How to work out on an elliptical: The best tips and tricks

You can get a great full body workout, if you do it right.

Lindsay Boyers CNET Contributor
Lindsay Boyers is a certified nutritionist and published book author who writes articles and product reviews for CNET's health and wellness section. Her work also appears on mindbodygreen, Healthline, Verywell Health and The Spruce. When she's not actively searching for the best products at the best prices, she's most likely creating new recipes, reading in her hammock or trying to force her cats to love her.
Lindsay Boyers
6 min read
Getty Images

Elliptical machines are a favorite for a reason. They're simple to use, efficient and low impact, so they don't put too much pressure on your joints. But because you're in charge of the movement -- unlike a treadmill that moves whether you're keeping up or not -- it's really easy to phone it in instead of giving it your best effort.

While minimal effort certainly helps you check "exercise" off your to-do list, it likely won't give you the results you're after. If you really want to see changes, in your body composition and/or your cardiorespiratory health, you have to maximize your time and make sure you're using the elliptical correctly.

To help you get started, I put together some tips for optimizing your elliptical workout based on the most common mistakes I see (and have done myself many times before).

How to get the best elliptical workout

These tips will not only help you maintain the proper posture while using the elliptical, they'll also make sure you're burning maximum calories and help prevent injuries that can take you out of the game.

Stand up straight

Getty Images

Good posture helps minimize muscle strain and the potential for injury while doing an elliptical workout. It also engages your core and lengthens your abs, giving you an upper body workout in addition to a lower body one. Pay attention to where your shoulders are, too. They should be down and back, not tense and held up near your ears.

If you start to get tired and find yourself slouching, dial back the resistance or lower the incline until you can catch your breath. It's better to scale back on intensity so you can maintain a good posture, rather than losing your form to try to keep up with a more intense workout. 

Don't lean on the handles

On that note, don't lean on the handles either. Most ellipticals have two sets of handles. The outer handles that move in rhythm with the foot pedals and a stationary set of handles right near the console. When you start to get tired, you may naturally want to lean on the stationary handles to help support your weight and take the stress off your legs, but resist the urge.

Not only does this reduce calorie burn, but it can also cause muscle tightness and discomfort and it's just generally bad practice. 

Hold the handles

While you shouldn't lean on the stationary handles to make your workout easier, you absolutely should hold the moving handles to bring your upper body into your workout. Instead of letting the handles move your arms, use your strength to push and pull them with your pedaling movements. While your legs will still be doing most of the workout, this works all of the muscles in your arms too, so you can get a full body workout each time.

Don't stand on your toes

Getty Images

If you put all of your weight on your toes or the balls of your feet, it can add extra stress to your knees, setting you up for pain and injuries. This is also why some people experience numbness or tingling in the legs and feet when exercising on an elliptical.

Ellipticals were designed to mimic the natural movement of a run, but with less stress on your joints. When you're on an elliptical machine, you should attempt to move your feet in a similar fashion to when you're running. That means your weight should be evenly distributed on your feet and you should roll through the entire length of your foot with each pedal stroke.

Skip the television

Watching TV or reading a book while you exercise seems like an easy way to make the time go by faster, but distractions typically hinder the effectiveness of your workout. If you're really trying to make physical improvements in your body composition or heart health, make that 30 minutes to an hour count. 

Instead of watching TV or reading, throw on some headphones and listen to music. Research shows that pairing your workout with upbeat music not only makes you put in more effort, it also makes you feel happier while you do it.

Up the resistance

Working against resistance not only gives you a better workout, it makes you stronger, helping build muscle, increase strength and improve endurance. Instead of staying at the lowest resistance because it feels easier, gradually increase your resistance throughout your workout until you're working hard enough that it would be too difficult to hold a conversation. Once you get to that point, gradually start lowering the resistance again until you get to your cool down period.

This gradual increase and decrease not only builds endurance, it also helps prevent your body from adapting and keeps your workouts efficient and interesting.

Increase the incline

When you have the incline of your elliptical set to zero, it's like running on a flat surface. While this is still a good workout, it's not as challenging -- or calorie burning -- as running up a hill. When you increase the incline, you mimic the effort it would take to run up a slope. The higher the incline, the steeper the slope, which also means the higher the incline, the more you work your glute muscles.

You don't have to keep your elliptical on a high incline for your whole workout, but manually adjust it as you exercise to make sure you're feeling some exertion.

Go backward, too


When you get on an elliptical, the natural instinct is to move the foot pedals forward, but force yourself to go backward, too. You can switch it up during an individual workout or just alternate each time you get on the elliptical. For example, on Mondays you move the pedals forward and on Tuesdays you go backward.

This changes up which large muscle groups are doing most of the work so you can make sure you're targeting all of the muscles in your legs. Going forward mostly works your quads, while moving backwards calls on your hamstrings and glutes.

Add intervals

Many people jump on the elliptical and maintain a steady pace for 30 minutes, barely breaking a sweat. While this still has some benefit, it doesn't give you the most bang for your buck. Instead, add intervals to your routine.

HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, is a form of interval training that alternates between short bursts of intense exercise and periods where you exert less effort so you can recover. These types of workouts help optimize calorie burn while simultaneously improving cardiorespiratory health.

However, the key is that you really need to put in the work during the higher intensity periods, so make sure you're really giving it your all during these short bursts.

Don't rely on preprogrammed workouts

Most ellipticals have preprogrammed workouts, like "fat burn" or "endurance" that are meant to make life easier for you. While these programs are a great way to get started, consider them a starting point instead of relying on them for your entire workout. 

For example, if you're doing a preprogrammed "fat burn" workout but you find that you're breezing right through it without much effort at all, increase the resistance or the incline to up your effort and your calorie burn.

Some elliptical workouts to get you started

Getty Images

As long as you're using the tips above, paying attention to your form and exerting some real effort, there's really no wrong way to use your elliptical. But if you're confused on where or how to start, these workout templates can help you get going.

Elliptical workout for beginners

If you're new to the elliptical, this basic workout can help you get started. In addition to adjusting the resistance and incline, you can also switch up whether you're pedaling forward or backward.

30-minute beginner workout

Minutes ResistanceIncline
0-2 (warm up) 20
2-4 31
4-6 42
6-8 53
8-10 64
10-12 75
12-14 86
14-16 97
16-18 86
18-20 75
20-22 64
22-24 53
24-26 42
26-28 31
28-30 (cool down) 20

HIIT elliptical workout

For this workout, each two-minute recovery period is followed by a one-minute high-intensity period. During the one-minute period, make sure you're exerting your maximum effort, while also maintaining proper form and good posture.

30-minute HIIT workout

Minutes ResistanceIncline
0-2 (warm up) 22
2-4 55
4-5 97
5-7 55
7-8 107
8-10 75
10-11 109
11-13 66
13-14 99
14-16 56
16-17 108
17-19 66
19-20 99
20-22 55
22-23 109
23-25 55
25-26 98
26-28 44
28-30 (cool down) 22

An elliptical workout for when you're short on time

Thirty minutes always seems to be the standard for a cardio workout, but if you're short on time, try this 15-minute calorie burner instead of using your busy schedule as a reason to skip your workout.

15-minute workout

Minutes ResistanceIncline
0-5 24
5-10 77
10-11 107
11-13 83
13-15 33

More fitness advice

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.