Tired of Treadmills? Don’t Underestimate the Elliptical

Tired of Treadmills? Don’t Underestimate the Elliptical

The author hands Post colleague Des Bieler weights to make his elliptical workout more challenging. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Erin Patrick O’Connor.

At this point in the year, your gym is probably packed with newbies taking a little too long on the treadmill, creating lines for the coveted machine. Because sprinting up an inclined treadmill looks way fiercer than gliding along on an elliptical trainer, you’re willing to wait. But with an equal amount of effort, experts say, you are likely to reap similar results from both machines.

Ellipticals combine the fluidity of running and low-impact motion of cycling, making them ideal for people with joint pain or who are overweight, according to the American Council on Exercise. Although a Mayo Clinic study found that jogging on a treadmill burns more calories than a steady-state workout on an elliptical, seeing results from using either machine ultimately depends on your level of exertion.

The key to getting the most out of your elliptical workout is proper technique. Adjusting the resistance level and changing your stance or pace can stimulate different muscle groups and improve your overall endurance, said Neal Pire, an exercise physiologist at HNH Fitness in Oradell, N.J.

“You can emphasize different muscle groups that are primary movers in the exercise,” he said. “By going forward or backward, it changes the emphasis of which muscle you’re using. But ellipticals are designed to be used over a duration that will decrease the muscle load and increase the cardiovascular load.”

If you’re ready to ditch the treadmill or just looking to shake up your elliptical routine, check out these tips on maximizing your time and challenging different groups of muscles.

– Total body conditioning: As with any exercise, form is everything on the elliptical, said Kristin Buettner of Healthline, a website for health and medical advice. That means no slouching. Keep your shoulders back and hips, knees and ankles in alignment to evenly distribute your weight.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping your abs engaged. It will protect your back and also work your core,” Buettner said.

Just starting out? Grab hold of the handles to steady yourself. Keep holding on if you want to give your chest and shoulders a workout.

– Quarter-bounce booty: If you’re trying to tighten up your posterior – you know, so you could bounce a quarter off it – crank up the incline on the elliptical. An inclined plane will force your glutes and hamstrings to put in more work, said Leslie Stenger, assistant professor in the department of health and physical education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“The higher you go, the more you will be activating the posterior muscle groups,” she said. “It’s not advised to crank it out on a really high resistance for a long period of time because you could overuse the weakest muscle and injure yourself.”

– Hit the quad: To get your quadriceps and calves in the game, take longer strides as you pedal forward. Reversing your stride will also engage the muscles that run down the front of the thigh, Pire said. Pedaling backward can also open up the hip flexors.

Stenger said you will get a better lower-body workout once you let go of the handrails on the elliptical, as your legs work harder to keep you going. Having to stay balanced will also work your core.

– Interval training: If you’re looking to save time and are in good shape, kick your routine up a notch with 20 or 30 minutes of intervals.

Cris Dobrosielski, a personal trainer and owner of Monumental Results in San Diego, recommends a routine with a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio. That means that if you’re pedaling as fast as you can for a minute, you should recover for 30 seconds before upping the pace. Or you can reverse the equation by going hard for 30 seconds, then taking the pace down for 60 seconds.

Either way, intervals are effective and efficient for burning calories and enhancing endurance. Adding intervals to your elliptical routine is a good way to prevent your body from getting used to your workout and stagnating, said Michael Bracko, sports physiologist and director of the Institute for Hockey Research in Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

For maximum calorie burn, he recommends an elliptical workout performed three nonconsecutive days a week, starting with a 40-minute workout at low intensity. On the second day, Bracko says, do 20 minutes of intervals, pedaling as fast as you can for 30 seconds and then slowing down the pace for a minute. Finish up on the third day with a 30-minute routine at 70 to 75 percent of your maximum level of exertion.

– Pumping iron: Lifting weights while on the elliptical can be tricky, but there are a few strength training moves you can throw into the mix once you’ve mastered your balance on the machine.

“Working your arms above your head during aerobic exercise really has a terrific caloric burn affect,” Dobrosielski said. “Pick a speed and a resistance that’s very manageable, start conservatively . . . and work on body positioning, trying to maintain that same upright position throughout the move.”

Dobrosielski favors overhead presses with light dumbbells, keeping your arms wide like a goal post and pushing the weight straight up in the air. Lateral raises, bringing your arms up from your sides until they’re perpendicular to your torso, are another good move to work your shoulders, he said.


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