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Some elliptical models incorporate arm movements and others do not. The arm movements give you some upper body endurance and burn more calories, but you may fatigue sooner. Whether to have arm handles on your trainer is a matter of personal preference. All ellipticals let you move the pedals backward as well as forward, which is great for adding variety to your workout.
Elliptical trainers discourage some people at first sight, because they don't look familiar. Take your time getting used to it. It won't take long. First, put it on the easiest setting. Use quick start if you have it. Put your feet on the pedals and hold the side rails. You can swing your arms later when you are more comfortable on the machine. It takes only a light pressure to get it going. Shift your weight slightly to your right foot and gently move it forward, foot flat. Let your left foot and pedal go back and just follow the motion.
The elliptical machine will tell you how many calories you've burned. This basically depends on how fast you go and how long you stay on. Set the tension high enough that you feel a little resistance, but not so high that you can't exercise very long. If you're interested in weight loss, try for at leaset 200-300 calories expended on your elliptical every day. They don't all have to be in the same session. Work up to 500 and you'll see great results.
Whether you use ellipticals with or without the arm levers is a matter of personal choice. You may burn a few more calories per minute with the arms, but if it tires you sooner so you go slower or work out for less time, it doesn't really help for that. I don't think it improves cardio capability better. Personally, I prefer using the machine without the arms, but some feel they get a better workout with them. Adjust the resistance so that you feel you're getting a good workout, but it's not so hard it limits your time on the machine.
The elliptical uses more knee action than some other machines, so your quads are working in ways they are not used to. If your thighs burn when you use it, try 10 or 15 minutes at a time, twice a day, then add a few minutes and eventually go to one long workout. Try adjusting the elevation, if your machine has that function. Warm up by walking around before you work out, and stretch after. You can strengthen your thighs by doing body weight or dumbbell squats or lunges. Your legs should adapt to the elliptical fairly soon. You may still get a little burning at first, but it will subside and you can go on as long as you want.
People with bad knees love the elliptical trainer. As a non-impact machine, it spares your knees the pounding they get from running, but still gives a great workout. Many ex-runners whose knees gave out use the elliptical to get a vigorous workout. People whose knee problems come from arthritis or other conditions can get a workout, perhaps less vigorous, but equally enjoyable and beneficial.
Most elliptical trainers have adjustments for tension and elevation. Unlike the treadmill, the elevation doesn't make the workout harder. It changes the emphasis so that the higher slant makes your glutes and hamstrings (buttocks and back of thighs) work harder, whereas the lower positions emphasize quads (front of thigh) and calves. Higher tension makes the workout harder.
The elliptical trainer is a relatively new piece of aerobic exercise equipment, but it's here to stay. Most commercial gyms have them and they get a lot of use. An elliptical is also a great piece of home fitness equipment. Something of a cross between a bike and a treadmill, it gets its name from the elliptical, or egg-shaped, motion of the pedals. Ellipticals can be used by anybody from a deconditioned beginner to a pro athlete.
One of the great things aabout elliptical machines is that they require very little adjustment. If you want, you can jump on, press start, and you're on your way. You'll appreciate this if you're trying to squeeze a workout into a short time frame. It also makes the machine one of the best for circuit training. You can go back and forth from weight training to cardio workout on the elliptical trainer without much setup time.
The elliptical is easy to use, though it may seem a little strange to start with. You should stand upright, not lean on the frame, and just move the pedals as you would a bicycle. It goes in a set motion. You can change the resistance so it feels good to you, but isn't so strong that you get tired in five minutes. You can get somebody at a gym or a sporting goods store to demonstrate correct technique for you. If you buy an elliptical, read the instruction manual carefully.
The elliptical trainer is basically an aerobic, or cardiovascular, machine. Besides burning calories, it improves your cardio fitness and imparts the same benefits as walking or running programs. In this way, it is much the same as a treadmill or exercise bike. The best exercise routine is the one you will stick with, and many people find that with elliptical trainers, because the machines are comfortable and enjoyable to use.