How to Use an Elliptical Machine

Welcome to your complete guide to the elliptical machine.

Fitness junkies often place the elliptical machine in the “friend zone” for cardio: good for those nursing an injury or seeking an easy gym session, bad for anyone desiring a “real” workout. But even though some people deem the elliptical ineffective or boring, there’s actually a lot to this machine in terms of exercise.

Elliptical workouts can match physiological benefits of similar workouts on the treadmill or stairclimber. They can also improve your quality of life and fatigue levels, protect your joints (in general and after an injury), and raise your heart rate faster than a summer fling.

This is the first of a new series we’re taking on here at Aaptiv. We’ll be demystifying machines at the gym. This post will help you get up close and personal with the elliptical in order to learn how it can serve as your match made in exercise heaven.

What types of elliptical machines exist, and what are the similarities and differences?

Walk into any gym, and you’ll probably see a long line of elliptical machines. But, how are you supposed to know which one to use, and why, and how? Is there really much of a difference between models?

“With my clients at Life Time Fitness, I tend to find the most challenging part of using an elliptical for them is deciding which one to use and how exactly to use it,” says Joseph J. Aiello, Personal Training Manager, Life Time Chestnut Hill. “What all ellipticals do have in common is that their low-impact and easy-to-use design that puts any user in an advantageous biomechanical position that avoids injury, while also achieving a highly effective workout.”

Kelsey L. Waugh, Fitness Manager III of 24 Hour Fitness Santa Monica Super Sport, states all types of elliptical machines are stationary and allow for customization. They also as provide workout programming, heart rate monitors, and various resistance levels. From there, models get a little more complicated.

Here’s a quick breakdown of common elliptical machines with key features, according to Waugh:

Precor Adaptive Motion Trainer (AMT) Elliptical
* Includes arms/handles that move during exercise
* Moves in a linear motion
* Can be set to a stepping motion similar to walking up stairs or steps
* Stride length can be adjusted

Precor Elliptical Fitness CrossTrainer (EFX) model 833
* No arms/handles
* Moves in a linear motion

Precor Elliptical Fitness CrossTrainer (EFX) model 835
* Includes arms/handles that move during exercise

Cybex Arc Trainer (total body or lower body)
* Includes arms/handles that move during exercise
* Moves in a linear motion
* Can be set to a stepping motion similar to walking up stairs or steps
* Stride length can be adjusted

Octane Fitness-Lateral X
* Includes arms/handles that move during exercise
* Adjusts through a spectrum of linear and lateral motion patterns, which means it moves side-to-side (as Waugh explains, “it mimics a skating motion or moving quickly in a game of tag, so a user can squat, lean back, or go fast all at the same time”)
* Can be set to a stepping motion similar to walking up stairs or steps

“Within each elliptical brand are different styles that should be selected based on individual needs and goals,” says Aiello. “For example, the XT4700 from Octane, which we have at Life Time, is excellent for a low-impact feel while still providing the ability to recreate the cardiovascular benefits a traditional road runner would achieve over time, including an increased cardiac output and lower resting heart rate.”

What sort of programming is available on common elliptical models?

“The elliptical models at 24 Hour Fitness provide various workout programs,” says Waugh. “The user can enter their age and weight for more accurate calorie expenditure estimates, target heart rate, or simply a time frame.”

According to Waugh, the Precor AMT offers fat burner, heart rate, interval and manual. The Precor EFX elliptical offer programs around weight loss, heart rate, performance, variety, interval, and manual. The Cybex Arc Trainer offers heart rate recovery, circuit training, off-day cross training and max strength. And the Octane offers 13 total workout programs, some of which include heart rate, cross circuit programs, interval, and MMA (mixed-martial arts). It also has workout “boosters,” says Waugh, to target areas like thighs or quads.

New machine features can also lead to differences in program options. Consider lateral ellipticals, such as the Octane model mentioned by Waugh. Aiello says this newer concept “propels the body forward and forces the user to move side-to-side. . . This type of movement creates a more functional advantage that can lead to greater muscular and neuromuscular stimulation not normally seen in more commonly used cardio equipment, like the treadmill or stair stepper.”

Most programs start with a 3-5 minute warm-up and end with a cool-down of similar length. But, this can vary by machine.

What do all the buttons on an elliptical mean?

Aiello says the most common question he receives about the elliptical is: “What are all of these settings for?” Waugh notes that the multitude of buttons simply allow the user select a workout, enter age, adjust intensity (or incline or stride length), and set a time for the workout duration.

Still, Aiello says these buttons can be confusing if you’re unfamiliar with the interface. He recommends using the “Quick Start” option, which is available on almost any piece of cardio equipment, where you simply enter a resistance level and start moving.

What sorts of workouts can be done on ellipticals?

Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham says many cardio workouts are optimal for ellipticals, particularly those focusing on endurance, strength (with resistance and incline focus), stamina, and speed.

Waugh likes doing HIIT workouts or steady-state (lower intensity, longer duration) workouts on the elliptical. “A common HIIT workout would be to ‘sprint’ for one minute, where you go as fast as you can and/or substantially increase resistance, followed by a recovery period of two minutes where you don’t stop completely, but you slow down or decrease the resistance,” she says. “You would then alternate between one minute sprints and the two minute recovery periods on a repeating cycle for 15-30 minutes.”

“One of the best parts of using an elliptical is that it is low-risk, high-reward,” says Aiello. “The risk for injury is relatively small when used properly. Falling off an elliptical is much less common. In addition, there’s reduction in impact injuries or soft tissue damage you commonly see in runners and other high-impact activities like plyometrics.”

Is there anything you should avoid when working out on an elliptical?

In terms of what to avoid on the elliptical, Waugh has three main don’ts. (You can find more elliptical machine dos and don’ts, here). First, stopping suddenly or locking your knees (instead, wait for the machine to come to a complete stop). Secondly, jumping off without cooling down (you should let your heart rate lower first). Lastly, doing the same workout every time to skip the pesky plateau that can hinder results.

Cunningham offers a couple other things to keep in mind: “Avoid driving through the toes when moving, as this causes you to knee load versus engaging your glutes, which is what should be working the majority of the time. Don’t slouch over, as this can put pressure on the lower back, and avoid holding on too tight (to arms/handles) because it can cause the upper body to tense up.”

Of course, use your best judgement. If you’re recovering from an injury, be mindful of other non-impact forms of cross-training that may be better for your body, like swimming. And if something hurts while using the elliptical, don’t do it.

What are some tips and tricks for using an elliptical machine in your exercise routine?

On that same note, Cunningham tells her clients to focus on driving through their heels, regardless if they are moving the pedals forward or backward, to engage the glutes. She says to pretend you are actually outside walking or running. Stay light on your feet on the elliptical machine in the same fashion.

Waugh says the elliptical can benefit anyone on the fitness spectrum, from beginners to elite athletes. The majority of her clients use elliptical machines because of their low impact nature. To get the best workout, she advises people to utilize the arms or handles to engage the core. She also advises that clients aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of cardiovascular training per week.

Why are elliptical machine workouts effective?

Aiello says the bottom line for an effective workout involves “how hard you push yourself and how you measure that intensity.” He suggests adjusting your workout using heart rate monitoring and zone training on an elliptical machine, no matter the model.

“Elliptical workouts are effective because they can work the cardiovascular system in multiple ways without putting stress on the knees and ankles,” says Cunningham. “You can increase resistance to help with toning the lower body, and include moveable arms/handles, when applicable, to get upper body work in, too.”

Waugh believes the elliptical machine can support a variety of fitness goals at any stage, as they target the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves while building upper body and core stability and strength. That means anyone with a fitness goal of weight loss, performance, or muscle gain (to name a few), can benefit from an elliptical workout—a good thing, since elliptical workouts are easier on your body than most other workouts.

Another win: ellipticals are just about everywhere, from fitness clubs to gyms to spas, and relatively inexpensive to purchase for use at home. However, be sure to supplement your fitness regime with strength training and workouts on other types of cardio equipment. Variety is the spice of life, particularly with exercise. And, switching it up helps build muscle mass and maintain a boosted metabolism!

“At the end of the day, the workout you choose will always be relative to your goal,” says Aiello. Whether it be weight loss, cardiovascular conditioning, muscular endurance, or strength building, the elliptical machine is a great way to achieve each and every one of these goals in a safe and effective manner.”

Aaptiv has workouts to help hit your fitness goals with our audio-based fitness app. Our trainers will guide you through each class and workout.



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