The elliptical trainer is a cardiovascular machine that has two poles with handles and two foot pedals. To operate the machine, you move the handles back and forth while you move the foot pedals in an arc, or elliptical, motion. Not only does the elliptical improve your aerobic capacity, but it also targets multiple muscles.
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Conventional cardio exercises like running, walking and biking all have the same effect on the body as elliptical training from an aerobic standpoint. The biggest difference is how they target the body. When you run or walk, your lower body is primarily at work. Elliptical training not only works the lower body, but it also works the upper body.
Specific Muscles Targeted
The lower body muscles targeted with elliptical training are the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and anterior tibialis. The glutes are the butt muscles and the hamstrings are found right below them. Both of these muscles get activated with hip extension. This takes place when your thigh moves backward during the gliding motion. The quadriceps are on the front side of the thighs and they get worked when your knee extends your lower leg. This takes place when your leg is moving forward. The calves are on the back part of the lower legs and the tibialis anterior runs down the front of the shins. Both of these muscle groups contract throughout an elliptical workout to stabilize the lower legs. The rectus abdominis and obliques are core muscles that contract to keep the body balanced and in proper alignment.
The upper body muscles that get targeted are the latissimus dorsi, or "lats," pectorals, triceps and biceps. The lats are the muscles that form a "V" shape on your back, and they get worked every time you pull the handles toward your body. This is also the motion that recruits the biceps. The triceps, which are on the back of the upper arms, get worked in unison with the pectorals as you push the handles forward. The "pecs" are the chest muscles.
Elliptical machines come with handles in the center of the machine underneath the console. By taking your hands off the movable poles and placing them on these handles, you can eliminate the upper body from the movement. This places more emphasis on your glutes, hamstrings and quads if you are trying to specifically target these areas and not your upper body. You can also change the direction of the elliptical and glide backwards to target your muscles differently. To challenge your balance and place more emphasis on one side of your body, glide with one foot in the air behind you. This takes a lot more core recruitment.
Muscular strength is built by lifting heavy weights with low reps. Muscular endurance is built by doing high reps with light resistance. Being that elliptical exercise is done for long periods of time with light resistance, it builds muscular endurance. This means you will not be able to increase muscle size by doing elliptical training.
Two major benefits exist with elliptical training. First of all, they work out well if you have a busy schedule. Lack of time is a common excuse for people not exercising. Being that you work your upper and lower body muscles simultaneously on the elliptical, you can easily get a full body workout in a matter of 30 minutes. Another major benefit of the elliptical is that it creates a low impact. Using an elliptical machine is less stressful on your knees, hips and back than is running on a treadmill. This makes it possible for people with joint conditions to not only burn calories, but also strengthen their muscles without compromising the health of their bones and joints.