What Muscles Do Ellipticals Work and How To Maximize Your Results?

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Being cardio machines, ellipticals are distinct from traditional treadmills and exercise bikes. So many people may wonder, which part of your body can an elliptical trainer work?

What Muscles Do Ellipticals Work?

Simply put, ellipticals work the entire body. However, the load goes predominantly into your legs.

To help you better understand how an elliptical machine works the entire body, let’s look at each muscle group engaged in the movement one by one.

Hamstrings and glutes

The hamstrings and the glutes work the most when your thigh moves backward, and this is because your knee flexes as you move your legs back. If your machine has an adjustable incline, you will be able to engage your hams and glutes even more.

You may additionally hit the glutes and hamstrings on a machine that allows you to pedal in reverse.

If you want to build your glutes specifically, maybe you should do strength training instead. But if you can’t, for some reason, an elliptical trainer could help you give your glutes and hamstrings an excellent workout.


The quads get most loaded when the leg moves forward and the knee extends.

However, you may not feel your quads working at all on elliptical workouts, and this is because the load distribution between your quads, glutes, and hamstrings is even on ellipticals. But interestingly, ellipticals have greater quad activation and quad/hamstring coactivation than treadmill walking, overground walking, or stationary cycling!


The calves are also worked, but their role leans more toward stabilization. The calf gets engaged when you press the ball of the foot through the pedals to bring them into motion.


The core keeps your body nice and stable while you perform the movement, and your core also helps you maintain a proper upright posture throughout the exercise. But if you lean onto your elliptical support handles, you will nearly eliminate your core’s contribution.

And, if you feel that your core isn’t strong enough to help you maintain an upright posture, you should pay more attention to it outside of cardio training. Core weakness will manifest itself in day-to-day life and should be managed.

Arms, back, chest, and shoulders

Elliptical trainers have movable handles and thus work your arms, back, chest, and to some extent, also the shoulders.

When you push the handle forward and straighten the arm, you work your pushing muscles – the triceps, pecs, and front delts. And when you pull the handle back, you are working your lats, rear delts, and biceps.

Do Ellipticals Build Muscles?

If ellipticals work your upper and lower body, you may wonder, can you build muscle with this wonderful machine?

Well, this depends on how much muscle you are looking to build.

Regular cardio sessions on your elliptical machine will undoubtedly strengthen your muscles and will likely make you look fitter. And the lower your body fat percentage, the more noticeable the changes in your body will be.

But if we are talking about bodybuilder-level gains, then an elliptical machine obviously will not be able to help you.

Want big muscle? Train within 10 to 12 reps, exert effort, maintain proper form, and feel your training muscles. This formula should bring visible results over the long term, though you may need to play around with your program because everyone is unique.

Muscle hypertrophy requires higher intensity and higher effort. Cardio on an elliptical machine is a low-intensity activity and won’t be building your muscles as effectively as weight training.

This is a simplified look into muscle-building, but it should give you an idea of what to do. You now know that significant muscle hypertrophy isn’t achievable on ellipticals.

But if you have no option but to train on an elliptical, you can play around with the incline to increase the workout intensity. This might give you some gains. However, you’ll probably get used to the added load quickly – once you do, you may no longer see any progress.

Does The Elliptical Help You Lose Weight?

Yes, an elliptical machine can help you lose weight. According to Harvard Health Publishing, 30 minutes of cardio on an elliptical trainer burns 270, 335, and 400 calories for 125-, 155-, and 185-pound persons, respectively.

This is about as much as when running cross-country or at 5.2 miles per hour, sparring in the boxing ring, playing competitive football, or orienteering.

But needless to say, your nutrition plan also needs to ensure that you have a calorie deficit. Without a calorie deficit, you won’t be losing weight or fat.

Will The Elliptical Tone My Legs?

Yes, an elliptical will tone your legs. This machine won’t build massive quads, but it can help you bring your legs back in shape. If you combine elliptical cardio with a good nutrition plan, you’ll also lose weight, making your gains visible to the world.

But if you want to tone your muscles and target fat specifically in the legs, then I’ll have to disappoint you – spot fat reduction is considered a myth in the scientific community. You must have your diet right if you want nice and slim legs.

Is Elliptical Better Than Running?

In many ways, ellipticals are better than running, especially when considering the impact component of running. Elliptical training is less stressful on your knees, hips, and back than running on a treadmill or outdoors.

However, if we talk about walking, a treadmill exerts the same stress on your joints as an elliptical machine.

Joint stress aside, ellipticals burn roughly as much energy as treadmills. This is excellent news for those who can’t run for medical reasons!

Additionally, ellipticals allow for more versatile training. Their handles work your upper body, whereas the reversible pedals (present on most ellipticals) will enable you to better engage your glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Is An Hour On The Elliptical A Good Workout?

This depends on how frequently and with what intensity you train.

The US CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise weekly. 

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is when your heart rate increases, and you break a sweat. If you can talk during the cardio but not sing your favorite song, you’re at the right intensity.

In contrast, vigorous-intensity aerobic activity is when you are breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate increases considerably. You won’t be able to say more than a few words at this intensity without catching your breath.

You may distribute the recommended time however you like – make sure that your weekly total exceeds the recommendations.


So, in the end, ellipticals work your upper and lower body and are also great for low-impact cardio.

An elliptical trainer probably won’t build huge muscles, but if you are looking for a safer way to perform cardio, you will likely struggle to find anything better.

Jessica Carter
Jessica Carter
Jessica is an AFLCA certified personal trainer and holds a Masters degree in physical therapy from the University of British Columbia. She has been working in the field for 5 years and writes as a freelance about all things fitness related.