We test and review fitness products based on an independent, multi-point methodology. If you use our links to purchase something, we may earn a commission. Read our disclosures.
You can’t walk into a gym or health club without seeing at least one elliptical, if not a whole line of them. It is a popular cardio workout choice because it’s low-impact, meaning it won’t take a toll on the joints as a treadmill might.
While the act of working on an elliptical is simple, there are several versions that have different controls and settings. Our comprehensive guide will help you learn how to use an elliptical effectively so you can have the best workout possible.
How to Get Started on an Elliptical
Whether you’re using the elliptical at home or in the gym, you should approach it as you would all cardio machines: by facing the console and monitor. Step onto the closest pedal, hold the handle on the same side, and lift yourself up so you can pick up the other leg and stand on the other pedal. Don’t start working on the console until you feel balanced on the machine.
Most machines will require you to start pedaling before you can set up the console, which triggers it to turn on. Others have a power button you may need to hit to get going. If you’re in a gym, you may want to ask a fitness instructor or a personal trainer on-site to help you set up the elliptical for your first session.
Some more budget-friendly ellipticals may have a very basic console that will start as soon as you pedal. On others, you may have to enter information such as your body weight, level of experience, and age so the machine can give you more accurate metrics for measurements like calories burned.
If your machine has preset workouts, you might see options based on fat loss, distance, heart rate, and time. To use one of these, follow the instructions as they come up on the screen of the console and the machine will automatically change variables throughout the entire workout. Choosing the manual option allows you to control the speed, resistance, and the elevation of the incline on the machine.
Proper Body Positioning on an Elliptical
Elliptical workouts have been a very popular method of cardio because the motion mimics running without the harsh impact on your joints. Some older ellipticals only have foot pedals, which are great for working the lower body muscles such as the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, but more modern versions also have arms that you move back and forth, which keeps the upper body more active as well. You can truly get a full-body workout on the elliptical because you have to use your core as well to remain stable as you move.
When you’re on an elliptical, proper form is very important for safety as well as for maximizing your workout. Your ideal position includes:
- Standing straight and tall, not leaning over the console of the machine.
- Looking straight ahead.
- Bracing your core, like you would if someone were about to punch you in the stomach.
- Keeping your hands on the handlebars unless you have to make an adjustment on the console.
- Positioning your feet as close to the center of the pedals as possible, with your toes pointed straight ahead.
As is the case with most exercise machines, the elliptical may have a place for you to keep your water bottle. If you need to take a drink or wipe sweat off using a towel, slow the machine down before doing so. If you’re a beginner or have trouble maintaining balance, pause the workout and stop completely before you do anything else.
When your workout is finished, stop the machine completely before stepping off. Use the handles to support yourself as you step down. Don’t forget to wipe down the handles and console of the machine before walking away from it.
Tips for a Good Elliptical Workout
People of all fitness levels can use an elliptical to help them reach their fitness goals. There are multiple variables that can help make the session even more productive. Whether you’re a cross-trainer, looking for an intense fat-burning session, or even focusing more on strength training, there are ways to challenge yourself on an elliptical workout.
Use the Incline
The incline setting for most machines will be preset to zero. This is a good setting for a warm up or cool down, but using a higher incline offers many more elliptical benefits.
For example, working out on an incline will make the machine feel like you’re climbing a hill or stair climbing, which targets your glutes (the muscles on your rear end). Gradually work your way to a higher incline throughout the duration of the workout. Because it is more challenging, using the elliptical on an incline may also help you burn more calories.
Steady-state workouts are good if you’re using an elliptical for the first time or training for a long-distance event, but alternating the levels of resistance throughout the session can make for a very effective type of interval workout. This challenges and strengthens your muscles, and backing off the resistance periodically will allow the body to recover to go hard again on the next interval.
You should use a resistance that is challenging, but not so much that you have to grind out a rotation of the pedals. If you can’t perform a consistent motion, or if you have to pull on the handlebars very hard to rotate the pedals, you should decrease the resistance.
Pedal Forward and Backward
On many elliptical machines, you can actually move the pedals backward. Going forward works the quads, but switching up the direction can target the hamstrings and glutes more. Plus, it adds variety to them time you’re spending on the machine.
I will say, this is an advanced strategy. So, if you’re new to using an elliptical, wait until you feel very comfortable going forward until you start going backward.
Try This Elliptical Workout for Beginners
This 15-minute HIIT elliptical workout will help you get better acquainted with an elliptical while you’re having a great workout at the same time.
Start with a zero incline and a zero resistance level for two minutes to warm up. After two minutes, raise the resistance to a level that makes you work a little harder. If you’re using a 1-10 scale, you should be at a 6 level of effort at this point. You should still be able to move at a consistent speed.
Adjust the incline so it’s at a higher position that you can still work with. Maintain that speed and incline for one minute. Next, adjust the resistance and incline so that your effort level is at 8. Maintain that speed and incline for one minute. Alternate levels of 6 and 8 every minute until you have one minute left in the workout. The last minute should be a cool down that puts both the incline and resistance back to zero.
Perform this workout three times a week for at least one week before advancing to higher incline or resistance levels. After one week, you can also extend this workout for five extra minutes if you feel comfortable following this guideline.
The elliptical comes in multiple sizes, and it may look intimidating at first, but this cardio machine can help people of all fitness levels. You can track workouts by effort, distance, and time. Fitness enthusiasts young and old can reap the benefits that an elliptical offers, whether your goal is weight loss, wellness improvement, or you’re starting a new fitness routine for the first time.
If you want a machine that will help you burn calories and challenge your cardiovascular system while minimizing the toll on the joints, the elliptical can be a great asset to have in any garage gym or personal workout space. They are well worth the investment.
FAQs About How to Use an Elliptical
What is the proper way to use an elliptical?
The best way to use an elliptical is by following the instructions that come with the machine, or you can recruit the help of a trainer if you’re in a health club or commercial gym. Maintaining an upright position, holding the handlebars, and pedaling forward in a smooth motion are all important when it comes to using an elliptical correctly.
How long should a beginner use an elliptical?
Beginners who have never used an elliptical before should start with 10 to 15-minute sessions. When you’re trying the machine for the first time, use a steady-state speed until you feel more comfortable. Then, you can try to alternate speeds and resistance with the manual settings to help you become more familiar with how it works. Once you feel very comfortable and have experience under your belt, try to use one of the preset workout options on the machine.
How long on an elliptical is a good workout?
A good workout is determined by the user that is on the elliptical. A great HIIT workout can take as little as 10 minutes if you’re an intermediate or advanced athlete. A quality steady-state cardio session can last 20, 30 or even up to 45 minutes.
Is the elliptical machine good for losing belly fat?
Many fitness enthusiasts have used the elliptical as the cardio exercise choice for weight loss. Maintaining a tight core and using a high incline option can also benefit the midsection.
However, you shouldn’t rely on an elliptical for specifically losing belly fat. The elliptical can provide a great total body workout, but it can’t help with spot reduction. The best strategy for long-term weight loss success is to focus on a balanced weight loss plan that includes a sensible diet, consistent effort in training, and ample recovery time, including sleep.
The best CrossFit shoes are durable, versatile, and provide a good balance of support and stability. Read more
The best health apps can track everything from workouts to your sleep cycle. Here are our top seven picks. Read more
Forget the free weights; check out our Smith machine leg workouts for expert advice on a new way to train your lower body! Read more