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Can the Elliptical Give Me Muscles?

Something’s gotta be happening in my chest and arms when I’m moving the handle thingies

I’m fully aware that there are many, many people in the world for whom the gym is nothing more than the place where their beloved elliptical machine is housed. The full weight of their monthly gym membership is directed toward providing them with access to the exercise machine that took health clubs by storm in 1997 and 1998, providing gym goers with the access to absentminded cardiovascular training that they were never afforded by the treadmill

Fortunately for elliptical users, an honest claim can be made that is germane to elliptical superiority: The user-generated propulsion produced by both the pedals and handles offers far more direct evidence of muscle use than the automated treadmill. Therefore, it can be said that elliptical machines work more muscles — and certainly a greater variety of muscles — than are worked by treadmills and many other cardio machines.

What muscles does the elliptical train?

To a certain extent, the muscles worked during your time on the elliptical will be dictated by whether or not you choose to grab ahold of the handles provided toward the front of the machine, the motion of which very superficially resembles the poling motion utilized by cross country skiiers

In theory, the elliptical handles can be pushed forward — which would primarily work the pectoral muscles and anterior deltoids — and then pulled backward, thereby placing emphasis on the lats. In practice, most regular elliptical users I’ve come across either permit their arms to ride the poles for free, or they only propel the handles forward, resulting in all of the upper-body work being performed by the chest and shoulders.

Regardless, your legs will be engaged in the majority of the work. In the case of the elliptical, this means your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves will all be taxed to some extent. This is also where it’s important to define what is meant when the word “work” is applied to a workout. Much like a Concept2 rowing machine, which is purported to work 86 percent of the muscles in the body, the elliptical machine is credited with working 80 percent of the body’s muscles. However, it should go without saying that in the world of fitness, not all “work” is created equal; 100 percent of the work performed by your muscles during a half-hour elliptical session may be inferior in quality to the work generated by those exact same muscles during a 10-minute rowing session. 

So the work performed via cardio is often best discussed in reference to muscles that are similarly addressed through other cardiovascular activities, and not contrasted with the muscle hypertrophy that can be achieved through targeted resistance training.

Certainly, if you wish to electronically increase the amount of actual work you’re obligated to produce on the elliptical machine, you can increase the resistance setting. But no one should confuse the assertion that the elliptical will work their chest with a claim of equivalence to the chest-sculpting potential of Hammer Strength’s incline chest press machine, for example.

I’m confused. Does the elliptical work my muscles or not?

I’ll cut to the chase: You may have trained your muscles in a superficial sense — and for people of vulnerable ages, body types or conditions, that’s nothing to sneeze at — but at nowhere near the same level as if you opted for the weight room and challenged your muscles in a focused fashion, thereby prompting the requisite micro tearing and rebuilding of muscle fibers. 

Or to put it another way: On its lowest settings, the elliptical will allow you to work your muscles just enough to say that you worked them, in the same way that watching only the Super Bowl every year will permit you to pass yourself off as a football fan.