “It’s important to constantly change exercise variables.”
To reap maximum general fitness benefits, interval training is the way to go. “You’ll get better conditioning than from steady-state work,” Cane says. “One of the nice things about the elliptical is that you have a few variables you can manipulate to make things more challenging, such as resistance, stride rate, and even elevation on some machines.”
Diversifying your elliptical workout will keep your body in top shape — plus, it’s more fun! Here are some ideas from Santa Maria to change up your routine:
- Do 5-minute intervals, increasing the resistance each time.
- Start and stay with a steady pace — the base pace rate — and increase the machine’s incline/decline setting.
- Move at base pace for 2 minutes, then double the speed for 2 minutes (keeping the incline steady) and recover for 1 minute. Repeat this pattern as many times as desired.
“Being creative keeps you from getting bored and phoning it in,” Santa Maria says. “See if you can improve your distance or levels of endurance each time you get on the machine. Compete against yourself to get stronger and leaner.”
Still not convinced the elliptical is hardcore? Try this interval workout, created by Weiner.
“High-intensity interval training is a fast and effective way to get in a solid workout with limited time,” she says. “What this interval workout lacks in duration, it makes up for in intensity.”
Your moderate speed should feel like going on a casual run — not a sprint but not a walk. Low resistance should be 40 to 50 percent of your maximum effort, moderate resistance should be 60 to 70 percent, and high resistance should feel like 80 to 90 percent.
For an added challenge, do one or two 30-second sets of low-intensity bodyweight exercises — such as planks, pushups, air squats, or lunges — off the elliptical during the recovery periods.