What Muscles Do Ellipticals Work?

Muscles worked by ellipticals vary depending on the machine.

Muscles worked by ellipticals vary depending on the machine.

Elliptical trainers, stationary exercise machines commonly found alongside equipment such as treadmills at the gym, focus more on cardiovascular exercise than muscle building. However, these low-impact machines – which simulate the motions of running or climbing – can help tone muscles from top to bottom. The calories burned by ellipticals can also help reveal your body's lean muscle tissue, leading to increased definition.

Lower Body

Exercise on the elliptical focuses mainly on the muscle groups of the lower body. These machines target the large thigh muscles of the quadriceps, as well as its smaller muscles, such as the rectus femoris. Additionally, ellipticals work the gluteal muscles, calves and hamstrings; elliptical machines that can pedal in reverse put more intense focus on the latter two muscles. According to a 2009 study from the School of Physical Education at Turkey's Ondokuz Mayis University, working out on an elliptical activates the rectus femoris, gluteus maximus and gastrocnemius muscles of the rear calf more effectively than either treadmill or bike exercise.

Upper Body

Some elliptical machines come equipped with movable, ski-pole-like handles. Although often a secondary feature, these handles – which accommodate both pushing and pulling motions – allow you to work upper- and lower-body muscles simultaneously. Pushing motions work the pectoralis major and the triceps, while pulling motions engage the arm muscles – primarily the biceps brachii – and the back. Both of these motions work shoulder muscles such as the trapezius.


The stepping motions of the elliptical activate the core muscles, which the body relies on for stability, balance and proper posture. These machines work the abdominal muscles as well as the external vastus lateralis hip muscles. Certified personal trainer Ben Greenfield recommends going “hands free” on an elliptical to increase the intensity of your core workout.

Other Benefits

Compared to a high-impact aerobic exercise such as a treadmill workout, ellipticals offer a more joint-friendly option for your knees, hips and back. According to HealthStatus.com and algorithms provided by Emory University, 30 minutes on an elliptical trainer burns 413 calories for a 160-pound person. In some cases, elliptical machines benefit the muscles via doctor-recommended injury rehabilitation programs.

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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