What Muscles Do Elliptical Work?

What Muscles Do Elliptical Work?
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It would be remarkably simple to answer the question posed in the title by simply listing the specific muscle groups that will be utilized when using an elliptical trainer. However, there’s a lot more to the story than just a basic list of muscle types.

Correct use of this equipment is not exceedingly difficult, in terms of technique, but there are some things you can get wrong, and areas which need additional emphasis for your benefit. Let's go ahead and address them.

A Better Understanding of Elliptical Workouts

The primary key to success with this equipment lies in you, the user, being motivated to produce the kinetic energy and propel the machine forward through your exertion. This is one aspect that separates the elliptical from the treadmill, to put it in basic terms.

You might use a treadmill at a set speed, walking comfortably and even doing a bit of daydreaming or planning along the way. You’ll not only need to be more coordinated physically to use the elliptical trainer, you’ll also have to remain focused on the physical effort involved.

Having glamorous equipment, or excellent instruction only goes so far, at the end of the day effort is between YOU and YOU and this is an important thing to remember as you progress through your journey of fitness.

Additionally, it's important to remember that although the elliptical machine provides an excellent full-body workout like we've written for you here, it's not meant to pack girth and size on your frame the way that traditional weightlifting does.

Where the elliptical workouts shine is in enhancing cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, and not to add pure size. If your goal is purely to add size, our recommendation is to go ahead and begin a weightlifting routine.

That can be done first by establishing a base of practicing on your form on all key lifts like the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and OHP without weight and then when those movements are mastered under supervision to slowly begin adding weight and advancing through progressive overload. 

It is also important to talk about some of the major benefits of ellipticals as compared to other types of cardio workout machines.

Ellipticals vs. Other Machines

Treadmills place a lot of stress on the body. Most runners consider a mile of road running comparable with four to five miles of treadmill running. However, the impact of the treadmill is not very reduced compared to that of running on the road, so it actually increases the stress impact your joints take.

An elliptical machine allows your feet to remain on the pedals at all time, so it eliminates the shock to your joints and is almost as gentle as swimming, which makes it a great option for people who suffer from arthritis pain but still want to remain healthy.

Rowing machines are an excellent workout for your arms, your core, and your heart, but they have minimal impact on your legs. Most people don’t realize this, but because your arms are pushing on an elliptical, this machine works out your arms nearly as well as a rowing machine while also addressing your legs, heart, and stability.

Lastly, bicycle machines are also considered fantastic, low resistance workout machines. In fact, these are the machines that physical therapists use to warm up their patients, even after recent knee surgeries.

They have a meager impact while still being able to tone your leg muscles, especially if the resistance is high, and give you a cardio workout. Again, the drawback here is that these machines do not offer you any toning for your arms. The elliptical machine is a great full body workout.

What Muscles Do Elliptical Workouts Focus On?

This brings you to the details of which muscles benefit from elliptical work.

Muscles of the Upper Legs

 Here is a breakdown of the leg muscles that will benefit from elliptical workouts:


First on the list for most people are thigh muscles, specifically the muscles at back-center (there are three considered hamstring muscles).

Hamstring muscles are crucial for stability. You rarely notice them when you walk on flat ground or up hills, but they fully engage when you are walking down a steep hill.

Have you ever run right down a hill and had that sensation that you may end up falling and tumbling if you lose your balance? Remember that feeling of resistance that came from the back of your legs?
That feeling was your hamstrings working. They are crucial to balancing, so it is essential to keep them toned and stretched.

Hamstring diagram

  • The Semitendinosus - this muscle aids in medially rotate the tibia on the femur when the knee is flexed and medially rotate the femur when the hip is extended. It also aids when bending forward at the hips acting as a counterforce.
  • The Semimembranosus - this muscle helps to extend the hip joint and flex the knee joint. Provides additional support with medial rotation of the knee joint.
  • The Biceps Femoris - Both heads of the biceps femoris conduct knee flexion. The long head emerges from the pelvic area and additionally aids with hip flexion.

Explanations of the functionality and insertions of the different muscles come from our friends over at GetBodySmart, an awesome interactive and scientific study tool about the anatomy of the body.

This is important to explain because as you begin exercise on the elliptical machine and move your body forward, your hamstrings work to straighten your hips and aid in lifting your knees behind you to support your body throughout the motion.

The result will be perfect tension on the hamstrings to adequately stress them and produce results you're looking for such as increased strength, muscle toning, and endurance.


Another primary beneficiary is the quadriceps muscle at the front of the thigh.

  • Rectus Femoris - Attaches to the hip joint, flexing the thigh at the hip, and aids with extension of the knee.
  • Vastus Intermedius  & Vastus Lateralis - Quadriceps tendon to base of patella and onto tibial tuberosity via the patellar ligament. Aids in extension of the leg at the knee.
  • Vastus Medialis - Quadriceps tendon to base of patella and onto tibial tuberosity via the patellar ligament. Aids in extending the leg at the knee. 

These four quadriceps are critically important in your use of the elliptical machine. They act as extensors of the knee joint, and aid in all manner of motions in walking, running, jumping, and bending. These muscles will receive an awesome workout, being one of the primary movers involved with using the elliptical machine. 

Do not be alarmed if you can’t feel your quadriceps getting that workout. Thanks to the elliptical being a low resistance, total body machine, your quads will take significantly less strain than otherwise. If you really want to feel a burn, increase the resistance on your machine or consider pedaling backward.

Elliptical workouts benefit these two (hamstrings and quadriceps) areas more than walking or time on a stationary cycling bike. Studies show a consistent program of 30 minutes (moderately intense) five times each week will produce satisfactory results.

Other Muscles

Other regions of the body benefitting from this training are the glutes and the hip flexors. Muscles in the buttocks (gluteus maximus, medius, minimus) will be toned with consistent elliptical activity.

Image result for gluteal muscles color diagram

  • Gluteus Maximus - Inserts at gluteal tuberosity of femur and iliotibial tract. Extends thigh at the hip, laterally rotates thigh at the hip, abducts thigh at the hip.
  • Gluteus Medius - Inserts at lateral and superior surfaces of the greater trochanter of femur. Works to abduct, laterally, and medially rotate thigh at the hip.
  • Gluteus Minimus - Inserts at Anterior surface of the greater trochanter of femur. Abducts and medially rotates thigh at the hip

The glutes are the largest muscle in the entire body, and often the most neglected in training. These three muscles work in tandem to allow you to abduct (move side to side), extend the hip (pull the thigh behind you) and rotate the hips internally and externally.

The elliptical's smooth swinging motion allows for strengthening of the glutes without the same strain on the joints that occurs from running on a treadmill. Strengthening these muscles will help you not only to avoid injuries, but to be a better athlete across the board, allowing you to be more balanced, run quicker, jump higher, and more. 

One of the best ways to increase the overall effectiveness of your elliptical machine is to play with it. Increasing the resistance will make your muscles work harder to move the pedals, which will increase the likelihood that it will tone them along with your cardio.
Bonus Tip
A great tip for elliptical machines is to squat. If you have ever been shown how to do a proper squat, then you can use this technique on your elliptical. I guarantee that your glutes will feel it very quickly, so will your quads. This will engage them.

You may not notice your abs and core getting strengthened, but I promise that if you are using the squat technique while pedaling, your core is also getting a fantastic workout. Your core will engage to keep you balanced while in motion despite being in a squatting position.

Muscles of the Upper Body

Almost every form of exercise delivers some benefit to this major muscle. Because the time you spend on the elliptical equipment is considered aerobic, you’ll be doing your heart good. Correct use of this machine simulates a smooth, but conditioning motion like using the stairs or pedaling a bicycle.

It’s low-impact, as mentioned, but it works muscles throughout the body, heart included. You’ll also be engaging in cardiovascular exercise, which means calories burned, endurance improved, and muscles toned.

This activity also delivers significant benefits to the upper body, primarily if the machine you use has the “poles” that simulate cross-country ski action. This repetitive motion will work the triceps, the pectoral muscles of the chest, and muscles such as the deltoids and biceps.

You will also see benefits in the upper back and shoulders. But the middle and upper sections of the body aren’t the only areas gaining from consistent use of the elliptical machine.

Muscles of the Lower Leg

As mentioned earlier, you will be working the hamstrings and quads of the upper leg, but you get more work on the calves as well. With the reverse-pedaling feature and use of the incline feature, you will focus on the legs, thighs, and hips more than walking or pedaling a stationary bike.

Both the main muscles in the calf will gradually become stronger, which will make your standing from a sitting position somewhat easier. You’ll find you have more endurance in the legs when you walk a long distance as well.

In General

Moving from specific muscles for the moment, it’s important to also understand the more general benefits/advantages you get from working out on an elliptical trainer. You won’t feel the same physical, mental and psychological toll as you feel when running, which can be important in a motivational way.

That seemingly never ending pounding that your joints experience with every ground contact will be nullified and you will instead be burning calories and taxing energy systems at a significant level, even as you feel the exertion-level is lower.

As mentioned during discussion of leg muscles, you are receiving workout benefits equal to or better than a treadmill. In fact, the effect on your heart and legs is much the same as running at a comfortable pace.

You are engaging in a full-body workout, from shoulders to lower legs. If your training equipment allows you to use both reverse and forward motion, you can target different muscle groups, for a more complete effect.

It’s also important to vary the length of your stride to get the best results for all muscle groups and to burn calories (with occasional increases in stride length). Elliptical training is a great choice for those dealing with weight issues, and for individuals who would suffer from more intense workouts because of back and knee problems. For more info regarding a specific workout regimen on the elliptical, check this post out.

Summing It Up

If you do more research on the subject of the elliptical trainer, you will find guidelines and advice about how long you should exercise on this equipment. You can start with the idea that allowed the tortoise to win the race against the faster, more energetic hare – slow and steady wins the race.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge your body with gradual increases in stride and incline, for example, but if you’re using the machine as part of your weight loss program, do it gradually. Don’t try to lose all the weight in the first couple of sessions!

In fact, you will benefit greatly from using this method over an extended period, at lower intensity levels with gradual increases. You’ll lose weight, tone your body, and you’ll keep the weight from returning.

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