Like a worn-out security blanket, the elliptical has become the defacto exercise machine for millions of exercisers. Not surprisingly, this gym staple has been the object of scorn amongst personal trainers, Cross-fitters, and hordes of other “hardcore” fitness pro’s everywhere. There probably isn’t another piece of gym equipment that’s caused this much polarization since the Thigh Master…kidding of course.
You’ve probably heard a few different takes on this gym staple, but where do you stand? Are you using the elliptical? Do you feel like it’s helping you reach your goals? Burn more fat? Build more muscle in your lower body? In the spirit of election season, we’re going to tackle this issue, debate style, and lay out both sides of the argument in hopes of getting a more clear picture on the actual benefits of using an elliptical exercise machine.
On one side we have Steady Sally (SS) who has been a life long proponent of the elliptical and cannot gush enough about how much this machine means to her. She prefers the long and slow way of doing cardio, which she takes full advantage of on the elliptical. The elliptical also provides the familiarity and comfort that she seeks when she’s at the gym. On the other side, we have Juicin’ Joe (JJ) who thinks the elliptical is for the weak. His no-nonsense attitude and ACE-certified opinion say the only way to get a good workout is through high-intensity cardio and throwing heavy objects around the room.
So enough with the introductions, let’s get down to business and see what these supporters and haters have to say…
For a little background, first tell us about your exercise style and how the elliptical fits in, or contrasts with that.
SS: Well, I’ve been exercising almost my whole life. I try to go to the gym for about 45 minutes 4-5 times a week. I dedicate three or four days for cardio, sometimes including weight training afterwards. I’ve been doing full body routines so I can maximize my time; I really don’t have the time or patience for 2+ hours in the gym. The elliptical is my go-to because it helps me burn a ton of calories, I’m familiar with it, and it’s easy on my joints.
JJ: I’ve been working out six days a week, at least 90-minutes a day since my high school football days. At the moment, I’m really into Cross Fit two to three days a week, with a couple of cardio sessions on top of that. I’ll usually do some sort of isolated work another two days a week. I lift heavy weights, low reps, and always push myself to do more. When I do cardio, I do sprints, and nothing but. Anything else is just a waste of time. The elliptical is what lazy people do so they can feel good about themselves for going to the gym. It’s a huge time waster.
Steady Sally, I noticed you prefer long, slow, and steady-state cardio. Why do you feel this is better than Juicin’ Joe’s method of high-intensity cardio?
SS: Well, I’m not sure if Joe knows, but your body burns more FAT calories when you exercise at a lower intensity. Since I’m trying to burn fat, this is why I focus on long and slow cardio. It just makes sense. I’m not trying to become an Olympic sprinter. The elliptical is perfect for the long and slow approach..and you know what? It’s actually kind of fun!
JJ: Sally doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about. When you do your cardio at a higher intensity, you burn more total calories, which makes what Sally is saying, irrelevant. More total calories burnt means you will have less body fat. The elliptical is almost impossible to sprint on, so it really is just there for people who want to raise their heart rate slightly, but not make progress. Also, the act of sprinting helps develop lean muscle mass in the lower body which the elliptical could never do.
What about for people with weak knees or other joints? Do you still recommend all of your clients perform high-intensity cardio, Juicin’ Joe?
JJ: Let me answer that question with a question of my own. Do these people with weak knees or other joints want to make progress? If so, then YES! High-intensity cardio combined with heavy lifting is the only way to make progress! If you want to make progress you will sprint….and avoid the elliptical. Period.
SS: I don’t agree with that. Yes, I still have some weight to lose, but the elliptical has been so effective for me. Not to mention, it’s helped spare my knees, ankles, and hips which lets me continue working out even as I age. Juicin’ Joe has no idea what aches and pains of middle-age are like. People my age can’t sprint like a 25-year-old!
JJ: That’s because you don’t push yourself! You’ve been working out for 20 years doing the same damn thing…and you STILL have weight to lose? Obviously something ain’t workin! You can’t keep doing the same thing forever and expect change…it doesn’t work that way!
SS: Like I said, I’ve lost a ton of weight, I just have some remaining stomach fat to lose, but I can already tell I’m down a pound or two this month…so it’s coming off. Slow and steady..that’s the healthiest way to lose weight!
JJ: A pound or two this month? I used to lose 10 pounds in an afternoon when I was cutting weight for wrestling! You need to raise your goals or you’ll never make progress!
Alright calm down…Let’s move on to a topic Joe brought up; changing what you do. Steady Sally, do you buy into the ideas of muscle confusion and mixing up your routines to promote change?
SS: I’ve heard about muscle confusion on P90X, but I’m pretty sure that’s for people who are lifting serious weights. Cardio is cardio. The machine tells me how many calories I’m burning, so I know it’s working. If I could fix my diet a little more, I know I’d be losing much more weight than I am.
JJ: No way. Muscle confusion isn’t just for the weights. You’ve got to switch up your cardio too. I try to do biking, running, whatever. I just do something different and I can making progress. Look at me! My abs are phenomenal. Does this look like I don’t know what I’m doing? Hardcore abs, 2 grams of protein per body weight, and sprints….this is why I look the way I do.
But Juicin’ Joe…let’s be honest; your name is Juicin’ Joe. Do you really expect us to believe your approach and physique are all natural?
JJ: Like I said, mixing up what I do has me looking the way I do. I do sprints bro, you don’t even know about them because you probably jog on the treadmill or something. You’ve got to sprint or you’re just wasting your time!
SS: I’d also like to add, people like Juicin’ Joe are the reason the elliptical is so enjoyable. I don’t have to see, talk, or interact with all these meatheads and hussies running around the gym. Just hop on my elliptical, read my mag, and get out.
JJ: Maybe if you stopped being so lazy and started doing what I was doing in the gym, you wouldn’t have that spare tire to lug around?
Juicin’ Joe, that’s a low blow, let’s stay professional here. Before we wrap things up, I’d like you both to sum things up for the people at home. Explain your position and what you feel is the best way to lose weight. Sally, you go first…
SS: Finding something you actually enjoy doing is the best way to make progress. If you hate your workouts, how long do you think you’ll keep up with them? I love the elliptical and it works for me. It tells me how many calories I’m burning and makes me feel good about myself. It works out my upper body, lower body, and boosts my heart rate. On top of that, it’s not hard on my joints and is perfectly suited for burning those fat calories which you can only do at a lower intensity. It’s the best overall machine and something everyone should consider.
JJ: I’ll say it again, the elliptical is for lazy people who want to feel good about going to the gym, but don’t care about making progress. If you want to make progress you’ll lift as much weight as possible, do sprints, and eat clean. It’s that simple. Everyone can look the way I do, they just don’t work hard enough. Do sprints outside or do complex workouts to boost your heart rate and maximize the calories you burn in the gym. If you want to look soft and average, use an elliptical. If you want to be a ripped up beast, you better up the intensity.
So in this oversimplified and admittedly corny debate, we’ve look at two extremes. First, we have Steady Sally, who is the typical elliptical user. She believes the long and slow approach is best for burning fat and is a bit hesitant to try things outside of her comfort zone. Juicin’ Joe is the kind of guy who jumps on the latest fitness trend and believes there is only way to accomplish fitness goals. To be perfectly honest, both points of view have some validity to them, it’s just about discerning what points to take away from each.
So, the answer the million dollar question…. Can an elliptical trainer machine help you lose weight?
Yes, with a few big IF’s….
Ellipticals can help you lose weight if you use them appropriately. Sally was wrong in that exercising long and slow is the best approach for significant weight loss. Joe has the right idea when he explained that burning more total calories will help you out in the long run. Also, continually confusing your cardiovascular system is just as important as confusing your muscles. Don’t rely solely on the elliptical. It can help you lose weight most effectively if it is combined with other forms of cardio, as well as weight training. Use an elliptical as just one part of a total weight loss plan, not the one and only focus. Additionally, the low-impact nature of the elliptical is great for people with bad joints, as Sally pointed out. Combining the elliptical with other forms of low-impact exercise would be a good plan for those more limited.
A few other helpful tips to maximize the benefits of the elliptical machine…
- Use the settings on the elliptical to bump the intensity. Keeping it on the lowest setting isn’t going to cut it. Bump it up and remember you can still perform interval sets by simply pressing a button. Try bouncing between a high/low settings which should help you push yourself harder.
- Try doing “elliptical sprints”. Just like high-intensity interval training on a treadmill or bike, you can alternate between periods of all out exertion and a relaxed pace. A :45/:45 split (45 seconds all out, 45 seconds relaxed pace) can be very challenging and beneficial when performed over a 30-45 minute period.
- Combining the elliptical with a challenging weight training program will give you the best results. Adding muscle mass to your body will bump your metabolism and help you burn more calories overall.