Do Ellipticals Work? We Investigate

Elliptical

Getty Images/Design by Cristina Cianci

They’re ubiquitous in fitness centers, but they’re often left empty when treadmills, stationary bikes, and stair climbers are all being used. An elliptical machine—also known as an elliptical trainer, glider machine, and cross trainer—is a piece of exercise equipment designed for a user to run, walk, or climb without putting any pressure on their joints. It works both the upper and lower body, promising a workout that offers safety for anyone at risk of injury or who already has one. But are they effective? We wanted to know if this underused equipment should be getting more air time in fitness routines, so we asked Alo Moves Instructors Jacy Cunningham and Roxie Jones for their insight. 

Meet the Expert

What Are The Benefits of Elliptical Machines?

Undoubtedly, any form of exercise designed to minimize the risk for injury already has something great going for it. But beyond being unlikely to cause you harm, what are elliptical machines good for? Cunningham tells us that ellipticals are “low impact and a total body cardio machine,” noting that “full-body cardio can translate into a higher caloric burn.” Additionally, he says that ellipticals help stave off the onset of osteoporosis because they are weight-bearing. Jones says that this machine is a good choice for beginners. That makes perfect sense, since not only do they have minimal risk of harm, but you can start very slowly on them, too. There’s little risk of overdoing your workout on an elliptical, which can be tempting to do on machines such as a stair climber or a treadmill. 

 

What Are Their Downsides?

Ellipticals are a safe option for a full-body cardio workout, but that doesn’t make them free of flaws. For one thing, they aren’t the most exciting activity you can perform—Jones even calls them “a little boring.” They could be considered boring because you remain in the same plane of motion for the duration, and any adaptations you make, such as increasing speed, won’t affect that plane of motion. That lack of change can make the time spent on one seem endless, or at least slow-moving. You can mitigate boredom if the elliptical you’re working on has a screen, enabling you to watch something, but many people don’t want to rely on outside visual stimulation. And unlike other cardio, such as a spin class or using a stationary bike on your own, there is no option to change positions, like from sitting to standing, as you go. The move you’re doing on an elliptical is for the duration. 

Additionally, an elliptical workout can only be so difficult. Cunningham says that “they may be too low impact for people who are aiming for a more intense exercise.” If you like your cardio activity to involve a steep climb or a fast run, you might not feel tired after an elliptical workout as you would from your usual sessions. 

Lastly, ellipticals are far from perfect for who can use them and how accessible they are for people of different sizes. Cunningham says that they are “outfitted for a person of average height” and “may be awkward for people of different body types.” While treadmills and stair climbers have fewer restrictions on who can use them comfortably due to their design, ellipticals do because your arms and feet need to fit in particular spots on the machine. Whether you’re too tall, too short, or too wide, they can be hard to use if you don’t fit the physical demographic the machine was designed for. 

What Muscles Do Ellipticals Use?

As a full-body cardio workout, ellipticals use a wide variety of muscles in both your upper and lower body. Cunningham says that “when done the correct way (using both the lower and upper body movements together) the elliptical machine works the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, adductors, abductors, chest, back, biceps and triceps.” 

When using an elliptical, the arms are generally optional. There’s a bar in front that you can hold on to instead for balance, which may be useful for people with upper-body injuries. If you choose not to use the swinging arm handles on the machine, you won’t be using your chest, back, biceps or triceps nearly as much, if at all, as when you utilize those handles. The machine will continue to move those bars, though, and they’ll be swinging back and forth at your sides.  

Are They A Good Form of Exercise?

In short, yes. Ellipticals have enough going for them that they can be considered a good form of exercise. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that joint pain is such a common experience, and ellipticals are one of the only non-impact forms of cardio exercise. Cunningham says that he has “consistently told clients who experience joint pain to utilize the elliptical throughout his career as a trainer.”

Despite being free of impact, ellipticals are still solid calorie burners. A workout on an elliptical machine will burn about 450 calories in just a half-hour when done at a moderate intensity for an average-weight person.  Because it burns calories efficiently, Jones says that an elliptical workout is “a great way to get movement in, especially for people that don't have a lot of time in the day.”

How Long Does It Take To See Results?

No new exercise is likely to change your life and physique in a short period of time, but some can have a quick impact. Fast results tend to come from more intense exercise than an elliptical can provide; because an elliptical is such a gentle workout, you shouldn’t expect any drastic immediate results. Jones tells us that if your goal is improved cardiovascular health, you should see an improvement within one-to-three weeks of consistent use. If you’re looking for changes in your physique, those may take a bit longer. Planning on six-to-eight weeks to see results from your elliptical workouts should be a safe bet. 

What Exercise Equipment Is More Effective For Fitness?

Knowing that ellipticals have merit and value but aren’t exactly a golden ticket to getting fit or seeing noticeable changes in your physique, we wanted to know what other exercise forms might be more impactful. The answer to that is: pretty much any other form of cardio. Cunningham favors a treadmill for calorie burn and notes that simple jump roping is one of his favorites. He says that “there’s nothing that compares to the jump rope” because “you can take it anywhere, and it always gets the job done.” Jones thinks that a stationary or recumbent bike makes for an efficient cardio workout. 

Bottom Line

Are you still wondering if you should bother working out on an elliptical machine? If you have joint pain or injuries, you would benefit from incorporating one into your routine. If you’re a beginner to fitness, they’re a great way to build your cardiovascular endurance slowly. However, for more advanced exercisers, the elliptical has less to offer, and you might be better suited with another form of cardio that will help you see more results.