When I was consulting with my investors to outfit my boutique gym FIT N’ FRESH here in Singapore, I had some very clear requests when it came to cardio machines:
- Two treadmills; one rower; one stairmill.
- No bikes or recumbent bikes.
- ABSOLUTELY NO ELLIPTICAL MACHINES.
And if all caps in typing stands for YELLING, that’s accurate – because I nearly screamed when I walked into my beautiful new gym this past January and saw – gasp! – a freaking elliptical, right there in the middle of the gym floor, taking up precious space.
The investors argued that their equipment providers – i.e. salesmen just trying to unload the most amount of product at the highest margins possible – said that “no one will go to a gym that doesn’t have a bike or an elliptical machine.” I tried so hard not to roll my eyes that I think I popped a vessel.
From a trainer’s perspective, let me offer you this: if a gym is stocked with rows of elliptical machines (and even worse, recumbent bikes, but that’s a blog for another time), it is very likely a gym that doesn’t focus very much on functional, movement-based training (or is at least is a gym that has a ton of money to throw away on useless, clunky cardio equipment).
Think about some of the best movement-based training modalities out there: CrossFit. Parkour. Orangetheory. OCR. Aquastrength. F45. What do they have in common?
ZERO ELLIPTICALS. ZERO INDOOR BIKES. And more importantly, they’re jam-packed with functional (and often less expensive) equipment like kettlebells, bars, rings, and ropes. They have “toys” that teach your body how to respond, how to adapt, and how to perform – not just how to move your legs and arms in meaningless circles (also my problem with high-rep, micromovement-based “baby weights” programs like Tracy Anderson, but AGAIN, I digress).
So why do I hate the elliptical machine, specifically, so much?
Ok, sure – moving is better than not moving, and I would never discourage your mom or your grandpa or your friend with the arthritic knee from hopping on the elliptical for a short go (although even so, I’d recommend all three of those people work with a certified personal trainer!) – but in terms of movement patterning, calorie burn, and actual fitness gains, elliptical machines are just about the least effective thing you can do in an exercise environment.
Elliptical machines teach your body to repeatedly move your legs – without lifting them from the ground – in a weird, flat oval pattern (not useful for running, jumping, skiing, or really any other activity outside of…elliptical-ing), often far too quickly to maintain proper joint alignment. And speaking of joints – the separate-pedal movement of an elliptical machine (unlike that of a bike, where the hips and torso are stabilized on a seat) can exacerbate already loose or misaligned joints, such as hips, especially for those with joint replacements, those who are pregnant, or those with ACL/MCL injury.
Elliptical machines are also less weight-bearing than treadmills or stairmills (don’t confuse this with low-impact, by the way – climbing up stairs and walking on an inclined treadmill are also relatively low-impact but produce far greater fitness results) and the ones without moving handles – you know, the ones you see people leaning on to read magazines – teach your core muscles to turn off, encourage crap posture, and burn just next to zero fat (again, compared to “real” cardio like HIIT or circuit training).
At this point you might be wondering – if I can’t just hang out on the elliptical anymore and call it a workout, what should I be doing for cardio?
Snarky answer: you actually don’t even need to DO cardio, or at least the “cardio” that we’re talking about here (steady state, indoor, low-impact, etc.) to get fit and lose weight. Read more about that here, if you don’t believe me.
More useful and trainer-like answer: there are better ways to elevate your heart rate, develop cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and lose weight than the elliptical machine, and here are a few of them:
- walk on a steep incline. Use the “hills” function on the treadmill or kick your own ass with high-intensity hill workouts like these.
- jump rope. Trust me, if you haven’t done it since you were a kiddo, you’re missing out on a high-intensity, high-impact, short-duration way to burn serious fat.
- box. If you’ve never had your heart pound out of your throat, chances are you’ve never gone three minutes in the ring – and even shadow boxing counts.
- row. The dusty ol’ rowing machine in the corner of almost every gym gets no love, yet is one of the most effective full-body strength and cardio workouts you can do.
- swing. Employ a trainer, ask them to teach you how to use a kettlebell, watch your strength, coordination, and stamina skyrocket. You’re welcome.
The take-away I want to leave you with is this: there is no “bad” workout. There is no completely useless exercise. There is no time when I would prefer you stay sedentary rather than move your body. However, if you’re looking to maximize the short time you have to work out, lose actual weight and body fat, and gain functionally effective fitness – the elliptical machine isn’t going to get you there. Truth. #themoreyouknow
What is your favorite way to build cardiovascular fitness, in the gym or outside?
I”m so depressed! I’ve been an ellipticizer for years. Prefer it to a treadmill for some reason. Is elliptical not even a good choice if I set it at a high incline to mimic stair climbing? (A setting of 12 or so, where 0 is that flat glide back and forth).
My preferred way to build CV fitness is the previously mentioned playing/walking my local golf course while pushing my clubs on a 3-wheeled cart (total weight about 50 lbs.) Good inclines and declines spread through the course, mixed with flat spots.
Other than that, a brisk walk along the river or through the parks works for me. The park walk from my house is better because it includes a respectable elevation change.
PS- have fun with your folks when they visit! 🙂
Sorry for the late reply on this, Chris – and please don’t let my personal opinion take the fun out of your fitness routine! Putting the incline all the way up like you’re doing is VERY important – as is using the swivel handles (does yours having the moving arms?) rather than just holding onto the static bars. And again, even though I will always recommend incline WALKING on a treadmill (something like a 3.8 speed on a 10% grade) over the elliptical, it does not mean that you should take this piece of equipment fully out of your routine if it’s something you enjoy. And thanks for the note on Mom & Dad – we had an INCREDIBLE time together! 🙂
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No worries. I do use the ellipticals with the handlebars and always crank the incline up to at least 9 and often 12 or higher while going “full speed.” I only put it down to flat (0) for my cool down for the last few minutes. And I’ll work my arms for 2-3 minutes at a time two or three times during a 30 minute session too. I split the workload to about 80% arms/20% legs at those times.
Your dad is getting jazzed for his annual visit for “The Shea.” Did he drone on endlessly about it during your visit? 😉 The big excitement is that he gets to play from the “comb0 tees” because he’s over age 65. That’ll shorten the course by almost 500 yards. He’s probably thinking he should shoot even par from those tees, but I’ll tell him to talk to “Flinty” about how much advantage he can expect from those tees (according to Flinty, not much.) But it’s good for the psyche. Glad you had fun with the folks. They are too special for words!
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I definitely am going to try these and see if it makes a difference
Love to hear that, John! Go for it!