How to Use an Elliptical – A Complete Step-By-Step Guide

Woman Exercising on Elliptical

The elliptical trainer is one of the most popular cardio machines in the gym and is increasingly used at home as well. But what actually makes it so effective? Which muscles does the elliptical work? And how can you get the most out of your workout?

In today’s article, I will give you a complete step-by-step guide on how to use the elliptical machine, including a workout plan to give you the best start possible. Have fun! 😉

What Does the Elliptical Do for Your Body?

We see them everywhere and they are an inherent part of every gym. But what does the elliptical machine actually do for our body? What training effect does it have and what are the benefits?

Basically, the elliptical simulates walking or running at a leisurely pace. This makes it an exercise machine made for cardio or endurance workouts. In contrast to running outside, however, there are no impact forces which makes using the elliptical a very joint-friendly alternative to going out for a run.

When you are running, your joints are subjected to 3-4 times your own body weight with every step. The knee joint is particularly affected, so that knee pain is a common and recurring problem for many runners. Especially overweight people should take care of this.

However, things are different with the elliptical, because here the feet remain in constant contact with the pedals, resulting in the typical floating movement.

So, exercising with an elliptical does not only look awesome but is also easy on the joints and healthy. This one is probably the biggest benefit over going for a run outside or using the treadmill.

In addition, if the arms are used correctly (we’ll get to that in a moment), you’ll work out not only your legs, but the entire upper body as well.

How Long and How Often Should You Work Out on the Elliptical?

Woman Workout on Elliptical

I know it myself: When you have a new piece of exercise equipment in your home just waiting for you to start working out on it, you’ll want to start immediately. Everything is exciting at first and you’d like to exercise every day. It is actually even a lot of fun. Nevertheless, especially beginners should take it slowly and allow their body to take breaks. I wouldn’t recommend using the elliptical every day.

The reason for this is that the actual effect of the workout does not occur during the workout itself, but in the recovery period afterwards. For example, when building muscle, we get tiny little muscle tears during weightlifting sessions, which are then repaired in the recovery period, so that the muscle will come back stronger and bigger.

With an elliptical machine, we do cardio workouts, and the muscle we exercise here is probably the most important of all: Our heart muscle. As with all other muscles, it is just as important for its progress that we allow our body to recover. Only in this way can we make progress.

I recommend that you work out about 3 times a week at the beginning and that you take at least one day off between two sessions. The length of one session should be between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the intensity.

By the way, you might consider interval training, which alternates periods of high-intensity exercise with low-intensity recovery periods. This quickly pushes your body to its limits and helps you burn fat as fast as possible! 😉 I recommend that you gradually integrate these intervals into your workouts.

Later in this blog post, I will show you a complete exemplary workout schedule that you can use for yourself. But before we start, we will talk about the most important things to consider when using an elliptical, since these points are the basic requirements for any progress.

What You Should Consider When Using an Elliptical

Exercise with Elliptical Machine

The Stride Length and Pedal Distance

The motion pattern on the elliptical is, as already mentioned, similar to walking or running at a leisurely pace. In general, exercise equipment should aim to simulate natural motion patterns as naturally as possible. The body should not be stressed unnaturally and the muscles should work in their natural range of motion.

In order to make using the elliptical as close as possible to the natural walking motion pattern, it is important to use the correct stride length and pedal distance. In general, like the name suggests, this cardio machine makes us move on an elliptical path.

Basically, it is said that the movement is most joint-friendly and natural with a long stride length and a short horizontal pedal distance. Any deviation from this typical elliptical shape usually means an overload of the knee and hip joints and can lead to pain and/or injuries.

Therefore, the stride length should be at least 18 inches or 20 inches for tall people. The distance between the left and right pedal should not exceed 8 inches.

The Flywheel Weight

As we have just talked about the natural motion pattern, the flywheel weight also plays a decisive role here! The flywheel weight is connected to how smooth the elliptical machine will maneuver, which is also an important part of a joint-friendly workout.

Put simply, it stores the swing energy that we have created when pushing the pedal from top to bottom and gives this energy back to us on the way back. This way the whole movement is very smooth and healthy.

Therefore, in order for the elliptical to provide a healthy and natural workout, it is important that the flywheel weight is sufficiently heavy.

If it is not heavy enough, so-called “dead spots” can occur, which make the entire movement appear very uneven and unnatural.

I’d recommend a flywheel weight of at least 30 lbs. If you are a little heavier, you should go for a model with a flywheel weight of 40 lbs or above.

The Proper Form on an Elliptical

The proper form or posture is another important factor determining how joint-friendly you are going to exercise on an elliptical… You’ve probably already noticed that this topic really is very close to my heart.

That’s because unfortunately far too many people are neglecting to pay attention to the proper form during any kind of exercise. So, it’s no wonder that so many people suffer from back pain and have problems with their joints. Working out in a healthy way can however actually be super simple if you’re just paying attention to a few things.

The correct posture or execution of an exercise should always be the top priority during a workout. This applies to the elliptical as well as to all other exercise machines.

With the elliptical, you should especially pay attention to a straight back and an upright posture. However, many people are hunching or slouching. They place a book or even more often the smartphone on the display of the elliptical and constantly look at it during the workout.

This results in a very bad back posture that’s ultimately doing more harm than good. It leads to tension and pain, especially in the upper back and neck area. So, do yourself a favor, put away your smartphone and try to adopt a straight back and an upright posture.

Here are a few more points you should pay attention to while working out on the elliptical:

  • Grab the handlebars firmly and work with your arms. This makes the workout more effective
  • The entire foot should rest on the pedal, not just the tip or the ball of the foot
  • The pelvis should be directed forward and not tilt

If you take all these points into consideration, you are already on the right track. In any case, the general rule that always applies is: Listen to your body. After all, you know yourself best, and if you feel pain during your workout, you should listen to your body. Take it a little slower, work on your posture, or take a break.

The Heart Rate During an Elliptical Workout

Checking Heart Rate with Fitness Tracker

The heart rate is a heavily underrated tool that your body provides that could help you work out much more effectively. However, unfortunately, far too few people are using it correctly.

In a way, the heart rate serves as a navigation system that always takes us to the right destination. If we use it correctly.

Working out in different pulse zones has very different effects on our body. Depending on whether we want to work on our general endurance, prepare for an intensive competition or have some other goal in mind: It is important to listen to your own heartbeat and adapt your workout accordingly.

Here is a brief overview of the effects of different heart rate ranges on the training effect:


Recovery Zone (50-65% HRmax)

Slowly getting used to exercise (beginners), stabilizes the cardiovascular system

Weight Control Zone (60-70% HRmax)

Improves general endurance, increases aerobic metabolism, reduces blood pressure, boosts fat metabolism, accelerates recovery

Aerobic Zone (70-80% HRmax)

Increases endurance, improves cardiovascular system/general physical condition, increases maximal oxygen uptake (V02 max)

Anaerobic Zone (80-90% HRmax)

Increases maximum performance capacity, e.g. preparation for a marathon (increases the anaerobic threshold), hypertrophy (growth) of the heart muscle


So, I can really recommend you to keep an eye on your heart rate, which you can do by using a sports watch or a chest strap. This will take your elliptical workouts to a whole new level.

Elliptical Workout Plan for Beginners

This elliptical workout plan is intended to serve as a first orientation and introduction. It is particularly suitable for beginners, but advanced users should also get their money’s worth. 😉

Week 1

MinutesIntensityHeart Rate
Warm-Up5low30-40% HRmax
10low50-60% HRmax
5moderate60-70% HRmax
10low50-60% HRmax
Cool Down5low30-40% HRmax

Week 2

MinutesIntensityHeart Rate
Warm-Up5low30-40% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
10moderate60-70% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
5high70-80% HRmax
Cool Down5low30-40% HRmax

Week 3

MinutesIntensityHeart Rate
Warm-Up5low30-40% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
10high70-80% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
10high70-80% HRmax
Cool Down5low30-40% HRmax

Week 4

MinutesIntensityHeart Rate
Warm-Up5low30-40% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
5high70-80% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
5high70-80% HRmax
5low50-60% HRmax
5very high80-85% HRmax
Cool Down5low30-40% HRmax

As you might have already noticed, the intensity is slowly increased from week to week. The start is relatively easy, so you can get used to the elliptical exercise. However, the intervals become longer and more intense from week to week, so you can make gradual progress. Following the same principle, you can continue working out after these first 4 weeks and create your own training schedule.

Which Ellipticals Should You Choose?

Ellipticals in the Gym

Meanwhile, you have become a real expert when it comes to using the elliptical… But wait a minute, there is still one thing missing: The right elliptical machine. It is very important to understand and internalize the basics of working out with an elliptical, and yet it is just as important to choose a good machine.

As discussed earlier, an elliptical should have a long stride length, short pedal distance and a large flywheel weight. It should also be of high quality and durable, and not let you down after just a few months. Since the fitness industry is flooded with products and therefore more and more cheap, low-quality goods are entering the market as well, I’ll have two recommendations for you now that stand out from the crowd.

The Nautilus E628 is one of the most popular elliptical trainers. And as you’ll see in a moment, there’s a good reason for that.

This elliptical machine is really convincing in every respect. The flywheel weight of 30 pounds is heavy enough and allows for a workout that is very easy on the joints and that provides a very smooth and natural movement.

Furthermore, you can choose between 29 individual training programs including preset programs for heart rate training, interval training and specific weight loss workouts. This machine is suitable for beginners and advanced.

Some people may be concerned about the purchase price. I can only say that it is advisable to think long term. Since this elliptical is extremely high-quality and durable, it will probably not let you down even after many years. This in turn makes it cheaper in the long run than having to buy a new $200 model every year. In addition, this Nautilus elliptical provides you with a workout of the highest level right from the start and opens all doors for you.

But for now, this is just my personal view on things. If you’d like to know more about this specific Elliptical, you can take a closer look at it here.

The Schwinn 430i elliptical is another great elliptical machine. Here, too, you have a piece of equipment that is one the most popular ones. In general, Schwinn is almost always a good choice when it comes to exercise machines.

This one comes along with a variety of different training programs as well, 22 to be precise. It is suitable for beginners and advanced and in my opinion, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. You can find all further information here.

Final Thoughts

The elliptical provides an extremely effective workout, if it is used correctly. With the tips from this article you have a first guide that should lead to quick first successes. So what are you waiting for? 😉

I hope I could help you with this article. If you still have further questions or suggestions, feel free to write me an e-mail.

Otherwise, I wish you a lot of fun and success with your elliptical workout journey! 😉

Benny Laker

I am the owner of High Tech Fitness. I love testing any kind of exercise equipment and enjoy sharing my insights with you.

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