In a sea of cardio machines at the gym, the elliptical machine stands out as many people's go-to for a few reasons: it feels better on the body than the treadmill, it's easy to use, and it allows for multitasking, like watching an episode of TV or reading on your phone.
That said, some people are under the impression that using the elliptical is somehow not as good as, say, a stationary bike or the treadmill. But that is false. Using the elliptical is definitely not cheating, says John Thornhill, master trainer at Aaptiv, who has several elliptical workouts on the workout app. "The elliptical is a fantastic cardio machine that allows you to work almost your entire body in a low impact environment," he says. Like running, the elliptical improves your cardiovascular endurance, without putting so much stress on your joints. And using the elliptical also strengthens several major muscle groups, namely your core and legs, while also activating your upper body, Thornhill says.
But as great as the elliptical is, most people don't know how to use it in a way that truly challenges their body. So, if you love the elliptical, but want more out of the machine, here are some tips from Thornhill:
Use your time wisely.
There's a temptation to just hop on the elliptical and use it until you hit a certain number of minutes, but it's important to have a plan that includes how long you'll use it. If you're warming up for a strength-training workout on the elliptical, you should ride for five to 20 minutes, Thornhill says. But if you want to really maximize the cardio benefits of the machine, it's best to stay on for at least 15 minutes, or at most an hour, he says.
Find your rhythm.
Similar to your favorite indoor cycling workout, you can step to the rhythm of your music on the elliptical, Thornhill says. Keep time with your pedal strokes, and adjust your speed when the song gets faster or slower. "You’re basically dancing," he says. If you're looking for new songs to add to your workout playlist, aim for ones between 120-140 beats per minute.
Play with resistance and incline.
"One of the biggest mistakes someone can do on the elliptical is to ride with low resistance," Thornhill says. Resistance is what causes your muscles to change, he says. As a general rule, you should always "feel" the tension as you push and pull the pedals and handlebars, he says. Determining the right amount of resistance for your workouts can take some finessing. But if you find your legs are moving with momentum, rather than effort, it's a sign that you're not using enough resistance. As far as incline, goes, "the higher the incline, the more you work your glutes, so crank up that incline," he says.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a training method that includes short intense bursts of activity followed by periods of rest. You can apply the HIIT techniques to almost any workout, including the elliptical, Thornhill says. Try alternating between 30-second intervals at a moderate level, with two-minute recovery sessions at a lower level and incline for about 20 minutes to start. "Once you’re familiar with the machine, see how often you can get breathless in one cardio session," he says.
Focus on form.
Ellipticals are super user-friendly, but there are some form pointers that you should keep in mind throughout. "Make sure that your shoulders are relaxed, chest open, core engaged, and drive down with your heels," Thornhill says. Use the upper body handlebars and push with your chest and pull with your back, but keep a light grip so your legs do most of the work, he says. Got the hang of it? Try going backwards to work your hamstrings, he says.