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The elliptical machine, otherwise known as the cross-trainer, is known for its ability to create a full-body workout. Many people have an elliptical at home because they can get a quick and effective total-body workout while never leaving their house. Also, you can customize an elliptical to fit your needs through resistance levels and pre-programed elliptical workouts.
As a certified personal trainer who has completed hundreds of workouts on the elliptical, I know how to get the most out of this cardio machine. Here are my favorite elliptical hacks to help you meet whatever goal you might have:
1. Understand Heart Rate Zones
The heart, like any muscle in your body, functions at different speeds. The number of heart beats in a minute is known as your heart rate. For example, if your heart rate is 88 BPM, that means that your heart is beating at 88 beats per minute.
There is a direct correlation between your heart rate and the effectiveness of your workout. In fact, you may have heard things like “Train in your fat-burning zone!”
To keep it simple, the Cleveland Clinic1 points out that there are three basic heart rate zones:
- Low-intensity: Heart rate is at 50 to 60% of your max heart rate
- Temperate: Heart rate is at 60 to 70% of your max heart rate
- Aerobic: Heart rate is at 70 to 80% of your max heart rate
Each of these zones can be beneficial, depending on what your goals are.
In the first zone, your body burns more fat, but fewer calories. Therefore, if you don’t necessarily want to lose weight but prefer to burn fat, stay in that zone. In the third zone (and at higher heart rates), you’ll burn less fat as your body uses carbs for fuel instead of fat. However, you’ll burn more calories, which is ideal for people who have weight loss goals.
Most exercise machines have a heart rate monitor or pulse monitor to give you an idea of where you are in terms of heart rate. To find your max heart rate and identify which zones you’re in during your workout, take 220 and subtract your age, or follow the chart below:
|Age||Target Heart Rate||Max Heart Rate|
2. Maintain Good Form
Good form prevents injury and also helps you make the most of your time. With proper form, you’re working out efficiently. Once your form breaks down, certain muscle groups may not get as much work as intended or as you think they are getting.
Proper form when using an elliptical is the following:
- Maintaining good, upright posture instead of leaning over the monitor. Tip: Try looking straight ahead to keep your form.
- Keep your core braced.
- Use the moving handlebars when possible, actively pulling and pushing.
- Place your feet in the middle of the pedals, toes pointing straight ahead.
For instance, if you lean over the handles, you may start feeling back pain, and you will lose your active core, meaning you probably won’t get the full-body workout you are looking for.
3. Go Forward and Backward
A great way to target different muscle groups on an elliptical is to move the pedals not only forward but backward as well. In doing this, you activate muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads in a different way.
Beyond that, this adds variety to your elliptical workout. If you do the same exercise over and over, your body stops adapting. Move the pedals forward and backward to keep your body guessing.
4. Do HIIT Workouts
HIIT workouts, or high-intensity interval training workouts, can be an excellent way to burn more calories in a short amount of time. A small 2019 study of 13 adults2 found that people who participated in high-intensity circuit training had enhanced motor function AND increased desire to work out when compared to those who were doing moderate aerobic exercise.
In other words, doing an interval workout a few times a week may keep you motivated and will help increase your strength and fitness. Many elliptical have built-in HIIT workouts or are compatible with streaming apps you can follow along with.
5. Use Your Whole Foot
In order to engage your glutes and quads, it is important to really put the pedal to the metal. Just like when you are riding a stationary bike, the pedals are your friends. On this piece of exercise equipment, it is vital to use your whole foot and push down so none of your leg muscles are getting neglected. Beyond that, if you put too much weight on your toes or heels, you could over-stress your joints and suffer an injury.
6. Pump Up the Resistance
To get stronger, you have to work against resistance. Even budget ellipticals have different levels of resistance you can use to make your workout harder. You can feel more of a burn on the elliptical trainer when you push the resistance just a hair out of your comfort zone. Not only will this help elevate your heart rate, it should also be an effective way to build muscle endurance.
Tip: Play with increased resistance and lower resistance on intervals. This is an easy way to turn a steady-state elliptical workout into a sweat-inducing HIIT workout.
7. Move Your Arms
The elliptical is not just built for your lower body! This machine is meant to create a full-body workout, hence the moving handlebars. Grip the handles firmly, but not overly tight. Push and pull the handles to activate the muscles in your upper back as well as your biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles.
Elliptical Hacks: Final Thoughts
Whether your goal is burning calories, or shed more pounds, or you like using the elliptical for a warmup, or you just want to feel good, there are a few key ways to get more out of the machine:
- Use the heart rate monitor to assess which zone you’re in
- Maintain good form and move the pedals forward and backward
- Engage your upper body and your lower body
FAQs About Elliptical Hacks
How can I make my elliptical workout more effective?
Looking to get the most out of your time on the elliptical? Make sure that you are taking advantage of the elliptical as a full-body workout machine. Engage your core, move your arms, and make sure to place your whole foot on the pedal. If it gets too easy, pump up the resistance a notch and try a HIIT workout.
How can I lose the most weight on an elliptical?
Weight loss looks different for everybody. For people who need to up their calories burned, spend some time on the elliptical doing HIIT workouts or other types of cardio interval training. Keep in mind that your diet plays a large role in weight loss.
RELATED: Beginner Elliptical Workouts
Is 30 minutes of elliptical a day enough?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention3 recommends 150 minutes a week of exercise for most adults to help maintain a healthy lifestyle. This breaks down to about 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, so depending on your goals, 30 minutes a few times could be sufficient.
What should you not do on an elliptical?
Make sure you are listening to your body when on the elliptical. If something starts to hurt, take a break. As with anything, make sure you are practicing moderation so you don’t get burnt out!
- Exercise Heart Rate Zones Explained, The Cleveland Clinic, May 2021
- Wilke J, Kaiser S, Niederer D, et al. Effects of high‐intensity functional circuit training on motor function and sport motivation in healthy, inactive adults. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019 Jan; 29(1):144-153. doi:10.1111/sms.13313
- How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 2, 2023.
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