The elliptical trainer might be your go-to piece of gym equipment for a sweaty cardio workout — and for good reason: It gets your heart pumping with less impact than the treadmill. But like any workout, small mistakes could cost you big fitness gains.
Here, experts explain the most common elliptical errors, so you can tweak your bad habits and make the most of your elliptical training.
You Only Use the Elliptical
Do you make a beeline for the elliptical as soon as you hit the gym, then stay on the machine for an hour? If the elliptical is the only machine you use, your fitness goals will eventually stall. Here's why: "Doing the same workouts over and over will lead to a fitness and weight loss plateau," says chiropractor and applied kinesiologist Todd Sinett.
That's because your body quickly adapts, says Michele Scharff Olson, senior clinical professor of sport science and physical education at Huntingdon College. "As you get used to a machine, you put out less effort because your body learns to be more coordinated." The result: Fewer calories burned.
To make real fitness gains, spice things up with different exercises. A new move throws off your body and keeps it guessing. “You need to use more stabilizing muscles and concentration to power through the workout,” says Olson. In other words, you can’t just coast on autopilot when you’re training in a new way.
Supplementing your low-impact elliptical routine with some strength training is your best bet to break through a fitness plateau, says John P. Higgins, a sports cardiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Plus, resistance training is important for bone health, muscle growth, stability and injury prevention.
So, instead of doing an hour on the elliptical, press pause and hit the floor for some planks or push-ups. Better yet, keep a set of dumbbells beside your machine and alternate with compound moves like deadlifts and squats to get the most bang for your buck.
You Rely on the Elliptical to Tell You How Many Calories You Burned
If you use the elliptical because you think it burns a ton of calories, brace yourself: Research shows that the machine's calorie readings are wildly inaccurate.
In fact, for every 30 minutes of exercise, elliptical machines overestimate an average of 100 calories burned, according to an April 2018 study published in Exercise Medicine. That means an hour-long sweat session will torch 200 fewer calories than the machine says.
So, what accounts for the discrepancy? In some ellipticals, the calorie counting software is based on running, which is a very different motion, Olson says. Plus, elliptical machines don't consider essential factors like gender, body fat percentage and fitness level, Higgins adds.
Moral of the story? Don't rely on an elliptical's calorie readouts to gauge your daily calorie deficit —especially if you're trying to lose weight — because you'll be way off.
To more accurately estimate how hard you're exercising, Sinett suggests wearing a heart monitor. If you don't have one on hand, he suggests using the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion, which approximates heart rate for a particular level of activity.
You Never Enter Your Personal Information on the Machine
Despite the elliptical's limitations, you should still make it a regular practice to enter your personal stats before every workout. Why? A little info is better than no info, says Olson. "Any information you can put into the machine will sharpen and increase the calorie readout for your weight and age."
This way, both you and the elliptical can estimate your exertion while you exercise. Just remember that you should only use machine readings as a guideline, says Sinett.
You Never Adjust Your Speed or Resistance
Slow and steady may win the race, but maintaining the same modest pace on the elliptical won't get you very far if your goal is weight loss, says Olson. That's because a moderate level of cardio isn't enough to rev up your body's fat-burning engines.
To really blast those stubborn fat cells, you need to boost the intensity of your workout, says Higgins, adding that varying pace or resistance will help you burn more calories and increase your metabolic rate (this means you'll continue scorching calories for hours after you finish your workout).
Intervals are a great way to add intensity to your elliptical routine, says Olson. You can try speed intervals: pedal as fast as you can for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of a moderate pace. Or, alternate between levels of high and low resistance. Some machines have incline settings, so you can play with increasing the elevation too.
You Don't Work Your Upper Half
Ellipticals are meant to offer a full-body cardio workout, but all too often people focus on their legs and neglect their upper half. The most common mistake is leaning on the static handles, an easy trap when you're tired. If you always use the stationary handles for support, your body doesn't need to push as hard and you burn fewer calories.
Another common error? Letting your arms hang at your side, says Higgins. Not only do loose, spaghetti arms limit how hard you exercise, but they can also throw off your balance and lead to injury.
To make the most out of your elliptical workout, engage your upper body: maintain your posture, tighten your core and pump those arms. Using the swinging handlebars will make you work twice as hard and help tone your biceps and shoulders.
For a real upper body challenge, Olson suggests incorporating some arm-focused intervals. Here's how: Grip the moving handles, then push and pull with maximum effort, allowing your legs to float along at a minimal effort for 30 seconds. Alternate between periods of high and low intensity. By the end of your workout, your arms will be on fire.
Are you the type who needs a distraction when you work out? If you're watching TV or scrolling through Instagram while on the elliptical, you might be doing yourself more harm than good.
"When your focus is elsewhere, you're more likely to slow down and take the path of least resistance," says Higgins.
Olson agrees: "If you can easily read, watch TV or talk to your neighbor on the next machine over, you're probably exercising in the low-intensity zone and likely burning half the calories shown on the machine's readout."
So, what can you do to make time fly and still get a killer workout? If you must watch the tube, Higgins suggests incorporating intervals. Go hard during commercials, then resume a moderate pace throughout the show.
Listening to music is also a great way to prevent boredom and ramp up your workout, especially if your playlist is a mix of fast-paced songs. One April 2010 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports showed that cyclists pushed themselves harder when listening to up-tempo tunes.
That said, watching TV or reading while working out is a lot healthier than doing either on the couch, says Sinett, adding, "a bad workout is still better than no workout."
Alternatively, an easy, low-impact elliptical session could be the perfect workout for your active recovery days, says Olson.
- Exercise Medicine: "Caloric Expenditure Estimation Differences between an Elliptical Machine and Indirect Calorimetry"
- Harvard School of Public Health: "Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion"
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: "Caloric Expenditure Estimation Differences between an Elliptical Machine and Indirect Calorimetry"