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What an elliptical can—and can’t—do for your workout

These machines are great for a low-impact workout. Here’s when to use one.

A woman using the elliptical machine at the gym. Credit: Getty Images / Bojan89

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Chances are, if you’ve stepped foot in a gym before, you’ve hopped on an elliptical at some point. These cardio machines are quintessential gym equipment that offer an alternative to treadmills and stationary bikes.

Elliptical machines can be a great addition to your workout routine as a low-impact way to get your heart rate up. Read on to learn more about the machine and what it can do for your workout—and what it can't replace.

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What are elliptical machines?

A woman using the elliptical at the gym.
Credit: Getty Images / microgen

Elliptical machines are great for cardio workouts.

These large cardio machines aim to mimic the gait cycle, which is how the body moves while walking. When on the elliptical, you stand on two large pedals, which move beneath you as you alternately put pressure on them. If you watch the action from a side view, the feet and legs move in an oval fashion, hence the name of the machine. Some ellipticals include handles that move with the pedals, which allow your arms to move opposite your legs, as they naturally would while walking or running.

“The elliptical removes the ground contact for people who may have ankle, knee, or hip issues who want to increase their heart rate and get the benefits of cardiovascular exercise, but decrease the stress on the joints,” says Pete McCall, a fitness educator for American Council on Exercise (ACE) and National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and host of the All About Fitness podcast.

What is the elliptical good for?

Three women using ellipticals.
Credit: Getty Images / AzmanL

Ellipticals remove the stress walking or running can place on your joints.

Using an elliptical is a fantastic way to get a low-impact cardio workout, because the machine allows your feet to move in mid-air with most of your weight supported by the pedals. You can use an elliptical for a longer, steady-state cardio workout or for a shorter, high-intensity cardio burst.

An elliptical can also be a great tool to use in addition to a treadmill because it works your muscles in different ways. When walking or running, the ground provides upward resistance on your body. You can increase the difficulty of a treadmill workout by increasing the speed or incline, which puts greater emphasis on your calves, hamstrings, and glutes. But using an elliptical on a higher setting provides unique resistance that challenges other leg muscles. “When you increase resistance on the elliptical, it’s kind of like you’re walking through deep mud,” McCall says. “It’s a slightly different action of the hips, and a slightly different action of the quadriceps. It’s not bad or good, it’s just different and could theoretically lead to more upper leg strength whereas walking on a hill would use more of your glutes and hamstrings.”

Are there downsides to using an elliptical?

A woman using an elliptical machine at the gym.
Credit: Getty Images / Space_Cat

Combine strength training with time on the elliptical for a well-rounded workout.

Although you can get your heart pumping on an elliptical, you won’t develop much strength because there is such little resistance on your muscles. And while moving your arms gets your heart rate going even faster, it’s not providing much resistance for your upper body, either.

McCall recommends pairing time on the elliptical with time on a rowing machine to get the benefits of both cardio and resistance training. If you don’t necessarily need low-impact exercises, you can try pairing an elliptical workout with more traditional strength training or high-intensity interval training.

Are elliptical machines worth it?

Three people using elliptical machines.
Credit: Getty Images / nd3000

Get your heart rate up with an elliptical machine.

Ellipticals are a good option if you're looking for a low-impact workout that will get your heart rate up. They’re easy on your joints but can still provide a cardiovascular challenge.

And though McCall wouldn’t recommend only using an elliptical to exercise—he recommends trying to include some strength training in your routine—it’s a great tool for anyone looking to get their cardio in.

“If you enjoy using the elliptical, and you do it for 15 or 20 minutes a day, it can be a great workout,” McCall says. “It’s better to do 15 or 20 minutes on the elliptical than 15 or 20 minutes of nothing.”

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