People are always asking us which is the best piece of cardio equipment to use?  I can’t speak for my co-workers but the elliptical gets my vote.  It uses a lot of muscles – both upper (arms, chest, back) and lower (quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves) muscle groups and the more muscles that are working, the stronger the body and higher is the caloric burn. That being said it’s also probably the most misused and underutilized piece of equipment in the gym.

Your goal may be to get your heart rate high, work up a sweat, and keep off excess pounds. But if all you’re doing on the elliptical is logging a steady 20- or 30-minute workout, you’re truly missing out on the machine’s potential.

Remember that if you always repeat the same workout, the body adapts. Over time, you’ll burn fewer calories and maintain, rather than improve, your cardiovascular fitness.

A few things to keep in mind first:

  • Form is important:  maintain good posture – stand tall, head over shoulders and shoulders over hips. For maximum upper body work – don’t just hold onto the handles – push and pull but don’t grab the handles too tightly.
  • Watch your speed. Increasing your RPMs (revolutions per minute; some machines may use SPM, or strides per minute,) ups the intensity, but too much speed can get you into trouble. “Going too fast on the elliptical causes you use too much momentum, so your muscles are not fully engaged,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at the University of Montgomery, Alabama and faculty at the American College of Sports Medicine. In other words, excess speed, cheats your legs out of some strengthening benefits and reduces the number of calories you burn. If you’re bouncing, or your feet are coming off the pedals, slow down.
  • Push down thru your feet as if you were walking.  Staying on your toes or back in your heels is not good form and can be painful.
  • Every now and then, let go of the handles and use the hand grips.  This gives your arms and upper body a rest while engaging the core and challenging your balance.
  • Build up your endurance – if you can only stay on there for 5 minutes – great.  Do whatever time you can – get off and walk on the treadmill or ride the back and then jump back on and try another 5 minutes or whatever your time was.

Following are 3 workouts to help you maximize your time and workouts while on the elliptical. Incorporate at least one workout into your weekly routine, or if you use the elliptical multiple times during the week, implement a few into your weekly workouts.

The Workouts

Use the rate of perceived exertion scale (1 is very low intensity where you can chat away with your neighbor; and 10 is all out effort where talking is not an option).

High-Intensity Short Intervals (30 minutes)

Settings: Select the manual mode and control the resistance yourself.  You’ll keep the same pace (RPM’s) and adjust the resistance to change the intensity.

  • After 3 minute warm-up at low resistance, pick your time intervals (usually 30 seconds rest to 2 minutes work or 1 minute rest to 3 minutes work – totally up to you).
  • Increase the resistance to an effort level that feels like an 8 or 9 (on a perceived exertion scale of 10) for 1 to 2 minutes. Remember that pushing and pulling on the handles will increase your RPMs.
  • Reduce resistance for your chosen rest period. Your perceived exertion should be about a 2 or a 3 during this time.
  • After rest period repeat work interval, then rest period, etc.
  • Keep repeating until you reach 27 minutes; then cool down with 3 to 5 minutes of easy effort.

Hill Climber (45 minutes)

Setting: Select the “Hill” program – it that gradually increases resistance and incline over 2 to 5 minutes, and then provides a rest period. Most machines will offer 4 to 6 hill repeats per workout (see the chart on the wall).

  • After your warm-up, do the first hill and note the total time. For the other intervals, divide the hills in half and do the following:
    • For the first half of the hill, keep your hands on the middle of the swing arm handle, which targets the lower back muscles (it mimics rowing).
    • In the second half, grab the top of the handles and really put forth effort in your pushing and pulling. Your effort level should be up to 8 by the end of the interval. If you’re having a tough time towards the end, lean forward and press down hard to get up over the hill.
  • Continue up the hills until you reach about 40 minutes of total exercise time. Cool down for 5 minutes.

Circuit w/strength (60 minutes)

Setting: Manual. You’ll increase your intensity by adjusting your RPM’s  and resistance.

  • Warm-up for 5 minutes, easy pace with your hands swinging free. You’ll then perform three 15-minute intervals. During those intervals, you’ll increase the intensity every five minutes by doing the following:
    • First 5 minutes: low RPM’s; low resistance (effort level 5 to 6)
    • Second 5 minutes: medium RPM’s; medium resistance (effort level 6 to 7)
    • Last 5 minutes: high RPM’s; medium/high resistance (effort 7 to 8)
  • After completing the first 15-minute interval, stride easy for two minutes, then get off the machine and do 25 body-weight squats.
  • Get back on the elliptical and perform interval #2 (same structure as above). Then stride easy for two minutes, get off the elliptical, and complete 25 body-weight lunges.
  • Return to the machine and do interval #3.
  • Cool down with 5 minutes of easy strides, letting your arms swing free. If you have any energy left, knock out 25 more body weight squats when you get off the machine.
  • Stretch and nice job!