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What Muscles Does the Elliptical Work – A Complete Guide

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Elliptical machines are excellent tools that provide the same level of muscle engagement as running (and, in more cases, more muscle engagement) than treadmills while keeping the impact low. 

These cardio machines help build lower body muscles such as hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves. With proper posture and the use of handlebars, it also offers an excellent upper body workout in your arms, chest, core, and upper back as well. 

While the humble treadmill is an excellent aerobic tool for training for a race, ellipticals are the perfect machine for those recovering from an injury (thanks to the low-impact range of motion), losing weight, or fitting in a compound full-body workout to build strength.

So, what muscles does the elliptical machine target exactly? 

1. Glutes and Hamstrings

With increased leg flexion comes a higher degree of muscle activation. The more extended range of motion offered by an elliptical workout works to activate the muscles in your hamstrings, glutes and quadriceps, even more so than a standard treadmill.

Increasing the resistance on the flywheel requires more pushing from the feet, which engages the muscles in your lower body which results in excellent cardio exercises.

You can also increase the intensity of the movement (hello, sore muscles!) by increasing the elliptical trainer’s incline. A higher slope also boosts muscle flexion and your range of motion to dig deep into those compound muscle groups. 

2. Calves

The calves are the unsung heroes of the legs and don’t often get as much attention as they should. When you move the pedals on the elliptical, the heel of your foot will naturally lift off of the pedal and then press back down as you swing through the movement. 

Pressing back down on your heel works to engage those calf muscles in a way that a treadmill can’t touch.

3. Core

It’s important to note that your core and abdominal muscles are only engaged if you maintain excellent posture. If you’re hunched over the machine with a loose core, you obviously won’t engage your core muscles in the same way as if you maintain excellent posture. 

During an elliptical exercise, be sure to hug your core muscles up against your spine to keep your body upright. Engaging in proper form will build muscle in your abs and engage those supportive lower back muscles. 

4. Arms and Chest

Unlike treadmills, most ellipticals also come equipped with moveable handlebars that engage the muscles in your arms and chest. Your arms will naturally push and pull the handlebars as you move through the motion, which will, in turn, activate the muscles in your triceps, biceps, chest, and upper back. 

To give your upper body an excellent strength-building cardio workout, adding resistance to the flywheel will make the movement a little bit harder. You will need to push and pull the handlebars just a little bit harder at a higher resistance, which gives all of those muscles in your upper body a workout. 

If you want to stick to a lower body aerobic exercise, there are also stationary handlebars you can grab to give your upper body a break as needed. 

The Treadmill Vs. The Elliptical

Treadmill or elliptical – which machine is better? That all depends on your end goal. Each device has its advantages and disadvantages, and below I wanted to take a quick dive into the merits of each machine. 

Treadmill: Running on a treadmill helps build muscle in your lower body but doesn’t touch the muscles in your upper body in the same way as an elliptical. If you are training for a race, a treadmill is your best option. 

Running on a treadmill is a great way to train all of those tiny muscles groups you will use while running in a race, but it will also do a number on your joints. 

Elliptical: The movement pattern is much kinder to your joints than a treadmill because your joints aren’t making a direct impact on the ground. 

The elliptical is a great choice if you are recovering from an injury, want to lose weight, or fit in an excellent cardiovascular fat-burning compound exercise. 

What Does 30 Minutes On An Elliptical Do?

If you have 30 minutes to spare, jumping on an elliptical is a great way to burn calories and build muscle in a relatively short amount of time. Calories burned often depend on your intensity, speed, resistance, and weight. 

Most users can burn between 270-400 calories when traveling at a reasonable pace for around 30 minutes. 

Not only does this machine help with weight loss, but it also builds muscles in your upper and lower body while taking it easy on your joints. 

When To Use An Elliptical?

If you are training for a race, hopping on the treadmill is an effective workout to prepare you for the big day. However, overtraining on a treadmill may make your joints quite angry. Suppose you are experiencing pain from your training on a treadmill.

 In that case, elliptical work is an excellent alternative to staying active, engaging those compound muscles groups while giving your joints some time to recover. 

If you want to shed calories, build and tone muscle, and be kind to your joints, elliptical training is the way to go. Elliptical cross trainers are super easy to use, target different muscles in your entire body, and allow users to amp up the challenge with resistance and incline features.

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