If your go-to gym routine involves an elliptical workout—meaning you hop on the elliptical machine, pop in your headphones, and pedal along for 30 minutes at the same incline and pace—you could be getting a lot more for your time.
There are good reasons so many people love the elliptical machine at the gym: It’s non-impact, meaning the pounding you get from running doesn’t exist here. Everything is just one smooth motion. It’s also great to help you recover from injuries. If your knee hurts when you do some type of running or jumping, you can get on an elliptical and mindlessly move.
As with any workout, however, it can get old fast. And if you don’t know how to challenge yourself, you might see your results plateau. We pulled together the top tips from trainers across the country to help you find the oomph you need to get the most out of your next elliptical workout.
1. Keep your feet flat on the pedals.
Proper form will help you avoid the aches and pains that can creep up when your body isn’t in alignment. Your feet go on the pedals, and your hands hold the bars alongside the machine or at the base of the monitor, depending on the type of elliptical. Be sure to keep a micro bend in your knees and elbows, and remember to keep feet flat against the pedals, as opposed to standing on your toes. Clench your core to keep it engaged, and keep your back straight so your spine is long.
2. It’s always a good idea to mix in some core exercises.
You may not feel your core throughout your elliptical session, but to keep good form and get the most out of each workout, you want to be sure to keep your abs engaged. To test that, stepping off the elliptical and dropping down to hold a static plank can help remind you how to really engage your abs.
Adding some core exercises is also an easy way to mix up your time on the elliptical. “Every three minutes, get off the machine and perform a 30-second plank or side planks”.
3. Vary the incline to really hit your butt muscles.
The higher the incline, the more you work your glutes (butt muscles). You can manually adjust the incline every other minute to go up or down, just to start to get a good feeling for it. Incline normally ranges anywhere from one to 20, so try going up in increments of two each time. Start at zero for a minute, then move up to two, then four, then six, and then come back down. You can vary this ladder, and go all the way up to 20 if you’d like, or even alternate by fives.
4. This sounds funny, but you can go backward on the elliptical without turning your body around.
Going backward on the elliptical will target more of your hamstrings (back of thighs), which are typically weak in most people. How to do it: When you get on the elliptical and start rotating your legs, it’s likely in a clockwise direction. Slow your feet down and reverse them, to start moving in a counter-clockwise direction. It might sound strange, but once you try it, you can feel the difference.
5. Use the pause button as an interval timer.
“When you are on the machine and hit pause, it gives you a minute count down, so do a combo with the elliptical and specific upper-body work. Do the elliptical for one minute and then jump off and do 15 to 20 push-ups. Depending on how much space is around the machine, you can pull over a mat, or stick with other body-weight exercises like lunges or squats. Rest for the remainder of the minute, then hop back on the elliptical. Do 10 intervals for a full-body 20-minute workout that fits in strength and cardio.
6. Know when to use the handles and when to let go of them.
“Use your legs only (no handles) to emphasize lower body”. Driving through your glutes and hamstrings will put more pressure and effort on your lower body. No hands means you get more of a core focus as well. You have to make sure to balance as you keep your legs moving.
Once you’ve mastered that, switch it up and put an emphasis on how much you are pushing and pulling on the handles. Allow your legs to follow along, but put all of your effort into using the handles to initiate the movement.
Try alternating 30 seconds pushing from your upper body with one minute of total body work (getting the legs involved again). Repeat for 20 minutes.
7. Add dumbbells.
Store a pair of light dumbbells on your machine so you can pause every three minutes or so to do a set of shoulder presses or bicep curls. The pause will help you channel your energy into the arm movements and keep proper form during the arm exercises. If you want to lift something heavier, you can always leave your dumbbells near your machine (as long as there is space) so you can pause, hop off, and do your exercises.
8. Do a high-intensity interval workout.
Most people use the elliptical machine for steady-state cardio exercise, but it’s also a great low-impact tool for interval training. Go for 30 seconds high resistance, then recover for a minute. Repeat this for 10 to 20 minutes.
The quick all-out 30 seconds should have you giving your all. Rating your effort on a scale of one to 10, you want to aim for the higher numbers. “Work intervals during a HIIT session should be at near maximum—around nine out of ten”. The faster and harder you go during those mini bursts, the more you’re going to get out of the workout.
Be sure to take full advantage of that rest minute, though. “The rest periods are needed to prep the body and enable it to truly perform at its max during the high-intensity spurts”.