Elliptical Machine Basics

Woman using the Sole Fitness E25 elliptical trainer

The Sole Fitness E25

Tired of the treadmill? Sick of cycling? Need a cardiovascular workout that gets you in shape without being hard on your knees? Then elliptical exercise machines may be ideal for you.

Elliptical machines, also called ellipticals, elliptical fitness machines, elliptical cross trainers, elliptical gliders and elliptical exercisers, offer people a low-impact exercise. Ellipticals, appropriate for all fitness levels, maximize the time spent exercising while minimizing wear and tear on your joints. Using ellipticals is a great way to add to or improve your cross-training workout. Best of all, ellipticals add variety and may keep you motivated if you are bored with your current fitness routine.

What are ellipticals?

Elliptical machines, a fitness exerciser, available for residential use replacing treadmills, cross-country ski machines, rowing machines and steppers in many homes. OrbiTrek TM and other manufacturers claim the machines offer a total body workout in 20 to 30 minutes.

In fact, personal trainer Vicki Pearson reports that studies from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Mississippi lend credibility to the effectiveness of the elliptical trainer, saying, “The machines appear to provide a safe, low-impact, aerobic workout.”

Elliptical machines deliver various combinations of workouts. Most models simulate walking, stepping, cycling and skiing using an elliptical motion with low or no impact. However, the term “elliptical machine” is broad and general. Not all machines are cross trainers, and not all offer a full-body workout. While manufacturers may claim that ellipticals can replace other machines, fitness experts recommend ellipticals as an addition to your existing program.

Elliptical machines are ideal for people who want a low-impact indoor exercise, who want to vary their program, who are getting bored with their usual routine, who want a cardiovascular and full-body workout simultaneously, and who want to burn lots of calories in the shortest amount of time.

How many calories do you burn on ellipticals?

Manufacturers claim that you can burn as much as 720 calories or more per hour when using their elliptical machines. While the exact amount depends on many factors, elliptical machines burn calories at a rate similar to moderate-to-vigorous use of a stationary bicycle, treadmill or cross-country ski machine.


Training on elliptical machines can give a total body workout in a relatively short amount of time with little or no impact. It’s great for all levels and ages, and you can usually program your workout level. In a gym, it gives you another piece of equipment to vary your workout. In the home, one machine can simulate a variety of exercises. Also, many machines give you a full cardiovascular workout in about a half an hour – an excellent boost to any weight loss program. What’s more, it’s also an excellent option for seniors or anyone else who wants a good workout without stressing the joints.


It may be easy to overdo your workout on an elliptical machine. Like all exercises, it is important to warm-up, stretch and wind down when exercising. Be sure to bring your heart levels up to, not over, the recommended levels by your physician.

Although low impact activities (such as ellipticals) are considered preferable, lack of impact will not optimize caloric expenditure.

It may be confusing to buy one of these machines for home use since many makes and models are available. Prices range from $300 to $5,000, and the quality and features vary tremendously. Also, some home models made by reputable manufacturers have failed because of mechanical breakdowns and shoddy workmanship. Apparently in their haste to copy the high-end health club models at low prices, the first year or two of home machines had problems. Now, there are better home models of good quality.

Using ellipticals

Elliptical machines are recommended for all fitness levels. A person should be able to walk comfortably with good balance. When beginning any fitness program, however, be sure to check first with your physician or health care professional.

What to look for in an elliptical machine?

While you may not have a choice of the features of an elliptical trainer at your gym or health club, you can choose from a wide variety of features and models if you purchase one for home use. Consider your budget, your exercise needs and the space you have. Next, compare features of the models.

Before you buy an elliptical machine, evaluate the construction, review the programming features, examine the warranty and try it out in proper athletic shoes. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) warns as with treadmills, you are likely to find a correlation between cost and quality.

Look for a machine that offers dual directions, programmed courses, manual options and non-slip foot pedals. Many machines offer programs ranging from simple “walks in a park” to intense “mountain climbs.” Also, look for models with an easy-to-read/understand data display that shows calories burned, calories per hour, distance, speed, time and heart rate. Depending on space concerns, you may also need a portable machine that rolls or folds up.

Some people prefer the full-body elliptical workouts of “dual-action” machines. Others think that ellipticals are best as a lower-body workout. “Dual action machines always link arm motion to the feet, and the arms tend to get tired long before the legs,” says Scott Logan of SportsArt. Logan also advises to try out the equipment in the store in your athletic shoes for 20 minutes before you buy it. “First, see if you like the motion and feel. Next, check that it is built with quality. Then, look at the electronics package.”

Above all, make sure the equipment is well made of sturdy materials from a reputable manufacturer. Be certain that the elliptical machine is suitable for all fitness levels and simulates walking or running with virtually no impact.

Exercise guidelines

All exercise sessions should begin and end with low-level aerobic exercise and stretching to effectively warm-up and cool down, according to the ACE. Check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. Also, drink plenty of water before, during and after exercising.


  • Do follow your physician’s recommendations.
  • Do follow guidelines from your trainer, health club and the manufacturer.
  • Do use an elliptical machine with forward and backward motion.
  • Do keep a steady, even stride with smooth movements.
  • Do incorporate your workout with heart-rate control training.


  • Do not add weights or supplemental workouts when on an elliptical because of the damage they might do to your stride, advises Keith W. Strandberg, vice president of SportsArt.
  • Do not overexert yourself. Stop if you feel dizzy, tired or faint.


Your clothing should be the same as you would use for any indoor cardiovascular workout. It should include comfortable, non-restrictive clothing. While shoes are not as important as they are for running because of the reduced impact on ellipticals, it is still important to have a good, comfortable, cross-training shoe.

Glossary of terms

Cross training – Varying your exercise program to improve overall fitness and performance. Incorporates aerobics, muscular strength and flexibility training. Used by athletes since ancient Olympic times.

Elliptical machines – Also called ellipticals, elliptical fitness machines, elliptical cross trainers, elliptical gliders and/or elliptical exercisers. A cross-training fitness machine that can simulate walking, stepping, cycling and skiing with little or no impact to your joints.

Elliptical motion – The low impact motion used in elliptical cross-training, which allows user to move through an exercise in a smooth, fluid manner with reduced impact.

Exercise equipment – A variety of fitness machines used for walking, jogging, running, climbing, rowing, skiing, cycling or body toning. Includes treadmills, ellipticals, versa climbers, home gyms, cycles, cross-country ski machines and more.

Footprint – The amount of floor space taken up by an exercise machine. Elliptical models for home use boast of “smaller footprints.”

Perceived exertion – The perception of amount of exercise work being done. Clinical studies have shown that while the actual workout on a treadmill (in terms of calories burned, muscles worked, etc.) is virtually the same as on an elliptical machine, people’s perception is that the elliptical machine is an easier workout. The elliptical machine has “less perceived exertion”.


Learn more:

Elliptical Trainers on Wikipedia

Metabolic Response of Elliptical Training