Customize Your Elliptical Workouts for Weight Loss, Endurance and More

Not sure what to do on the elliptical? Here's your guide.
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If you've been plodding along on the treadmill and need a break from your regular cardio routine, try the elliptical. This machine offers a low-impact alternative that can range from low to high intensity based on your speed and resistance preference. Plus, it's a full-body workout.

Whether you're new to gym workouts or you're an athlete looking for a cross-training workout, the elliptical can help you lose weight, strengthen your muscles and build your overall fitness.

First, a Little History of the Elliptical Machine

Here's a fun fact you can take to your next cocktail party or work happy hour: The first elliptical trainer was based on a design by a father who wanted to help his daughter improve her endurance and tennis performance.

Released by Precor in 1995, the first version was called the Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer or EFX. It promised a reduced-impact, lower-body workout that mimics the natural motion of the foot during walking and running. On the EFX, the training angle is adjustable to engage different muscle activation patterns.

Low-Impact Benefits of the Elliptical

If you have a bad back, bad knees or other condition that necessitates low-impact exercise, fitting in even the minimum amount of activity can be challenging. Fortunately, the elliptical is designed to to be easier on your joints while still giving you all the benefits of cardio, including heart health, mental wellbeing and caloric burn.

"The elliptical trainer does not cause excessive pressure to the joints, hence decreasing the risk of impact injuries," says Michaelangelo Villalba, elite trainer at Crunch Union Square. "An elliptical workout is classified as 'low impact,' as it keeps your heels in contact with the pedals, reducing muscle and tendon stress."

A February 2004 study from the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills found that this more fluid form of exercise has an additional benefit: a lower rating of perceived exertion (RPE). That means that as you exercise, you don't feel that you're working as hard as you actually are, leading to improved endurance and more efficient sweat sessions.

Read more: Elliptical Machine Benefits

The Ideal Length of an Elliptical Workout

In general, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity or an equivalent combination of both each week. That comes out to between 15 and 30 minutes of cardio five days a week.

So how long should you work out on an elliptical? Even 10 minutes on an elliptical trainer can have some benefit if you're just starting out, according to the guidelines, and if you increase your exercise time to 30 minutes, staying between 65 and 75 percent of your max heart rate (220 minus your age) for the full 30 minutes, you'll be in fat-burning zone, says Villalba. That means you'll burn a higher percentage of calories from fat.

While it's perfectly fine to use the elliptical every day, you're missing out on one key component. "Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits," the guidelines say.

The Best Elliptical Workouts for Your Fitness Goals

While the leg motion on the elliptical is similar across all models, additional features can vary. These include fixed versus moving hand rails, type and percentage of incline, and presence or lack of heart rate monitors and pre-programmed workouts.

The more variables on your particular machine, the easier it is to change up your workout to emphasize either calves, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, core, shoulders or chest. And by adjusting your speed and incline, you can tailor your workout to give you exactly what you want.

Leg Workouts on the Elliptical Trainer

By changing the resistance, direction of movement (forward or backward) and stride length, you can activate different lower-body muscle groups, according to a May 2002 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

To help you plan your elliptical leg workout, Precor has created a set of general guidelines geared toward the EFX, which has stationary hand holds but can translate to other machines with a variable ramp.

  • Glutes: Train in the forward direction with the ramp angle between 13 and 20.
  • Quads: Train in the reverse direction at both high and low inclines.
  • Calves: Train in the forward direction between level 12 and 15.
  • Cardio: Train backward at any resistance level and angle and your heart rate will likely elevate, as it's a less familiar movement.
  • Mimic running: Knee flexion is similar to treadmill running at level 20.

If your elliptical doesn't have variable incline, using the elliptical hands-free focuses your workout on your lower body, while building balance and stability as well as strengthening your core. Rather than adjusting the incline, you can play around with the resistance, increasing it to up the leg involvement.

Tip

To maximize your calorie burn, minimize the amount you slow down to compensate for higher inclines or resistance. Use lower incline, resistance and speed for recovery periods.

Add Arms to Your Elliptical Workout

On a machine with moving arms, alternating between pushing and pulling can activate different upper-body muscles the same way adjusting incline targets the lower body.

  • Chest: Push the handles.
  • Upper back: Pull the handles.

"If you are just holding on and letting your arms go for a ride, then it is best not to use the arm bars at all," says Villalba. "A beginner might use the arm bars to help with balance at first, but they should then increase the workload (speed, level, watts) to make the arms do more work."

Elliptical Workouts for Weight Loss

Is the elliptical good to lose weight? Hold on one second. When you're looking to drop some pounds, nutrition comes first. Make sure you're consuming a healthy, reduced-calorie diet filled with whole-food sources of lean protein, healthy fats and complex carbs and as few highly processed foods as possible.

The next step is to make sure you're burning more calories than you're consuming. And that's where the elliptical can help. Though exact calorie burn depends on your weight, fitness level and intensity, a basic 30-minute elliptical session burns between 250 and 400 calories.

When planning your weight-loss elliptical workout, think of your heart rate and RPE in terms of zones:

  • Zone 1 is easy effort for your warm-up and cooldown.
  • Zone 2 is a moderate pace for mid-workout recovery.
  • Zone 3 is somewhat hard (you can carry on a conversation).
  • Zone 4 is hard (you can barely have a conversation).
  • Zone 5 is an all-out push (you can't talk), which you can work into your routine for short bursts.

Tip

If you're looking to lose weight on the elliptical, the bulk of your workout should be in zones 3 and 4.

Heart rate can also help you hone in on the right intensity, while also providing useful metrics on calories burned. If you have a wearable heart-rate monitor, you can use training zones to direct your exertion and intensity to personalize your workout even further.

Read more: How to Get All the Fat-Burning Benefits of the Elliptical Machine

HIIT Workouts on the Elliptical

Do ellipticals help lose belly fat? Again, diet is central to your efforts, as is the fact that you can't spot reduce, meaning you can't target belly fat directly. But high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can help you burn the most calories and fat in the shortest amount of time.

For an efficient HIIT workout, sprinkle in a mix of all-out sprints and low- to moderate-intensity recovery. Sprints on the elliptical can go one of two ways — when resistance is low, go as quickly as you can and when resistance is high, slow your pace. A higher speed emphasizes cardiovascular endurance, while higher resistance builds muscular strength and endurance.

Trade off between a one-minute speed push and a one-minute endurance push, incorporating a few recovery periods with low resistance and low speed in between. Vary your use of the machine's arms and see how the intensity changes for you.

Read more: How to Have Your Best HIIT Elliptical Workout Ever