December 16, 2014

Proper Elliptical Form: How Do You Use the Arms?

Well, that's one good use of arms I guess.
Ecard by gina1234

First off, my apologies to those of you who don't give a crap about elliptical machines.  But I'm afraid they're my go-to indoor cardio option, and I use them at the most fully caffeinated time of day when I'm having all sorts of Thinky Thoughts and am obsessively narrating in my head. So yeah, this means it's time for yet another post, more specifically about the whole "Arms" aspect.

Now some elliptical machines are mercifully armless, and these are the kind I've always preferred. There is a place you can put your arms for balance if you need to (after so many years, I don't) but they don't have the upright vertical handles that swing back and forth in time with the leg pedals.

When I use the elliptical, I pump up my tunes and get all wild and crazy and weird on it, which you can't do when grimly clutching a pair of clunky moving metal pipes. When I've had to rock out on an elliptical machine with handles? I try to pretend the handles aren't there.  But then my spastic dance moves and fist pumps get interrupted when the handles get their revenge and give me a sound whomping.

But dang it, as old machines get replaced, the armless kind of elliptical machines are getting harder to find!

Gotta love the book stand set-up too
image: wikipedia

Some of the new machines are kinda "bi" and swing both ways. There are vertical arm handles for those who like them, but at they're far enough apart to allow room for people like me who want pump their arms or spazz-dance. These I grumble about, but can handle.

But having recently confronted a couple of the narrow punitive kind, and feeling strangely averse to getting battered by the damn handles yet again, I decided to suck it up and attempt to actually use the arm handles.

(It's part of my lastest "let's loosen the hell up and and try a few new things" initiative. These come frequently and are good for about 5 minutes, but whatever).

So anyway, as I suspected, my first reaction was: Acck! The movement felt totally unnatural. Grasping onto the handles was a total buzz-kill and destroyed any sense of rhythm or momentum or joy. (Note: because my back is still f--cked up, I can only use the elliptical sparingly. So it actually IS a joy if I get to use one of the right kind and can dance and bounce and carry on.)

But I'm guessing other no-hands elliptical people, who have spent many years powering the machines with just their legs, might have a similar issue when they attempt to employ their arms. There is some technique involved!

So, how do you best use the arm handles on an elliptical?

Wait, you thought that was a rhetorical question?  And that I have an answer?

Sadly, no.  I haven't completely figured it out yet. I'm hoping for some great tips down in the comment section to help me (and others) out. But I have been experimenting a little, and can at least pass on what I'm learning.

What Does Online Research Say about Proper Use of Elliptical Arms?

The first article I came upon searching for "proper form on elliptical for arms" was this blog post on proper elliptical form which is actually quite amusing and encouraging!

(So did you click on it and see why I was so amused and encouraged?) However, while it covered many other wrong ways to use the elliptical, the post didn't address the whole arm handle question.

And I could list a bunch more articles that either say: (1) Be sure to use the arm handles! or (2) It's way better if you don't use the arm handles! But none of them really say how to use the arm handles so that it doesn't feel creepy and awkward.

More specifically, I've found that because I'm primarily leg-driven and like a fast pace, any effort to use my arms to "help" seems completely counterproductive.  I can't time my efforts to go in the right direction, and I end up pulling or pushing at the exact wrong times.  I either have to try to let my arms go completely slack, or I find I'm fighting against my legs and making the whole thing harder.

(Though I guess, stepping back, that the whole point of any exercise machine is to create work that is absolutely useless. So my arms fighting my legs, philosophically, is a good thing.  Yet I don't like it! I want my pointless exercise to feel integrated and even more importantly, I want the numbers on the machine to look bigger so I feel more awesome).

This video is as good a general tutorial as any, and I enjoyed watching it, if only for the fantasy that someday I will have my own personal training coach who can command an entire empty gym for each machine she wants me to use.

But again, no hints on how to sync the arms with the legs for elliptical awesomeness.

Trial and Error Elliptical Arm Suggestions to Build Synchronization Skill

1. Go More Slowly.  This is an obvious suggestion, but screw it, my music is carefully curated to fall within a 150-185 bpm range, and I love going to the beat, so I really really hate this notion. 

2.  Do Intervals that are Just Arm Driven.  It feels weird, to let your legs just go along for the ride, but if you focus on the arm part of the movement alone, the arms get to experience what they'd be doing ideally, if only the stupid over-achieving legs weren't making it so damn hard for them to keep up. 

3.  Try Using Just One Arm at a Time.  Limiting the focus seems to help a little.

4.  Focus on just Push or Pull.  Easier to try to time just part of the cycle.  And even if you are using both arms, you can also limit your focus to just one arm, and just push or pull until you can time a meaningful contribution, and build from there.

5.  Let the Arms be Busy and Useless.  Relaxing the arms as much as possible so that they are not interfering with the legs at least buys some peace of mind, and accustoms the arms to moving faster even if they are not actually accomplishing anything.

Note: I am just starting to try these things, and have no idea if they will actually work.  I'd love to hear from some of you who actually successfully use the arm thingies, especially if you are able to maintain a fast pace with full arm involvement.  Tell me how you manage to learn it!

Anyone else trying anything new these days that feels Weird and Unnatural and Creepy?


  1. I hate the elliptical and only do it when I'm injured and can't run.
    I use the arms when I go forward but not when I go backwards - feels too unnatural. Maybe if I started dancing on it I would enjoy it more - could you post a video of how you enjoy your time on that machine???

  2. The elliptical is my BITCH. Seriously. I use it every single day for 2 hours, NO JOKE. I always make sure to use the one with the arm movements too because the other one (without the arm movements) is just way too unnatural to me!!!!!! The elliptical is so much easier on the joints too. I remember I used to be a treadmill whore but when I started getting shin splints and foot pain, I switched it up to something a little less taxing - the elliptical!! And it worked :)

  3. I like elliptical best for indoor cardio too. But my arms are fairly short and I can't find a comfortable grip. Bah humbug.

    1. That's a great point Cathy! I'm guessing that even though 98% of elliptical users are women, they probably made sure to accomodate men's arm lenghts!

  4. Our gym, thankfully, has several different versions for everybody. I notice that the ones with arms are the least popular; the others you sometimes have to wait. I am a treadmill user these days, though. I listen to podcasts while walking along at a high inclination and don't have to concentrate on anything!

    1. I love treadmill users because they're not competing for MY ellipticals! Glad to see you're so inclined. :)

  5. My home gym has no elliptical, i wish it did, with or without handles. They never felt weird to me, so i don't have advice to give on how to make the weirdness go away.

  6. Well Elliptical and my Achilles tendonitis are natural enemies so I don't use it much. I play on the machine every so often and as far as I can tell the arm things are for yanking your arms out of their sockets. I have short arms and long legs so I think I must have an adjustment issue. The best I can do is more of a march on one of the newer machines that will let you get away with doing feet straight up and down.

  7. You know I have balance issues. I have only tried one of the arm-thingy ellipticals once, and it was a most unpleasant experience. I can't stay upright on the things without holding onto something, but the arm handles move, and the foot-pedals move, and there I am moving all four limbs, yet there is no water holding me up, help! If there were a head brace I might be able to do it, but no. I have no advice for you.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  8. We have like 3 different kinds in our gym. I don't have the time or patience to figure them out plus I do more on the treadmill & StepMill so I just use the one I know! :)

  9. I agree that it takes some time to get used to the arms on an elliptical. They just feel so damn awkward.

  10. ahh remember the CLIMB FOR DEAR LIFE AND HOLD ON WITH ARMS STRAIGHT pose of the stairmasters in the 90s? :-)

  11. I've never used one so have nothing useful to add. But I have a lousy sense of balance so would need to hang on hard if I ever try one.

  12. OK, so I'm getting some great commiseration and encouragement and some good laughs, thanks you guys!

    Though I'm still waiting for an elliptical guru with a magical trick (or some brilliant technique advice) that will help me get the hang of the arm thingies... or maybe I'm just too klutzy!

  13. This post makes me happy! The one you linked is how I found Cranky Fitness (via Google search desperately trying to figure out why I sucked at elliptical). I'm much better at it now, but I don't use the flaily arm one. I prefer the one with the monitors in the hand rail so I can keep an eye on my birdlike heart rate.

    However, hubs does use the arm one, so I asked him how it works for him. He says his legs do all the work while his arms just hang onto the handles for the extra movement, and it feels quite natural to him. He only does the push/pull cycle when he has it on super high resistance. I hope that helps a bit!

    Also, you are not alone in the singing/dancing elliptical zone. ;-)

  14. No useful ideas here, either. I have never been a huge elliptical fan, and I guess when I use it so rarely, I hardly notice which type it is. I was very, very impressed, though, when I saw someone riding an Elliptigo on the Death Ride! Sort of made me hesitate to complain about my struggles. Even ignoring the weight and the lack of aerodynamic position, you'd be standing up for all those hours.

    1. My, that is impressive. Sort of like running a marathon while carrying a toddler.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  15. Hi Crabby!!

    I like the elliptical because it doesn't put pressure on my joints, but I rarely use the arm thingies. I'm doing it for the cardio and that can be done with my legs. I do upper body weight training for my arm - better to target specific areas.

  16. What kind of elliptical would you recommend for someone about to buy their first one? I have no clue about them and we don't have any stores where I live where I can go and try different kinds out. Thanks.

    1. I totally love Precor, but they're very pricey. I found one used and reconditioned and have been really happy with it. I don't know which are the best of the more reasonably priced brands though. Good luck with your search!

  17. I have a Schwinn elliptical with arms (don't use them..I'm too short) was in the 400.00 range from Dick's Sporting's very smooth and cost effective. Also quiet...I love it


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