This Elliptical Workout for Beginners Will Boost Your Cardio Endurance

This heart-pumping elliptical workout for beginners proves you shouldn't discount the simple cardio machine.

three exercisers talking to one another while exercising on ellipticals stationed together
Photo: AzmanL/Getty

With their no-frills features and intuitive design, ellipticals might just be one of the least intimidating machines at the gym. But just because they're simple in nature doesn't mean they can't give you a fire workout.

"Ellipticals are helpful to build cardiovascular endurance — so it's good for your heart," says Amber Harris, an ACE-certified personal trainer and RRCA-certified running coach. "It's also low impact, so it's good for beginners or those who have joint issues, and it's easier on your hips and knees than running or walking on the treadmill," she explains. Add in the resistance from the incline and the movement you get from holding onto the machine's handles, and you've got a total-body cardio workout.

Plus, this combination of low-impact work and ease of use is what makes it a great tool to introduce cardiovascular exercise to gym newbies, says Harris. When you take a jog on the treadmill, you put all of your body weight onto one foot with every step. As your foot hits the ground, the impact travels all the way up through the body, she explains. An elliptical, on the other hand, is designed to stay in contact with your feet throughout the entire workout, meaning you don't get the same jolt of impact when you move the pedals.

That same trait can make ellipticals a safer cardio option, especially if you've never used a machine before. "I think the treadmill can be intimidating, especially if you're just starting out, and I think a lot of people just go balls to the wall," notes Harris. "If you're running and don't know how to properly use it, you can fly off the back and injure yourself. But with an elliptical, you just hop on it, hit the manual button, and go," she explains.

Ready to give the elliptical machine a try? Follow these tips to build an effective cardio workout the next time you hit the gym, then try out an expert-approved elliptical workout for beginners that will get you familiar with the exercise machine.

How to Add Elliptical Workouts to Your Fitness Routine

Ellipticals often get a bad rap for being "easy," and to be fair, they can be if you're just moseying around on an incline level of one. In order to have an effective, efficient elliptical workout, you need to be intentional with your time, advises Harris. "You should see your heart rate go up, your breathing rate should increase — but if you're just getting on there to read a magazine or hang out, you might not see the benefits that you're looking for," she says.

Follow these expert-backed tips to create an elliptical workout that works for you (and won't bore you to tears).

Have Distractions On-Hand

Admittedly, using an elliptical — or any cardio machine — to get your sweat on can be incredibly boring. That's why it's beneficial to have a playlist of bops, go-to podcast, or book at the ready to actually enjoy your time on the machine, recommends Janeil Mason, the creator of Fit and Lit fitness classes who holds a masters in exercise physiology. "Listening to lectures if you're a student or listening to something for work while on an elliptical is doable since it's an exercise that requires less thought as you become more comfortable on the machine," she explains. Just make sure you're still giving the elliptical machine your A-game while you do so.

And while you might feel tempted to painstakingly watch the little screen showing the number of calories you've burned, there's no need to obsess over it, stresses Mason. "The caloric expenditure calibrated on the elliptical is usually inaccurate since it's calibrated using steps and the action you're doing on the elliptical is not a stepping action," she explains. "Instead, focus on your rate of perceived rate of exertion (RPE) to measure if you are getting a good workout."

Find Your Incline and Speed Intervals

That RPE is the key factor in starting an elliptical workout for beginners — as is adjusting it as your fitness increases. When you first jump on the elliptical machine (after situating your entire foot on the pedals and grabbing hold of the handlebars), set your incline at a grade that's anywhere between a flat road and the steepest incline available. Your RPE should be at a 4 to start, and you should be able to move at a conversational pace, meaning you feel like you could sing your ABCs and not feel out of breath for 10 minutes. If it's too tough, dial the incline back until you reach that RPE, says Harris. (Reminder: Your RPE is a way to measure your activity's intensity level, based on how hard you feel like your body is working on a scale of 1–10. An RPE of 1 would be easy peasy and 10 would be an all-out maximum effort.)

Once you can hold that steady pace for 10 to 15 minutes, it's time to incorporate intervals into your elliptical workout. Doing so will provide some much-needed mental variety and also help you improve your VO2 max and cardiovascular endurance. Start out your workout with a five-minute warm-up at RPE 4, which will help lubricate the joints and increase blood flow to your muscles, says Mason. Then bump your RPE up to a 6 or 7 (you should feel just winded, but not like you're dying) for two minutes, suggests Harris. To hit that RPE, try increasing the ramp incline or your speed (meaning the rate at which you're pedaling).

After that two-minute interval of working at a higher intensity, bring your effort level back down to an RPE of 4 for three minutes to recover. "Recovery is important for your body to reset," says Harris. "You'll bring your heart rate back down and bring your breathing under control so you can up that work effort again," she explains. When you're just starting out with your elliptical workout for beginners, your work-to-rest ratio shouldn't dip below 1:1 — so if you're pushing hard for two minutes, take at least two minutes to let your body recover. If you skip this rest period or make it shorter, you could create extra stress on the body, possibly causing injury or stress to the heart, says Harris. "It's just safer to do [a 1:1 ratio] for a beginner," she advises.

Once you've recovered a bit, repeat this interval cycle as many times as you'd like. Then, follow up with a five-minute cool down at RPE 4.

Incorporate Some Resistance

If you're using an elliptical machine that allows you to increase both incline and resistance, you may want to hold off on adjusting resistance until you're comfortable exercising for 20 to 30 minutes at a conversational pace, as this setting requires a bit more endurance, recommends Harris. Once you're ready to start incorporating resistance into your elliptical routine, dedicate one workout each week to adjusting only the resistance (translation: don't touch the incline) and follow the same RPE guidelines as you would when changing the incline. By switching up the resistance, you'll see a few small gains in the muscle department: "The more resistance you have, the harder your body's working and the more muscles you're using," says Harris.

When you do adjust the resistance, find a setting that makes you feel in control of the elliptical machine, rather than that the machine's in control of you, adds Harris. You should have enough resistance that you don't feel like you're pedaling at 400 miles an hour, but you shouldn't have too much that you can barely move.

Determine the Proper Length and Frequency of Your Elliptical Workouts

If you're completely new to cardio, the expression "the more, the merrier" doesn't necessarily apply. "A lot of beginners start out extreme, and then they [get] hurt, can't move, and then quit," says Harris.

For that same reason, those who have a completely sedentary lifestyle should start off by using the elliptical machine for 10 minutes a day, three times a week, and slowly work their way up to 30-minute workouts, five times a week, recommends Mason. Once you create that routine, you'll meet the American Heart Association's recommendation to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, she explains.

"Some movement is better than no movement, and everyone's beginner fitness level will be unique to them," notes Mason. "Start with what feels attainable for you and then gradually start to challenge yourself as the weeks go by and it starts to become too easy," she advises.

And remember, rest days are not the enemy. By spacing out your elliptical workouts with a single rest day in between, you'll give your body enough time to recover from the exercise session. Plus, it's still frequent enough that the machine doesn't feel completely foreign every time you step on it, says Mason. "If you take a more moderate approach — working at that conversational pace, taking a day off, and hitting it the next — you're going to be able to move and function," adds Harris. "Your body's going to feel good," she notes.

20-Minute Interval Elliptical Workout for Beginners

Ready to tackle the elliptical but don't know how to get started? Follow Harris' simple elliptical workout for beginners to get all the cardiovascular perks of the machine.

How it works: Do this workout about three to four times per week (aka every other day), following the directions for the elliptical workout for beginners prescribed below. As you become more conditioned, decrease the recovery period in between pushes — just don't go below a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio.

You'll need: An elliptical machine

20-Minute Interval Elliptical Workout for Beginners pdf with RPE suggestions
Julia Bohan-Upadhyay
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