These Three Elliptical Workouts Are Anything But Boring

Treadmill and stair-stepper taken? No prob.

woman at the gym
andresrGetty Images

For a solid chunk of my teens and early twenties, I spent my time at the gym watching Charmed on the elliptical. At that point, I associated an elliptical workout with zoning out and soaking up all the 90s-era witch content I could.

I'm the first to admit I long considered the elliptical "easy," but while it may not be as trendy as the tread, stationary bike, or rowing machine, it deserves more hype than it gets.

In fact, one Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research study found that you can get your heart rate up as high on the elliptical as on the tread, even when your perceived effort level is the same.

Why? Perhaps because it's truly total-body exercise. “The elliptical engages your hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves, core, chest, back, triceps, and biceps—it’s a full-body weight-bearing workout,” explains personal trainer, Bethany Welch, RRCA-certified run coach and co-founder of Sweat From Home.

Not only can elliptical workouts be legit, but they're famously friendly to your joints. “Whether you’re taking it easy on your joints or recovering from an injury, using an elliptical is a great way to get your heart rate up without putting extra stress on your joints,” explains Welch. (Just talk to a pro if it's a knee injury you're dealing with; in this case, the bike might be your best bet.)

That said, what you get out of an elliptical workout depends on what you put in. “Coasting on the elliptical is easy to do, so it’s important to plan for success,” explains trainer Holly Roser, CPT. Basically, that means don't get on without a specific workout in mind (unless, of course, your goal is to tune the world out for a bit).

What You Should Know When You Hop On The Elliptical

First things first, keep in mind that the "calories burned" estimates you'll see on the elliptical (and all cardio machines, for that matter) are usually wildly inaccurate. That's why Welch and Roser recommend gauging your workout on your effort level instead. A scale from one (so easy you could fall asleep) to 10 (Wonder Woman-level intensity) works well.

Otherwise, keep a few form cues in mind. “If you’re shorter (say, 5’5” or under), try to keep your feet close to the inside of the pedals, as your hips likely aren’t as wide as someone who’s taller,” explains Roser. Keep your toes pointed straight ahead, but don't worry if your heels come up off the pedals at some point in the motion.

As for your upper body: “Keep your shoulders pulled down and back, like you’re sticking your shoulder blades into your back pockets,” advises Welch. “Your chest should stay proud, your head facing forward, and your core engaged."

The Best Elliptical Workouts

So, about that whole "getting a decent workout on the elliptical" thing.

Ellipticals come in a variety of forms—some with the option to add incline, some with moving handles to push and pull, and some with neither. Luckily, though, resistance is truly the most important feature.

Most ellipticals offer resistances from level one to level 20, but when in doubt, rely on that one-through-1o effort scale to make sure you're maximizing your burn, Welch says.

Ready to sweat? Here are three trainer-backed workouts that guarantee you'll never underestimate this machine again.

If You Have Some Time On Your Hands...

When you've got the time, turn to this 30-minute interval workout from Welch. “As you work your way through, the moderate-intensity pushes and recovery periods will shorten, but your all-out effort pushes remain a constant,” she says.

35minute elliptical workout
Jewelyn Butron

If You Want To Go All-Out...

Want to convince yourself that the elliptical can kick your butt? This quick cardio blast from Rosser is for you. No "cruise mode" here!

25 minute elliptical workout
Jewelyn Butron

If You're SERIOUSLY Crunched For Time...

Cue up the Miley Cyrus and feel your legs burn with this climb-filled elliptical session.

“For this climb, find a speed that is challenging but doable within the first five to six minutes,” Welch explains. “Then, as the resistance increases, maintain that speed for the duration of the workout.”

20 minute elliptical hill workout
Jewelyn Butron

The bottom line: You can have a great workout on the elliptical if you step onto it with a plan. Push yourself and you'll work all of your major muscles and skyrocket your heart rate.

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