June 17, 2009

Elliptical Trainers: Ur Doing It Wrong



For those of you who haven't been to a gym in a decade or so, ellipticals are those popular contraptions that people pedal on standing up, with their feet moving in—you guessed it— an “elliptical” shape.

They are sort of a cross between a Nordic-track ski machine and a stair climber. (Though how the equipment breeders ever got the two machines to mate remains a mystery. Nordic-Tracks are notoriously chilly and unapproachable).

Some ellipticals have swinging arm handles that you pump back and forth as you move, as if you were cross country skiing. Others have stationary rails that you can ignore if you have good balance, or that you can grasp onto to keep from flying off the machine and making an ass of yourself.

Even though ellipticals are one of my favorite machines at the gym, I had no idea there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way to use them. Did you?



A while back I came across some helpful advice on proper elliptical form over at Girl At Gym. Then, inspired to do some further research, I interviewed dozens of personal trainers and exercise physiologists consulted Dr. Google and discovered there was all kinds of advice out there about ellipticals!


Swinging arm handles? Handrails? Or Hands-Free?

Here was the place I found the most diversity. Several fitness advisors seemed to like the swinging arm things. However, it was suggested one grab them at shoulder height, not higher.

And everyone seemed to agree that if you’re holding onto the stationary handrails for balance, you should not lean into them. That’s cheating.

But several trainers suggested going hands-free, to work your core muscles and improve your balance.

And for me, this was great news! I love going hands-free. When I try to hold onto swinging arms as I pedal, I am as graceful as a hippopotamus on roller skates. Even worse? If I get stuck using one of these machines and try to ignore the handles, which are moving fast whether I’m holding on to them or not, inevitably I space out and forget. I move right in front of them to grab my water bottle and… SMACK-SMACK-SMACK! #@$%!!


Go backwards as well as forwards.

This is a great advantage of the elliptical over many other machines. The reverse motion recruits different muscles and can help prevent injuries. Going backwards is also an awesome core/balance trainer if you do it with no hands.


Don’t put all your weight on your toes.

Some experts suggest you put most of your weight on the back of your foot, and assume almost a sort of “squat” position; others suggest you start on your heels and roll through your whole foot. Many of us lean too far forward on our toes and don’t use enough of our quad muscles.


Don’t slouch or sway.

Stand up straight, relax your shoulders, keep your back in line with your hips, and try not to move side to side.


Don’t slack off too much.

Unlike a treadmill, which will punish you by flinging you off the back if you forget to run fast enough, an elliptical is all mellow and forgiving if you start dawdling. So check your pace periodically or you may not be getting much of a workout.


Don’t bounce.

Oh Noooo! I hate this advice. I always bounce!

That’s the whole reason I love the elliptical machine in the first place: I crank up my tunes and FLY on that thing like it’s a playground ride. Wheee! And when a really good song comes on, I also dance a bit, bobbing my head, swinging my hips in violation of the no-swaying rule, even tapping out the beat using an imaginary drumstick or tambourine. I am no doubt known around town as “that dork from the gym who thinks no one can see her,” and concerned citizens are probably taking up a collection at this very moment to buy me some home exercise equipment.

But bouncing is considered cheating. You're letting gravity do too much of the work for you.

So all this time I have been doing the ellipitical all wrong.

It’s smart to correct bad form.

Even though bouncing makes my workout way more fun, I’d do less damage to my knees and get a much better workout using a steady motion rather than launching myself up in the air with each step. It’s an elliptical machine after all, not a pogo stick! So there’s really only one conclusion I can come to about the “no bouncing” rule:

I think I’ll pretend I never read about it.

Do you folks pay a lot of attention to using proper form when you work out, or are you more "what the hell, at least I'm exercising?"

62 comments:

  1. I have a confession to make: I'm an elliptical virgin. Looks like my gym-o-phobia has caused me to miss out on some good stuff!

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  2. My toes ALWAYS go numb on the elliptical after about 15 minutes. If I could figure out how to stop this from happening, I would use it more often!

    Numb toes are particularly embarassing when you get off the elilptical and can't feel the ground through your gym shoes... :(

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    1. You need new shoes! Mine used to do the same thing. I went to a specialty fitness store and had a Gait Analysis done. Turns out I was wearing an entire size too small. I wasn't accounting for the fact that the feet swell when we exercise. Went up a size and never had a problem since!

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    2. I think i need new shoes as well! As for me im having trouble staying off my toes an keeping my heels down" what can i do because i honestly get extremely tired after 1-2minutes,i also have thick legs not sure if that's why,or if im just out of shape all together..

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    3. It's probably because you're pushing forward with your toes. Try moving heel-first, then shifting your weight through the rest of your foot. Doing this is a lot harder than pedalling with your toes but it's *so* much more effective.

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  3. I like going backwards every once in a while - I don't know if it's good for you...it just changes things up a bit.

    It's hard not to cheat on it. My husband alweays ramps up the incline, but I think it just makes it easier...ahem...I say this as one with short legs who diesn't use lots of incline. I love the elliptical...gives me arm muscles :)

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  4. I admit I dont like the elliptical trainer... it makes me realize how uncoordinated and small I really am what with those giant feet plates and fast moving whacking bars and all.

    But I guess its like everything else, if you dont have good form, you are totally not getting a good workout. It may seem "easier" to do the bad form things because you are tired, but thats when I seem to get hurt is when I get lazy bad form.

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  5. Can I go back in time or pretend I didn't read this?

    Bouncy elliptical rider,

    Annabel

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  6. Our elliptical at home is unlike any of the wonderful machine you use at the gym. It is a real "butt buster", but a good workout, nonetheless. I'm pretty sure I do it all wrong, but since I really, really hate this machine, I avoid it...thus no issues regarding correctness. :)

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  7. Geosomin, I think you're right about the incline not making it any harder... I think the lower setting are harder because you can't bounce as much!

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  8. Well this sucks. I bounce, hold on, lean forward.and i thought I was doing good. :( I tired going hands free oncce and almost fell off. Seriously. If we were meant to go hands free there wouldn't be handles on the things.

    Cracked me up with the mental image of a nordic trac and step climber mating. LOL

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  9. I love the elliptical and always look forward to hotel gyms that have on during my travels. I love that you can go backwards. I like hands free - but I admit to being a leaner at times. And a bouncer. But only when the incline is cranked. *shrug* At least I've got my butt on the thing. Even if I'm doing it a bit wrong, it's still a better workout than staying in bed and ordering room service. :)

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  10. Having destroyed my knees on treadmills over the years, now I am a huge fan of the elliptical. I have found that holding a book while using the machine is a great technique, because it 1) forces your hands to stay free, increasing use of your core, 2) passes the time more quickly, and 3) forces you to keep a smooth stride without bouncing, so you can actually focus your eyes on the page.

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  11. Anonymous- I've been having that exact same problem recently whenever I run! I finally got around to asking my dad (avid runner) last weekend & he said that my shoes were probably laces too tightly pinching a nerve in the top of my foot. He said to re-tie your shoes before every run & make sure the laces are loose enough. I thought you could just keep the knotted & slide them on to save .01 seconds of time...

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  12. I have never used an eliptical, those arms swinging scare me and I'm not very coordinated with things like that.

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  13. I need to try hands-free! great post

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  14. Wow, there's lots of stuff involved with ellipticals. I never liked them much. Too much work and too many things moving around all at the same time, I get confused by anything more technical than my running shoes and the pavement.

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  15. I have an elliptical at home and at first I hated it until I figured out that the stride length can be adjusted - it made a world of difference!

    I'm a bouncer too - guess I'm gonna have to work on that!

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  16. Just like Anonymous, I've got that numb toe syndrome on the elliptical also! Weird!

    It's also so weird for me to get off the machine and find my "land legs" again! I always still feel like I'm stepping in a circular motion (hopefully i'm not doing that...but that might explain the strange stares from fellow ellipticallers!) haha!

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  17. Definitely NOT my favorite cardio machine - always get yelled at for bouncing. What's wrong with bouncing????

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  18. I am all about the form! I guess because being a free weights lover, form is so important so it carries over to my cardio machines. I just want to be sure that my body can still exercise as I get older (as if I am not there now!) & that means into my 60's and 70's. I know I will not be able to do what I do now but I hope my joints can still handle some stuff!

    I use the treadmill, elliptical & the StepMill for cardio. The StepMill kicks butt!

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  19. I think the elliptical manufacturers* need to redesign the machines so that the handrails aren't so easy to lean onto.

    *e.g. Precor, which, when it creates a model, should send it to Crabby to review.

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  20. Numb toes mean that you're putting too much pressure on them. You've got to periodically make sure that your weight is going into your heels (or that your heels are firmly planted on the pedals at all times.

    Love the elliptical.

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  21. Bouncing? I don't think I've ever done that. But now I'm going to worry that I am but not realizing it.

    Also, I admit to looking down the row of ellipticals to see who is hunched over. I really have to restrain myself for going over to them, putting my hand on their back, and pushing.

    I always go hands-free but typically pump my arms as if I was running. If you want a real core workout, put your hands behind your back and close your eyes. That'll engage your abs like nothing else!

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  22. Whew. This scared me right off of ever trying an elliptical!!

    Thank heavens I don't go to the gym. I'd probably have huge facial contusions from trying to go hands-free on one of these things with the handles, just so I could be like Crabby!! (with the hands-free part, not the face-whacking part..... oh, never mind.)

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  23. The closest I have been to an elliptical is an ad in the newspaper. After trying to climb out of a canyon on Sunday though, I seriously need to do something for cardio, so I guess I will be looking into a cheap gym. Or maybe just climb the stairs in my apartment bldg ;)

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  24. Oh good, I'm glad I'm not the only Bouncer!

    And I somehow remain convinced that more people would enjoy elliptical trainers if they skipped the arm thingies and adopted terrible form like mine and bounced up and down on them like pogo sticks! It's much more fun that way. (And perhaps I can secure some Group Discounts on knee replacements for Cranky Fitness readers).

    Oh and by the way, for the regulars--I'm finally back from San Diego, though i'm terribly cranky and bleary from a red eye flight. Am way behind in blog visits, sorry! (But the condo looks good so far... no rattlesnakes or vampires!)

    Now back to our regularly scheduled Fitness Equipment discussion...

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    1. Hi Crabby. That was so funny ... your original post about elliptical trainers. I'm glad I am not the only one who enjoys her 'trainer'. I've only JUST got back into training again. It's been years.

      I can relate to you entirely. I'm glad I'm doing the right thing about going backwards and forwards; and I wasn't even told LOL I did it on my own lonesome. I think it stemmed from being that little bit fitter after a couple of weeks and I was getting a bit bored. My father says I'm a show-off LOL.

      That was interesting information about moving arms, hands-free and the rails. Thank you. I will incorporate the 'hands-free' challenge into my work-outs.

      I'm a bouncer at times. Sheesh how can you not be *grin* when you are listening to great music ... like AC/DC I forget myself and throw myself into the trainer bopping away, singing ... Luckily for me I bought an elliptical trainer so now I can do all the enjoyable crazy stuff without the looks. When I was cycling around my town 10 years ago I was known as "The lady who sings on her bike". I had this woman come up to me, and said "I've been wanting to talk to you but I didn't know your name. Someone said for me to go up to the lady who sings when she rides her bike". Hahaha. The world needs people like you and me :)

      My fingers go numb at times but I think its 'cos I hold onto the pulse reader/handrail too tightly. So I just make it a point to relax my grip and wriggle my fingers. I also need new shoes because my feed do at times go numb as well

      I mix my training between the moving arms and the hand-rail. Depending on how tired I am. For example the first 10 minutes (warm-up) are done going forward with hands on rail. The second 10 minutes is done going backwards with hands on moving arms; I then alternate until my 50 minutes is up. I've also added another challenge which is increasing the level after 15 minutes. Admittedly again I've introduced a new challenge this week and that is to get up at 5:55 a.m. and get on the trainer at 6:00 a.m. so I'm giving my body a week to climatise to the early morning shock, then it will be back to serious work.

      However, I do like the idea of 'no hands' so next week I shall incorporate that with 10 minutes hands, 10 minutes rail, 10 minutes 'no hands' visa versa. Bugger! Does that mean I'll have to up the time to 60 minutes *grin* I'm up for the challenge, and I do like to 'share'.

      Thank you again for your great post Crabby. It did put a smile on my dial and a chuckle to my lips :)

      I would like to thank AC/DC though for 'being there for me':) if I didn't have them I'd be getting off the thing. You need really good upbeat/rock 'n' roll music ... well I do. They make it so much easier and enjoyable. As they say "Time flies when you are having fun".

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  25. I love to go hands free on the elliptical (or cross trainer as we call it around here)! It's one of my favourite machines, although I always feel I'm burning fewer calories for the effort I put out compared to the treadmill... no idea why!

    TA x

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  26. I use an elliptical almost daily and I love it. I sometimes go hands free and sometimes parts of me bounce depending on what I ate for lunch.

    Seriously, I do just about anything the elliptical will allow me to do to get threw 40-50 minutes of exercise including changing after a few minutes of each program, going thru each program, increasing the levels, jumping off for a "C**nese firedrill" and jumping back on while the pedals are still moving.
    Now, what was the question?

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  27. I'm a fan of the "don't hold onto the handles approach," but the biggest problem I see with regard to ANY cardio equipment is the "what the hell, at least I'm doing something" approach, because that's not true.

    If you're in decent shape and you're just sauntering along on ANY cardio apparatus, you're wasting your time. It doesn't count as cardio if your heart isn't pumping.

    I see a lot of people at my facility killing time on the equipment and then complaining about lack of results. Don't be one of those people. You need to WORK; not kill yourself, but work if you want results.

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  28. Oh, I also go backwards but not always, and my arms are unreal from pulling on those handles. They don't match the bottom half of my body. I'm like Ahnold and Dumbo mixed.

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  29. Oooh, such a timely post--my elliptical trainer is arriving on TUESDAY! Wahoo! I love them!!!

    And I too, also bounce. I will forget I read not to. . .

    OH, and I like the swinging arms things, because you can choose to use more of your upper body to get that part of your workout in, too!

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  30. I like the swinging arms, but the ellipticals at the gym I used were designed WRONG. The arm going foward is on the same side as the leg stepping forward. When you walk/run, the arm going foward is OPPOSITE the leg going foward. It's really annoying. I can't believe that a machine with a mistake that huge actually made it to the market.

    --annoyed elliptical user

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  31. Our gym doesn't have elliptical's anymore, now we have ARC's. I like them better actually. Although I start breathing really hard after 5 minutes. Ugh! Linda

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  32. When I see "ARC" I think "Aspect Ratio Conversion." I'm pretty sure that's not what you meant.

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  33. No bouncing?!?!? NOOOO! You've burst my bubble. No wonder I love(d) the ellptical so much!

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  34. You are so right about the elliptical being popular. It's moved my favorite, the stair master, into the corner recesses of the fitness center :-(

    I'm sure this will help people get more out of this machine!

    I don't like them because it takes too much adapting to the machine, rather than the other way around, but that's just me. I know you can get a good workout on them.

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  35. For some reason it never really occurred to me that I could get good arm muscles going from the elliptical ... that'll help me get some good Michelle Obama arms by the end of the summer. ;)

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  36. This is so timely as I have just started using one for the very first time and have noticed quite a few aches and pains that werem't there before. (We'll also be getting one of them new fangled talking machines this week too and can discard the tin cans and string.)

    The no-bouncing rule seems discriminatory to those of us overly blessed by a whopping set of bodacious ta-tas. I too will pretend I didn't read this. Still, a terrific post filled with the best combination of info and laughs.

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  37. great post. we have an elliptical at home which I love. Never knew of some of these rules. Gonna try not using the handles sometimes to work my core.

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  38. Could someone explain to me why the elliptical is the one machine I just can't master? My record is 15 minutes (I run or bike for more than that, daily) and after that I couldn't walk w/o pain for a couple of days, let alone do my runs. It's the hardest exercise I've tried (in terms of pain and in the effort it takes to move the pedals), and it's so frustrating and painful for me that I've just completely given up on the machine (after my 15 min experience). I don't think I lean or bounce, and arm things or not doesn't seem to matter much. It'd be great to be able to use it as that's mostly what's in hotels when I'm on travel and it is good cross-training or injury rehab. Any tips appreciated.

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  39. I love Cammy's suggestion of holding a book...I am going to try that.

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  40. Just ran across your blog. I love it and is informative and very interesting.

    Fatbulous Nina :)

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  41. "(Though how the equipment breeders ever got the two machines to mate remains a mystery. Nordic-Tracks are notoriously chilly and unapproachable)." ... *SNORT* one of the funniest things i've read here. :)

    i love proper form. i also hate ellipticals with arms - i always choose the non-armed elliptical and pump my own arms.

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  42. I have never tried the elliptical contraption, it kind of looks scary to me. Now I know I've been missing out! I'll be having a go (but not boucing!) on it at my next gym visit. Thanks for all the tips everyone.

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  43. I have yet to fall in love with the elliptical... It's the thing I do if I want to work out for another 5 minutes...

    I am very conscious of good form in gym. That way I get the maximum benefit from my workout and avoid possible injuries...

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  44. When I saw the title of this post in my inbox I was terrified. I was like 'nooooo that's my favorite machine! If I'm doing it wrong I don't want to knowwww!' One thing I might suggest is that if you're bouncing too much maybe up your resistance? It makes it so much more challenging if you try to maintain a certain pace and keep increasing your resistance and it seems pretty hard to bounce when ur working really hard to push the pedals around. great workout!

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  45. I'm just back from an elliptical session and am proud to report: no bouncing and I didn't use any hands! :-)

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  46. I have only one thing to say:

    When it comes to workouts, I prefer to FROLIC.

    If that means bouncing, fine. If that means busting out into hysterical giggles with The Trainer while I'm doing deadlifts, so much the better.

    Just protect your knees and lower back, and FROLIC.

    Dammit.

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  47. LOVE this so much - it is a GGS high five link in our site-love ya cranky!

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  48. Just found your blog while looking for info on ellipticals, great fun here! None of that macho testosterone stuff, just fun and fitness. Question tho, does anyone else have a problem with their feet creeping forward during their workout? Mine "ooze" forward and end up sticking over the front, not painful just REALLY annoying. I think I have the stride set properly, and I don't bounce. TIA

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  49. I have not used elliptical and this is very interesting for me. It seems so easy to use. I am so interested to buy an elliptical to do the exercise at home because I do not have a lot of time for more exercise. Thank you for the information...

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  50. Incidentally, I really need information about the elliptical trainer. I'm confused to choose between the elliptical trainer and treadmill. Therefore, your article is very helpful at all. Thanks for sharing.

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  51. I absolutely LOVE this blog ... laughing is exercise, too ... I feel like I already had my workout today! Actually, I HATE the Elliptical so went surfing the 'net to see if maybe I'm doing something wrong (my bodacious set of ta-tas bounce whether I'm on a pogo stick or not - and at my age, that's not a GOOD thing!). Anyway ... my knees are RIGHT pissed off at me for my work on the treadmill ... so it looks like I'm going to have to make nice with Mr Elliptical if I'm going to remain at ALL active. Here goes ...

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  52. Kind of crazy, just ran across this while searching for why my toes have been going number at about 20-30 minute mark and I am pretty sure according to this, my form is ALL wrong.

    Still Laughing,

    The Bouncy One

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  53. About the bounce, I like it! But it all depends on what your looking for and your definition of bounce. I think a slight amount of bounce more closely mimics what your body would be doing if you were actually running. I think its more important to keep your side to side motion to a minimum but its the same thing again. Runners with good form move a bit from side to when they run.

    I have had massive trauma to my knee so I have to be careful about impact. I'm not looking specifically to build muscle, I'm more about burning calories and working cardio. I think I'm a lot like most, I'm into keeping my heart rate up and if my form sucks does it really matter if we bounce. There is so little impact any how.

    BTW - I am no professional its just an observation that asks why we are on an elliptical in the first place..

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  54. I can never stress enough to my clients, how important form is with everything you do at the gym (or on equipment at home), it improves your results vastly, but more importantly prevents injury. The vast majority of people who "work out" really need to review their form.

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  55. yes, great to see an OLde post up and running. I've been using Ellipticals 10 odd + years. I agree with ealier post re if youre just plodding along - no sweat - youre kinda wasting your time. If i'm not perspiring (within reason ie Hr 150+ - (56 yr old male), then i may as well just be turnin over in me bed.
    20 mins Elliptical sweat work does for me - hands-free also an excellent idea. I dont see using the arms yielding as much benefit as do hands-free. Once you can manage balance on ellipticals then, hands-free, you can feel your Core muscles really work you forward - a tougher ride but it pays off. Youre - Striding forward manfully (or Womanfully) or whatever your Stride happens to be .. You've gotta put your pelvis into it. No fvcking around.

    I sometimes do 'squats' on the Elliptical - rising/dropping slolwly - though not sure the benefits of that - some expert out there might know ?

    I can manage Forward no problem hands-free but backward motion, hands-free will take some practice.

    i dont know about reading a book while skiing - i feel freak enough as it is .. some ToughO might fling a free-weight at me and fetch me back to life ..

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  56. Ellipticals may be the worst piece of exercise equipment I have ever used or seen anyone use. First, people look like complete idiots on them. Not that that has anything to do with getting in shape but who really wants to look stupid while exercising. It is bad enough that I am an overweight slob but now I can look like a really stupid overweight slob.

    Secondly, there are so many motion options on them that I wonder what I am doing and if I am doing it correctly. I can jump on a treadmill or bicycle and be pretty much assured that I am doing it just as God intended it.

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  57. Late to this party, but only found this article today, and thought I would comment.

    Been using ellipticals for 10 years now. Started with the arms, but soon realised that I wasn't using them for pushing or pulling. I was just hanging on when tired. Later moved on to just resting my hands on the bars in the middle, but after 30 minutes or so found that I was leaning in, again due to tiredness.

    So I went hands free about 6 months ago. Hands to the side, head up, just pushing through with my legs. Results have been great. Balance no problem now and core is a lot stronger. Put the resistance up high enough and it replicates the same feeling I used to get when I was hiking up mountains in the UK (the best all-round exercise I've ever experienced).

    So my advice...a high resistance setting and hands free all the way. No chance of cheating and you know the workout you're going to get will be hard earned.

    Er...that's about it really. Hope this helps somebody.

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