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What Muscles Do The Elliptical Work?

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

Replicating a natural movement of running or walking, ellipticals provide an effective way to target an entire body. Also, the elliptical machine is impact-free and burns a lot of calories. It engages your heart and lungs perfectly. In this article, we are going to answer the question “What muscles do the elliptical work?” Let’s get started.

What are the muscles worked on the elliptical?

The elliptical is a great low-impact exercise for some people who have ankle, knee, and hip pain. This cardio machine keeps a regular form of exercise. When used properly, it works the major muscle groups: glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. This exercise equipment engages your chest, back, and arms, so you also have your shoulders working, your biceps and triceps.

Muscular legs on an elliptical to illustrate what muscles do the elliptical work
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1. Upper Body

Elliptical trainers make you feel a considerable amount of work in your upper body muscles. Because you use your arms, back, and chest to push and pull the handles of the elliptical machine

The triceps, which is in the back of the arm, is considered as pushing muscle. The biceps, which is considered pulling muscle, is activated to bend the arm. If you use the elliptical in reverse mode or your machine has upper body levers, you will put a better emphasis on your upper body.

2. Abdominal Muscles

If you perform the elliptical cardio exercises with proper posture, it targets your core muscles as they help you maintain your balance. 

It’s important to remain in an upright position to engage your core whilst riding. If you want to decrease the involvement of your abdominal muscles, lean your upper body on the handles of your machine. Try rotating your torso side to side a little bit to work the obliques while on the elliptical.

A woman at the gym knowing what are the muscles worked by the elliptical
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3. Gluteus Maximus

Hip extension is one of the key movements when performing an elliptical aerobic exercise, especially at an incline. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the three gluteal muscles. It is highly activated during hip extension.

4. Quadriceps

The quadriceps are actively involved in hip flexion and knee extension because of straightening the legs during elliptical workouts. But you may not feel your quads working. An elliptical machine puts equally effective work on the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. If you want to feel your quadriceps mostly, use the stationary bike.

5. Hamstrings

The hamstrings are located on the back of the legs. They perform hip extension and knee flexion. These movements play a huge role when using the elliptical cross-trainer machine. 

Some ellipticals offer the incline feature, which increases the flexion of the leg and feels like hill climbing. If you use it, you can feel your hamstrings better. Performing the reverse movement also put some emphasis on the hamstrings.

6. Calf Muscles

Your calves help you perform plantarflexion. You can feel this when you press the pedals of your elliptical machine. If you want to feel these muscles working better, get the incline of the elliptical up.

What Muscles Does the Elliptical Work In Reverse Mode?

If you reverse the direction, you can work your upper body. Also, you can feel your heels, hamstrings, and glutes work better. The reverse mode also makes the leg movement stronger.

How to Use The Elliptical Machine Correctly?

We are going to tell you how to use the elliptical the right way so that you get the most out of this machine when you’re using it.

Before getting on your machine, make sure the foot platform is rotated in the downward position. Step onto the foot platform while holding on to one of the handles to support yourself. During your entire workout, you should focus on three body positions: hands, posture, and feet.


Hand grip should be at or below shoulder height with a firm full grip. Your shoulders are pulling back and down. So if you let go of the front grips, you will be drifting back off the machine. 


You should maintain a good upright posture during your elliptical type of workout. You want to be sitting back like there’s a stool behind you. Do not lean on the elliptical. Don’t transport your body weight onto the machine. Ideally, you want to avoid side-to-side elliptical motion and twisting a lot. 


Ideally, your feet should remain fully in contact with the foot pedals during your workouts. They should be relatively flat on the foot platforms during each stride. This will help take pressure off the ankles and knees and help you fully engage the muscles of your hips and thighs. So, your feet are going to go all the way in and all the way up front in the inside corners. 

You want to push your feet forward with your feet completely flat on the pedals. So, this works a lot of your leg muscles. So, remember to sit back with a little bit of pressure; and you’re pushing forward with your feet.

A muscular man knowing what muscles the elliptical work
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Tips for Targeting the Right Muscles In Elliptical

Here are our tips for targeting the right muscles while performing elliptical training sessions.

1. Keep Your Hands on the Front Grip

When you’re starting the exercise, you can use the outside grips to go forward if they’re available. But if you want to target your legs more, take your hands off the handles.

2. Pull Your Hamstring

You want to sit in the back and you want to push your heel into the back of the pedal. And then you want to pull. You’re dragging it through like a mechanical crane.

We want you to get the idea that you pull with your hamstring and then as you get up the other hamstring. So, lean back just a little bit, almost holding the handles. You’re aligning your posture, throat, sternum, belly, and button. So, hopefully, you will give this method a shot.

3. Make Sure This Is the Right Exercise for You

You should check with your healthcare professional. But otherwise, it’s a great cardiovascular low-impact exercise for those of you who have some dysfunctions.

4. Switch the Efficiency of Your Exercise 

If you want your legs to work harder, increase the resistance. Push and pull the handles of the machine. That way you’re going to get every muscle in your legs. And you’re also going to target your chest muscles, triceps, back, and bicep muscles at the same time. So, the most efficient way to work out will be hands and feet moving at the same time. 

Mistakes That Prevent You From Targeting the Right Muscles 

A lot of people are using ellipticals incorrectly. They’re using their arms too much. Does it matter to use the arms or just hold space? 

Sometimes people like that little extra assistance because they’re pushing with their arms and pulling. And it’s okay. But a lot of people do this – they’re at the front of the pedal and they’re lifting their heels. That makes a lot of impact on the quads and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Gripping the handlebars too high could cause the shoulders to elevate which could put them at risk of becoming tight. It may lead to strain on the neck and shoulders.

A hunched-over position could put you at risk of injuries. It may develop lower back discomfort.

A man asking his coach what muscles do the elliptical work
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Muscles Worked On The Elliptical: FAQs

Do ellipticals build muscle?

Including the elliptical type of exercise in your fitness routine can help you build muscles in both the lower and upper body. But it’s not the best way to do it. Your muscles will definitely be toned and strengthened. But there is not enough resistance to build high muscle mass.

The best way to build muscle mass is by training with weights. Using the elliptical also boosts your calorie burn and helps you lose your body fat. Therefore, your muscles look better. 

What does 30 minutes on the elliptical do?

Targeting the upper and lower body, the elliptical provides a full-body cardio workout in a safe manner. According to Harvard Health Publishing, if you perform a 30-minute low-impact workout on the elliptical, you will burn an average of 335 calories. Also, if you have any joint problems, if you have knee or hip problems, this machine is going to be your best buddy.

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