7 Do’s and Don’ts For Effective Elliptical Workouts

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
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7 Do’s and Don’ts For Effective Elliptical Workouts

Most gyms have elliptical machines. Considering how many benefits they have (like being easy to come by and gentle on the joints), lots of gymgoers choose to use them. But most exercisers never get instructions on how to use an elliptical properly. That might be why trainers frequently see people using them incorrectly. Ahead, fitness pros share their top elliptical do’s and don’ts for a more effective workout.

7 Do’s and Don’ts For Effective Elliptical Workouts

“People get tired after a period of time and start to shift their weight forward to alleviate the stress from their legs,” explains Nicole Palacios, a certified personal trainer. This leads them to slouch over the machine, sometimes even resting their forearms on the machine itself.

That’s a problem because when you repeat a movement over and over, you want to do so in good alignment to protect your joints and muscles.”Stand tall and place equal amounts of pressure on your feet and legs,” Palacios advises. “Your upper body should not be taking the brunt of your weight.”

Also important: Keep your shoulders back and down. “People will use their arms to push and pull, but keep their shoulders raised up in a defensive posture,” Palacios says. “This causes bad posture, a tight neck and traps and possibly even headaches.”


Hanging out at the same resistance level for your entire workout is a big no-no, says Sheri Saperstein, a certified personal trainer. “The resistance option is there for a reason and can help make your muscles and joints stronger, in addition to your cardiovascular system,” she notes. “By staying at the lowest resistance level during your workout (or by staying at the same level the whole time) your body will adapt and become more efficient over time, resulting in less of a calorie burn, muscle building, strength, endurance and tone.”

Sample workout: To get the most out of your workout and ensure you keep making progress, she recommends starting at a low level for a 2–4 minute warmup. Then advancing your level every 4–5 minutes until your breathing becomes too difficult to hold a conversation. Then, cool down.

Similarly, you can keep your body guessing and progressing (and avoid boredom) by adding different types of intervals, mainly going faster and pedaling backward.

“When you change it up by incorporating timed intervals of harder and more dynamic moves, your body is always challenged and your muscles are forced to adapt at every change,” Saperstein points out. “High-intensity intervals are also great for improving aerobic capacity and burning more calories in less time, as well as after the exercise session is completed.”

Sample workout: Warm up for 2–4 minutes on a low level. Then sprint for 1 minute and recover for 2 minutes. Complete 5–10 rounds of this protocol using different paces and levels of resistance.


Many elliptical users put all their weight in their toes because of knee pain or discomfort. Unfortunately, pushing too hard with your toes can not only compromise your posture but also exponentially increases the pressure put on your knees at a detrimental angle,” says Kristin D. Mercurio, a certified trainer and corrective exercise specialist. “As a result, this can greatly increase your risk of injury. To correct this issue, you have to focus on shifting the weight back toward the midsole of your foot, keeping more contact with your whole foot throughout the stride and maintaining proper posture. The only time your heel should lift is when your foot reaches the end of the stride behind you.”

Not only can using your phone or tablet on the elliptical be dangerous if you’re really not paying attention to your feet, but it can also prevent you from getting a good workout. “If you have your phone in your hand and are busy scrolling Instagram or texting with your pals, you are definitely not working hard enough,” says Sarah Ray, a tactical strength and conditioning facilitator. “You don’t drive to the grocery store to just sit inside for an hour and leave without any goods. Why would you do that at the gym? Set your phone down, grab those handles and get after it.”


“I have lost count of the number of studies showing that cardio machines do not accurately report calories burned,” Ray notes. “But focusing on the calorie output is only one miss when looking at the data the elliptical reports out on. Fixating on time, distance or anything else you see on the machine is a surefire way to drive your routine into the ground.”

Instead, set some SMART goals that address your fitness routine. “These are a much better focus point versus some arbitrary numbers that differ wildly from machine to machine,” she says. “Thinking about the small steps you are taking every workout to get to those goals will be much more encouraging than obsessing about the final destination.”

You’ve seen those people who hop on the elliptical, pop on their headphones and zone out for an hour every single day, Ray says. If your goal is to get fitter and stronger, you want to avoid that. “Adding in strength work or resistance training is often overlooked, especially by those new to the gym,” she notes. “However, a good strength-training plan will contribute to increased skeletal muscle mass, lower body fat, improved bone density, and reduce your likelihood of injury.”

Orginally published March 2020

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About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.


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