Machines with arm levers offer a more total-body workout.
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Compared to other activities, such as jogging and walking, elliptical exercise is less weight-bearing and easier on the joints, reports a 2014 study in Gait & Posture. Additionally, a 30-minute elliptical session burns an average of 315 calories, which is about the same amount as jogging but with less impact. While elliptical training can be used to help build muscle, it won't make you bulky.
Aerobic Exercise and Muscle Gain
Elliptical exercise primarily fits into the aerobic activity category. Other types of aerobic activities include walking, running, swimming and cycling. Aerobic activity mainly taxes the cardiorespiratory system to improve the health of your heart and lungs. It helps burn calories for weight loss, reduce your risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, and improve cognitive function, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It is not usually though of as a way to build lean muscle mass, but rather as a way to burn fat and slim down. But running on the elliptical does build some muscle.
Gaining Lean Muscle With Elliptical Training
A 2014 analysis in Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews aimed to dispel the myth that aerobic exercise has little impact on lean muscle mass. Reviewers cited several studies showing that, in fact, cardio exercise can elicit fairly significant gains in muscle mass. The researchers found that the specific type of training routine most likely to build muscle is exercise intensity of 70 to 80 percent of heart rate reserve, duration of 30 to 45 minutes per session and frequency of four to five sessions per week.
Lean Muscle vs. Bulk
Following the aforementioned training protocol will help you gain some lean muscle mass, but it will not make you bulky. Bulking up requires a combination of heavy weightlifting and a big increase in calorie intake. Typically, people looking to bulk up avoid cardio, because cardio burns extra calories that are needed for muscle growth. Any muscle you gain from elliptical training will not make you bulky.
Slim Down With Elliptical Training
Using the elliptical and balancing your calorie intake so you're not consuming more calories than you burn each day will slim down your legs to make them more toned. This is because you'll be burning fat, which takes up more space than muscle, pound for pound.
When you're first starting out, do 30-minute sessions at moderate intensity, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week - or a minimum of 300 minutes for added benefits, including increased fat loss.
As your body becomes used to the activity, you can start increasing the intensity in intervals to increase your cardiovascular fitness and burn more calories. Once or twice per week, do interval workouts on the elliptical consisting of short periods of intense effort alternated with periods of recovery at a slower pace. You can also increase the length of your steady-state workouts to 45 minutes in length.