Elliptical trainers are a group of stationary exercise machines that simulate climbing, cycling, running, or walking. Sometimes abbreviated ellipticals, they are also called elliptical exercise machines and elliptical training machines. The activities of climbing, cycling, running, or walking all cause downward pressure on the body's joints. However, elliptical training machines simulate these actions with only a fraction of the associated joint pressures. Elliptical trainers are found in fitness centers and health clubs, and increasingly inside homes. Besides providing a low-impact exercise, these machines also offer a good cardiovascular workout.
The elliptical trainer was introduced into the fitness industry in the 1990s. These early rudimentary machines exercised only the lower body. The first one to exercise both the upper and lower parts of the body came on the market in 1997. It was manufactured by the American company Smooth Fitness (now, InternetFitness.com , LLC), which in 2011 was still one of the top retailers of ellipticals, treadmills, and home fitness and exercise equipment.
The first patent for an elliptical trainer came from General Motors employee Larry D. Miller in 2004. Miller was inspired to patent his design after filming his daughter running alongside his vehicle. He found that her motion approximated the shape of an ellipse. Precor, Inc. bought the patent from Miller, and it went on to develop and add the elliptical trainer to their EFX line. Today, over 100 different models of elliptical trainers are in use in the United States.
Elliptical trainers come in many sizes and shapes and range in cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the quality and availability of features. Elliptical machines contain articulating (moveable, adjustable) foot pedals or plates, which conform to the natural elliptical stride on the machine. The feet maintain contact with the pedals as they continually adjust to the angle of the elliptical motion. Because the feet do not rise up off the pedals, less pressure is placed on the joints. The foot pedals drive the motion of the machine.
A wide range of resistance levels is often included with ellipticals, either as a manual control (when a motor is not available) or electronically on the control panel (when a motor is present). Many resistance levels provide more ability for the user to control the intensity of the workout, which therefore allows for more health and fitness benefits to the body.
Most ellipticals also have arm handles that are either stationary or movable. If stationary, then the hands are placed at the sides or are held at chest level by a cross bar. If they are movable, then hands are placed on them as they move in unison with the feet.
A fixed or adjustable incline is included with the machine. An adjustable incline adds intensity to the workouts due to the simulation of hill climbing to various degrees.
Three basic types of elliptical machines are available: self-driven, front-driven, or center-driven. The self-driven models do not use a motor. The motion of the legs and (sometimes) the arms drives the foot pedals. Because no motor is included, an adjustable incline is not available. The front-driven machine uses a motor located on the front of the elliptical, where a single axle turns the pedals. It powers the machine, along with changing the amount of resistance and the degree of incline on the platform.
The center-drive ellipticals have a motor positioned between two axles positioned on the front and the back of the machine. The center-drive elliptical is considered the best overall type of elliptical trainer on the market.
Ellipticals allow users to customize the intensity and type of workouts based on personal goals and fitness levels. The degree of incline and the rate of speed are just two of numerous features that can be adjusted on these machines. Many of these features are displayed in front of the user on a control panel (display console). These elliptical machines usually also include a built-in heartrate monitor and pre-programmed routines such as those that emphasis fat-burning (weight loss), cardiovascular improvement, hill training, and endurance, along with warm-up and cool-down periods. Some also contain built-in television monitors and various audio and video accessories.
One important feature of elliptical trainers is the stride length. It will vary, usually from 14–22 in. (35.6–55.9 cm). The smaller the stride length, the less smooth the motion; that is, the less elliptical (more circular) the movement, which will cause the ride to be more rough and bouncy. Many exercise trainers recommend a stride length of at least 18 in. (45.7 cm) if a smoother ride is desired.
Some of the brand names for elliptical trainers include Diamondback, Eclipse, Kettler, LifeCore, Life Fitness, LiveStrong, Nautilus, New Balance, Nordic Track, Octane, Precor, ProForm, Reebok, Schwinn, Smooth Fitness, Sole Fitness, Spirit, True, Tunturi, Vision Fitness, Westo, and Yowza Fitness.
Elliptical trainers help users to stay physically fit and healthy, build endurance and strength, and lose weight, while providing a low-impact aerobic workout that helps to reduce the risk from injuries. The motion of the elliptical trainer simulates the natural movement of running and stepping. Using the elliptical trainer provides a very good cardiovascular workout with only a minimum risk of injury. Good cardiovascular health helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Overall, elliptical trainers provide a good foundation for a regular fitness program.
The leg motions of the elliptical trainer exercise the gluteus maximus (glutes), quadriceps femoris (quads), hamstrings, and calves when the user is standing upright. If the user is bending forward while exercising, then the glutes will gain most of the benefit from the exercise. The arm motions of the elliptical trainer benefit many muscles of the upper body such as the biceps (biceps brachii), triceps (triceps brachii), rear delts (deltoids), lats (latissimus dorsi), traps (trapezius), and pectorals (pectoralis major and minor). However, since the elliptical trainer provides an aerobic workout, the primary muscle that is exercised is the heart.
Plenty of safety features should be included in elliptical trainers. The machine should offer warm-up and cool-down periods. Efficiently placed handrails provide balance support without getting in the way of the actual workout. The console should be easy to use and well organized. If purchasing an elliptical, a good warranty should be included, preferably one that lasts one year for labor and one to two years for parts. Also when buying, make sure the organization has a trained staff to service the equipment. It is always advisable to try out several elliptical trainers before buying one, to make sure they satisfy the workout requirements and include all the features most important for the user.
Three common injuries suffered on elliptical trainers are muscle aches, knee stress, and calf strains. Muscle soreness or aches are caused by overuse of the elliptical trainer. Using the same muscle group for a long time can produce such problems. The knees may be forced into improper alignment due to the design of elliptical trainers, and additional stresses on the knee have been found when the heels are kept fixed on the foot pedals.
Calf strains sometimes occur because the natural elliptical motion of the elliptical trainer places extra stress on the calf muscles. To reduce the chance of such injuries, persons should visit a medical professional, such as a family doctor, to make sure they are physically fit to begin working out on an elliptical trainer. Personal trainers or other such trained physical fitness experts can advise on the proper use of elliptical trainers.
Generally, do not overuse elliptical trainers in any one session to minimize the risk of injuries. In addition, do not use elliptical trainers every day. Skip at least one day between workouts. To further reduce the chance of injuries on ellipticals, perform a warm-up period before working out. Stretching exercises done before an elliptical workout, along with beginning at a slow pace, will increase the chances of having a workout free of injury and pain.
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William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA