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We decided to create a series of articles covering the different modalities within the fitness industry. We will be covering elliptical trainers to start things up, so you landed in the right post if you wonder what an elliptical trainer and workout are.
What is an elliptical trainer? How are the workouts? Is it better than a treadmill? Is there some data backing up the claims? These are the most common questions I came across while listening to people talking about elliptical trainers or workouts. Therefore, we decided to dig into the topic and gather the most accurate and trustworthy information available online about elliptical trainers and elliptical workouts and share the results of our research with you.
Note that we will not be directly comparing elliptical training with other modalities. However, we will provide you with information and data that will answer most of the questions you have on the matter.
A last quick note before jumping on the topic, the aim of this post is educational, so we’ll not be covering machine trainers or workout programs in particular; that will be a topic for a future post.
For now, we will explain to you what is an elliptical trainer, the exercises you can perform on it, and help you decide if it fits you. So without further ado, let’s see what is an elliptical trainer is.
What Is An Elliptical Trainer
By definition – according to merriam-webster.com – an elliptical trainer is “a stationary exercise device on which the user stands on two small rimmed platforms and moves them forward and back in an approximately elliptical path – also called an elliptical machine.”
Elliptical machines – known as elliptical trainers or cross trainers – popped up in the late 1980s, though just in the mid-1990s, they started to gain popularity. Then, by the hands of Precor, the first version of an elliptical exercise machine came to light in the form of an Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer (EFX).
These first versions were quite basic and limited compared to the machines we have nowadays – being heavenly focus on the lower body – but that didn’t prevent the instant success of elliptical trainers.
Since then, cross trainers have become better and more diverse – with a pricing range going from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars – although the principles remained the same.
Including upper body handles or poles allows one to work out the upper body simultaneously – chest and upper back – meaning elliptical workouts are not exclusively synonyms for lower body exercises.
Hence, it became regular in gyms worldwide, and consequently, many households rely on elliptical equipment as their go-to modality of physical activity.
What Is An Elliptical Workout
While exercising, the lower body’s pattern movements are not circular but somewhat oval – hence, the name “elliptical” – with the arms and core frequently engaged throughout the exercises.
The elliptical movement can be done going forward or backward.
- Moving forward helps keep balance and works mostly hamstrings and gluts.
- Moving backward it’s more challenging, engages more the core, works mostly calves and quads and will work more on your cardio.
The way the upper body poles are implemented in the exercises will determine which upper body’s muscle groups will be more engaged while training.
- The use of the upper poles will produce greater results in the chest and upper back.
- Not using the poles besides being more challenging, will work more the core muscles
Concerning the exercises, you have a wide range within the elliptical trainers’ consoles that goes from mobility recovery exercises to HIIT exercises. So there’s pretty much a program for all types of practitioners and goals.
During how many times should you exercise? Again, that depends on your goals and limitations, but it’s believed that between 15 and 30 minutes per session it’s ok, though you can go up to 1 hour if you’d like.
Although you can exercise often, it’s not wise to use an elliptical trainer all the days nor in all your exercise sessions. Despite the low impact you will feel throughout sessions, overtraining with elliptical trainers can lead to injuries, most commonly in the joints.
Are Elliptical Trainers Suitable To Everyone?
Elliptical workouts are gentle and smoother – mainly in the joints – compared with similar training methods like treadmill or running. Therefore it’s safe to say that if you don’t have any physical problems, you should be good to go to implement elliptical workouts on your routines.
The exercises usually performed with an elliptical trainer are considered low-impact. The above-mentioned upper body handles or poles helps not only to work out the upper body but to posture while working out, reducing the risk of injuries.
Although the low-impact elliptical workout has on the body, it’s important to refer that elliptical workouts (like other forms of exercise like the treadmill or running) take their toll on the back, hips, and knees. Calf strains, knee stress, and muscle aches are the most common injuries.
With that said, each case is a case, so if you’re not sure or comfortable starting to do elliptical workouts, please do contact a physician or a fitness professional at the very least before making any decision!
It’s The Hype Justified?
Due to the popularity of elliptical workouts, brands and machines have flooded the market. They come in all sorts of shapes, claiming numerous benefits, though in the early days, aside from anecdotal evidence, we didn’t have much data on the subject.
That started to change when studies on the matter were conducted, with the results in most cases matching the anecdotal evidence that existed prior.
To start, let’s talk about the elliptical machine itself. One of the most critical aspects of an elliptical machine is the electronic console which has the same controls you can find in a treadmill – speed, resistance level, time, calories, heart rate – but smaller in comparison.
To determine the elliptical trainer console’s accuracy, a study named “Do Elliptical Trainers Accurately Estimate Energy Expenditure?” was conducted with the Life Fitness EFX 556i and the Precor model EFX 556i’s consoles put to the test.
Aside from some minor differences, the consoles are pretty accurate, with “the Life Fitness EFX 556i slightly underestimates, while the Precor model EFX 556i overestimates exercise energy expenditure.”
Another crucial aspect is claiming better results compared with treadmill, stationary bicycle, running, etc. Another study entitled “Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking, and overground walking.” was conducted, and the results were clear – “Elliptical training demonstrated greater quadriceps activity and greater quadriceps/hamstrings coactivation than all other conditions.”
A two-part study conducted by John Peter Porcari – professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse – had as objective first identify “the intensity of a workout on an elliptical trainer to several other common exercise modalities,” and secondly, “documenting the vertical ground reactions forces in the feet while exercising on these modalities.”
In the first part of the study, the results show that “heart rate and oxygen consumption for exercise on elliptical trainer were virtually identical to run on a treadmill,” as you can see in the two graphics below:
The second part of the study shows that “elliptical trainers provide a wide range of exercise while limiting the risk of lower extremity injuries,” as you can see in the graphic below:
With the data available today, it’s safe to assume that elliptical workouts are less prone to injuries than similar forms of exercising. If done correctly, it can lead to equal or greater results compared with the other exercise modalities.
Although all the pros, are there any cons concerning elliptical workouts? There are a few, which we will tackle next with our pros & cons list.
Pros & Cons
As you attested previously, there are plenty of reasons to do elliptical training. Below I will give you some bullet points highlighting the most important.
- Low-impact: Compared with similar modalities, elliptical training is one of the most friendly concerning injuries.
- Cardio & endurance: Again, elliptical workouts show the best gains in cardio and endurance.
- Muscle activation: More activation by the main muscles in the upper leg – quadriceps and hamstrings – compared with similar forms of workout.
There are other reasons to do elliptical training, but the ones above are the more critical and usually why so many people do an elliptical workout.
Now let’s take a look at reasons that might make you stay away from elliptical equipment or mix it with other modalities.
- Injuries: Like similar exercises, elliptical training stresses, particularly the lower part of the body. Attending the personal effort and intensity, if both aren’t measured thoroughly, can lead to severe injuries, mainly in the back and lower body.
- Stability & reflexes: If all the low-impact nature of elliptical training gives you a sense of comfort and safety, that same comfort and safety, in most cases, takes from your workout’s equation essential things that we should try to keep them sharp too, mainly stability and reflexes. Something that most likely you will find in more generous portions doing other modalities like running or climbing stairs.
The cons I presented more than deal breakers are thoughtful points that you should consider while planning your workout and remind you that variety in your physical activities is good.
My Two Cents
Now with all the points covered, I will give you my honest and personal opinion about the elliptical workout.
I find that with all the scientific evidence that we have today concerning elliptical trainers and workouts, that it’s wise to add some elliptical exercises elements in our daily routine, though, in the end, it’s all about everyone’s needs, tastes, and goals.
It’s true that in the long term, elliptical training can give you a few more years of training while preserving more of your body than other modalities like a treadmill, stationary cycling, or climbing steps.
But suppose you’re training, for example, for a marathon or a long cross-country run. In that case, I will highly recommend incorporating the treadmill and running ground into your routines since it’s impossible to replicate the natural conditions you will face in an elliptical trainer.
Again, it’s all about our personal needs and how we choose to obtain our goals. In my case, I did some elliptical workouts in the past, but since I started to do calisthenics, I decided to do primarily exercises that don’t require electronic equipment.
So it was natural for me to stop doing elliptical training and start running ground and some occasional cross-country run.
Stoping doing elliptical exercises worked out for me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for you. If you’re new in fitness, or you’ve been out of the game for a while and never tried elliptical workouts – and you are looking for the long term – I would most certainly give it a try!
There you have it. Our review on what an elliptical trainer is, which workouts you can perform, and the benefits and risks of doing elliptical exercises.
Do you think I miss something? Do you want to add something or give me your thoughts on the subject? Don’t hesitate to leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and I’ll gladly reply to you back!
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If you like our content, please consider following us everywhere (except on the street, that’s weird:)) and I’ll catch you in our next post; until then, stay strong and keep on moving! Amor Fati! : )
Founder of Against the Ropes.