Six Reasons To Use An Elliptical Trainer – And A Killer Elliptical Trainer Workout.

Marathoner Dean Karnazes trains on an outdoor elliptical trainer: the "Elliptigo". photo copyright: Eric C. Gould 2010.

Before I give you a killer elliptical trainer workout, I should probably appeal to the elliptical training doubters.

After all, I know there are a significant number of “hardcore” triathletes, marathoners, cyclists and fitness enthusiasts who visit this website and probably consider elliptical training to be slightly subpar to swimming, cycling, running or weight training.

But in reality, elliptical trainers can be both more difficult, more effective, more time-saving, and offer a more full body workout compared to other cardiovascular modes of exercise – which is why I train 2-3 times per week on an elliptical trainer as a substitute for cycling or running.

Here are six reasons why I’m a big fan of the elliptical trainer:

1. Less Joint Impact With Just As Much Fitness.

The elliptical trainer was originally designed by an inventor who created the idea for the motion by filming his daughter running alongside his car, then replicating that running motion by designing a machine that put less strain on the joints.

A study an University of Missouri measured oxygen utilization, lactic acid formation, heart rate, and rating of perceived exertion on an elliptical trainer compared to a treadmill, and found that the elliptical exercise was nearly identical to the treadmill exercise in every respect – but the elliptical trainer creates far less joint impact.

Take away message: compared to running, you can stay just as fit on an elliptical trainer, but you recover much faster due to lower joint impact.

2. Ability To Fix Weak Quadriceps.

Another study compared muscle activity patterns of the quadriceps and hamstring in walking on the ground, walking on a treadmill, stationary bicycling, and the elliptical trainer. The elliptical trainer produced significantly great quadriceps utilization and greater quadriceps/hamstring coordination than any of the other modes of exercise! And a study at Willamette University found that when you pedal backwards on an elliptical, your quadriceps utilization skyrockets even more.

Take away message: if you have weak quads, or a low quadriceps to hamstring strength ratio, an elliptical can help bring your leg muscles back into alignment. 

3. Targeting of Notoriously Weak Muscles In Runners & Cyclists.

There was also a study that compared elliptical training to walking, and found greater muscle activation during the elliptical training for the gluteus maximus (butt) and vastus lateralis (external hip muscles), with a slightly lower activation of the hamstrings.

Take away message: if you need to build stronger butt or hip muscles, which is highly recommend for runners and cyclists, you can do it on an elliptical trainer without aggravating your hamstring.

4. Ability To Maximize Training Effect by Increasing Stride Length.

Interestingly, another study, at the University of Idaho (my alma mater – go Vandals!) found that as stride length increases on an elliptical trainer, more calories are burned without you actually feeling like you’re working any harder – which is very good to know if you exercise on an indoor elliptical trainer with adjustable stride length or on the Elliptigo, which also has adjustable stride length.

Take away message: even though an elliptical is already equivalent to a treadmill in calorie burning, an elliptical that has a long stride length can maximize that effect even more.

 5. Upper Body and Core Muscle Utilization.

On an elliptical trainer that includes arm motion, a shoulder, chest, biceps and triceps workout can be incorporated simultaneous to a lower body cardiovascular workout. In addition, the upright posture on an elliptical trainer will utilize more of your core muscles, and if you go “hand-free” without using the railing on an indoor elliptical trainer, you can increase the balance and postural training effect.

Take away message: you can save a ton of time by working your upper body muscular endurance, lower body muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness and core all at the same time on an elliptical trainer.

6. Elliptical Trainers Take Up Less Space.

Compared to a treadmill, an elliptical trainer is easier to move and is a great way to save space. Even an outdoor elliptical trainer, like the Elliptigo, can fold up smaller than a bicycle and be placed in the trunk of your car.

Take away message: if your home gym is small or you don’t have room for a bike in your car, an elliptical trainer is a perfect option.

Finally, I know I promised you a killer, full body elliptical trainer workout, so here it is. You can do this workout on an indoor elliptical trainer or outdoors on an Elliptigo, and it takes full advantage of the benefits of high intensity interval training.

-Warm up with easy pedaling for five minutes.

-Perform five, 30 second all-out efforts, each separated by 60 seconds of easy recovery pedaling. If an option, alternate between forward pedaling and backward pedaling with each all out effort.

-Stop the elliptical and jump rope or perform jumping jacks for one minute. If your knees don’t like this, simply do body weight squats.

-Get back on the elliptical and perform five, 60 second all-out efforts, each separated by 30 seconds of easy recovery pedaling.

-Stop the elliptical and perform squat jumps or lunge jumps for one minute. If your knees don’t like this, do body weight lunges.

-Get back on the elliptical and perform five, 2 minute all-out efforts, each separated by 60 seconds of easy recovery pedaling.

-Stop the elliptical and perform regular push-ups or squat-thrust-jumps for one minute.

 -Get back on the elliptical and cool-down for five minutes OR repeat this entire workout one more time. If desired, you can substitute new exercises the second time through. 

That’s it!

Do you have questions or comments about the elliptical trainer or elliptical trainer workouts? Then leave them below (and if you want an outdoor elliptical trainer like the Elliptigo, then click here to get it, because they’ll pay me a sales commission if you use that link!)


24 thoughts on “Six Reasons To Use An Elliptical Trainer – And A Killer Elliptical Trainer Workout.

  1. I was wondering the same thing. I had read that the elliptical is a waste of time, unless you have the resistance at a high level and you go full tilt.

    1. Most people that say that don't know their exercise science Jeffrey, although to their credit, they are probably basing that off the high number of people who "spin out" at an easy resistance on an elliptical

  2. technical question- to go "all out" you would want slope and resistance on elliptical at or near max and for rest you would want it at or near the minimum setting. this seems to take me 10 or 20 seconds. am i missing a special button or does this fit with your suggested routine?

    1. Not necessarily. You can go "all out" by simply spinning extremely fast at a high intensity on a moderate resistance (i.e. a cadence of 160+ with a resistance of 12+). Without messing around with slope, a change in resistance should only take you 5 seconds, and a change in cadence is instantaneous.

  3. Good to read this, and reassuring. I use the elliptical and the stationery bike for cardio, as I cannot do any high impact activity, no running or jumping, and I found the elliptical is a great way to get my heart work hard while keeping my knees safe.

  4. I have had to use an elliptical trainer extensively for the past 5 years due to running issues. I was very happy to read this article!

  5. Thanks for this post! It makes me feel much better about using the elliptical. I used to think it was a trendy machine for gym bunnies who don't like to sweat but after injuring my hip, spraining my ankle and feeling a little knee pain, I started using the elliptical. I like it so much better than the treadmill and your post gave me 6 more reasons to like it! :D

  6. Ben, I read your article with great interest. I switched gyms recently, and I had been using an escalator stair master with no knee problems. The new gym just has ellipticals. I've tried them, but they don't give me the same high level intensity that I got from a stair master. I've now developed knee pain since using them, especially since I've gone "hands free." I've never gone backwards on them. Do you have any suggestions that might help me avoid the knee pain?

    1. Depending on the design of the elliptical, some can put a very large shearing force on your knee. Precor is not a bad brand usually. Others not so sure – especially if they're cheap brands that don't really track naturally in line with your knee. I've found that biggest issue though is not enough force and too high a cadence on ellipticals causing a jarring force on knee. Contracted muscles from higher force seem to help knee track better…

  7. Thanks for telling your evidence about this elliptical machine of Octane fitness. Let me tell you about the result i get from this machine that i am smarter than every other person in my office. The best part about it is that i have get it done without the exhausting heavy workouts.

    1. I lost 55 lbs in 6 months by running up and down a total of 16 stairs an hour a day sometimes twice a day,unfortunately I was in prison when I lost this weight. Now that I’m home I do not have any stairs to run.Will this machine be equal to the stair running? I really miss those stairs,I loved the workout every day.Thank you,Sherrie

  8. I've been struggling with proximal tendinopathy – or runner's bum. It's where the hamstring attaches to the pelvis and it takes forever to heal. The smallest thing will aggravate it. I've recently started using the elliptical and it is not only NOT aggravating it, it's helping to build the strength in my hamstring, hips and glute max – all important if I'm going to get back to my sport again – mountain biking. Just wanted to share in case anyone else is struggling with this injury.

  9. I’ve never used one of these machines before and I’m trying to figure out what would be best for me to start out with and my budget is very low, is there a elliptical trainer that is good for about $100?

  10. I’m a 66 year old senior. I don’t use the upright elliptical but instead use the sit down bike feature. Is this good for me as the stationary bike ? I do walk an hour six days a week and follow up with 30 minutes a day on the”bike” later in the day. Thanks

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