5 elliptical workout ideas: make the most of your time on the cross-trainer

Bored with your workout? Check out these elliptical workout ideas

woman trying out elliptical workout ideas
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If you’re looking to switch up your cross-training, you might be looking for elliptical workout ideas. At first glance, working out on even the best elliptical machines looks like it might be repetitive or boring, but this type of workout equipment actually has many benefits.

ACE-certified personal trainer Christopher Anderson says that an elliptical machine is one of the most versatile exercise machines you can purchase. “They’re a great machine for beginners, put less stress on your joints than most cardiovascular exercise, and are excellent for conditioning your lower body.”

Movement on an elliptical is a similar motion to running, but without the impact on your knees. Instead of pounding the ground, you’re gliding through the air. And with the ability to change your intensity levels and resistance, no two workouts need to be the same.

Anderson details five elliptical workout ideas to try the next time you’re on the cross-trainer.

Elliptical workouts: what are the benefits? 

Anderson says the elliptical is perfect because “It allows you to work almost your entire body in a low-impact way. It has the same benefits as running for improving endurance but doesn’t put so much stress on your knees.”

The elliptical machine is a great way to increase your heart rate and burn calories and is also weight-bearing, which is essential for building strong bones and muscles. You can work your upper and lower body on most machines and unlike many outdoor cardio activities, you can use the elliptical year-round without worrying about the weather.

Anderson says the elliptical may look deceptively easy but using proper form is important to help you get the most out of each workout. He recommends you:

  • Keep a firm grip on the handles when you first start using the elliptical 
  • Make sure your feet stay flat on the pedals 
  • Keep a slight bend in your arms and legs
  • Engage your core 

5 elliptical workout ideas 

elliptical machine used for elliptical workout ideas

(Image credit: Getty)

1. Work backward and forwards 

The critical difference between ellipticals and other cardio equipment is your ability to go backward. Anderson says “Using the elliptical in a forwards motion works your glutes and hamstrings while going backward works your calves and quads. You also get a great cardio burst from going backward. Try pedaling forward for five minutes and then move into reverse for five minutes. Alternate for the remainder of your session.”

You can also alternate between strictly forward and backward workouts if you don’t want to switch gears during a workout.

2. Get your upper body involved 

You’d be forgiven for thinking an elliptical is strictly a lower-body exercise, but your arms can also get a good workout. Many elliptical machines include handles or poles that you push and pull to burn extra calories and help tone your arms.

Anderson says “Even without handles, you can pump your arms in a runner’s motion along with your leg movements, which also helps you burn calories. If you don’t hold the handles, your core muscles work harder to keep you balanced”

He suggests mixing up holding onto the handles with pumping your arms to get your upper body hot and bothered. You could even add in some of the best adjustable dumbbells to make things a little more interesting.

shoes on machine doing elliptical machine workout

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Try interval training 

Athletes and amateurs have used interval training for years to build aerobic fitness. It combines short, high-intensity bursts of speed with recovery phases, repeated during one exercise session.

Anderson recommends the following interval session on the elliptical: “Start with a five-minute warm up at a moderate intensity, low enough that you can still hold a conversation. Then pedal the elliptical hard for 30 seconds and then reduce the intensity for 90 seconds. Repeat until you’ve completed a 20-minute workout.”

Between each high-intensity interval, you'll get a recovery period to let your heart rate go down, catch your breath, and get ready for the next interval. This will push you out of your comfort zone and raise your heart rate, but not so hard that you feel breathless.

4. Increase the incline 

Anderson says interval training is not the only way to increase your workout intensity; you can also increase the incline on your trainer. He suggests the following workout:

  • Begin with a five-minute warm-up with the elliptical’s incline at three and the resistance level at four
  • Then, start the workout by lowering the incline to one and raising the resistance to six
  • Gradually increase the incline every five minutes until you reach 20 at the 25-minute mark
  • Pedal for two minutes with the incline at 20 and the resistance at 10. Turn the resistance down to four and the incline down to three and perform a three-minute cooldown to complete a 30-minute workout

woman trying to do elliptical workout ideas

(Image credit: Getty)

5. Add the elliptical to your circuit training 

Circuit training is a type of workout where you cycle through several exercises targeting different muscle groups with minimal rest in between. The result is a workout that works your muscles as well as your heart and lungs. In addition, circuit training is excellent for those who get easily bored during workouts because you simply don’t have enough time to think before the next exercise is upon you.

Anderson says that the elliptical is a great way to warm up during circuit training and suggests the following workout:

1. Warm-up for five minutes on the elliptical at resistance level nine

2. Hop off and do squats for one minute

3. One minute of forward lunges (30 seconds for each leg)

4. Rest for 30 seconds

5. One minute of push-ups

6. One minute of v-ups (lie face-up on the floor with legs extended and arms by sides to start. Lift straight arms and legs simultaneously until body forms a V. Lower to start again)

7. Rest for 30 seconds

8. One minute of side lunges (30 seconds for each leg)

9. One minute of dumbbell curls with five-pound weights

Repeat the circuit from step two another three times

Catherine Renton

Catherine is a freelance journalist writing across titles such as Verywell Health, Healthline, The Daily Telegraph, Refinery29, Elle, and Vogue. She specializes in content covering health, fitness, wellness, and culture. A once reluctant runner, Catherine has competed in 30 running events in the past five years and looks forward to one day running the London Marathon.