Expert tips for your first time using the elliptical machine

Using an elliptical machine is a great option for those looking to break a sweat without putting excess strain on their joints.

You will find elliptical machines in practically every gym, or it can also be an excellent addition to a home gym.

However, you may feel intimidated by all of the different moving parts and styles available when stepping on one for the first time.

Below is a complete beginner’s breakdown of what an elliptical is, who should use it, and what you can expect when using the elliptical for the first time.

First-time elliptical riders should:

  1. Start slow
  2. Learn proper form
  3. Keep resistance low
  4. Take rest days
  5. Incorporate entertainment to stay motivated

To help me with this overview of an elliptical, I spoke with several fitness experts to get firsthand experience and information on how they teach beginners to use these machines.

What is an elliptical?

Aerobic exercise is one of the most important training styles that you must incorporate into your workout regime.

But many cardio training exercises like running on a treadmill or jumping rope can be unforgiving on your joints.

The constant impact on a hard flat surface over time can cause joint problems like arthritis or tendonitis (this is why these exercises are known as “high-impact”)

To avoid most cardio exercises’ preventable pain, an elliptical machine drastically reduces the impact on your joints — in other words, it’s a low-impact exercise.

What does an elliptical look like?

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

In its basic form, an elliptical machine features foot pedals that you will stand on and handlebars that you can hold onto during the exercise for stability.

These foot pedals limit the impact on your joints by moving in a circular, or elliptical, motion while you pedal.

While moving in a circular motion, you will never need to take your foot off the pedals—leading to a low-impact exercise option.

With a standard elliptical, you will target mainly your lower body with muscles like your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

To help set up the optimal workout, most new elliptical machines will have a center console that you can use to program the machine. You will be able to set up things on the elliptical such as:

  • Resistance
  • Duration of your workout
  • Incline
  • Training circuits

Each of these things helps you to exercise within your training level.

Along with the standard elliptical machine, there are a few different styles of elliptical machines that you may come across:

  • Elliptical cross trainer: With the standard pedals, an elliptical cross trainer will also have moveable handles to engage your upper body in your workout. The added push-and-pull movement targets your shoulders, back, and chest muscles. This model is the most common elliptical you’ll see at the gym.
  • Recumbent elliptical: For a very low-impact option, the recumbent elliptical puts you in a seated position. With the familiar foot pedals and moving handles, it mimics the motion of running without putting strain on your joints.
  • Elliptical glider: From the outside, the elliptical glider will look similar to the standard elliptical cross trainer. However, the pedals move up and down instead of in circles. It might remind you more of a stepping machine than an elliptical.

Who should use an elliptical?

While taking care of your joints is essential for any age, an elliptical machine is handy for those who are older.

When discussing who would benefit most from using an elliptical trainer, personal trainer Estelle Russo gave some insights:

“As a personal trainer that works with the 50 to 60 age group, I often recommend warming up and cooling down on elliptical machines. It is a good cardio workout that is easy on the knees, which is important as we age.”

Unfortunately, aging plays a vital role in your joints’ changes, making them more susceptible to pain.

A study published in the U.S National Library of Medicine showed that the single most significant risk factor for developing osteoarthritis was someone’s age.

While this is an undeniable truth, this shouldn’t discourage someone from exercising.

Elliptical machines and other machines that you can find in a gym offer a low-impact option for your workouts.  

But the joint-friendly benefits are reserved for seniors.

Gym-goers of any age can get a solid cardio workout on the elliptical. With the ability to adjust the resistance and intensity, anyone can set up an elliptical trainer for a workout that challenges them.

When discussing the benefits of an elliptical machine, Guarav Dhir of shared:

“Elliptical workouts are also very beneficial in themselves—both aerobic and cardio—helping to strengthen your lungs, heart, and muscles as well as increase your stamina and endurance.”

For those looking to lose weight, you can expect to see results from the regular use of an elliptical trainer.

However, you will need to make the workout challenging to see the best results and raise your heart rate.

Tips for your first time on the elliptical

To help you get started on the right footing, here are several tips that you should know before getting on the elliptical for the first time.

1. Start slow

While interviewing fitness experts about what you should know when using an elliptical, there was one thing that was stressed the most: start slow!

Guarav Dhir shared the ideal routine that a beginner should follow when using an elliptical for the first time:

“Start with 15-20 minutes every other day for the first week, gradually increasing the time and tempo (incline and resistance), but being careful not to over-exert. Aim for 30-45 minutes each session at a medium incline within 15-20 days.”

By following this routine, you will slowly build up your fitness levels and adequately recover after each session.

You should not be trying to exert yourself to the point of being exhausted the rest of the day.

2. Set up your elliptical for proper form

Before getting your workout started, be sure that your elliptical trainer is set up correctly for your body.

Dhir stressed this part of getting started using an elliptical machine by saying:

“Mount the machine properly, whole foot in the pedals, handlebars at the correct height (they should be adjustable.)”

As you stand on the pedals, the handlebars should be at a height where you don’t need to lean forward or reach down to grab them. You should be able to keep your posture straight while comfortably grabbing the handles.

While standing on the pedals, your whole foot should be flat on the surface without standing up on your toes. A flat foot will evenly distribute the weight of your body and keeps it low impact.

3. Start with no added difficulty

When asked what a beginner should know about using an elliptical machine for the first time, physical therapist Jasmine Marcus said:

“A beginner should probably stick to the basics and not worry about increasing the resistance too much, and should keep the incline of the machine flat.”

Added difficulty like increasing the incline or adding more resistance is a great way to match the machine to your training level.

But, when you start, you should keep things basic and not add any difficulty to the machine.

You must keep things as simple as possible when starting so you can get the hang of using the machine. It’s simple to use, yes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t go too hard too fast and wind up injured!

As you start to notice things getting less challenging each time you get on the elliptical, you can start to experiment with increasing the resistance.

4. Schedule frequent rest days

If this is your first time stepping foot on an elliptical machine, you can expect to feel sore after the first few uses. Feeling sore is a natural part of trying out a new machine or exercise.

To help keep your soreness manageable and recover quickly, physical therapist Jasmine Marcus gave me some advice.

“Beginners shouldn’t overdo it. This means not going on the elliptical every single day and not doing it for too long in one session. You don’t want to be on for longer than you’d take a walk.

Scheduling a rest day or two between each workout will allow your body the necessary time to recover and reduce the likelihood of injury.

While you are recovering from your cardio workout, you can also spend some time doing recovery work like foam rolling or getting a massage.

5. Bring entertainment

To put it bluntly, doing cardio on machines like an elliptical can be boring at times. You need to do the exercise for 30 minutes to an hour to see the best results.

Dhir brought this issue up by saying:

“Elliptical training can be boring (that’s why there are usually TV monitors in front of the machines in most gyms). So bring something to listen to – or even something to read!”

Before stepping on an elliptical for the first time, bring something to keep you entertained while working out. Listening to a podcast or watching a television show are my personal favorites because they keep you really engaged for a long time.

Along with keeping yourself entertained, staying motivated with your cardio routine can be challenging at times.

To help keep you motivated, read this Ultimate Cardio Motivation guide to light a spark of inspiration for your next workout!

Wrapping Up

An elliptical machine is one of the best pieces of equipment for those looking for a low-impact option to replace exercise like running.

You’ll burn a ton of calories, work your upper and lower body, and protect your joints. What’s not to love?

All that being said, there are plenty of beginner mistakes people make their first time using the elliptical.

Remember to start slowly and let your body gradually get used to the machine. Once you get the hang of things, you can start to push yourself and improve your cardiovascular health.

For more first timer guides, check out:

Hope this helps!