How to Use the Elliptical Trainer

close up of man on elliptical trainer exercise machine
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The elliptical trainer has become one of the most popular pieces of equipment in health clubs and in some home gyms. The elliptical combines the movements of a stair stepper, a bicycle, and a cross-country ski machine. Your legs move in an oval (elliptical) pattern while your arms move handles back and forth for a full body workout.

This low-impact machine is gentle on the knees and is simple to use. Research shows that elliptical trainers provide the same cardiovascular benefits as running but have a far lower impact on the joints. This is ideal for those who have joint pain, such as arthritis.

How to Use the Elliptical

Always start your workout with a gradual warm-up. For the elliptical, you might do a few minutes of walking, working up to a brisk pace. Or, you can start using the elliptical at a very easy intensity for the first few minutes.

Ask for an orientation from a trainer the first time you try the machine. Keep in mind that all machines are a bit different and if you are not comfortable with the controls, it's helpful to get some tips before you start. Take a minute to read the instructions on the machine's front console. These provide simple step-by-step directions on the use of that particular machine.

  1. Step onto the machine facing the console. Typically, nothing will happen until you start pedaling.
  2. To turn on the monitor, start pedaling by pushing the pedals in a forward motion with your feet, and pushing and pulling on the handles evenly.
  3. Follow the instructions on the display to select one of the pre-set programs, or choose "manual" to set your own workout.
  4. Increase or decrease the pedaling resistance during your workout by hitting the up and down arrows. Most elliptical trainers have a heart monitor function in the handles that you can use to gauge your workout intensity.
  5. Before stepping off of the elliptical, make sure that it has fully stopped. If at any point during your workout you start to feel faint or feel pain, slow down or stop completely.

Good Elliptical Technique

Pedaling in a forward motion makes it easier to balance, simulates real movements, and is not as tough on the knees as backward pedaling. Stand upright on the machine and do not lean forward or backward. You should be able to balance without leaning the handles for support. Avoid gripping the handles too tightly. Look straight ahead.

Keep in mind that you need some higher impact exercise to build strong bones and help prevent osteoporosis. So if you use the elliptical trainer exclusively, you may want to think about adding some weight training or other weight-bearing exercises to your weekly workouts.

Elliptical trainers also don't require much in the way of proprioception or balance, and they don't really simulate any "real world" activity. So if you want to improve your fitness for daily living, consider adding functional fitness training into your workouts.

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  1. Petrofsky J, Laymon M, Mcgrew R et al. A comparison of the aerobic cost and muscle use in aerobic dance to the energy costs and muscle use on treadmill, elliptical trainer and bicycle ergometry. Phys Ther Rehabil Sci. 2013;2(1):12-20. doi:10.14474/ptrs.2013.2.1.12