What Muscles Does An Elliptical Machine Work?


Whether you’re an avid runner who runs marathons or 5Ks, or you’re looking for something to diversify your training, elliptical machines are a great option.

An elliptical machine works both the upper and lower body, while also targeting specific muscles, like your hamstrings and your core.

But those aren’t the only muscles that the elliptical works, and there are many other benefits to using one.

What is an Elliptical Machine?

An elliptical machine is a low-impact cardiovascular exercise machine that works both your upper and lower body. Its movements mimic those of running without excessive impact on your joints, and it helps reduce the risk of impact injuries. Rather than taking actual steps as you would on a treadmill, your feet stay on small platforms throughout an elliptical motion cycle. This greatly reduces the stresses on your joints from impacting the ground after each step of running.

The great thing about the elliptical is that it’s versatile. You’re able to do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions on an elliptical; you’re also able to increase the resistance of your workout to make it more challenging. Some elliptical machines have an incline function, which makes for a more difficult but effective workout.

If you do have an injury, depending on the type of injury you have, you’ll most likely still be able to maintain your fitness on the elliptical, as there’s very little impact. This makes the machine a fantastic addition to the home.

Benefits of Using Elliptical Machine

Whether you’re a dedicated runner or looking for a piece of equipment to help you increase your fitness goals, you’ll find the benefits of the elliptical will tick a lot of boxes.

It provides an aerobic workout that strengthens your heart and lungs, which also builds cardio stamina. It’s a full-body workout, which helps increase physical endurance.

Using the elliptical machine will get you burning calories, which helps you lose weight. By changing your workout regularly, even if it’s just increasing the resistance, you’ll develop muscle. More muscle allows your body to burn more calories.

You can also improve your balance and strengthen your core by standing up straight and letting go of the handles. This will get your core to engage, as it will have to work to stabilize you as you exercise. When you do this, adjust the resistance and incline to a setting that you’ll be able to work out safely at.

If you have an injury, using the elliptical can help you increase your limited range of motion slowly but steadily. It helps to strengthen the joints and muscles without impact, and takes pressure off of the injury, allowing you to work towards recovery safely.

You’re also able to target specific muscle groups. If you want to focus on hamstrings, you’d change direction, going in reverse. By changing the incline and resistance, you can target your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.

By using the swinging handlebars, you’re targeting biceps, triceps, chest and back.

What Muscles Does The Elliptical Machine Work?


To target your glutes, which are involved in the hip extension, put the elliptical machine on an incline. This movement will increase the flexion and extension of the glutes, strengthening them.


Your quadriceps are one of the strongest muscles in the body and they’re made up of four individual muscles: the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius and the rectus femoris. They help with hip flexion and knee extension.

The forward motion of the elliptical will engage these muscles during knee extension.


There are three main muscle groups that make up the core of your hamstrings: Semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris. These are the muscles that help you move forward, as well as bear all your weight. When you go in reverse on the elliptical machine, you target the hamstrings more.


The gastrocnemius and soleus in your calf muscles helps you to perform plantar flexion. When you push the pedal down with the ball of your foot, your calves will contract in coordination with the quads and hamstrings. This happens every time you step up and push your foot down on the elliptical.

Triceps and Chest

When you’re using the swing handlebars, you’ll be engaging your triceps, front deltoids and chest. These muscles are known as pushing muscles and they help extend the elbows.

When you push the handlebars, you’re strengthening these muscles, which we use every day to push open doors, put things on high shelves and lift things.

Biceps and Back

The muscles in your back are made up of many smaller muscles, and combined are a major muscle group. They also run along the sides of your back and into the side of your rib cage, where they attach to the lower three to four ribs.

These muscles help you to pull, and allow you to stand and lift objects. Your biceps complement this action of pulling as they help with elbow flexion, and rhomboids which help to pull your shoulder blade in.


When you target your core on the elliptical, you’re working the muscles indirectly as they’re activated when you need to be stabilized in the movement. These muscles help keep you upright and also help you bend sideways.

Having a strong core is more than just having a six-pack. It’s important for preventing back pain or injuries and will help you maintain good posture.

Some Tips for Effective Running on the Elliptical Machine

When you’re using the elliptical, start at low resistance and increase it to allow you to keep a steady pace without tiring too quickly.

Watch your posture throughout your workout. When your body starts to get tired, it will slouch forward on the machine to minimize stress to the legs. Try and keep your weight evenly distributed in your legs and feet.

Try keep your feet flat on the pedals. You’ll probably find yourself shifting your weight to your toes and the front ball of your foot. This will change your posture on the machine and can lead to knee pain. Get yourself into a good habit of not lifting your heel in your stride, which will keep your weight even.

When you start your workout, aim for 180 steps per minute. This should help you find your stride length too, and will let you know if you need to adjust your stride or incline. If you want to mimic running outdoors, then try and get as close to 90 RPM per minute. However, this will take practice and you may want to start at a lower resistance until you find your stride.

This cadence should feel fairly familiar. When running, 180 steps per minutes is considered a standard cadence to aim for, even if there is some natural variation (especially based on height). The number even holds in cycling as well, where 90 RPM is the most commonly cited optimal pedaling cadence. (Steps per minutes counts both left and right steps; RPM measures one leg’s complete motion cycle. So steps per minute is naturally double RPM)

Depending on your fitness goals, you might want to add intervals to your workout. If your machine does not have interval workouts programmed in, you can hack the system by pushing the pause button. n many cases this gives you a 1-minute countdown. Use that to rest and recover. Better machines will have interval workouts as part of their pre-loaded workout selection. Choose an interval program from the options to vary your intensity throughout the session.

If you’re training for a marathon you might be wondering how to convert your running workout to a workout on an elliptical. Even though you can add resistance to your workout, it still requires less effort than running on the road. You’d need to add more time to your elliptical workout in order to achieve roughly the same pace that you would running.

As an example, if you usually run a mile in 7 minutes on the road, then aim for 8 minutes per mile on the elliptical. Multiply the number of miles you’d like to run by 8, which gives you the number of minutes you’d need to train on the elliptical for. As an example, 8 minutes x 6 miles would have you working out for 48 minutes on the elliptical.

For a full upper-body workout, use the swing handlebars. Even if you’re at a low-intensity setting, the push-pull action will engage different muscles. This helps strengthen and tone muscles and mimics the motion of running.

If you want to focus solely on your legs, then use the stability handlebars to provide support and help maintain good posture when your legs start to fatigue. When you want to engage your core, simply let go of all the handlebars, which will activate those muscles.

Different Types of Elliptical Machines

Rear, Front or Center-Drive Elliptical

The position of the flywheel has an impact on the range of motion on an elliptical. On a front-drive elliptical, the pedals have a slightly more vertical motion than those of a rear-drive, which has a very horizontal movement.

In the case of the center-drive elliptical, you’ll have more range of motion as the flywheel is located on the outside of each pedal. With this range of motion, which is slightly more vertical in movement, you get a stair-climbing effect.

Standard Elliptical Trainers

Although all elliptical machines provide a low-impact workout, the standard elliptical offers the lowest-impact workout of all the versions.

These types of ellipticals usually focus on cardiovascular exercise and the flywheel could be placed either in the front, rear or center.

Elliptical Cross Trainer

The main difference between an elliptical cross-trainer and a standard elliptical is that you can choose to exercise from either a standing or seated position. When you first look at it, you may be wondering if it’s a bicycle or an elliptical. It’s a bit of both, and will allow you to exercise without any impact or pressure to your lower body or back.

Elliptical Glider

This elliptical has the simplest design of all elliptical machines. You won’t find a flywheel or motor, and it’s operated entirely by your own physical power. The pedals go back and forth as opposed to in a circular motion.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.