Cross training machines, also known as elliptical machines, are a great piece of exercise equipment because they allow you to train in a number of different ways. This gives them the flexibility to help you work out for objectives from weight loss to muscle endurance, from cardiovascular fitness to improving your power output.
If you are thinking of using one of these machines at the gym or purchasing a cross trainer for use at home, the following guide aims to demonstrate a range of workouts to help you get the most out of your exercise routine. We will cover the health and fitness benefits of each of these ways of training, and finish with some advice on common mistakes to avoid when working out on one of these machines.
Before diving into the detail of the different workouts, if you are newcomer to this machine and haven’t used it before, the video below gives a great basic guide. If you have used one before then move straight on, nothing new to see here!
Now let’s cover some work outs designed for specific training objectives:
Fat burning and weight loss
Burning fat and losing weight is all about burning more calories than you consume. And the best way to burn calories fast is interval training. Combining numerous periods of high intensity, with periods of recovery time, all throughout the workout.
This style of training gets the heartbeat racing, and makes you short of breath. The body is dealing with the increased oxygen demands of your hard working muscles. As the body is working so hard the amount of calories burned increases dramatically compared to slower paced exercise. There is the added benefit of calories continuing to be burned at a high rate after exercise is finished. This is down to something known as the EPOC effect, Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption. After intense training your body has an “oxygen debt”, where the bodies oxygen stores are depleted. These stores have to be restocked in the following hours. Doing so burns more calories than when the body is in a normal rest state.
The workout below is a classic interval training routine that will get the fat melting away. As with any exercise it is important to warm up and cool down before and after. For each sprint period, push yourself as hard as you can physically maintain for 30 seconds. After each sprint you have 30 seconds off to give your muscles chance to recover. This is not long enough however for you heartbeat or breathing to drop significantly. Doing 8 sprints followed by 8 periods of recovery takes just 8 minutes, but by the end of that your heart rate and breathing will be through the roof. The heart and lungs will have been pushed harder than a steady paced workout that lasted 5 times as long or more.
This style of workout is challenging and should not be carried out every day. You would ideally give yourself 2 days between each time you train this way. Meaning carry this 2 – 3 times per week at most.
This is a workout to develop your muscles with improvements in both strength endurance and speed endurance. Just to recap, strength endurance is the ability of muscles to maintain contractile force over time. Speed endurance is the ability to prolong the period over which maximal speed (or close to maximal) can be maintained. Exercising this way will train your muscles to keep going for longer under stress. This is a great way to train for improving performance in regular sporting activities, or even just to be fitter in everyday life.
The best way to develop endurance is training with interval sprints. Pushing your muscles hard and fast for short periods of time, giving them a short time to recover, and then repeating the cycle a number of times. This gets muscles used to working in an oxygen deprived state, training them to recover quickly from exertion, and to clear lactic acid build up efficiently.
The following workout is designed to train in exactly the way described above. During the sprint periods it is important to ensure you are pushing yourself close to your limits for the full 60 seconds. It’s not possible to sprint all out for 60 seconds, you need to aim for a pace at about 90% of your maximum, so speed is steady rather than quicker for the first 30 seconds and dropping off in the second 30. After a sprint you have 60 seconds at slow pace to recover before you sprint again. Repeat the cycle 5 times before a longer period of rest is allowed. After the longer recovery period go back to the sprint/rest cycle, carrying out the whole thing a total of 3 times, for a total workout of 46 mins.
Your muscles will be working in an anaerobic state, i.e. without the use of oxygen. When muscles adapt to be able to do this for longer at a faster pace, the greater your endurance has become.
The ability of the heart to blood around the body, and the lungs to supply oxygen into the bloodstream, to be burnt as fuel by your muscles. The use of exercise machines is a very popular and effective way to train cardiovascular performance.
The most important thing in training the heart and lungs to become more efficient is to push them as hard as possible during exercise. Heart rate needs to rise significantly, close to maximum, and breathing must become laboured, and for a significant length of time. Training this way makes the heart and lungs adapt to be able to perform more effectively in the future. The heart becomes stronger and able to pump a greater volume of blood with a single beat. The lungs capacity increases, meaning more air and therefore oxygen can be taken in with one breath. The diffusion of oxygen from the air in the lungs into the blood stream also becomes more efficient.
The following workout is designed to do exactly what is described above, raising heart rate and breathing. The key however is to stay just below the threshold where anaerobic energy production kicks in. This keeps the body burning oxygen and relying solely on fuel supplied by oxygen. Meaning in turn it adapts to function better relying solely on oxygen as fuel.
Each stage of 1,000 metres needs to be completed at the fastest pace you can achieve without becoming out of breath. Breathing needs to raise significantly, it’s the fully out of breath stage we are looking to avoid. It may take a couple of attempts to find the pace that can be maintained without becoming out of breath but it comes quickly with experience. Progressions in this routine come by increasing the speed at which you complete the 1,00 metres without getting out of breath.
Power is the ability to apply maximum strength as quickly as possible. Therefore it is a function of strength and speed, but also technique. Having poor technique on a cross trainer will make generating power much tougher.
An advantage of training for power on a cross trainer is that it is a full body piece of equipment, i.e. you use all muscle groups when training on one. This makes all the muscles in the body learn to act as one through a full chain of movement. This makes it a functional exercise that translates to sport and everyday life better than individual isolated exercises.
The workout below is designed to increase power. It focuses on pedalling at maximum pace for 20 seconds. The recovery period is long enough so that you can push yourself at 100% again. The length of the rest period is important, it is what makes you able to push yourself to your limits. If you find it is not sufficient time to recover then extend it. We are not aiming to train endurance, so let your breathing return to normal, enabling you to sprint at your maximum each time. Resistance needs to be as high as possible, higher resistance requires greater strength. Maximum strength at maximum speed equals maximum power.
There is a consensus among health and fitness professionals that just 30 mins of moderate exercise 5 days a week will dramatically improve heart health. This exercise could be anything that elevates heart beat above resting rate. Anything from a brisk walk to gardening, from gentle swimming to dancing.
A session on the cross trainer fits nicely into a regular 5 day a week routine. Any of the routines mentioned above is far more than enough to serve this purpose. In fact all you need do to tick the heart health box is to use the cross training machine for 30 minutes at moderate pace and low resistance. That will be enough to lift you above resting heart rate.
Rest day workout
I know this sounds contradictory, a rest day workout! What I’m talking about here is the days between your more intense workouts, for example heavy weight training or high intensity interval training, where you need to recover and heal.
A gentle workout on the cross training machine will get the blood flowing to your muscles. This will help them clear waste product, replenish energy stores and prevent stiffness. Because of the full range of motion from this type of machine, the muscles and joints get a stretch, stopping them from tightening up and keeping them flexible.
Spending 30 minutes at a moderate to medium resistance and medium pace will be more than enough. You want to feel as though your are working out, but not enough to tire your muscles or your breathing to become laboured.
Too many people push themselves too hard to soon. All this does is push muscles so hard it takes days to recover and increase the risk of injury. Tired muscles and injuries mean you train far less often, and make progress slow as a result.
Ease gently into a cross training routine. Start off by just spending 5 minutes on the machine at slow pace and low resistance. This will get your muscles and joints accustomed to moving through this range of motion.
After a couple of sessions doing this up the length of time to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes. Once you can complete 20 minutes with ease start to up the resistance gradually each time you train. At the point where you can train for 20 minutes at high resistance you can start to increase the pace. It will not take long until you can work out at high pace and resistance for 20 minutes. At this stage you are ready to try any of the workouts in this article.
Abs and core
Any workout on a cross trainer requires some form of stabilisation of the upper body with your abdominal and core muscles. However holding onto the handles takes much of the strain.
Letting go of the handles and dropping your arms by your side elevates it to a whole new level of core workout. Balancing your upper body while your legs are rotating engages all of the muscles in your core and lower back to keep you upright. This is a great alternative to ad crunches and planks for building a slimmer firmer waistline.
Upper body workout
The normal way of propelling yourself on a cross trainer is using force created by the upper and lower body. However the majority comes from the legs rather than the arms and shoulders.
It is possible though to use solely the upper body to go through the motion on one of these machines. Stop using the legs to pedal and just push and pull on the handles. The legs will still move but they should do so passively. This provides a great workout for the arms, chest, back and shoulders.
You will probably have to lower the resistance level to do this as it will feel challenging without the power from your lower body. Keeping a good upright posture while you do this is key to get better results and avoid injury. It will be tough to do this for any extended period of time, so is better done as intervals within a fuller workout that includes periods of pedalling as well.
Backwards thigh workout
Pedalling in reverse makes for a different workout than the more common forwards motion. As soon as you attempt it you will feel your muscles working differently, it will be much tougher to start with. The quads take more of the strain this way, and you will start to feel a burn in these muscles before any others. It also requires learning a different way to balance than with forward motion. This gives the core and abs a new challenge.
To start with you will find it too tough to complete a session of significant length this way, so it is best to do as intervals within a more traditional workout. Over time it will become easier and you will be able to train this way for a whole session, taking advantage of the increased focus on the quads to build stronger quads.
For some further detail on how cross training machines can help your health and fitness goals, take a look at our guide to the benefits of exercising on a cross training machine.
Common workout mistakes to avoid
Once you have started regularly exercising on a cross training machine, get the most from you workout by avoiding the common mistakes below.
Resistance too low
It may feel like you are doing great if the wheel is spinning fast and your arms are going back and forth like pistons. But if resistance is set low and you don not feel tired when you step off the machine, then you wont be seeing results any time soon.
The resistance should be high enough that you feel a push and pull through your stride. At the end of whatever time limit you’ve set yourself you should feel like you have no more time in you. The only caveat to this is when you are cross training on a rest day to help your muscles recover.
Not entering your info
We have the ability to enter information on our weight and age for a reason. It allows the machine to calculate the calories we are burning more accurately. Also to determine the heart rate zone we should be in to achieve certain goals (i.e. fat burning).
Not entering our info means we do not get an accurate read of our performance. If you are sticking to a calorie controlled regime to lose weight, you put yourself at a disadvantage straight away.
Not using your arms
There are workouts that deliberately do not involve using the arms These are designed to work the abs and core. However unless you are specifically training this way you should be using your arms and shoulders to help you move.
Many people just use the handles to balance, so are not producing any power from their upper body. This is pointless. Either work the upper body by using it to help help propel you, or don’t use it so you work on your core. Using the handles to balance is the worst of both worlds.
It’s never good to have poor posture. When exercising on one of these machines it is important to keep correct form. Not doing so increases the risk of injury, and prevents proper engagement of all of the relevant muscles. Meaning your workout was not as efficient as it should have been.
Correct posture is a straight, upright back, with shoulders pushed back and chest out. This is easier when you have handles to hold on to. Choosing not to hold the handles and using your core to balance you is a great way to build abdominal and core strength.
Only going one direction
Most people will move in a forward direction and neglect to go backwards. They are missing out on the benefits of going backwards on a cross trainer.
Forward motion works on your quad muscles on the front of the thigh. Going backwards places the emphasis on the muscles on the back half your lower body. It focuses on the hamstrings and glutes. To get best results, bend at the knees and sit back slightly. This places ever more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes, working them harder for better results.
Always doing the same workout
The body adapts to the stimuli we place on it. That is how we grow muscle and increase cardiovascular efficiency. When we do the same workout over and over the body stops adapting. Changing up the way we work out provides a new stimulus, which keeps the body guessing, and continuing to adapt. Working out this way produces better results in the long run.
Variation is the key, change up levels of resistance, pace, distance and direction as you progress. Not only will you feel the health and fitness benefits, it stops you get bored of the same old routine. Keeping motivation up and helping you work out more often.
Your feet feel numb
Standing incorrectly can make you lose the felling in your feet, this then makes you get off the cross trainer and cuts the workout short. obviously not good for progressing towards your goals.
This happens when you place to much pressure on your toes. You should be balancing on your heels, this allows the larger muscle groups to work harder. Giving you more endurance and power in your workout.
You use the cross trainer every day
Although the cross trainer is a great form of exercise equipment, it should not be the only way you exercise. A well rounded routine includes some resistance work with weights and using other cardio equipment like the rower or exercise bike.
Using the same machine all of the time will not give the body a wide range of stimuli. This will result in slower progression towards your fitness goals.
Final Thoughts on cross trainer workouts
The aim of this article was to demonstrate how a cross trainer can help you workout in a number of different ways to achieve various objectives. Hopefully we’ve been able to cover enough ground to convince you that including a cross trainer into your exercise routine is a great idea.
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