What Does an Elliptical Work Out?

As part of your regimen, ellipticals offer an effective aerobic workout.

As part of your regimen, ellipticals offer an effective aerobic workout.

Unlike the tried-and-true treadmill, stationary elliptical machines – also known as cross-trainers – simulate the smooth motion of stepping up stairs or pedaling rather than running on a flat surface. Although the elliptical offers a low-impact workout, it engages muscle groups from top to bottom. As a cardiovascular exercise, working out on the cross-trainer chiefly burns calories, increases endurance and tones your muscles.

Lower Body

Elliptical machines target the lower-body muscles, specifically working the quads and hamstrings. This exercise provides more quad engagement than walking, working out on a treadmill or spinning on a stationary bike, according to Ben Greenfield of Champions Sports Medicine. Pedaling in reverse or using incline options, both features offered by some modern machines, offer additional engagement in the hamstrings and calves.


In addition to working the legs, cross trainers engage trunk muscles such as the gluteus maximus and the vastus lateralis, a group of external hip muscles. A strong trunk helps improve balance and stability in day-to-day movements. You can focus on working these muscles on the elliptical by exercising "hands-free," or going without the handles.

Cardiovascular System

The National Academy of Sports Medicine says that elliptical machines work out the heart and the leg muscles with roughly the same intensity as a treadmill. By giving your heart and lungs a healthy workout, regular elliptical exercise improves blood flow and overall stamina. Of course, cardio workouts also burn calories -- according to HealthStatus.com's calories burned calculator, 60 minutes on an elliptical trainer melts away about 825 calories for a 160-pound woman.


Many elliptical machines feature ski-pole like handles. Machines with these handles offer more upper-body engagement and burn slightly more calories than machines without them. The pushing motion accommodated by these handles tones the chest and triceps, while the pulling motion engages the biceps and back. However, leaning too heavily on the handles can cause a reduction in the intensity of your cardiovascular workout. Compared to treadmills, low-impact ellipticals offer a joint-friendly workout for your knees, hips and back while offering nearly identical oxygen utilization, lactic acid formation and heart rate, according to a University of Missouri study.


About the Author

Dan Ketchum has been a professional writer since 2003, with work appearing online and offline in Word Riot, Bazooka Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, Trails and more. Dan's diverse professional background spans from costume design and screenwriting to mixology, manual labor and video game industry publicity.

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