Despite common misconceptions, elliptical workouts are highly beneficial. They are a lower intensity form of exercise that burns calories and improves balance.
These machines are easy to set up and use, at the gym or at home. And they’re a good way to quickly strength train your glutes, thighs, hip flexors, and both your lower and upper body, as well as increase your stamina.
Our experts explain what body parts the elliptical targets and how that impacts weight loss.
Elliptical workouts can strengthen your whole body.
“Elliptical workouts are similar to cardio exercises, like running, walking, and biking, in that they are all aerobic exercises,” explains Meghan Kennihan, an Illinois-based personal trainer and running coach.
“The biggest difference is how the elliptical targets the body. When you run or walk, your lower body is primarily at work. Elliptical training works [both] the lower body [and] the upper body. It typically targets the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and anterior tibialis. When your thigh moves backward during the gliding motion, you will feel your glutes and hamstrings. Your quadriceps get worked when your leg is moving forward. The calves and tibialis contract to stabilize the lower legs. Your core muscles are used to keep the body balanced and aligned.”
Fitness expert Candice Cunningham echoes the sentiment that elliptical workouts have the power to target your glutes, core, hamstrings, adductors and abductors, and quadriceps. If you can use moveable handles on the machine, you can also work your triceps, biceps, and shoulders, too.
When comparing walking, using an elliptical, following a treadmill workout, and cycling, a 2012 study indicated that the elliptical demonstrated the greatest activation of quadriceps and hamstrings. “When you push your foot down on the pedals, your quadriceps contract and the machine begins to move,” says Emily Emanuel, a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at a Chicago-based concierge wellness company. “The quadriceps are the major muscle group consisting of four muscles in the front of the thigh. [They] are worked the most from an elliptical workout. Utilizing the incline option will engage your lower legs and improve activation in your hamstrings behind each leg. As your leg moves back in the circular motion, your glutes contract and stabilize your pelvis.”
Pay attention to your form
Of course, these benefits depend heavily on proper form. Rob Jackson, a personal trainer at London-based Minimal FIT, recommends tensing your abdominals in order to boost your elliptical workout. Try to avoid bobbing up and down on the machine, and keep your posture upright and straight. All of these adjustments allow you to work out your entire core.
But, you can’t use the elliptical to spot reduce a body part.
Certified Personal Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist Laura Arndt says that spot reducing certain parts of the body is difficult, if not downright impossible. Instead, she suggests viewing the elliptical as an opportunity to burn calories and hit major muscle groups.
“You cannot spot reduce anything, in general,” adds Cunningham. “For example, if you’re trying to build a really big booty, then only doing the elliptical won’t get you there. You need to add in resistance training, too. If you are trying to trim down a certain area, like inner thighs, then adding resistance, speed, and incline can all help that. Pushing through your heels versus toes will help target glutes and hamstrings, as well. However, you still need a combination of resistance training and elliptical work to get the ultimate results you want.”
Still, training specific areas of the body doesn’t mean that you’ll lose more fat there, notes Jackson. your body decides where it stores fat, and that’s different for every person. If you’re looking to see muscle definition and lose fat in a particular area of the body, like “love handles,” take a well-rounded approach with diet and exercise as a whole, advises Emanuel.
Elliptical workouts can help you lose weight and increase cardio endurance.
Even though some people genuinely think elliptical workouts are either boring or not challenging enough, the data says otherwise. Using the elliptical is technically just as effective as the treadmill, in terms of weight loss, endurance, and muscle toning.
“The elliptical is a great tool to increase cardiovascular endurance,” says Emanuel. “It activates most major muscle groups [thus] increasing calorie burn, but [it] is limited when it applies to strength training. If weight loss is your goal, then the elliptical is a great option, when used in combination with proper nutrition and diet.”
For those looking to make an elliptical workout harder, Kennihan advises increasing the resistance, which will create a muscular endurance strength workout. Or, add intervals to mix things up. “Ellipticals are one of my favorite cardiovascular machines for men and women, especially if you have injuries, or you are [either] pregnant or within a year post-delivery,” says Arndt. “There is no pounding and the elliptical provides a smooth motion without picking up your feet. So it’s low-impact on your joints. But [it] will still burn a lot of calories and raise your heart rate, if used correctly. You can burn just as many calories on an elliptical as you can running and improve your cardiovascular endurance, without testing your balance or putting strain on your knees and back.”