Three Reasons I Like Elliptical Machines, Two Reasons I Don’t, and How I Use Them

I’m not a fan of “chronic cardio” – the endless running on a treadmill or cycling or stair climbing done under the illusion that it’s the best, and in some people’s minds, the only way to burn fat. Yes, you can burn calories which then may turn into fat loss but chronic cardio takes a lot of time and the “after burn” – calories you continue to expend once the exercise has stopped – is much lower for it than many other types of exercise.

But there are a few things I like about certain machines such as the elliptical and there are ways to use it that can help you get more fit and increase the after burn.

So, what do I like?

  1. Elliptical machines are generally joint friendly because they can easily deliver gravity or sub-gravity loads – the force they produce in the joints is either body weight level or less. Running, for example,  produces forces in excess of 2.5 times body weight – in the category of super-gravity.
  2. Because they’re joint friendly, you can use this machine to help “lube” your joints. The synovial fluid in your knee or hip joint for example, reduces friction and also acts as an additional layer of force absorption. In people who have conditions like degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis, the fluid is thinner; a watery-like quality. Sub-gravity motion will help your synovial fluid develop a thicker quality and your joints will feel looser; more “normal”. Now, the really good news is that if you do this enough, the health of your joint improves as well. It gets stronger.
  3. Shorter, more intense intervals of effort, increase the after burn of the exercise. What I usually start people on is a 3:1 ratio of rest to work and then gradually progress to 1:3 rest to work. So, you would work hard for 15 seconds and then go easy for 45 seconds repeating that for about 20 minutes. In my routines, I started with the 3:1 and now use 1:3 for about 45 minutes; some days an hour. You know you’ve done some work with this formula. Granted, as you increase the effort (which is either resistance or speed), you start moving out of gravity loads into super-gravity – which is a good thing.

Now for the two things I don’t like.

  1. The ankle to knee angle relationship. On some machines, your ankle will move through a lot more dorsiflexion which can increase the load into the knee through a torsion effect on the joint. If you look at the image of the three machines, image #1 has a much more acute angle of at the ankle than the other two machines. This gets a little technical but the more acute the angle the more twisting force occurs at the knee. So, if you consider that you’ll spend 20-40 minutes and take perhaps up to 1000 of more steps, the total force into the knee can be quite high. And, the meniscus, which is what I injured, really doesn’t like twisting type loads.
  2. Boredom reigns. Why do you think gyms have TV’s either embedded in the machines or hung overhead? Right. To keep your mind occupied. I beat this with an iPad and a Netflix subscription. I can “lube” all of my weightbearing joints, keep my spine, knees, and ankles happy and healthy and not go completely stir crazy. And, I watched the complete series of Battlestar Gallactica. Quite cool.

Now, just to drive home the point about caloric burn, if I hop on an elliptical machine, at my body weight of ~200 lbs, and use a moderate level of effort for 45 minutes, I’ll burn about 480 calories. Not bad. But I do a couple of other things that can increase that burn to over 750 calories and as a fringe benefit, elevate my metabolism for another 24 hours. Here’s how I do it.

  • I use intervals. Hard, fast as I can go, for 45 seconds followed by an easy 15 seconds.
  • I wear a weighted vest. I started with 10 lbs and worked my way up to 20. I found that my body would acclimate to the load and I couldn’t “run” fast enough to ramp up my heart rate in those 45 seconds without the extra load.
  • I hold a dumb bell in one hand for the first minute then switch to the other hand for the second minute. This one sided weight does a couple of things for me. It increases the work load but it also activates my core muscles to help me hold my spine straight. the weight in my hand pulls my trunk to that side and my muscles have to work to hold my body straight. I started with five pounds and have increased it to 20 lbs (over about three months).
  • I use a light weight PVC pipe filled with about 5 lbs of sand to do some over head presses. Any time you use your arms overhead, you increase your heart rate.
  • I use hand weights and perform punching motions during the interval. I started with just simple 2 lb neoprene style weights that wrapped around the wrist then graduated to five pounds. I would take it higher but haven’t been able to find any heavier weights (besides there’s a good chance with heavier weights and a nice quick punch, I might just throw my self off the machine). I have tried dumb bells but they’re a little awkward to hold during the rest period and impossible to rest on the machine that I have.

Would I prefer to run outdoors? Sure. And I do. But, running outdoors, at least for me, also has a relatively high boredom index. So, in my case, considering what I’m trying to achieve with my training, an elliptical works well.

For you, remember to pay attention to the knee and ankle angles and if your body tolerates the loads, use the shorter, more intense training intervals to get the most out of your sessions.

Do you use an elliptical? What do you like about it or not like?

References:

King, J., Panton, L., Broeder, C., Browder, K., Quindry, J., & Rhea, L. (2001). A comparison of high intensity vs. low intensity exercise on body composition in overweight women. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise ,33 , A2421

Treuth, M.S., Hunter, G.R., & Williams, M. (1996). Effects of exercise intensity on 24-h energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise ,28 , 1138-1143 Christmass, M.A., Dawson, B., & Arthur, P.G. (1999). Effect of work and recovery duration on skeletal muscle oxygenation and fuel use during sustained intermittent exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology ,80 , 436-447


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About Doug Kelsey

DK_bball_post Doug Kelsey is a physical therapist and healthy lifestyle “guru”. Doug is formerly an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for Clinical Affairs at the University of Oklahoma Health Science and is the owner of Sports Center Physical Therapy in Austin, Tx. He writes on how to “actively age” – how to get healthy and fit over your lifetime and take charge of your health. He and his brother Joshua created the ActiveAge Blueprint.

Photo: Big Fat Rat

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  1. […] Oh and just to clear something up about “cardio” – it does exist in Fusion. In almost every Element. What you’re referring to that doesn’t exist is chronic cardio – a form of steady state exercise usually performed on a bike, elliptical, treadmill but could also include jogging or running as a main form of exercise to promote fat loss. I wrote about that here. And there’s some science that suggests that chronic cardio may actually be bad for your heart. Fusion is, well, as the name implies, a blend of movements and exercises to achieve a whole body level of fitness and health. And here’s an article I wrote what I like and don’t like about ellipticals. […]