12 Elliptical Mistakes That Can Sabotage Your Workout

The elliptical gets a bad rap for being an ineffective workout tool, but that’s only because most people use it wrong. Tweak these bad habits to get the most out of your workout.

You only ever use the elliptical

Woman in exercise gear working out on the elliptical.

Using the same equipment at the gym in the same way every single time is not only monotonous, it can also hinder your ability to meet your fitness goals in the long run. “Working out your body the same way every day can lead to overuse of certain body parts that may result in injuries,” says Ryan Halvorson, a personal trainer in San Diego, CA. “You’re making yourself good at one thing. [Eventually] your body will adapt to that specific movement and you’ll plateau.”

If you don’t want to give up the elliptical, fitness experts suggest incorporating it into a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) routine. This means you alternate between high-intensity exercise for 30 to 60 seconds and low-intensity exercise for 1 to 2 minutes. Instead of an hour straight on the machine, try doing as many burpees or mountain climbers as you can in 30 seconds, then hop on the elliptical for a minute or two to let your muscles recover. But bear in mind that the length of a HIIT session varies from person to person depending on their fitness levels and goals. If you’re unsure how to do HIIT, take advantage of the free personal training sessions that most gyms offer. “You can up the ante, cut your time in half, and burn twice as much,” says Chris Ryan, a certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning specialist in New York, NY.

You always use the ‘Fat Burn’ button

Elliptical dashboard at a gym.

Don’t let that “fat burn” button fool you into thinking that the weight will melt off quicker. The fat burn option helps you burn more fat at a lower intensity, but the problem is that you’re not burning nearly as many overall calories. “If you want to lose weight, you want to burn calories,” says Dani Singer, fitness director of Fit2Go Personal Training in Baltimore, MD. “Whether you’re burning carbs or fat is irrelevant, weight loss is about the calories that you’re burning.”

High-intensity workouts are most efficient for fat burning and weight loss because you burn more calories and get that added benefit of the afterburn effect. After a physically intense workout, your body breaks down fat and continues to burn more calories to repair your muscles and replenish your energy sources.

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You pay too much attention to the numbers on the machine

Elliptical screen at the gym.

You can’t help but feel victorious when the “calories burned” window on your elliptical dash hits triple digits. But there’s a catch. Those numbers may be skewed. Most cardio machines can only detect weight and age, and that’s only if you plug in your own information. But overall, they can’t detect who is using it in terms of body type, fitness level, height, or body fat percentage, which means the numbers on the machine may not be accurate to you. “Don’t pay attention to the numbers on the machine. Pay attention to how hard you’re working, because that’s correlated with calorie burn more than the machine,” says Singer.

You lean on the static handles

Woman using an elliptical.

Leaning on the static handles in the center console is one of the most common mistakes trainers see at the gym. If you’re slouched over the handrails constantly, your body doesn’t work as hard because the handles act as your support throughout the workout instead of your body. “We already spend a lot of time slouched, so why reinforce it while you exercise,” says Halvorson. “Elliptical machines allow you to stand nice and upright to help improve posture, promote better circulation, and work muscles more efficiently.”

To maintain good posture, engage your abs. Think of it like getting punched in the stomach—your natural response would be to draw in and flex your abs, which helps protect and stabilize your spine. That’s the kind of core engagement you want. Also, pretend there’s a string attached to the crown of your head and the ceiling, pulling you up straight and tall. For an additional burn, take advantage of those swinging handlebars (if your machine has them) to work out your arms and shoulders, too. Make sure you still use your legs and not just your arms to keep up the momentum.

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You never change the resistance

Woman in pink sneakers using the elliptical.

Once your body starts to get comfortable with a workout routine, that’s when you know it’s time to kick it up a notch. Increasing your resistance is the best way to ensure you keep progressing. When you do increase the effort, you might feel the burn again, but that’s how you increase the challenge and decrease your risk of plateauing. “If you’re keeping the same pace and distance, your body will adapt and reduce the overall calorie burn and physical improvement,” says Halvorson. “It’s not the best bang for your buck.” As you build up the resistance, just make sure you can actually keep your body moving. It should feel hard but not impossible.

You don’t distribute your weight evenly on the pedals

Woman in blue shoes using the elliptical.

Ellipticals were built to mimic a run, except one that’s easier on your joints. That means you should move your lower body the way you would while running. As you pedal, start at the balls of your feet and roll through the entire length of your foot, ending at the heels. Evenly distributing the weight on your feet is key so you don’t risk placing all your weight on the balls of your feet, which puts major stress on your knees and may cause potential injuries.

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You don’t maintain your speed

Man working out on an elliptical at the gym.

The difference between an elliptical and a treadmill is that you control your speed versus the machine doing it for you. On the elliptical, you should be able to keep a steady pace, even once you increase the resistance. “It’s a balance between the speed and resistance. If you cannot maintain both those things past a certain amount of time, don’t work past that time,” says Jessica Sander, a group fitness instructor at Chelsea Piers Fitness in New York, NY.

You’re distracted

Two women talking on an elliptical at the gym.

Distractions, like reading a book or ogling your gym crush, won’t help you stay focused on your fitness. “If you’re reading on an elliptical, chances are you’re not working out hard enough,” says Halvorson. “If you’re looking to make physical improvements and get in better shape, you should be focused on what you’re doing as opposed to a book.” Try listening to music or an audiobook instead.

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You forget to breathe

Woman working out on an elliptical at the gym.

Breathing is an essential component to your fitness regime that many people forget to focus on. “Don’t just breathe into your chest. Breathe into your lungs—that’s how you build lung capacity and stamina,” says Sander.

You talk down to yourself

Woman in a blue tank top working out on an elliptical.

Fitness is a total mind-body experience. If you’re not in the zone, your body slows down. So, don’t let your negative inner dialogue beat you down. “If your mind is saying you’re tired, slow down and ask yourself why,” says Sander. Don’t beat yourself up if you have to stop early because you’re exhausted. Everyone has an off day and it’s better to listen to your body rather than risk hurting yourself over a couple pounds on the scale. Keep a positive outlook—no matter how you feel or what you see in the mirror. Take the night to refresh your mind, body, and spirit and return to the gym the next day ready to work harder than before.

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You don’t use your time wisely

Man working out at the gym on an elliptical.

Quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Running on the elliptical for two hours without any resistance or speed may accomplish less than you think. Instead, opt for a workout that challenges your body. Start out with weighted exercises and finish with a cardio session that incorporates both resistance and speed. “Think like Goldilocks: not too fast, not too slow, not too difficult, not too easy,” says Rebecca Kennedy, founder of RKsolid and a master instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp in New York, NY.

You never enter your personal information on the machine

Woman adjusting a screen on the elliptical.

Despite the elliptical’s limited ability to accurately calculate your calorie burn, you should still enter your information so both you and the machine can gauge how your body is progressing throughout your workout—even if it’s only a guesstimate. Just remember: “Use it as a guide, not a gospel,” says Ryan.

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