Six Reasons To Use An Elliptical Trainer – And A Killer Elliptical Trainer Workout.

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Marathoner Dean Karnazes trains on an outdoor elliptical trainer: the “Elliptigo”.   photo copyright: Eric C. Gould 2010.

Before I give you a killer elliptical trainer workout, I should probably appeal to the elliptical training doubters.

After all, I know there are a significant number of “hardcore” triathletes, marathoners, cyclists and fitness enthusiasts who visit this website and probably consider elliptical training to be slightly subpar to swimming, cycling, running or weight training.

But in reality, elliptical trainers can be both more difficult, more effective, more time-saving, and offer a more full body workout compared to other cardiovascular modes of exercise – which is why I train 2-3 times per week on an elliptical trainer as a substitute for cycling or running.

Here are six reasons why I'm a big fan of the elliptical trainer:

1. Less Joint Impact With Just As Much Fitness.

The elliptical trainer was originally designed by an inventor who created the idea for the motion by filming his daughter running alongside his car, then replicating that running motion by designing a machine that put less strain on the joints.

A study an University of Missouri measured oxygen utilization, lactic acid formation, heart rate, and rating of perceived exertion on an elliptical trainer compared to a treadmill, and found that the elliptical exercise was nearly identical to the treadmill exercise in every respect – but the elliptical trainer creates far less joint impact.

Take away message: compared to running, you can stay just as fit on an elliptical trainer, but you recover much faster due to lower joint impact.

2. Ability To Fix Weak Quadriceps.

Another study compared muscle activity patterns of the quadriceps and hamstring in walking on the ground, walking on a treadmill, stationary bicycling, and the elliptical trainer. The elliptical trainer produced significantly great quadriceps utilization and greater quadriceps/hamstring coordination than any of the other modes of exercise! And a study at Willamette University found that when you pedal backwards on an elliptical, your quadriceps utilization skyrockets even more.

Take away message: if you have weak quads, or a low quadriceps to hamstring strength ratio, an elliptical can help bring your leg muscles back into alignment. 

3. Targeting of Notoriously Weak Muscles In Runners & Cyclists.

There was also a study that compared elliptical training to walking, and found greater muscle activation during the elliptical training for the gluteus maximus (butt) and vastus lateralis (external hip muscles), with a slightly lower activation of the hamstrings.

Take away message: if you need to build stronger butt or hip muscles, which is highly recommend for runners and cyclists, you can do it on an elliptical trainer without aggravating your hamstring.

4. Ability To Maximize Training Effect by Increasing Stride Length.

Interestingly, another study, at the University of Idaho (my alma mater – go Vandals!) found that as stride length increases on an elliptical trainer, more calories are burned without you actually feeling like you're working any harder – which is very good to know if you exercise on an indoor elliptical trainer with adjustable stride length or on the Elliptigo, which also has adjustable stride length.

Take away message: even though an elliptical is already equivalent to a treadmill in calorie burning, an elliptical that has a long stride length can maximize that effect even more.

 5. Upper Body and Core Muscle Utilization.

On an elliptical trainer that includes arm motion, a shoulder, chest, biceps and triceps workout can be incorporated simultaneous to a lower body cardiovascular workout. In addition, the upright posture on an elliptical trainer will utilize more of your core muscles, and if you go “hand-free” without using the railing on an indoor elliptical trainer, you can increase the balance and postural training effect.

Take away message: you can save a ton of time by working your upper body muscular endurance, lower body muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness and core all at the same time on an elliptical trainer.

6. Elliptical Trainers Take Up Less Space.

Compared to a treadmill, an elliptical trainer is easier to move and is a great way to save space. Even an outdoor elliptical trainer, like the Elliptigo, can fold up smaller than a bicycle and be placed in the trunk of your car.

Take away message: if your home gym is small or you don't have room for a bike in your car, an elliptical trainer is a perfect option.

Finally, I know I promised you a killer, full body elliptical trainer workout, so here it is. You can do this workout on an indoor elliptical trainer or outdoors on an Elliptigo, and it takes full advantage of the benefits of high intensity interval training.

-Warm up with easy pedaling for five minutes.

-Perform five, 30 second all-out efforts, each separated by 60 seconds of easy recovery pedaling. If an option, alternate between forward pedaling and backward pedaling with each all out effort.

-Stop the elliptical and jump rope or perform jumping jacks for one minute. If your knees don't like this, simply do body weight squats.

-Get back on the elliptical and perform five, 60 second all-out efforts, each separated by 30 seconds of easy recovery pedaling.

-Stop the elliptical and perform squat jumps or lunge jumps for one minute. If your knees don't like this, do body weight lunges.

-Get back on the elliptical and perform five, 2 minute all-out efforts, each separated by 60 seconds of easy recovery pedaling.

-Stop the elliptical and perform regular push-ups or squat-thrust-jumps for one minute.

 -Get back on the elliptical and cool-down for five minutes OR repeat this entire workout one more time. If desired, you can substitute new exercises the second time through. 

That's it!

Do you have questions or comments about the elliptical trainer or elliptical trainer workouts? Then leave them below (and if you want an outdoor elliptical trainer like the Elliptigo, then click here to get it, because they'll pay me a sales commission if you use that link!)

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42 thoughts on “Six Reasons To Use An Elliptical Trainer – And A Killer Elliptical Trainer Workout.

  1. Matt Claes says:

    I specifically like the first reason! Elliptical trainers are great for avoiding injuries and keeping your knees safe while still being a great workout.

  2. Most of the people these days are doing sitting jobs and they spend 8 to 10 hours on a chair in routine. This practice is the common cause behind many muscle-related issues and the most common one is it makes hip muscles inactive and weak with time bit good thing is that we have plenty of hip stretching exercises we can insert in our busy lives.

  3. Selena Richard says:

    That are some good reason to use an elliptical trainer. I have seen some amazing ellipticals and want to buy a one. Can you suggest which one should I go for?

  4. Bogus Moniker says:

    My personal experience with elliptical trainer. Routine held 4 years: 3-4 days / week 20 min elliptical and 40 min swim. Goal for ellipt workout is 600 cal/hr and alternating 1 min at my max level and elevation w/ 1 min easy. Added bicycling at year 1.5. Added running at year 4. My cardio is great… 45 bpm resting. Cycling is a lot of fun can do 30 mile and be a little sore/stiff next day. Running… well… elliptical did not prep my muscles for running. I found very soon that i have serious imbalances . my r side/ leg is weaker which has been a challenge to deal with. So looking back i realized on the ellipt i often push harder with left leg and the *momentum of the machine* lets my right leg just assist the left. I had not realized how much that mattered until i tried to run. So advice to all is keep aware of any machine that lets an imbalace slip by unnoticed. With that caveat said i think elliptical trainer is a great workout and i love that i have instant control if i gas out and cant push as hard i can slow down opposed to treadmill where i have to adjust speed down manually and its not instant.

    Happy training!

  5. John Lester says:

    I definitely am going to try out these tricks and see if it makes a difference

  6. Jeff says:

    Totally agree.

  7. Mubbi says:


    How can I use elliptical for thighs.

    I don’t need to loose weight but want to need heavy thighs. Please guide me with a best work out for thighs. I have NordickTrack CX 930 elliptical.


    1. You can increase the workout for your inner thighs by moving the pedals backward or raising the machine's incline… That's where I would start.

  8. Sangeeta patel says:

    Hi, I don’t have any knee problems but the muscles around my knees are very weak. My doctor has said I shouldn’t walk as a form of exercise so I don’t put pressure on my knees but I do need to strengthen all my leg muscles. He says I can cycle or swim. Is the elliptical a good option? Thanks

    1. I'd double check with your doctor and see what he thinks!!

  9. Marie Torrisi says:

    I recently had hip surgery in December, I am six weeks out and have a very weak right leg that I have been trying to strengthen. I was a competitive bodybuilder and I ran and biked to keep my bodyfat low. I was in a car accident 15 years ago and was too young for this surgery. I was told to keep my weight low and I would have a great life. Then came menopause and weight gain. I have an elliptical machine that I use but my PT told me it only works my hip area – how can I strengthen my leg??? My PT does not want to give me squats or leg press until three months – March 16, but in the meantime what can I do?

    Thank you!!! Losing my mind in long island

  10. Marie Torrisi-Rochester says:

    I recently had hip surgery in December, I am six weeks out and have a very weak right leg that I have been trying to strengthen. I was a competitive bodybuilder and I ran and biked to keep my bodyfat low. I was in a car accident 15 years ago and was too young for this surgery. I won the lawsuit as I was hit when I was parked by a speeding car that lost control. I was told to keep my weight low and I would have a great life. Then came menopause and weight gain. I have an elliptical machine that I use but my PT told me it only works my hip area – how can I strengthen my leg??? My PT does not want to give me squats or leg press until three months – March 16, but in the meantime what can I do?

    Thank you!!! Losing my mind in long island

    1. It's too complicated to give any sort of personalized advice in a blog comment. If you go ahead and book a consult at and choose 20 or 60 mins, we'll get you scheduled to go through all the details.

  11. Mike T says:

    I’m a 66 year old senior. I don’t use the upright elliptical but instead use the sit down bike feature. Is this good for me as the stationary bike ? I do walk an hour six days a week and follow up with 30 minutes a day on the”bike” later in the day. Thanks

    1. No, it actually puts *more* stress on the lumbar spine. Better bet is an elliptical or an upright (although ANYTHING is better than being sedentary!)

  12. Lee Yeager says:

    I’ve never used one of these machines before and I’m trying to figure out what would be best for me to start out with and my budget is very low, is there a elliptical trainer that is good for about $100?

    1. Check Craigslist! That's about the only place you'll find that pricepoint…

  13. Kelly Patchet says:

    I've been struggling with proximal tendinopathy – or runner's bum. It's where the hamstring attaches to the pelvis and it takes forever to heal. The smallest thing will aggravate it. I've recently started using the elliptical and it is not only NOT aggravating it, it's helping to build the strength in my hamstring, hips and glute max – all important if I'm going to get back to my sport again – mountain biking. Just wanted to share in case anyone else is struggling with this injury.

    1. Wendi says:

      Great to hear! I had my hamstring reattached last November, 75% partial tear at ischial tuberosity. I just bought an elliptical and am
      Hoping it will help me with strengthening and recovery. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Urgh. So annoying. Everytime I google something I come up with some crap you've written. Does anyone ask themselves, hang on, this guy is getting a commission out of this? Could he have a interest in writing something positive? Here's my honest review:…

    1. Sherrie Ridge says:

      I lost 55 lbs in 6 months by running up and down a total of 16 stairs an hour a day sometimes twice a day,unfortunately I was in prison when I lost this weight. Now that I’m home I do not have any stairs to run.Will this machine be equal to the stair running? I really miss those stairs,I loved the workout every day.Thank you,Sherrie

      1. Kinda… in some ways it is better. Less impact on the joints but a killer full body workout – if you do it right!

  15. Jake Summers says:

    Thanks for telling your evidence about this elliptical machine of Octane fitness. Let me tell you about the result i get from this machine that i am smarter than every other person in my office. The best part about it is that i have get it done without the exhausting heavy workouts.

  16. Terri says:

    I want an elliptigo!

  17. Bob White says:

    Ben, I read your article with great interest. I switched gyms recently, and I had been using an escalator stair master with no knee problems. The new gym just has ellipticals. I've tried them, but they don't give me the same high level intensity that I got from a stair master. I've now developed knee pain since using them, especially since I've gone "hands free." I've never gone backwards on them. Do you have any suggestions that might help me avoid the knee pain?

    1. Depending on the design of the elliptical, some can put a very large shearing force on your knee. Precor is not a bad brand usually. Others not so sure – especially if they're cheap brands that don't really track naturally in line with your knee. I've found that biggest issue though is not enough force and too high a cadence on ellipticals causing a jarring force on knee. Contracted muscles from higher force seem to help knee track better…

  18. Keri says:

    Thanks for this post! It makes me feel much better about using the elliptical. I used to think it was a trendy machine for gym bunnies who don't like to sweat but after injuring my hip, spraining my ankle and feeling a little knee pain, I started using the elliptical. I like it so much better than the treadmill and your post gave me 6 more reasons to like it! :D

  19. Kelcey says:

    I have had to use an elliptical trainer extensively for the past 5 years due to running issues. I was very happy to read this article!

  20. Reka says:

    Good to read this, and reassuring. I use the elliptical and the stationery bike for cardio, as I cannot do any high impact activity, no running or jumping, and I found the elliptical is a great way to get my heart work hard while keeping my knees safe.

  21. Jason says:

    The picture of the elliptical bike cracked me up.

  22. alan says:

    technical question- to go "all out" you would want slope and resistance on elliptical at or near max and for rest you would want it at or near the minimum setting. this seems to take me 10 or 20 seconds. am i missing a special button or does this fit with your suggested routine?

    1. Not necessarily. You can go "all out" by simply spinning extremely fast at a high intensity on a moderate resistance (i.e. a cadence of 160+ with a resistance of 12+). Without messing around with slope, a change in resistance should only take you 5 seconds, and a change in cadence is instantaneous.

      1. alan says:

        very true. makes sense. i will give it a try. thanks for the insight.

  23. Jeffrey says:

    I was wondering the same thing. I had read that the elliptical is a waste of time, unless you have the resistance at a high level and you go full tilt.

    1. Most people that say that don't know their exercise science Jeffrey, although to their credit, they are probably basing that off the high number of people who "spin out" at an easy resistance on an elliptical

      1. Jeffrey says:

        Thanks for clearing that up for me Ben. I'll have to give the elliptical a second chance.

        1. Genevieve G. Wells says:

          That is why not all like cardio workout, and when there is no special effect from them, sports lovers love them even less. The mistakes, that many people do, make cardio workout ineffective. I think this article should be hanged at all fitness and sport clubs. Of course this list can be added some points to consider during training with elliptical. You should not use weighting agents and other additional sport equipment. Drink pure water before, during and after your workout. Also it’s quite a problem to choose the necessary model of the elliptical trainer, as there’s a big variety of them. If you need this information you can find it here

          Also you should maximize your time by doing workouts instead of spending a mindless 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. Whether you’re a beginner, looking for a high-intensity interval workout, or want to challenge different muscles groups, there are some elliptical workouts…
          There are plenty of reasons to hop on an elliptical, and regular cardio workouts also reduce stress, improve your mood, boost your immune system.

  24. Becca says:

    What elevation should be used here? Or does it not matter?

    1. I recommend varying your elevation THROUGHOUT the workout, although most studies are done a level elevation (equivalent of 1-3)

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