How to get a great workout on the elliptical machine

Get your workout right on the elliptical machine, and this weight-bearing cardiovascular exercise can give you just as good a workout as running on a treadmill.1234 Far from being boring and unproductive, elliptical trainers can deliver incredible results.

While just as effective as the treadmill, the elliptical does it all with virtually no impact and feels easier too.56 This makes the elliptical machine a great option for anyone who finds high-impact activities uncomfortable or simply wants to limit them, such as injury-prone runners.7

Super efficient, the elliptical is also great for getting a 2 for 1 kind of workout. It’s not just cardio. Do it right, and it’s a resistance workout too.

Just follow these easy tips to spice up your workout, maximize your results and make the most of every stride.


Interval Training Workout

Rather than exercising at a steady pace, mix things up by alternating between bouts of high- and low-intensity exercise. Known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), this type of workout is short and intense.

Some of the benefits and advantages of an elliptical HIIT workout include:

  • No-impact. People often associate HIIT workouts with high-impact activities such as running or explosive movements such as burpees. But the elliptical machine allows you to perform an HIIT workout with almost no impact.
  • Muscle strength. Rather than simply increasing pace to exercise at high intensity, you can increase the resistance and incline. This added resistance builds muscle strength and muscle mass.
  • Total-body workout. HIIT is often done on the treadmill or stationary bike, which predominantly work the lower body. The elliptical is different. Doing an HIIT workout on the elliptical machine means you are also able to target your upper body.
  • Diabetes. A small study showed that regular HIIT on the elliptical can improve metabolic risk factors (fasting glucose and blood pressure) and body composition in people with diabetes and pre-diabetes.

HIIT Workout

Alternate 30 second high-intensity work intervals with 90 second slow recovery intervals.

Warm-up before to prepare your body for the workout and cool down afterwards.

High-intensity phase: Increase resistance so you don’t need to pedal fast and furious to raise the intensity. However, avoid increasing it so much that you can barely move.

Recovery phase: Lower the resistance and ramp incline, and reduce your pace, so that you are able to recover and catch your breath.

Beginners should reduce the difficulty of the workout by alternating between bouts of moderate- and low-intensity. This is slightly easier form of interval training.


Target The Core

For a great core workout, let go of the handles and only use your legs. Your core muscles have to work extra hard to keep you balanced, stable, and upright. To work you core even harder, ratchet up the resistance or incline.

Pump your arms to aid balance, stand tall and maintain good posture, and engage your core (tense your abdominals).

Start slow and make sure you can safely balance without holding on to the handles. Avoid this workout if you suffer with balance issues.


Butt + Thigh Workout

Work your butt and back of thighs (hamstrings muscles) to the max, by keeping your feet flat and pushing your weight down though your heels. Up the ante by increasing the incline.

The elliptical is already particularly good at targeting the quadricep muscles (front of thigh).8 Target the quadriceps even more, by pushing down though your toes.


Work the Arms, Chest + Back

Give your upper body a real challenge by really focusing on your arms. Don’t just let your arms move passively. Instead actively push and pull the elliptical handles.

Pushing the handles forward targets your chest, while pulling the handles backward works your upper back. As an added bonus, this also seriously targets your core, which has to work hard to balance the movements of your upper and lower body.

If you’re going hands-free, pump your arms forward and backward – as though you are running. It help with balance too!

Using your arms as much as possible will help you get fitter faster, and it’ll tone your biceps, triceps, shoulders, chest, and back. This makes the elliptical one of the best total body workouts around.


Add Bodyweight Moves

Make your workout more hardcore. Don’t just limit your workouts to using the elliptical, mix in some bodyweight exercises and turn it into a fun high-intensity interval training session. It’ll keep your body guessing, and make your workout way more varied and effective.

Elliptical + Strength Workout

Workout on the elliptical for two-minutes and then step off and do a quick set of push-ups.

Do another two-minutes and then a set of squats.

Keep alternating two-minute elliptical bursts with bodyweight exercises to target your major muscles for a complete cardio and conditioning workout in 30-minutes or less.

This workout pulls double-duty, which makes it especially great when you’re pressed for time.


Workout Variety

Forward, backward, slow, fast. Use your arms or go hands free. Random mixed-pace workouts are called Fartlek, which means speed play in Swedish.

Do your own version of Fartlek training by making your workout as random as possible and mixing the techniques you use on your elliptical machine.

Not only will this prevent boredom, you’ll ensure you get the most from the elliptical machine.


Change the Resistance

Most ellipticals have at least ten resistance settings, but many of us tend to just set the elliptical to level four or five and leave it there. Instead, vary the resistance setting and you’ll get far better results from your workout:

  • Long, easy workout planned today? Lower the resistance a little and go for a brisk pace.
  • Want to thrash it up and work your muscles hard? Go for a shorter workout with the resistance turned up.
  • Another option is to raise and lower the resistance throughout your workout to keep things fresh, fun, and interesting.


Faster Pace

A short, fast workout on the elliptical machine at moderate intensity can be just as beneficial as a long, slow distance workout. Rather than rolling along at 120 steps per minute for an hour, try going faster at 150 steps per minute for 20-minutes.

It’ll be harder, stress your body in a different (good) way and give you more time for a weights workout afterwards!


Workout Music

If you find your speed drops and you lose focus during your elliptical workouts, try making a motivational music playlist specifically designed to power you through. Music improves mood, increases relaxation, distracts from fatigue and discomfort, and boosts performance.910

Select faster paced, motivational music to keep you going and try to keep in step with the music. The more intense your planned workout, the more upbeat the music tempo should be.

Whether you like hip-hop or electro house, the right workout music will help you exercise faster, harder and longer.


Advanced HIIT Tabata Workout

Absolutely not for beginners! A super short, but seriously intense version of HIIT for advanced training. Being short of time is no longer an excuse.

Tabata HIIT will help you get fit in a flash. These workouts typically clock in at less than 5 minutes – not including warm-up and cool down. 1112

Tabata Workout

Sprint flat out on the elliptical for 20-seconds and cruise for 10-seconds

Repeat 8 times.

Warm up first for about 10 minutes and cool down for another 10 minutes.

Now, who doesn’t have time for that?

For a quick, no effort way of changing your workout, use one of the many pre-programmed plans on the elliptical trainer designed to help you get and stay fit.

Don’t just do the same old workout time after time – mix it up to avoid a fitness plateau. When you do the same workout day in and day out, it gets easier and you stop getting the awesome results you achieved in the beginning.13 Switching up your routine will help prevent boredom and injury, and make sure you keep getting great results.

14 Sources

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  • Batté AL, Darling J, Evans J, Lance LM, Olson EI, Pincivero DM. Physiologic response to a prescribed rating of perceived exertion on an elliptical fitness cross-trainer. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2003;43(3):300-5. PMID: 14625510.
  • Donatelli R. Sports-specific Rehabilitation. St. Louis, Mo: Churchill Livingstone/ Elsevier; 2007. ISBN: 9780443066429.
  • Egaña M, Donne B. Physiological changes following a 12 week gym based stair-climbing, elliptical trainer and treadmill running program in females. J Sports Med Phys Fitness.2004;44(2):141-6. PMID: 15470311.
  • Fex A, Leduc-Gaudet JP, Filion ME, et al. Effect of Elliptical High Intensity Interval Training on Metabolic Risk Factor in Pre- and Type 2 Diabetes Patients: A Pilot Study. J Phys Act Health. 2015 Jul;12(7):942-6. DOI: 10.1123/jpah.2014-0123. PMID: 25155362.
  • Kaplan Y, Barak Y, Palmonovich E, et al. Referent body weight values in over ground walking, over ground jogging, treadmill jogging, and elliptical exercise. Gait Posture.2014;39(1):558-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2013.09.004. PMID: 24095267.
  • Karageorghis CI, Priest DL. Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II). Int Rev Sport Exerc Psychol. 2012;5(1):67-84. DOI: 10.1080/1750984X.2011.631027. PMID: 22577473.
  • Lu TW, Chien HL, Chen HL. Joint loading in the lower extremities during elliptical exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(9):1651-8. DOI: 10.1249/mss.0b013e3180dc9970. PMID: 17805099.
  • Mercer JA, Dufek JS, Bates BT. Analysis of peak oxygen consumption and heart rate during elliptical and treadmill exercise. J Sport Rehabil. 2001;10(1):48–56. DOI: 10.1123/jsr.10.1.48.
  • Porcari JP, Zedaker JM, Naser L, Miller M. Evaluation of an elliptical exerciser in comparison to treadmill walking and running, stationary cycling, and stepping. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998;30(5):S957.
  • Prosser LA, Stanley CJ, Norman TL, Park HS, Damiano DL. Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking and overground walking. Electromyographic patterns. Gait Posture.2011;33(2):244-50. DOI: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2010.11.013. PMID: 21215636.
  • Tabata I. Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods. J Physiol Sci. 2019;69(4):559-572. DOI: 10.1007/s12576-019-00676-7. PMID: 31004287.
  • Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996;28(10):1327-30. DOI: 10.1097/00005768-199610000-00018. PMID: 8897392.
  • Szmedra L, Bacharach DW. Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running. Int J Sports Med. 1998;19(1):32-7. DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-971876. PMID: 9506797.

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