How to Properly Use an Elliptical to Maximize Your Workout

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An elliptical machine is a great way to get a cardio workout without impact on the feet or joints, so it’s ideal for injury recovery and people prone to shock and stress problems. Because the feet never leave the pedals of the machine, and it takes the legs through a gentle, elliptical range of motion, it’s a safe and effective workout.

However, as with many gym machines, improper use can impair the effectiveness of the workout. It’s not just about time on the machine; it’s about using it correctly. So, let’s learn how to use an elliptical to get a great workout. 

What is an Elliptical Machine?

An elliptical machine is a cross between a stationary bike and a treadmill. Like a bike, your feet stay on the pedals throughout the range of motion, and the legs and feet make a circular rotation (an ellipse) as the pedals raise and lower. Like a treadmill, your motion on an elliptical is much like the motion of walking or stair climbing, where the feet rise and fall with each step.

Most elliptical machines also have handles that you can hold. They keep pace with the motion of the feet, helping you maintain proper, upright form, and allowing you to push and pull against the handles for upper body muscle engagement as you exercise.

If you’ve never used an elliptical, this video gives a great overview of what the machines look like and how to operate them:

How to Use an Elliptical: Step-by-Step

To use an elliptical machine:

  1. Hold onto one of the stationary handles before stepping on the pedals
  2. Step on one pedal. Be aware that in most elliptical machines, the pedal will immediately move under your weight, so use your grip on the handle to remain stable.
  3. Step on the other pedal and get balanced and centered
  4. Press the “quick start” or “manual” button on the interface. While you can usually use the machine without pressing this button, using a manual or QuickStart feature allows the machine to immediately begin tracking your time and speed.
  5. Start pedaling with your feet. The motion is a lot like the motion of riding a bicycle while standing up, without resting on the seat.
  6. Find a comfortable pace and familiarize yourself with the motion
  7. Use the moving handles (if your machine has them) to start pushing and pulling with each step

When you are comfortable, adjust the resistance until you feel your legs being more engaged and working harder to move the pedals.

When you are comfortable, you may want to start adjusting the incline or other settings to find out which settings are best for your body and fitness level.

Correct Elliptical Form and Technique

While the motion of an elliptical is a natural, fluid motion, there are a few things to know in order to use the machine correctly. Make sure you pay attention to your:

Posture

Maintaining correct posture on the elliptical is key to getting a good workout and avoiding stress or injury.

Feet

The feet should be centered on the pedals, with your toes facing forward and the edges of your feet parallel to the edges of the pedal. Keep your feet flat on the pedals throughout the range of motion, with a soft bend in the knees.

Spine

Keeping your back straight is essential, to engage your core and open up your chest and lungs. Stand up straight, with your abdominal muscles pulled in, and your head and neck straight and facing forward.

Arms

Whether you are using the moving handles for exercise, or the stationary handles for balance, make sure that you are holding them lightly, for stability, rather than leaning on them or clenching them. Keep your shoulders relaxed down the back, and your elbows bending naturally throughout the range of motion.

Form

Hold your body stationary and upright and use your legs to push the pedals, and arms to move the handles. Don’t rock your body back and forth or lean down on one side and then the other. Rather than shifting your body back and forth, using your body weight to move the pedals, keep your body still and use your muscles to move the pedals.

Heart Rate

Monitor your heart rate during any cardio workout to ensure that you are working at 60-80% of your heart rate max.

Some elliptical machines have a built-in heart rate monitor so that you can make sure you are at the optimal heart rate. If the machine doesn’t have one, you may want to use a smart watch or wrist device that monitors your heart rate for you or take your pulse periodically as you exercise.

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There are elliptical machines which have a built-in heart rate monitor that are very useful during a cardio workout.

Basic Elliptical Machine Settings

Every machine has different features and settings, but here are some of the most important basic settings and features:

Resistance

Resistance simply makes the pedals of an elliptical harder to push, forcing you to do more work with every step.

Incline

Incline changes the angle of your motion, similar to walking or bike riding up a hill. Higher inclines make the glutes and hamstrings work harder with every step.

Manual/Quick Start

The manual setting simply allows you to manually control the speed, resistance, incline, timing, and everything else about your elliptical workout. You make your exercise as hard or as easy as you want.

Interval

Many elliptical machines have automatic interval settings, where the machine periodically adjusts the incline and resistance to give you brief periods of increased intensity.

Programmed Settings

Many elliptical machines have a wide range of programed settings, with different workouts for different goals, so feel free to play around and discover the best settings for your body and your fitness level.

This video has a lot of tips and tricks for beginner elliptical form, settings, and workouts:

How to Get a Great Workout on an Elliptical

As with a lot of exercise machines, you can put on your headphones, hop on the elliptical, walk for 30 minutes, and then go about your business. But that routine can get boring and won’t give you a great workout. In the same 30 minutes, you can get a killer workout on the elliptical. Here’s how:

Make Sure You are Working at the Right Intensity

Many elliptical machines have a heart rate monitor, or you can use a monitoring device. As a quick check, try to talk in a normal voice. You should be slightly out of breath, but still able to talk. You should not be able to sing. Keeping your body working at the right intensity level is key to getting a great workout, no matter what your activity is.

Vary Your Incline

Every two minutes, increase the incline on your elliptical. You can use the “ladder” technique, increasing the incline every two minutes all the way to the highest number, and then decreasing it every two minutes by two settings on the way down. Or alternate higher and lower incline, every two minutes.

Changing the incline level alters the leg muscles that are engaged in your elliptical workout, and changes how much they need to work, giving you a great workout with excellent muscle toning and conditioning in the lower body.

Go in Reverse

Most elliptical machines have a setting where you can reverse the motion of your legs, to simulate walking backward, or you can simply change the direction of your motion to move in reverse. This deeply engages the hamstrings and back of the legs, building strength and improving condition. As with any other elliptical workout, go backward while altering the resistance and incline settings for a more powerful workout.

Let Go of the Handles

Most elliptical workouts involve pushing and pulling on the handles, to add an upper-body workout to your elliptical training. However, periodically letting go of the handles forces your core to engage more deeply in order to maintain your balance. Try alternating hard pushing and pulling on the handles with intervals where you don’t use the handles at all. Mix it up by adding hand weights and doing a set of light bicep curls while using the elliptical.

Use Intervals

You can always use the intervals that come with the machine, and there are a lot of great elliptical interval workouts that make every minute of your workout count. Interval training is a fantastic way to improve heart health and overall fitness, or speed you toward fat loss goals.

Step off the Machine

You can use the built-in elliptical intervals or hop off the machine for 60 seconds of pushups or planks. Getting off the machine for short intervals that focus on your arms or core muscles allows you to really concentrate and engage the upper body, while giving your legs a quick rest. It helps build agility and functional fitness and work out your whole body efficiently.

Don’t Get in a Routine

While routines can be comfortable, they won’t get you a great workout. Even if you love your elliptical regimen, take one day a week for swimming, or yoga, or strength training. Getting off the elliptical from time to time has several powerful benefits you can’t get otherwise, including:

Conditioning Other Muscles

Even if you use the elliptical backwards, or add in other exercises, you still end up training the same muscle groups in the same ways. Adding in other cross-training activities from time to time reduces stress on those muscles and engages muscles you don’t use as often.

Improving Functional Fitness

While we all want to be fit to look great, fitness also allows you to function better in everyday life. Your exercise regimen should be versatile enough to help keep you strong and healthy for everyday activities like playing with kids, household chores, a night on the town, or a vacation. Including other exercises in your fitness routine keeps your body ready for anything life may throw at you.

Building New Muscle

While an elliptical is a great way to tone and condition muscles, it won’t help you build new ones. Periodic strength training helps you get stronger and develop new muscle.

Preserving Bone Health

While we love low-impact workouts for reducing stress and preventing injury, science shows that moderate impact is actually good for you. The kind of impact your feet and legs experience when running helps to strengthen your bones, reducing your risk of osteoporosis.

Preventing Boredom

When your mind is engaged, your body is engaged. Breaking up your fitness routine with occasional cross training challenges your mind as well as your body, forcing you to learn new things and move in new ways. These new experiences are good for your brain, helping to prevent boredom and keeping your mind sharp over time.

Conclusion

An elliptical machine is a great way to get a total body workout, become more fit, lose weight, and feel great. Using the machine properly is key to preventing injury and making every minute of your exercise regimen count.

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