Ellipticals are fantastic tools for cardiovascular fitness. They don’t artificially elevate your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and they offer the highest number of modalities out of all the different various types of cardio machines in the market. It’s a comfortable workout - due to it being extremely low impact - and a machine with proper biomechanics will enable you to use it more often and for longer periods of time.
There are good, better and best ways that you can optimize your time and your machine, and we are going to break down the top six ways you can use your elliptical to maximize your results, in no specific order.
#1: Start Monitoring Your Heart Rate
In my opinion, knowing your heart rate, as well as your individual heart rate zones, is the most important metric on the display of your machine (even more important than calories or distance). Not all workouts are the same and depending on how you are systematically making your heart work, you may or may not be sabotaging your workouts – or worse – wasting your valuable time.
Training for a new Personal Record? A steady state aerobic program would condition you for that.
Do you just want to get moving? Try an anaerobic steady state workout and keep your HR at 70%.
Bottom Line: If you have a goal, and you aren’t monitoring your heart rate, you aren’t using one of the most important tools at your disposal to get you to your objective that much more quickly and efficiently.
#2: Use the Incline Feature
Not all ellipticals have adjustable incline, however when you visit your gym, you should be choosing the ones that do. Also, if your machine at home has one, it would be remiss of you not to use it. In addition, if you are shopping for an elliptical trainer machine, you should seriously consider choosing a model that has this vital feature.
Why should you use incline on your elliptical?
Because the more you can recruit your posterior chain muscles, the more calories you are going to burn. And an excellent way to target those muscles is simply by climbing.
Think about it. Have you ever climbed a few flights of stairs and felt your heart rate start to go up? Climbing requires more energy and is more taxing on your muscles. It will exponentially increase your caloric expenditure without you having to work that much harder. Think about it this way: say you own a treadmill, but the incline motor doesn’t work. You still want to get your workout in, so you use it anyway. You want to keep your heart rate at 75-80%. With the incline motor broken, the only way to do this is to increase your speed and drop your pace, so your RPE is going to be much higher. You have exactly one way to increase your HR - go fast.
With an elliptical that has incline, you can increase the angle to target those larger muscles and get your heart rate up, while simultaneously keeping your RPE down because you don’t have to drop your pace and pedal like the wind. I am always an advocate for shorter and more intense workouts over longer, easier workouts; however, in this case it is one of those rare occurrences where working smarter trumps working harder.
Lastly, ellipticals such as the Precor EFX447 – which goes up to 40 degrees – offers full range of motion. Not all ellipticals are equal, and machines like the EFX447 will greatly improve your flexibility. With the top-of-the line premium Precor EFX447, the motorized CrossRamp automatically adjusts to focus on the muscle groups you select, and the convertible handlebars let you choose stationary or moving handlebars. With the personalized workout options and information, the EFX-447 is a great choice and the ideal long-term training partner.
Bottom line: if you aren’t using incline, you are missing out on integral benefits that will keep you healthier and more comfortable during exercise.
#3: Use the Elliptical's Arms Properly
Many people aren’t using the upper body features on their elliptical properly; so much so, that in some circles, there is a controversy revolving around their actual effectiveness. I’m here to debunk the myth that arms “do nothing” and tell you that it isn’t the arms . . . it’s the user.
Ellipticals are primarily driven through the lower body, and the linkages that are connected to the flywheel are also incorporated into the arm movement. What this means is the arms cannot move independently of the foot pedals.
What you should NOT do is hold on the them and let them guide your arms back and forth, while you drive the machine entirely with your legs.
What you SHOULD do is take power out of your legs and supplement them by pulling and pushing the arms with a degree of force. The arms are connected to the resistance as well, so you will want to find a good balance of using your strength against the right amount of resistance. It’s an oversimplification, and perhaps arbitrary, but think about it in the sense of turning the flywheel with 75% legs, 25% arms.
In addition, you should use them intelligently. You don’t have to constantly push AND pull. Maybe on Mondays and Thursdays you want to concentrate on your biceps and chest, so you only push and let the arms pull back on their own. Then on Wednesdays and Saturdays you work your triceps, shoulders and back and concentrate on pulling only.
Bottom line: If you are just holding on for the ride, your upper body is only a passenger.
#4: Use Resistance Wisely
Resistance is one of the most effective ways to increase your calorie burn and heart rate. Almost every elliptical in the world has resistance, but not all resistance systems are created equally. For more information about resistance systems, check out our Ultimate Elliptical Buyer’s Guide.
Make sure your resistance is proper for the type of training you are doing. For example, let’s say your favorite program is Sprint 8 on Matrix (It's one of our favorites too!). Sprint 8 consists of a 30-second burst of high intensity, followed by a 90-second recovery and a significantly reduced intensity, with a span of 8 intervals across 20-minutes. If you are doing Sprint 8 on a machine that has an Eddy Current resistance system with a moving arm, you are going to have to wait upwards to 30-seconds for the resistance to go from level 1-20. So, you aren’t actually maximizing your burst interval when you have to wait the entire interval for the magnet to move. An electromagnetic resistance system would be better suited for this. Here's an overview of the Sprint8 Training Program:
Also, make sure you are using the right amount of resistance. Too much resistance over long periods of time could be one of many culprits that make your toes go numb, a phenomenon known as “Numb Toe.” Not enough resistance will limit your muscle recruitment, decrease your calorie burn and make your workouts much longer.
Bottom line: Make sure your resistance is appropriate for your target, comfort and expectations while still making sure to challenge yourself.
#5: Alternate Your Stride
If you use your elliptical every day, but you only pedal in a forward motion, you are missing out on a golden opportunity to maximize your workout: pedaling backward.
Should you pedal backwards on an elliptical?
Pedaling in reverse can be increasingly more taxing on your muscles than pedaling forward, and a 2007 study from the University of Wisconsin determined that participants burned 7% more calories than pedaling normally. In addition, changing direction is a good way of breaking up the monotony but more importantly, combating the expectations your body has as you continue to exercise and condition yourself into one motion.
The placement of the drive system, linkages, flywheel and resistance system will also have an impact on your workout efficiency regarding the direction you pedal. For example, if the flywheel is behind you, like on a Precor EFX447, you are pulling it to make it turn, so your posterior muscles such as your hamstrings and glutes might have more engagement. Reverse your rotation to push that wheel, and now you are really firing your quads.
Another benefit of changing direction is making your body less susceptible to repetitive-motion injury. Optimizing fast-twitch muscle fiber activation, as well as increasing any eccentric contractions to complement your concentric contractions, will condition you to be stronger, more flexible and more reflexive. The Octane Q47xi, which is a front drive system, requires you to push the wheel when pedaling forward. So, you can assume that your muscle activation would inversely be affected, determinant of where the flywheel is located.
Think about different sports, and the way athletes train. Football is a very linear sport, and with a couple of exceptions (certain positions on defense) players are expected to explosively run downfield – that is, forward.
Now think about hockey. These athletes at every position are constantly moving backward (and laterally) to meet the demands of the sport.
Please indulge me while I hypothesize: have you ever noticed there are more hamstring injuries and cramps in football than there are in hockey? Why do you think that might be?
For me, I like to do a healthy 3:1 ratio: for every three minutes pedaling forward, I will pedal backward for one minute. I don’t always do this concretely and I will mix it up a bit, but I try to keep it hovering around that ratio to break up the monotony and keep my body guessing.
Bottom line: If you are only pedaling forward, you're only halfway there.
#6 Get Off the Elliptical
Do what now? Get off the machine to get the most out of it? Absolutely! Incorporate cross-circuit training into your exercise program.
Why should you get off the elliptical?
Do workouts centered on your time pedaling the machine as an active recovery interval. So, for example, you get off the machine for 60 seconds to do push-ups, squats, lunges, burpees, etc., then you do 60 seconds on the elliptical as a rest period. These types of workouts are highly effective and can burn a ton of calories; any time you can incorporate strength into your program, the better your results will be.
An added benefit is cross circuit training can be a huge time saver. Maybe you don’t have 30-minutes for the elliptical and 30-minutes doing strength. Maybe you only have 20-minutes, total. A cross circuit workout will likely be more intense, but a great option if you are short on time and want to get your full workout in.
Expert Tip: If you own an Octane Elliptical, check out the Cross-Circuit Kit!
Companies such as Octane Fitness have apps that are entirely designed around cross-circuit training, and Octane’s Smartlink app works terrifically in-sync with the xi consoles on their machines. It connects via Bluetooth and has a very easy setup process. You just follow along with the video and prompts!
Note that if you are using a machine that doesn’t have Bluetooth and/or a proprietary application that is cross circuit centered, you will want to make sure to increase your pause time in the settings menu of your machine. If your pause time is 60-seconds, you don’t want your workout to reset while you do your strength interval. Set your pause time for 5-minutes.
Bottom line: Incorporating strength training into your elliptical workouts via cross circuit programs will greatly increase your workout efficiency and help you lose weight faster and keep it off.
We hope you have enjoyed our Top 6 Ways to Maximize Your Elliptical Workouts! Get started today and break the cycle!
Have a question or comment? Drop a comment below or feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more tips on achieving your fitness goals, we recommend these articles: Renew Your Fitness Goals, Get Fit in the Gym, Lose Weight in the Kitchen, HIIT Training: From Fad to Fact, It's Not About Getting Skinny, Top Ten Reasons to Try Indoor Rowing, How to Choose a Personal Trainer.
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About Bryan: Bryan has been with G&G since 2008. Along with experience as a personal trainer, Bryan has a BS in Education and is licensed to teach. He is an adjunct instructor for Wright State University. He has also taught grades 7-12... more about Bryan