How to Do an Elliptical HIIT Workout (Plus, 2 to Try)

This machine is good for more than watching back-to-back 'Real Housewives' episodes.

woman doing elliptical hiit workout at a gym
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

What do you get when you cross a treadmill with a bike? An elliptical, that ungainly machine that seems easy until you try to coordinate your pushing and pulling. While the elliptical is a gym-floor staple and solid cardio option, it's probably not the first machine you think of when it comes to high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

But what makes the elliptical a good cardio machine also makes it great for HIIT workouts—if you do them right. Here's how.

The Pros of Doing Elliptical HIIT Workouts

One of the major perks of the elliptical is that it's very low-impact and non-weight bearing. That's a huge plus "for people who have limitations that don't allow them to run or do a high-impact HIIT workout," says Jonathan Higashi, a NASM-certified personal trainer at Life Time Laguna Niguel in California.

But cardio queens who simply need a break from running's repetitive impact or hundreds of burpee and squat jump reps can also swap in the machine without sacrificing cardiovascular benefits. The beauty of the elliptical is that you can adjust the resistance and incline to help you reach your peak intensities efficiently in order to maximize your workout, says Higashi. (

One 2010 study found that you can burn the same amount of calories, consume the same amount of oxygen (a measure of cardiovascular work), and jack up your heart rate to the same rate whether you're on the elliptical or treadmill. (

Plus, the elliptical engages your arms in a way a stationary bike or stair stepper does not, making it a total-body workout. Using the arms of the machine, "you can selectively shift your focus to using your upper body—incorporating your arms, shoulders, chest, and back—to move the elliptical," says Erika Lee Sperl, a kinesiologist and certified Performance Enhancement Specialist in Minneapolis, MN. Calling on more muscles can increase the intensity of the elliptical HIIT workout overall. (BTW, the rowing machine is also a great option for low-impact, total-body cardio.)

The Cons of Doing Elliptical HIIT Workouts

There are a couple of drawbacks to going HAM on this machine—and not just the awkwardness that happens when you can't get the machine and your body to flow together correctly.

"One of the downsides to doing an elliptical HIIT workout is that you lose the potential benefits of your body having to adapt and react to the impact imposed on your muscles and joints," says Higashi. Impact is important because it places more stress on the ankles, knees, hips, and pelvis, as well as the bones connecting them, says Sperl. "When conducted properly, with good form, and in moderation, some level of impact is critical for bone health," she explains.

You're also moving in a single plane of motion on the elliptical, similar to running. "We tend to do a lot—both in our daily lives and in common exercises—in the sagittal plane (moving front to back)," says Sperl. "Training in multiple planes of motion—like frontal (moving left to right) and transverse (including rotational movements)—helps to round out your body's strength and stave off injuries."

How to Design An Elliptical HIIT Workout

Quick refresher: A HIIT workout is made up of short periods of intense exercise followed by less-intense recovery periods. "Intensity" can be measured by speed, power output, heart rate, and other variables, but one of the easiest ways to measure it is by ranking your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on a scale from 1 (very easy/little to low effort) to 10 (extremely difficult/maximum effort), says Higashi. During your short work periods, you should be working out at an RPE of nine or ten. (Not ready to go that hard? Instead consider this elliptical workout for beginners.)

Warm-up: Just like with any other workout, a warmup is crucial—especially because you're about to exert an all-out effort. "Your warm-up should last anywhere from eight to 12 minutes and consist of a gradual increase in intensity so that by the end of the warm-up, your RPE should reach a seven out of 10," says Higashi. That means you could (but would probably rather not) have a conversation, and you've probably started breaking a sweat. "That helps increase your body temp, blood flow, and fat utilization, which will help you work out longer and harder," explains Higashi. Follow your warm-up with a two- to five-minute recovery period to prime your body for the real workout.

Length: In terms of how long your HIIT workout should be, a minimum of 10 minutes (not counting the warm-up!) can be effective, says Sperl. "That can be broken up into intervals as long as four minutes as well ones as short at five to 10 seconds," adds Higashi. (

Intervals: When it comes to intervals, a good place to start is with a work to rest ratio of 1:1—i.e. 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest. But depending on your fitness level, you may want to adjust that ratio. "If you're a beginner, you may need to either decrease the work and increase the rest periods creating a ratio of 1:2 (i.e. 30 seconds of work followed by one minute of rest)," says Higashi. "If you're looking to challenge yourself, you can choose to do more work with less rest (i.e. one minute of work with 30 seconds of recovery)." (Keep all this in mind if you take your HIIT workout to the treadmill or track, too.)

Recovery: And don't skip out or cut short your recovery periods! "If you're really pushing it and getting to an RPE of 9-10 during your work intervals, dial it down to 6-7 (or even lower) during the off segments," says Sperl. That gives your heart rate time to decrease and your body to clear the byproducts of metabolism—carbon dioxide and lactate—so you can get right back to that high intensity you were just crushing.

Elliptical HIIT Workouts to Try

Ready to try an elliptical HIIT workout? Try one of these two routines below, or use them as a framework to design your own elliptical HIIT workout. The best part: Since they're based off RPE (and not an incline or resistance level) you could easily translate these HIIT workouts to other cardio machines, such as a rower or treadmill, too.

35-Minute Elliptical HIIT Workout


You can adjust bot the incline and resistance however you need in order to achieve the desired RPE from 1-10 (with 10 being maximum effort).

  • Warm-up (10 minutes):
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 3
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 4
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 5
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 6
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 7
  • Recovery: 5 minutes, RPE of 3-4
  • HIIT Workout (20 minutes, work to rest ratio of 1:1):
    • 1 minute: RPE of 9-10 out of 10
    • 1 minute (recovery): RPE of 3-4 out of 10
    • Repeat 10 times

45-Minute Pyramid Elliptical HIIT Workout

Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

By playing with the timing of the intervals, you're still working in a 1:1 work to rest ratio, but challenging your body to sustain longer periods of 'on' time to build your stamina.

  • Warm-up (10 minutes):
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 3
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 4
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 5
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 6
    • 2 minutes: RPE of 7
  • Recovery: 5 minutes, RPE of 3-4
  • HIIT Workout (30 minutes):
    • 1:00 on / 1:00 off
    • 2:00 on / 2:00 off
    • 3:00 on / 3:00 off
    • 4:00 on / 4:00 off
    • 5:00 on / 5:00 off
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