How to Actually Get a Good Workout on the Elliptical Machine

With good form and an effective plan, you can actually get a great workout on this machine

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Alison Feller—Out of all the cardio machines, the elliptical probably gets the most side-eye. People tend to think it's boring and ineffective (research even says so!) , and the go-to source for an easy, mindless workout, if even that. But it turns out there are plenty of science-backed benefits to the elliptical, like raising your heart rate even more than the treadmill and improving fitness just as efficiently as the treadmill or Stairmaster.

What's more, there's actually a right and wrong way to use it. With the correct form and plan of attack, you can get a truly killer workout on the machine. To find out how to make the most of every stride, we asked top fitness experts for their best advice, plus an effective 20-minute workout.

DO: Make a plan before hitting “start.”
Before even stepping foot on the machine, set an intention for the workout. “Ask yourself what you want to achieve that day,” says Leanne Weiner, a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. “Then monitor your perceived level of exertion—where zero is like going for a leisurely stroll and at 10 you’re completely out of breath—throughout the workout to make sure you’re not just dialing it in. If you don’t feel like you’re working, you’re probably not.”

Not having a goal is one of the biggest mistakes people make on the elliptical, says Marc Santa Maria, national group fitness director at Crunch. “People just hop on and think, ‘If I move, this will be effective,’ but that’s not the case. You have to have a workout plan.” (See below for a killer example!)

DON’T: Slouch.
With handrails on the machine, it can be tempting to grab on and lean forward as your legs do all the work. But slouching forward will simply make the workout feel easier, so it’s not doing you any favors, says Jonathan Cane, a triathlon coach and exercise physiologist. “Instead, stay upright with a firm core, without hunching over,” he says. “Poor form is inefficient, and can contribute to low back painand muscular imbalances.”

Plus, those handles aren’t supposed to make the workout feel easy. “I often see people leaning heavily on the handrails or propping themselves up on them,” Cane says. “But all that’s doing is fooling the machine. If you support your weight on the handrails, the machine will tell you your caloric expenditure is greater than it really is.”

DO: Use the handles for a total-body workout.
“Power is shared between the upper and lower body on the elliptical,” Weiner says. For the most effective workout, actively push and pull the levers while maintaining an upright posture, keeping the shoulders pulled back and the abs engaged—otherwise the arms are just along for the ride. Working the machine without holding onto the handrails at all is another option. “In this case, most of the power is generated from the lower body, requiring more core activation and balance,” Weiner says. “Stay upright, keep the abs engaged, and pump the arms forward and backward at a 90-degree angle—as if you were running.”

DON’T: Repeat your routine.
Doing the same workout day after day may be effective at first, but it will eventually lead to a fitness plateau. “Our body is an evolutionary machine that's programmed to adapt to new stressors in about four to six weeks,” Weiner says. “It’s important to constantly change exercise variables.”

To reap maximum general fitness benefits, interval training is the way to go. “You’ll get better conditioning than from steady-state work,” Cane says. “One of the nice things about the elliptical is that you have a few variables you can manipulate to make things more challenging, such as resistance, stride rate, and even elevation on some machines.”

Not only will diversifying your elliptical workout keep your body in top shape, it’s also more fun! Here are some ideas to change up your routine from Santa Maria:

  • Do 5-minute intervals increasing resistance each time.
  • Start and stay with a steady pace—the base-pace rate—and increase the machine’s incline/decline setting.
  • Move at base-pace for 2 minutes, then double the speed for 2 minutes (keeping incline steady) and recover for 1 minute. Repeat this pattern as many times as desired.

“Being creative keeps you from getting bored and phoning it in,” Santa Maria says. “See if you can improve your distance or levels of endurance each time you get on the machine. Compete against yourself to get stronger and leaner.”

DO: Put down the iPad.
Being distracted by a magazine, your Kindle, or a TV show on the elliptical is a workout killer, Santa Maria says. Focus on the workout, not a plotline.

The Ultimate 20-Minute Elliptical Workout
Still not convinced the elliptical is hardcore? Try this interval workout, created by Weiner. “High-intensity interval training is a fast and effective way to get in a solid workout with limited time,” she says. “What this interval workout lacks in duration, it makes up for in intensity.”

Your moderate speed should feel like going on a casual run—not a sprint, but not a walk. High resistance should feel like 80 to 90 percent of your maximum effort, moderate resistance should be 60 to 70 percent maximum effort, and low resistance should be 40 to 50 percent maximum effort.

For an added challenge, perform 1 to 2 30-second sets of low-intensity bodyweight exercises off the elliptical during the recovery periods (such as planks, push-ups, air squats, or lunges).

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