The Perfect Beginner Elliptical Workout — That Challenges Every Fitness Level

Advice

Lifestyle  gym and fitness Barcelona.Image Source: Getty / Tempura

Have you ever walked by an elliptical at the gym and wondered, “Could that contraption be a useful part of my workout routine?” Or perhaps you’ve even hopped on the machine, and thought, “Is this actually doing anything?” The answer: Yes. That is, if you’re using it effectively.

Intrigued? We chatted with Melanie Zoller, NASM-certified personal trainer and director of programming at Obé Fitness, to get her take on elliptical benefits and what to know before giving one a try. Plus, she’s put together a 30-minute elliptical workout that’s beginner-friendly and easy to modify for any fitness level.

What Are the Benefits of an Elliptical Machine?

While many people may skip the elliptical in favor of other cardio machines (looking at you, treadmill and bike), this piece of equipment can indeed deliver a solid burn.

“Ellipticals can provide a cardiovascular workout that trains the body and heart in a variety of different ways, all in an extremely low-impact capacity,” says Zoller. Unlike other cardio machines (like a treadmill, for instance) it’s not very load-bearing and it’s gentle on the joints, which means it can be more accessible to a range of people. “It allows individuals — regardless of goals, age, training history, or fitness level — to train at a higher work capacity without necessarily risking the common injuries or concerns that come with higher-impact activities, such as plyometrics or running,” she says.

For that reason, Zoller says an elliptical is perfectly suited for someone who is just getting into fitness or returning after a long hiatus; anyone coming back from an injury and in need of a lower-impact option; those cross-training for a certain higher-impact sport; or someone who doesn’t enjoy higher-impact cardio exercises, but is looking to improve their aerobic fitness.

What Parts of the Body Does an Elliptical Work?

As far as cardio goes, ellipticals can help train for both endurance and power output (think: long, steady state workouts, versus short sprints or intervals), Zoller says.

What’s more, you can also utilize resistance levels on an elliptical to help engage and strengthen various muscles in the body. According to Zoller, depending on the direction in which you’re pedaling and the proportion of work coming from upper versus lower body, an elliptical can work your: glues, hamstrings, quadriceps, back, biceps, chest, triceps, anterior deltoid (shoulders), and core (namely, transverse abdominals and obliques).

That said, “while elliptical training is an amazing low-impact exercise and a wonderful ‘alternative’ method to more traditional forms of cardio, it won’t provide the same benefits that weight-bearing modalities, such as running, walking, functional strength training, even dance cardio, provide,” Zoller says. “[This includes], an increase in bone density and resiliency, better balance and coordination, and joint protection.” Working out on an elliptical can help a little with those things — but running can do it better, and faster.

Elliptical Training Plan for Beginners

Like any piece of equipment, Zoller suggests familiarizing yourself with the elliptical prior to use. Take a look at which buttons control resistance and incline, understand how to safely stop and start, and learn how to get off the machine properly. If you can, ask a gym employee to walk you through how to use it.

“Start slowly and gain confidence with the machine as you build up both comfort and endurance,” she says. “Even a 10-minute session as you are getting acclimated to the workout is a great starting point!”

How Often Should You Use the Elliptical?

But how often should I hop on an elliptical, you ask? Zoller advises making strength training the foundation of your fitness program (two to three times per week), with aerobic training as a compliment. “It’s not the main dish,” she says.

From there, it really depends on your training goals. For people who are newer to fitness, Zoller suggests using the elliptical one to two times per week, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. A more seasoned individual might increase their weekly sessions to twice weekly for 30 to 45 minutes, with different focuses (i.e. endurance vs. intervals), depending on their goals.

If you’re training for a higher-impact sport, Zoller says you could use the elliptical once a week as a cross-training method, to help maintain or improve their aerobic gains without major impact.

30-Minute Elliptical Workout for Beginners (and More)

Zoller created this 30-minute elliptical workout for PS. It leverages resistance, incline, and individual effort to challenge your body. The routine is designed to be a “ladder workout“, meaning you start with the longest intervals at the lowest intensity (the base of the ladder), and finish with shorter intervals at the highest intensity.

“This workout effectively allows you to train your heart to handle higher levels of workload and recover from them more efficiently, ultimately improving both your aerobic capacity and endurance,” Zoller says. You’ll work your cardiorespiratory system (heart and lungs), as well as your glutes, hamstrings, upper body, and core.

One of the best things about this workout? While it’s designed for beginners, it can challenge people at any fitness level. Here’s how: When training, focus on how you feel as an indicator of your level of effort, Zoller says. For instance, “the warmup should feel very easy, while your ‘very hard’ efforts should be taxing to the point you are breathless, and recovery sections should allow you to regain your breath and calm your heart rate,” she says.

Most importantly, says Zoller, listen to your body and adapt your intensity accordingly. “Some days your ‘hard’ pace might be different than others, and that’s okay!”


Photo illustration by Keila Gonzalez


Kristine Thomason is a lifestyle writer and editor based in Southern California. Previously, she was the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen, and the fitness and wellness editor at Women’s Health. Kristine’s work has also appeared in POPSUGAR, Travel + Leisure, Men’s Health, Health, and Refinery29, among others.


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