16 Common Mistakes People Make Using Elliptical Equipment

16 common mistakes people make using elliptical equipment

We all want to maximize our workouts to get the most bang for our buck when we’re in the gym.  One of my favorite workouts revolves around using the elliptical equipment.

But in fact, a lot of us who work out on elliptical machines are unknowingly making mistakes that limit the benefits of our workouts.  More importantly, some of the mistakes we make can actually be harmful to our health.

The elliptical is often the most used, and the most misused, exercise machine out there today.

Evan Johnson, a personal trainer from Storrs, CT. says “The elliptical is a powerhouse among cardio equipment because it allows you to use a large amount of muscle. The more muscles that are working, the more calories you’ll be burning.”

The best elliptical machines used correctly will build strength and endurance in vital muscle groups.

Used correctly, elliptical machines will strengthen lower body muscles like quads, glutes, calves and hamstrings.

If you are actively using the upper body functions of the elliptical, muscles in your arms, chest and back also get a workout.

As with all workouts, the more muscles that you use the more calories you burn.  Building muscle and burning calories is critically important to achieving your overall health and wellness goals.

Most people don’t really understand how to use elliptical machines to achieve the most benefit.  I’ve see that most people make at least some errors when exercising on ellipticals.  There are the 17 most common mistakes I’ve noticed people making when using elliptical equipment.


1. Failure to set goals and commitment to achieving Them

Often people do the same exercises over and over and over.  Since they do the same thing again and again they hit a plateau in their workouts and the benefits of their efforts begin to evaporate.  To make sure you get the maximum benefit from exercise you must make your workouts progressively harder by:

  • Increasing your duration of your workout on the elliptical
  • Increasing your resistance on the elliptical
  • Decreasing the incline on the elliptical

You can’t know if you are progressing in achieving your desired results if you are not setting goals and tracking and measuring your results.

You have to set concrete goals.  To be concrete goals they must be specific, measurable and have a timetable.   For instance this would be a poor goal:

I want to get stronger and lose weight.  This is not a good goal.  It’s not specific, measurable and does not have a timetable for achieving the goal.

A good goal would be:

I want increase the amount of weight I can lift by 25 pounds and lose 10 pounds.  To accomplish this goal I will use my elliptical machine, using both my legs and my arms, for 30 minutes each day.  I will weight myself and test my strength every Monday and chart my results in my journal.  I will accomplish this goal in 90 days.

As you can see, the second goal has a specific desired outcome, it is measurable and has a specific time for completion.

Obviously, you want to achieve your goals, but you have no idea if you are getting where you want to be unless your clearly define what you want accomplish and how long you expect it to take.

Some elliptical machines will monitor your progress for you.

NordicTrack and Smooth have elliptical machines that will download your results to an account in the cloud that will help you track your results.

You have to push yourself to get your desired results.  If you’re not pushing yourself you will never reach your goals.


2. Actually Using Your Elliptical Trainer

This might sound silly but it’s very serious.

If you don’t use your elliptical equipment you will not achieve your fitness goals.

Most people who buy elliptical trainers don’t use them nearly as much as they should.

You need to use your elliptical to exercise, not as an expensive clothes hanger or storage bin.

Get off your rear end.  Make sure you get the full value of the investment you’ve made in this excellent workout tool.


3. Leaving the resistance on your elliptical machine to low

Your workout won’t be nearly as valuable if you keep the resistance of the elliptical too low.  This is one of the most common mistakes elliptical users make.

Not sure if your resistance is too low?

You need to tailor your resistance to your goals. If weight loss is your goal lower resistance and higher speeds will help you to hit your caloric targets. Just be aware that low resistance could mean you’ll be spending more time at the gym.

If you’re looking to build muscle, your resistance needs to be set high.  You need to choose a setting that is manageable but difficult.


4. Setting your resistance too high

Speeding like a cheetah might not be smart, but straining too hard to move your body isn’t smart either.

If building muscle is the goal, you will need to use your elliptical trainer on higher resistance levels.

Choose a level that does not cause you to use bad posture.  You shouldn’t be able to move the pedals too easily and without any exertion.  On the other hand, you shouldn’t feel like you’re breaking your back to push one pedal.

Challenge yourself, but be smart and build up to the proper resistance over time.

5. Poor posture

When you slouch over your equipment, it might feel easier but in fact, you’re losing a lot of benefits of your workouts.

Standing straight will help you engage your core more and give you more of a whole-body workout as well as help you prevent injury.

If you have to slouch forward or twist sideways to pull the upper body part of the elliptical, your resistance is too high.

You want to build up the resistance over time.  Once you attain your optimal resistance level, work on maintaining that level of effort going forward with your elliptical workouts.


6. The same ol’ same ol’ workout

You need to mix up your workouts to get the most benefit working out on your elliptical equipment.

Don’t just hop on and set the same workout you always do and let it run for half an hour.

Mix up your angles and inclines. This will help you use different muscle groups and get the most from your workout.

Mix up your resistance.  Work out at 75 percent of your maximum heart rate for a few days, then go back down to 50 percent of your heart rate for a few days. Mixing and matching your workouts will keep you engaged and help you to achieve your health and wellness goals sooner.


7. You don’t change directions

Changing your elliptical workout from forward to backwards doesn’t just stop you from getting bored, it also changes the muscle groups that are working hardest.

Moving forward works on your quads.  Moving backward works on your hamstrings and glutes.

To get maximum benefit from changing direction, sit back slightly when striding backward and keep your knees at a 90-degree angle.


8. Failing to focus on what you’re doing

Some people seem to think that using elliptical equipment is just an exercise in futility. This false impression is created by people just going through the motions of using the elliptical while they browse Facebook, Twitter, text or just watch the TV.

To get the maximum benefit while using your elliptical, turn off the TV.  Stop scrolling on your phone.  Put the book away.

You need to focus on what you’re doing.  You need to keep your posture where it’s supposed to be.  You need to monitor your resistance.  You need to keep your heart rate in the right zone.

This is much more difficult to do when you’re having a heart to heart talk with the person next to you or focusing on your electronic device.


9. Weight Distribution

Another common mistake people make while using elliptical machines is failing to distribute their weight properly.  This is one of the mistakes that can lead to physical harm.

When you stand straight during exercise you balance your weight on your whole foot.  This is critically important.

Many people put all their weight on their toes while exercising.

This is harmful because your toes are bearing too much weight and force.

It’s much like standing on stilettos. All the pressure is on your spine instead of putting pressure on your feet.

This will make your toes go numb after just a short workout and you won’t be able to continue.

The solution is simple, but it is difficult to follow.

Try putting the pressure on the heels while exercising. This will help you distribute your weight properly on your whole foot.

This will also help to ensure that all of your muscle groups are working together.


10. Your machine sounds like it’s going to take off

If your elliptical machine sounds like a jet about to take off you are probably going too fast without enough resistance.

A roaring from the elliptical means you aren’t using enough resistance.  Without enough resistance, you won’t get the maximum benefit from your workout.

Keep a steady, moderate pace at a resistance that forces you to use your muscles.  This will get, and keep, your heart rate up.


11. You don’t work your upper body

Use the arm movement of the elliptical to work your upper body.

Some days it’s OK to use the stable handles as a change of pace, but most your workouts should work your upper body as well as your legs.

When you’re working your arms and legs try to use intervals. Work on your arms for 1 minute, then pump your legs for 4, and repeat throughout your workout.


12. Incline

People that are moving from the treadmill to elliptical machines often make the same mistake.  The elliptical machine is quite different from the treadmill.

A treadmill makes you work harder when you are running at an incline.

The elliptical machine is easier to use on an incline.

The incline makes it easier for you to push and pull during exercise, dramatically reducing the number of calories that you burn.

Use as low of an inclination as you can without over exerting yourself.

Be careful not to lower the inclination to zero right away unless you are already in excellent physical shape.

Your age and your physical fitness will determine your optimal level of incline.  You will need to determine the best incline level for yourself or get the help of a trainer.

13. You’re an elliptical junkie

As tempting as it may be to go straight to the elliptical every time you enter the gym, you should never be using only one type of workout.

You need to mix up your routine.  Include weight training and cardio in your training regimen.

Using a rowing machine is a good compliment to elliptical exercise since it also makes you work your upper body as well as your lower body.

Making sure you use a variety of exercises and exercise machines will help insure you continue to benefit from your exercise routine.

If you do the same workout over and over, your body gets used to the single movement and you start to lose the benefit of your workouts.

Changing up your workout routine insures you will continue to build body mass and boost your metabolism.


14. Not using interval training  

One of the best things about an elliptical trainer is the ability to do interval training.

Using high intensity interval training workouts, or HIIT, gives you intervals of difficult exercise mixed in with intervals of easier exercise.

Interval training burns more calories in less time, and increases your metabolic rate.

Using interval training in your elliptical training routine is simple, but not easy.

Start by setting the resistance on a lower level, and increasing it to a higher level. At first use a 3 to 1 ratio.  Go back and forth between low and high resistance levels.

It’s a good idea to begin with the low resistance for 90 seconds and higher resistance for 30 seconds.  You should repeat that pattern as many times as possible.

Ultimately, try to build up to 90 seconds at the higher levels of resistance, followed by a 30 second break at the lower resistance levels.


15. Not programming your information into the elliptical equipment

Most people make their first mistake before they even set a foot on the pedal of the elliptical equipment.

They don’t program their information into the elliptical machine.

Most elliptical machines are set by default to give a 150-pound person an adequate workout.

If you don’t enter the proper settings it’s a lot harder to track your progress, monitor your heart rate, and adjust things like incline and resistance based on your actual age, weight and fitness level.

Basically, if you’re working out with bad information programed into the elliptical machine you’re not going to get the most from your workout.


16. Not Drinking Water

One of the biggest mistakes people make while using elliptical machines is also the most dangerous.

You need to make sure you are drinking an adequate amount of water.  Think of it as a lubricant for your muscles and a coolant for your body.

When you work out on the elliptical, you burn calories.  This results in sweating.  Burning too many calories without consuming enough water can cause cramping and/or muscles tissue damage.

Always make sure that you have a water bottle with you whenever you go for a work out.

Take drinks whenever you feel thirsty to keep your body hydrated.

This applies to all workouts.  Always keep a water bottle handy to keep yourself hydrated.


Wrapping up

There are plenty of reasons to hop on an elliptical for your exercise routines if you avoid the mistakes I’ve outlined above.  They include:

  • Reducing mineral loss in the bones that bear your weight.


  • You won’t have the repeated pounding impact of each footfall on a treadmill. An elliptical workout is both quieter and more comfortable than most other workouts.


  • Targeting your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves in the lower body and your lats, pecs, triceps and biceps in the upper body.


  • You can adjust the resistance and incline of the elliptical and change your speed at any time during the workout to increase the number of calories you burn or you can change the settings to allow yourself recovery time


  • When combined with a healthy diet and strength-training, elliptical workouts help you reach your weight loss goals. To lose one pound of fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories. This means that you must burn more calories than you consume. Depending on other factors, you can start to see small results within a week of starting to use elliptical training in your workout routine, and more major changes within a month.


  • Regular cardio workouts reduce stress, improve your mood, boost your immune system and reduce your risk of developing obesity-related diseases.


Elliptical equipment can be a great, low-impact full body work out.

Avoid these 17 common mistakes that most people to make sure you’re getting the maximum benefit from your elliptical workout.