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Cross Training / Elliptical Workouts

Cross Trainer computer display

My Cross Trainer

Cross trainers (aka elliptical trainers) have become one of the most popular cardio machines. They provide a low impact but intensive workout that exercises the whole body. Unlike treadmills and running machines, cross trainers work the upper body too, and unlike rowing machines, they work the pushing and pulling muscles of the arms, shoulders and back.

For many people working out at home is the only option. Busy work schedules and families often mean that you cannot find the time to get out of the house on a regular basis, certainly not often enough to follow the latest guidelines of exercising for an hour a day.

The Advantages of a Cross Trainer

  • Cross trainers work both the upper and lower body. Exercise bikes and treadmills only work the lower body.
  • Cross trainers allow you to safely adjust both speed and resistance while exercising. This is not so easy on a treadmill. This makes them great for doing intensive interval training. Whereas a treadmill controls the speed at which you run, you control the speed at which you train on a cross trainer in the same way as you do on a bike.
  • Cross trainers work your upper body muscles in both directions, whereas a rowing machine only works the pulling muscles.

What Makes a Good Cross Trainer?

Cross trainers come in many shapes and sizes. The single most important factor of a cross trainer is that the mechanism is smooth and follows a true elliptical movement. Many lower range cross trainers work more like a standing peddle cycle than an elliptical. These not only work the muscles differently and less effectively, it actually makes working out harder.

You should not buy a cross trainer unless you have tested it or a very similar model made by the same manufacturer first. Try them out in shops then look online for a bargain.

Although cross trainers that work on a friction belt system can help you to get fit, by far the best ones are those that provide a variable magnetic resistance on a heavy flywheel.

Once a cross trainer has a magnetic resistance and a smooth natural motion the only real additional features of upper range models are durability and the quality of the computer system. At the most basic level a cross trainer will have a timer and a way to adjust the magnetic resistance. The more advanced models allow you to program your own workouts and monitor your heart rate. Some even have wireless technology to allow you to connect your heart rate monitor to the cross trainer computer. But these are really just additional gimmicks.


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So long as you know how long you are training for and can vary the resistance, you can get fit and lose weight with regular workouts. For the sake of these workouts we shall assume that you have a cross trainer that can record: time, distance, calories, speed.

The Standard Cross Trainer Workout

The best form of exercise for losing weight and getting fit is a form of intensive interval training. Cross trainers make planning such cardio workouts an easy task.

  • Start each workout one the lowest setting and work at an easy pace for 3-5 minutes. Slowly raise your heart beat to approximately 50% of your maximum heart rate.
  • After 3-5 minutes increase the resistance so that you can workout for another 3-5 minutes at a medium intensity. You should still be able to hold a conversation, but your heart rate should be increasing an you should start to get out of breath. This two stages are the warm up stage.
  • The remainder of the workout should include at least 3 highly intensive intervals in the following format.
  • The first interval, which can commence as soon as the warm up is finished, involved working at a medium-high intensity. It is very arbitrary how hard you work, you have to listen to your own body and workout what feels right. Do one minute at this medium to high intensity. Then recover for 2 minutes.
  • The second interval should be a speed interval. Workout at the same resistance as the first interval (it should be at about 50% of its max resistance for these intervals) but aim to sprint as fast as possible. This is harder than it sounds when you first start as you have to coordinate your arms and legs in a way that is not totally natural. It is certainly not the same as running sprints. Aim to sprint for 30 seconds at full speed. This should be as fast as you can possibly go. Imagine you are Usain Bolt running the 200m if you need any inspiration.
  • Depending on how long you wish to workout for you could repeat this interval several times, so long as you allow an adequate recovery phase. For recovery you should allow your heart rate to return to the double resting rate.
  • The third interval (or third style if you do multiple sprint intervals) is the high resistance interval. For this you increase the resistance of the machine again and also increase your speed. Aim to workout at the 9-10km speed range with resistance at 60-80 max, depending on how strong you are. The aim is now a fully aerobic interval as you are still working at a faster than average pace, but you should really start to suffer in the leg muscles rather than just in the lungs at this stage. Also as the resistance is increased you will need to start working your arms much harder.
  • The third interval should leave you exhausted. Once it is over (you can aim for 1-2 minutes) lower the resistance right down to your starting resistance and cool down for about 5 minutes.

This is a very simple cross training workout. You do not need a program in the computer to follow this, just a timer / clock in front of you. On some models such as the Horizon range, the “Quick Start” feature is best for this type of workout.

The full workout may be from 30-40 minutes. Although the recent studies showed that exercising intensively for 20 minutes is as effective as longer workouts, you need to remember to warm-up and then cool down.

Quick Intensive Cross Training Workout

The above routine requires 30-45 minutes to complete. If you are short of time then this quick 20 minute workout it ideal. It still involves a warm up, a series of highly intensive intervals and a cool down.

For this workout you need to have a clock with seconds on front of you, ideally there should be one on the computer interface on your cross trainer too. However, it is often easier to follow a clock at eye level rather than have to keep looking down at the computer screen.

The first 5 minutes of the workout are the warm-up. Start on the lowest resistance and work at a steady pace of around 7km/hr. Every minute increase the resistance by 1 notch until you reach 1/4 of the maximum resistance (e.g. level 4 on a Horizon cross trainer that goes up to level 16).


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At 5m15sec increase the resistance to 2/3 or 3/4 of the maximum (whichever works best for you). Then perform a 45 second sprint at full intensity. Aim to go as fast as you can and ensure that you are using both your arms and your legs to drive the flywheel. As soon as the 45 seconds is finished reduce the resistance back down to 1/4 (or even lower if needed) and spend 1 minute 15 seconds recovering. This will take you to 6m15sec. Repeat the sprint.

Each intensive interval is 45 seconds followed by 75 seconds recovery, so each takes 2 minutes in total. In a 20 minute session you can perform 6 high intensity intervals and then spend 5 minutes cooling down on the lowest resistance setting. This workout is fast and effective.

Your heart rate should be raising to close to its maximum during the sprints and then almost recover double its normal resting rate by the end of the recovery period. If you enjoy exercising in 20 minute blocks then you may enjoy our article on How To Get Fit At Home In 20 Minutes which is a bodyweight circuit to work all the muscles and aids with fitness and fat loss.

How the Cross Trainer (Elliptical) was Developed

1980's ski machine

The cross trainer is now an established piece of fitness equipment in commercial gyms and homes all across the USA and beyond, but they were only invented in the 1990’s.

How did it come about? Rowing machines mimic rowing, treadmills mimic running and exercise bikes, well, cycling obviously. So who came up with the idea of a cross trainer?

Early cross trainers were more like standing exercise bikes, and still today the cheaper home versions are like this. The cross trainer was the first exercise machine to provide a low impact workout while in a standing position. Then first cross trainers only worked the legs and were more like a cross between a stepper and a cycle. It was only in 1997 that handles were added to give an upper body workout.

As the technology improved and real elliptical machines were developed that used magnetic resistance the cross trainer became the ideal home and gym fitness machine. As the feet do not leave the platform it can be considered a zero impact workout, but it can still be as intensive as a treadmill or exercise bike. Unlike an exercise bike it works the whole body, and the added resistance caused by your own body weight adds to the workout. This article explains some more of the advantages of cross trainers and also provides a cross training workout. We also have developed a intensive interval training workout for cross trainers.

Cross Country Skiing


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Many people assume that cross trainers were designed with cross country skiing in mind, as the movement of the feet (sliding across the snow in skis) and the arms (pulling on the ski piles) is similar. But there is really no connection. Ski machines, like the one pictured above, were invented first, but the cross trainer was developed later and has replaced the demand for skiers.

Larry D Miller

Larry D Miller is accredited with inventing the first elliptical cross trainer after observing his daughter running. He noticed that her running motion was naturally low impact, so he decided to invent a machine that would mimic this foot movement to produce a low impact running machine.  The first true elliptical cross trainer was invented for Precor in 2004.

Early Cross Trainers

The earlier cross trainers were the ski machines, where the feet would slide along the horizontal while also pulling levers. These did not provide a very good workout as the legs had to keep altering from pushing to pulling which meant a good rhythm and intensity was hard to attain.

Cross Trainer Hybrids

There have been some attempts to improve on the design of the current standard cross trainer, the most recent being to combine a cross trainer and an exercise bike. These involve sitting and peddling as normal on an exercise bike with also pushing and pulling levers. However, these do not provide the slight twisting and lateral movement of the body which aids the pulling and push of the levers while also peddling. The stride length cannot be adjusted either, so overall it is not such as good workout.

The Modern Cross Trainer / Elliptical Trainer

Modern cross trainers are now excellent pieces of fitness equipment. They provide a low impact workout that exercises the whole body. The good ones allow you to adjust the height of the handles and the position of the feet pads so that you can get the best workout. Studies have shown that using a longer stride on a cross trainer burns more calories but the work effort is not increased noticeably.

If you are planning to buy a cross trainer for your home always try the same or a very similar model in a shop first, as they do all vary. Good ones allow you to adjust the position of the foot rests and the height of the handles. They also come with computers that control the resistance in a magnetic flywheel. These types of trainers make intensive interval training very easy at home.

More like this in the Fitness section

  49 comments for “Cross Training / Elliptical Workouts

  1. Craig
    October 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    How many calories would you expect to burn during one of these workouts? I tried this out for the first time last night for 30 min (10 min warm-up, 20 min of intervals) and burned a little over 400 calories. Does that seem right? Thanks!

  2. MotleyHealth
    October 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    That does sound about right Craig. Is that the figure that the machine provided? Make sure you input your current weight into the machine to calculate calories burned as accurately as possible.

  3. Craig
    October 13, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Thank you for the quick response! Yeah that is the number the machine provided, though I didn’t input my weight unfortunately. I’m 5’11 and weigh 183 so considering I’m not extremely over or underweight I should be burning calories at a fairly average rate, yes?

  4. MotleyHealth
    October 13, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Yeah, remember, the heavier you are the more calories you burn (energy required to carry your own weight). So if the default weight in the machine is more that 183 pounds it will be recording a calorie total higher than you are really burning. However, those really are just a guide, probably a pretty large error margin in the calorie information. But then there often is in calorie intake also.

  5. Craig
    October 13, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Apologies for the multiple replies, but I forgot to mention before that I didn’t follow this workout exactly. I did the prescribed 10 minute warm-up and then proceeded to do speed intervals (2 min sprint followed by 1 min cooldown) and then two of the high resistance intervals at the end. Would you say this is an effective HIIT or should I stick to what is detailed here?

  6. MotleyHealth
    October 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    That should be find Craig. This is really a guide to give an idea of how to do intervals. Do what works best for you and then modify it as you get fitter etc. And no problem with multiple replies!

  7. Pinky
    November 30, 2011 at 5:16 am

    I have just purchased treadmill. Today I have come across through this section. I fell that i have wasted my money by investing money in treadmill. As in your topic it says treadmill only works for lower body. I thought it will work for whole body. I don’t walk on the treadmill by gripping it’s handles.
    I want to loose upper body weight like my tummy, chest. Does that mean Treadmill is of no help to me?? If I spent 1 hr on treadmill that means its waste of time?

    Please suggest what to do.

  8. MotleyHealth
    November 30, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Hi Pinky, a treadmill will help you to lose weight / fat just as well. Ellipticals help tone / strengthen muscles in the arms, shoulders etc. but for weight loss any cardio is sufficient. Work on getting fitter.

  9. Pink
    December 1, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Thanks a lot!! :)

  10. Pinky
    December 10, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Hey. I am able to loose only 100 calories in one hr with TREADMILL. and where as my frd says they can burn 400 calories on TREADMILL in one hr. i m so disappointed how i ll b able to loose weight as burning 10 calories in whole day is not sufficient. where as if i was able to burn 400 calories in 1 hr, tht wud hv been sufficient to loose weight/fat. u think one hr treadmill with 100 calories in too bad and will never achieve any result?

  11. MotleyHealth
    December 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Hi Pinky, it is all about fitness. The fitter you are, the harder you can exercise, and the more calories you can burn per hour. The only way to get fitter is to just keep running! Do at least 45 minutes a day on the treadmill and try to go a little faster each day. End the session with a faster jog / run.

    Also, your mass (weight) depends on how many calories you burn. If you friend is twice the size of you, they will burn twice as many calories. Are you sure you are only burning 100 calories though? The treadmill may not be calibrated correctly. Just keep moving!

  12. Pinky
    December 18, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Hi again!
    yes i can burn only 100 calories at speed of 6-7 on treadmill. I weigh between 63-64kgs, don’t know if this is the right amount of calories or not!! Please tell??

  13. MotleyHealth
    December 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    The calorie readings are only ever an estimate based on your total weight and the distance / resistance that you have done. Really you should focus more on the time, distance and speed of your workouts than the calories. Fitness is the key to losing weight and getting fit.

  14. Anisha
    January 10, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Sometimes on the cross trainer my toes start to go numb. I have a good pair of trainers that were fitted, they are fine when I go jogging. Is there a way to stop this? Some days it happens, others it does not. No idea why!

  15. MotleyHealth
    January 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    Hi Anisha, you are not alone, same happened to me. I found that my loosening my shoe laces I reduced the problem. Some people have found that wearing shoes a little larger than normal helps. Also, keeping your toe nails well trimmed will help. And tip I have seen suggested is to ensure that your foot position is forward so that you are not leaning forward and putting constant pressure on your toes.

  16. Emmy
    January 23, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Hi I am 29 and have 3 children I am extremely unfit I weigh 9st 7 but I’m 5 ft 3 and my legs and tummy r very flabby! I would like to lose a stone. I have used my cross trainer for a week and can only manage 5 mins and have to sit for 5 mins it is very disheartening. How long will it take me to build it up as I get so breathless!

  17. MotleyHealth
    January 23, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Hi Emmy, how long? Impossible to say, but you are doing the right thing. Maybe tone down the resistance on the machine (if possible) go slower, try to work a little longer before stopping. Every day that you exercise you will get fitter and be able to do more. Listen to music of watch television while exercising too, take your mind off the clock as this may start to lead to a physiological barrier – you already think that you cannot go beyond 5 minutes without stopping. I bet you can!

  18. Rahul
    February 29, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Hi Jon.
    Been looking for right elliptical trainer for home/personal use and i am still stuck between Investment vs Need. You have high end costing plus USD 1000 then you have mid range featuring 8″-16″-19″ wheel magnetic resistance ellipticals costing USD 400-800 and to make choice further complicated you now have 2 in 1 elliptical cum bicycle trainers. Not asking to repeat “how to choose?” which you have already covered, only requesting your take on so-called 2-in-1s.

    Thanks
    Rahul

  19. MotleyHealth
    February 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Well, I would suggest that whenever you have to budget it is better to get a dedicated machine than a 2-in-1. A good solid cross trainer should last for years. I did have an electrical fault on mine but it was still covered by warranty and was fixed for free – so another tip is to check the warranty provided. The more years covered for parts and labor the better!

  20. Rahul
    March 1, 2012 at 6:42 am

    Thanks for reply.

    Rahul

  21. Jo
    March 3, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    Hi

    I have just purchased a cross trainer and hope to get fitter and drop a dress size before my holiday in 2 months.
    Do you think this is do-able? And if so whats the best way to do it etc. Would exercising everyday be better or 5 out of 7?
    Thanks :0)

  22. MotleyHealth
    March 4, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Hi Jo, best to exercise every day, do some longer sessions of 60 minutes or more, and some shorter sessions, say 30 minutes with a few sprints at the end. Plus, eat healthy, reduce calories.

  23. Helen Goss
    April 22, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Hi,

    Just wondering if you could advise what brand of cross trainer would be best to buy. I plan on using the cross trainer daily and two of my three daughters are also interested. I’ve noticed that some brands are only recommended for 7 hours of use each week. Which brands could cope with a possible use of up to 21 hours per week??

    Thanks.

  24. MotleyHealth
    April 22, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Hi Helen, I own a cross trainer and chose mine by trying them out in a shop before searching online for the best deals. I ended up with an Horizon Athos Pro. I have not actually seen anything about usage levels, I assume that is just a guideline and would not worry about it. Some washing machines probably have a recommended maximum weekly usage too…. Regarding Horizon, I am pleased with my machine. It had a technical fault last year and Horizon came out to fix it with no fuss. Something to consider – warranties and location of the engineers and support teams are important. If you buy a brand that does not have any engineers in your country you could be left with a machine you need to ship off somewhere for replacement. I cannot advise on anything more than that as I have not really investigated much about them.

    In short – try them first. Cheap ones feel cheap and will probably put you off using them. I think I paid around £400 for mine (reduced from about £500) and it is great. In fact, I am about to use it now!

  25. Bill
    April 22, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Hi
    How accurate are the heart monitors on gym cross trainers ? i tend to workout on a cross trainer for 50 mins on level 12 (out of 25), i like to “push it” but can’t without getting my heart rate up above 160.

  26. MotleyHealth
    April 22, 2012 at 11:35 am

    They should be pretty accurate, all they have to do is measure your pulse. Of course, if they keep missing a few pulses then this will give a lower reading as they work on averages. If you have a clock with second hand in front of you your could just take your own pulse for 30 seconds and double it (or 20 seconds and triple it). This is probably the most accurate way, so long as you can feel your pulse. If you want to do it while still exercising then you may be able to find your pulse on your neck with one hand an be able to keep the other on the machine.

  27. Al
    May 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Hi i am a 27 yr old male 6ft tall weigh 18stone 11 i want to lose my tummy fat what is the best time to spend on a cross trainer to have the best work out. thanks Al

  28. MotleyHealth
    May 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Hi Al, it is probably best to mix up the workouts. Do a few longer sessions each week of up to 60 minutes and a few high intensity interval sessions that can start with a 20 minute warm up and then do a series of sprints and recoveries for another 10-15 minutes.

    While exercise is important for weight loss, diet is essential.

  29. Marjorie
    May 22, 2012 at 4:43 am

    Hi. Is skipping rope a good cardio exercise? If so, how long should one skip rope?

  30. MotleyHealth
    May 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Yes Marjorie, skipping is great cardio. That is why boxers traditionally do a lot of skipping.

    How much? How much can you do? Skipping is very intensive and it is often best to do it as part of a circuit. You could start with 3 minute rounds with squats, crunches, push ups and some other exercises before returning to the skipping.

  31. Marjorie
    June 5, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Hi. Thanks for your response. Honestly, I can’t do much. I can only do about 1 minute rounds. I’ll try to increase it to 3. I usually jog for cardio. I’ve been trying to flatten my belly, and running doesn’t seem to work anymore. I think my body’s gotten used to it. I heard that skipping rope is bad for the joints. Is that true? How long should the entire work-out last for it to be effective? And, would it be ok if I skip rope only without the other exercises?
    Thank you, again :)

  32. MotleyHealth
    June 9, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Hi Marjorie, any exercise that is high impact can potentially be bad for the joints. 45-60 minutes is an ideal time to exercise really.

  33. Alicia
    August 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Hi.. I am 25 yrs old female, I have been constantly gaining weight from past 2 yrs majorly because I have a 9-5 sitting job and a very sedentary lifestyle. 2 yrs back i weighed around 143.3 and now I weigh 185.18, my height is 5’7”. I am really concerned about the weight gain and want to loose it really quickly. Since I have a 2 in 1 elliptical cycle/cross trainer I was wondering will I be able to loose weight by exercising 60 mins on it daily ???? And if yes then how soon?????
    Pls advice I am desperate for help…

  34. MotleyHealth
    August 3, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Hi Alicia, yes you can lose weight with 60 minutes exercise a day. However, you also need to follow a strict diet. To lose weight you have to reduce the amount you eat. Eat 3 meals a day only, no snacks. Make sure each is small but well balanced. See our diet section for more on healthy eating.

  35. Krissie
    October 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Hi! I’m a 25 yr old female and i have had a previous hip injury. I’ve been cleared to go to the gym, but I’m a bit scared to use anything other than the eliptical or cross trainer. Should I continue with both of those to lose weight, along with a heatly diet?

  36. MotleyHealth
    October 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Hi Krissie, using an elliptical would be a good start yes as it is very low impact and you can adjust the resistance. Start on a low resistance and build up your strength and stamina slowly. Squats and lunges will also help to strengthen the muscles around the hips to aid recovery. If in doubt check with your doctor though – did they provide any other guidance?

  37. Krissie
    October 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Just to continue doing the stretches they’ve told me to do. And to not push my self too hard.
    Thanks for the quick response! :)

  38. Rich
    August 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    hi to all im 44years old 5ft 11 and weigh a non slim 265lbs . I have an HORIZON DEL PRO cross trainer , looking for some advice a good routine for steady weight loss etc , obviously including cutting a out all the junk i eat .

  39. MotleyHealth
    August 11, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Hi Rich, really the key is to get the distance in. Daily workouts of 30-45 minutes, with some interval sessions throughout the week (as part of the daily workout) and combined with fewer calories you will lose weight.

  40. sameer
    December 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

    hi , I have just purchased a cross trainer and iam 50 years old lady I was just wondering is there any problem in starting workout with cross trainer at this age ??

  41. MotleyHealth
    December 19, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Hi Sameer, generally there no problem, although if you are concerned you should always consult your GP.

    Always start at a slow and steady pace to learn what you are capable of.

  42. ninette t baltodano
    July 2, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    would like information and pricing.

  43. MotleyHealth
    July 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Hi, this is just a page about using cross trainers. We do not sell any.

  44. NAZ
    September 15, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Hi

    I have started using my cross trainer for the past week, I can only workout on it for 15 mins at the moment, will this help me lose my stomach fat as I have so desperately been trying for years. Your feed back would be mostly appreciated.

  45. MotleyHealth
    September 15, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Hi Naz, it will certainly help. As you get fitter and stronger increase the workouts – try to add an extra 5 minutes every week so that in five weeks you are doing a 40 minute workout. You will get fitter, it will get easier.

  46. Paul
    October 7, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    I’ve been using a cross trainer alongside an exercise bike for several years and they keep me fairly fit. In order to drop a few pounds, I’ve recently upped my cross trainer workout to 60 minutes 6 days/ week and so I’m doing about 5.5 miles each time. I don’t do interval training, just go as fast as I can for an hour.
    What I’d like to know is what other exercises/ equipment I should be using to complement the cross training in order to maintain fitness and lose a little weight. Thanks

  47. MotleyHealth
    October 7, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Hi Paul, I would suggest some weight training, especially moves like squats, bench press, shoulder press and bicep curls. Or follow our weekly workouts – these bodyweight workouts will get all of your muscles working and this should improve overall fitness and strength.

  48. Teresa
    October 9, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Hi,
    I have purchased a Reebok Pure + cross trainer/exercise bike second hand and I dont have a user guide, it seems fairly easy to set up etc but I would like to know exactly what it can do. Any tips or do you know where I might be able to find a user guide/manual?
    Thanks,
    Teresa

  49. MotleyHealth
    October 12, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Hi Teresa, have you looked here: http://www.reebokfitness.info/user-manuals/
    You can also contact Reebok direct here: http://www.reebokfitness.info/contact-us/

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