Should You Start Using the Elliptical to Get in Shape? (Pros & Cons)

People at the gym exercising on ellipticals

If you hate running but you’re ready to finally get in shape, you might find yourself gravitating toward the elliptical machines at the gym.

You know, those huge things with giant rotating pedals and swooshing arm bars and handles?

A lot of people use them, but few people stop to ask:

What are the pros and cons of using an elliptical? Is it a good way to get in shape or lose weight?

The truth is, ellipticals are a great workout, especially when it comes to cardio. They’re also safe and low impact, so they’re perfect for beginners.

But the elliptical probably shouldn’t be the only workout you do. While your arms are involved in the movement, ellipticals don’t build much strength. They also work you through an unnatural range of motion so they’ll do little for your functional athleticism.

Let’s dive in a little bit deeper.

Pros of Ellipticals (Benefits)

The elliptical isn’t my personal favorite machine at the gym, but there is still a lot to like about it.

There’s a reason tons of people love using them to work up a sweat.

Here are a few of the major advantages of elliptical workouts.

1. Excellent for cardiovascular health, endurance & conditioning

Ellipticals are designed to feel “easy”.

That’s in part because there’s no impact while riding one, unlike running.

But make no mistake about it; using the elliptical is hard work.

While your workout may start off downright pleasant as you glide through the buttery-smooth range-of-motion, you’ll soon find your entire body burning and your lungs squeezing tight.

If you’re looking to build endurance and boost your cardio, the elliptical is a fantastic way to do it without risking your bones and joints running on a treadmill or hard pavement.

2. Safe & low impact

Speaking of that smooth, gliding motion, here’s another thing to like:

Ellipticals are a low impact exercise — in fact, you could call them a “no-impact” exercise.

You know that “thud” when each foot hits the ground while you’re running or jogging?

That’s impact, and over time it can take a toll on your body (though with proper form and recovery, it’s totally manageable).

A lot of people get injured or feel beat up by high-impact work, so the elliptical is an extremely safe alternative that’s especially great for beginners or anyone with a pre-existing injury.

3. Great form of cardio for upper body

Running and biking do nothing for your arms or upper body.

Not so on the elliptical!

You’ll notice the handled you grasp onto aren’t just for show or stability. You can actually generate power and movement by driving through with your arms.

You can alternate taking the load off of your legs, or use a combination of both to keep your pace.

The elliptical is one of the few forms of cardio that actively works your upper body, so it gets points for that.

4. Burns lots of calories (great for weight loss)

If you want to stay lean or lose weight, it’s hard to beat the calorie burn from an elliptical.

Depending on your weight and effort, you can burn somewhere around 345 calories in just a 30-minute workout.

That’s higher than most forms of cardio because the elliptical uses so many different muscle groups at once.

Cons of Ellipticals (Disadvantages)

A woman working out on an elliptical
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Easterling

Sounds good so far, right?

Well, it’s not all candy and roses for ellipticals.

I mentioned they’re not my favorite, and while that’s partly my personal opinion, there are a few objective drawbacks to using one as your primary method of exercise

1. Expensive to own

Really the only reasonable way to consistently work out on an elliptical is to have access to a gym.

Unless you have $1,000 or so (maybe a lot more) to drop on a home model, owning one just isn’t all that feasible.

They also take up a TON of room.

(Related: The best ellipticals for short ceilings)

I’d consider branching out and exploring other forms of exercise that you might enjoy in case you ever get the itch to work out at home or outside.

2. Poor strength workout (especially for upper body)

Ellipticals are great for cardio, I won’t argue that.

You’ll be sweating, huffing, and puffing by the time you’re done; and your legs will be jelly.

But when it comes to building strength and muscle? They’re not the best option.

Commercials and marketing pieces like to show bodybuilders riding ellipticals as if they built their rippling biceps using one.

Spoiler alert: They didn’t.

Sure, if you’re a beginner, you can put some new muscle on your legs as you get stronger and better at using the elliptical, but don’t let the fact that the elliptical is a “full-body workout” fool you into thinking it will get you jacked.

Your upper body and arms, especially, will need a little more work.

3. Extremely monotonous

A lot of cardio workouts can be monotonous, but ellipticals are some of the worst offenders.

You can mix things up quite a bit on a treadmill, toying with incline, speed, and rest intervals.

Ellipticals sometimes have incline settings, and you can always crank your effort or the resistance up and down, but there’s just something so boring about them — the range of motion and basic movement never changes!

If you’re insistent on using the elliptical, don’t just hop on and ride mindlessly. Integrate some HIIT with sprints and slow intervals to keep yourself awake.

(Remember, the elliptical only goes as fast as you push it. It’s not like speed on a treadmill that forces you to keep up and give maximum effort.)

4. Unnatural movement

Speaking of range-of-motion, the elliptical ROM (while smooth) doesn’t particularly reflect anything our bodies like to do naturally.

It’s kind of like doing squats on the Smith Machine — you wouldn’t be able to move your body that way if the machinery weren’t there to hold you in place.

(Compare that to running or almost any weightlifting move which could just as easily be done against air.)

Some people find the elliptical uncomfortable, and in some cases the strange ROM could lead to injury.

At the very least, you probably won’t find yourself improving at a particular measurable skill (like running or jumping) just from elliptical use.

Wrapping Up

For beginners who are just looking to get started and get a nice cardio burn, the elliptical is a fantastic and non-threatening option.

It’s easy to use and relatively safe for most people.

However, it’s not ideal if it’s the only workout you’re doing. Your upper body, while involved in the elliptical, isn’t getting quite as much work as you think — and while the elliptical burns a ton of calories, it won’t help you get much stronger or more athletic in the real world.

I’d recommend supplementing with some actual, feet-on-the-ground running and/or strength training for your upper body, in particular.

Still not sure where to start? Check out more of my pros and cons like:

And you’ll definitely need these beginner tips for your first elliptical workout!

Hope this helps!