If you find yourself waiting in line to use your gym’s elliptical machine during peak workout hours, you’re not alone. The elliptical trainer is often one of the most sought-after cardio machines at fitness centers. It’s also a top choice for home exercise equipment.
So what is it about this low impact machine that makes it so popular? Check out these 10 benefits and decide for yourself.
1. Boosts your stamina and cardio capacity
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, is a key part of a balanced exercise routine. When you do aerobic exercise, your heart and lungs need to work harder to provide your muscles with more blood and oxygen.
The elliptical machine allows you to get a good aerobic workout, which can strengthen your heart, lungs, and muscles. This, in turn, can help build your stamina and endurance.
On an elliptical machine, you can perform both high intensity interval training and steady-state cardio workouts.
2. Burns a lot of calories
If you’re looking for a way to crush your calorie burn in a short amount of time, jump on the elliptical.
Depending on how much you weigh, this cardio machine can burn about 270–400 calories in 30 minutes (1).
The lower end of the range represents a person weighing 125 pounds (56.7 kg) while the higher end is for someone weighing 185 pounds (83.9 kg).
Burning more calories than you consume can help you lose weight. To boost your calorie burn, consider increasing the intensity of your elliptical workouts.
3. Puts less stress on your joints
When the elliptical hit the cardio machine scene back in the 1990s, runners with achy joints and overuse injuries rejoiced at the thought of being able to train their cardiovascular system while relieving some of the pressure on their joints.
Your knees, ankles, hips, and other joints can take a beating when running or doing other high impact cardio exercises. Since your feet never lift off of the pedals with an elliptical, this machine offers a low impact cardio workout.
A 2014 study showed that an elliptical workout is significantly less weight-bearing than other cardio exercises like running, jogging, and similar workouts (
In other words, with an elliptical, you can continue training without the wear and tear that comes with high impact exercise.
4. Serves as both an upper and lower body workout
An elliptical machine with handles is one of the few cardio machines that can provide you with both an upper and lower body workout.
The key to maximizing its upper body benefits is to distribute your weight and resistance evenly. In other words, pump your arms just as fast as you’re moving your legs.
When done correctly, the elliptical can target your glutes, hamstrings, quads, chest, back, biceps, triceps, and core muscles.
5. Burns body fat
Given that the calorie burn associated with an elliptical is higher than that of some other cardio machines like the stationary bike, it can help you lose body fat in a shorter amount of time. This is especially true if you focus on interval work.
To maximize fat burning, try to focus on the intensity and duration of your workouts. One study found that while both high and medium intensity workouts helped with fat loss, high intensity intervals allowed you to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time (
Consider adding interval training to your elliptical workouts with a 2-to-1 ratio, e.g., 30 seconds of high intensity work followed by 15 seconds of recovery, or 60 seconds of high intensity work followed by 30 seconds of recovery.
Do not stop moving your legs during the recovery periods. Continue to move the pedals, albeit at a slower pace.
6. Targets specific leg muscles
You can change both the resistance and incline of the foot pedals on an elliptical. By doing this, you can target different muscles in your lower body, including your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
By increasing the incline, you may feel the backside of your lower body more. If you adjust the foot pedals lower, you may feel your quads working harder.
Plus, since the foot pedals also move in reverse, you can change the direction of your stride and focus more on your hamstrings and glutes.
7. Improves your balance
Weight-bearing exercise can not only help strengthen your bones but also improve your balance. If you stand up straight and let go of the elliptical handles, you can target your core muscles and work on your balance.
Just ensure that the resistance and incline are set at manageable levels so you can use the elliptical machine safely without using the handles.
8. Maintains fitness after injury
If you’re nursing an injury and can’t participate in your regular physical activities, working out on an elliptical can be a great way to build or maintain your fitness.
Since it’s a low impact exercise, the elliptical puts less stress on your joints than high impact workouts like running, jogging, or jumping.
Working out on an elliptical after an injury may help you regain full range of motion. It can also help strengthen your muscles and joints while taking the stress off of the injured area.
9. Provides a variety of options
Elliptical machines usually offer a variety of preprogrammed exercise routines that mimic hill climbing, interval training, and other customizable options that help you get the type of workout you want.
10. Straightforward to use
One of the advantages of an elliptical is that it doesn’t take long to learn how to use it. Although the learning curve with this machine is fairly easy, you may want to ask a personal trainer for guidance if you haven’t used one before.
A trainer can give you tips on how to use it correctly and the type of workout that may be best for your fitness goals.
When first getting started on the elliptical, you may want to only use the foot pedals. Once you get used to the movement of the machine, you can add the handles.
If you’re looking for an alternative to running, the elliptical is a great option. Not only is it easier on your joints, but you can also adjust the incline and resistance to mimic a running workout.
That said, most avid runners will tell you that it’s not the same as a good old-fashioned run.
Hitting the pavement or trails requires your feet to leave the ground and forces your body to adapt to inconsistent conditions. You might be stepping on uneven surfaces or going up and down hills.
This means you’ll recruit your lower body muscles to a greater degree and need more force to propel yourself forward (
Plus, pumping your arms boosts your heart rate, increases calorie burning, and uses some key upper body muscles like the biceps, triceps, chest, and upper back.
Many ellipticals come with handlebars that allow you to push and pull against resistance, but unlike the arm movements you perform continuously while running, this motion is optional with an elliptical. Also, the machine will do some of the work for you.
Although you should engage your core muscles when performing any aerobic workout, it’s easier to let these critical muscles relax when exercising on the elliptical, making running a better workout for your core (
One way to get the best of both worlds is to incorporate the elliptical into a running routine. For example, replace one outdoor or treadmill running day with a 30–45-minute workout on the elliptical.
Use this time to work on intervals and heart rate training. As a result, you’ll focus less on the impact and more on your cardiovascular system.
Both cycling and the elliptical machine are considered low impact cardiovascular activities.
Since your feet are in contact with the pedals during the entire workout, both cycling and elliptical training are easier on the joints than running or other high intensity workouts (
If you’re using an upright or recumbent bike, you can regulate the resistance to get a cardiovascular workout and calorie burn similar to those of the elliptical.
However, comparing outdoor cycling with an elliptical is a little more challenging.
There are more variables like hills, uneven terrain, trails, and traffic when you head outdoors. This often results in a workout that’s more interval-based than a consistent, moderate intensity session on an elliptical.
Outdoor cycling also requires your body to adjust to varying conditions. In that sense, cycling may be a better workout, especially if you’re looking for a more functional workout that replicates the movement patterns you do more regularly.
Plus, findings from self-reported data show that ditching motorized transportation in favor of cycling to work may result in less weight gain over time (
The amount of time you should spend on the elliptical depends on your overall goals. In general, you should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each week, with the upper end being 300 minutes (
This translates to 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days a week to hit the 150-minute goal. If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare, up the intensity and do 20 minutes instead.
Working out at a higher intensity is a time-efficient method for improving your cardiovascular health and boosting your calorie burn.
Elliptical machines are designed for cardiovascular or aerobic workouts. Many people use the elliptical to increase their heart rate, burn calories, and lose body fat.
While aerobic exercise can aid weight loss, it’s not a magical cure for belly fat. That said, combining exercise and a low calorie, high protein diet as part of an overall weight loss program can result in both subcutaneous and intra-abdominal fat, according to research (
With all of the pros that come with using the elliptical, there are some cons to keep in mind.
“The motion on the elliptical is slightly different than running or walking, so leg and core muscles are activated differently,” says John M. Martinez, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Pain Free Running.
“This difference in muscle activation may potentially lead to injury if the body doesn’t adapt to the new muscle-firing and movement patterns.”
Also, if you aren’t consciously trying to keep your legs aligned properly, you may feel pain associated with improper tracking of the feet and legs, especially because your foot often remains in a fixed position on the elliptical machine.
He also points out that since the elliptical is lower impact than running or walking, you may see fewer gains in leg strength due to less stress being placed on the legs.
Because of this lower impact, Dr. Martinez says you may also see less improvement in bone density compared with running or weightlifting. This is because higher loads or impact tend to increase bone density in the lower body.
Including the elliptical machine in your fitness routine can help strengthen your heart, lungs, and muscles, all while boosting your stamina, improving your balance, and burning a lot of calories.
It’s also a great option if you have joint issues or want to build or maintain your fitness after an injury.
While this low impact piece of equipment is a great choice for most fitness levels, it’s important to include other exercises in your routine if you’re looking to strengthen your legs and build bone density. There’s not a perfect workout to accomplish every goal.
Nevertheless, the elliptical machine is a great choice for almost anyone, and its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks.