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Do Ellipticals Deserve Their “Lazy Workout” Reputation?
This cardio machine may be low-impact, but that doesn’t mean it has to be low-effort. Learn how to take your next elliptical session to the max.
When it comes to cardio machines, most people have a tried-and-true favorite. Some people lace up their running shoes and jump on a treadmill, while others get their metabolic conditioning on a rower. In the past year, a whole legion of exercisers found nirvana on a stationary bike in their living room.
While each of these heart-pumping machines is known for offering a tough, sweaty workout, there’s one piece of equipment that doesn’t seem quite as intense as the rest: the elliptical. In fact, to many hardcore gym-goers the elliptical seems like a lazy option for a low-intensity cardio workout. But is that really the case? Here’s what a few top trainers have to say.
Catching a Bad Rap
A negative attitude about ellipticals could stem from their physical design, says UK-based Joe Johnson, a fitness instructor and owner of 9-5 Nutrition. “The fixed motion of the handles and pedals means that people can play with their phone or read a book without really focusing on an intense workout,” he explains. “Ellipticals are easy to jump on and do a very sedate workout.”
That accessibility may lead to the machine’s “lazy” label, agrees Cathal Savage, a trainer with WeStrive in Galway, Ireland, who theorizes that because many new gym-goers head to the elliptical while they’re still getting comfortable with other pieces of equipment, people wrongly assume that the elliptical is only for beginners. “The lazy label is due to the non-intimidating nature of the machine itself,” he says. “They are a safe haven for those not confident enough yet to get involved in the weights area.”
Benefits of the Elliptical
In truth, though, ellipticals can give you as hard or easy a workout as you want. Like any other cardio machine, the elliptical can improve your cardiovascular health, and by adjusting the incline and your speed, you can increase your working heart rate.
Plus, the elliptical offers more of a full body workout than the treadmill, says Jessica Jones, a NASM certified personal trainer in Chicago. “The treadmill doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to work out the upper body, but ellipticals do,” she says. “By getting the arms involved, you can burn just as many, if not more, calories than a treadmill workout.”
And speaking of the elliptical versus treadmill, the elliptical wins again for anyone recovering from injury. “I've probably prescribed the elliptical to more than a hundred athletes to manage injury and overtraining,” says Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sports coach and co-founder of 80/20 Endurance in Oakdale, CA. Runners can especially benefit from using an elliptical instead of a treadmill for some workouts, thereby reducing the wear and tear on their joints while still boosting stamina and cardio capacity.
Elliptical HIIT Workouts Done Right
Whether you’re a runner taking a break from the pavement or you’re easing back into a workout routine after an injury, the elliptical is a killer cross-training option—when you know what to do. The elliptical doesn’t discriminate either: Whatever your size and fitness level, you’ll get a workout that’s as tough as the energy you put into it. Next time you hit the gym, try one of these HIIT elliptical workouts:
What it is: Short spurts of max resistance
How to: After a 10-minute warm-up, spend 20 minutes alternating between high and low resistance settings (30 seconds on, one minute off). “During the 30-second periods, up the resistance and maintain your current cadence,” advises Johnson. “This will work the heart, lungs and muscles harder, meaning you’ll be getting a cardio benefit as well as burning some calories!”
What it is: Practice pedaling both ways at increased resistance
How to: Warm up for three minutes at a low intensity (3-4 on the resistance). For the next five minutes, increase intensity to 5-6. “Then for five minutes, maintain the 5-6 resistance and pedal backward,” says certified personal trainer Hannah Daugherty in Moseley, VA. “For the following four minutes, increase resistance to a 6-7, pedaling forward, then pedaling backward for four minutes.” Finally, increase resistance to a 7-8, pedaling forward for three minutes then backward for three more minutes. Bring your resistance down low again (3-4) to cool down.
The HIIT Antagonist
What it is: A superset workout
How to: Warm up for a few minutes at 2-3 resistance. Then begin five-minute intervals focusing on specific muscle groups.
• Cardio interval: 20 seconds sprinting, 10 seconds of slow-pedaling recovery; repeat for four minutes at 2-3 resistance. Recover for one minute.
• Hamstring interval: 20 seconds sprinting, 10 seconds of slow-pedaling recovery, for four minutes—with the incline increased to a point that’s really tough but manageable. Recover for one minute.
• Quad interval: Follow the same format as previous intervals, but lower the foot pedals to a flat incline and raise the resistance to 7-8.
After completing the three sequences forward, repeat each one pedaling backwards. You’ll never think of the elliptical as easy again.