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.

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).

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

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.

55 Comments on “Cross Training / Elliptical Workouts”

  1. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Hiba, it won’t be possible to only lose your belly fat. But with weight training / resistance training you can maintain your weight by building more muscle. It will be hard to do this with cardio. If you want to just lose belly fat you need to improve diet and get fit.

  2. Hi

    I have now been using my cross trainer for nearly 10 weeks, I have seen a difference in my body shape, and have increased my workout on a hit training for 1 hour 6 times a week. Can you please tell me what other exercises i can do on my stomach to reduce the fat, as i am desperate to target this area.

    I would be grateful for your comments.

    Kind regards


  3. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Naz, start doing some resistance exercise to help build more muscle. See our weight training section for more on this.

  4. Hi,

    I have started using the Trojan fluid 300 elliptical cross trainer about 10 days ago, working out from home along with crunches and ball exercise. I weighed 75kgs when I started and now I weigh 69kgs 5’3 height, age 39 and want to lose weight overall specially the tummy due to a c-section and tone up.
    I am eating healthy and seem to have lost weight but my concern is I use the elliptical for 1 hour, 2kms distance but the calorie burn only show up to 30 or 40. I adjust the incline to different levels and even pedal reverse.
    Am i doing this correctly? I see people burning many calories in 1 hour.
    Secondly, what is the best time to exercise?

    Thank you.

  5. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Chandni, 40 Calories burned in one hour does not sound right, but if you have lost 6 kilos in 10 days I really would not worry about what the machine says – go by what the scales are telling you!

    The best time to exercise varies from person to person really. The best time is the time when you feel most comfortable. I am an evening person – my legs just don’t want to move in the mornings. But some people love a morning run. We are all different really.

    Mind you, if you are planning to do some weight training, and you should do some to help tone your midsection, late afternoon is the best time. See here:

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