Elliptical machines are an effective mode of introducing low impact exercise, in a way that closely mimics walking and jogging.[1] There are numerous health benefits to be gained from using an elliptical. This article seeks to cover some of those benefits, and more specifically, how elliptical training can benefit the knees.

Using an elliptical machine is similar to treadmill exercise when it comes to calories burned, activating multiple muscle groups, utilising increased joint range, plus building stronger lungs and heart – but in a low stress environment more comparable to cycling.

So, why not just use a bike? Well, elliptical machines are unique in that they require more hip and core control, versus a bike, to maintain an upright posture. This translates more efficiently to the day-to-day requirements of a healthy knee.

As always, if you are unsure if this exercise is appropriate for you then check with your local physician before starting.

Elliptical workout tips - are ellipticals good for knees

Benefits of using an elliptical

1. You can build strength around the knees

Elliptical workouts develop strength endurance in your quads, Glutes, hamstrings, and ankle muscles. All of this helps to offload sore or arthritic knees.

By having your feet constantly in contact with the pedals you reduce rotational movement which helps to decrease strain on the protective cartilage of the joint.

Not only this but the exercise is considered closed chain (feet stay planted at all times) which make it more stable and less impactful.

2. Low impact for knees and joints, but not low intensity

A group of people training on elliptical machines

Whilst it might be known as a low impact workout for the joints, by no means does that make it low intensity. Elliptical training can still offer a great workout for pumping blood around the body and improving both cardiovascular and aerobic conditioning.

Most modern elliptical machines allow you to increase speed and resistance to suit the desired intensity for your workout goals. When utilised properly you can still burn between 175-225 calories per half an hour using this machine.

Low impact cardio workouts can be especially useful to those who experience knee pain commonly when running or walking. The reduced stress on the knee joints is often more comfortable and allows you to maintain a high intensity calorie burn whilst still challenging the neuromuscular and cardiovascular system.

For those who are new to the world of exercise, low-impact exercise allows you to get in to the swing of a regular workout routine whilst not requiring the strong muscles and stable joints required for activities such as CrossFit and circuit-training.

For those who find an elliptical still leads to discomfort in the knee, you may find a stationary bike a more suitable workout. In that case, check out our recent article on stationary bikes for knee rehabilitation.

3. You can use it to aid injury rehabilitation

Elliptical trainers can be advantageous to use after knee injuries or surgery when perhaps you might not be ready to go back to road/ treadmill running. The low impact, closed chain, nature of the exercise is gentler on the knees, and has a positive effect on circulation of fluid in and around the joints. This all helps to aid and accelerate the healing process.[2]

By keeping the feet planted on the pedals of the exercise equipment, as opposed to repetitive ground contact when running, rotational forces are reduced and stress on the joints is much less. This offers much more stability, which in turn is far more comfortable and easy to control.

It is important to consider the type of injury or surgery you have had as some come with strict precautions and timeframes for re-introducing different types of exercise. For this reason, I would always recommend following the guidance of your physiotherapist or surgeon before jumping right in.

An elliptical also allows the user to change a variety of settings, including Pace, stride length, arm movements and resistance. Additionally, unlike a treadmill you can also change some elliptical machines to work in reverse, which helps to bias strength building along the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes).

This selective targeting of muscle groups, in a low stress environment, is often perfect for building the right foundation blocks to return to other perhaps more high impact activities.

woman using an elliptical cross trainer

How to use an elliptical

First, ensure that your elliptical is set up appropriately for use. Before climbing on board, make sure that you are familiar with all the functions and features.

Elliptical machines often have two sets of handlebars, one set that moves and allows natural shoulder and arm swing, another which is fixed more centrally.

It may be more prudent to start with the fixed central handlebars that require less core stability, until you feel comfortable and have developed sufficient core control to progress.

Warm Up

A suitable warm up helps reduce the risk of injury during a workout.  Make sure to ease in to physical activity, starting with a few slow stretches and getting the legs, arms, and torso gently moving. Some easy ways of achieving this would be seated pedaling, slow walking on a treadmill, and low resistance on the elliptical.

Wear the appropriate clothing/ footwear: 

Stiff, unnatural movements, because of poor or inappropriate shoes can affect posture and comfort whilst exercising.

Make sure that you wear a suitable pair of trainers that offer enough foot and ankle support, whilst not becoming restrictive to movement. Often a pair of trainers that cut below the anklebone are recommended in order to allow sufficient movement in the joint.

Start easy, build up slowly:

Consider using the central fixed handlebars first to aid balance and help to offload the lower extremities. 

Start slow with the pace, light with the resistance, and slowly progress over time. Any knee or hip pain should not be ignored, stop if you feel uncomfortable at any time.

As always, if your goal is to use an elliptical trainer for knee injury or post-surgery rehabilitation then you should always seek the advice of a physical therapist or suitably qualified trainer before starting.

[1] Judith M. Burnfield, Yu Shu, Thad Buster, Adam Taylor, Similarity of Joint Kinematics and Muscle Demands Between Elliptical Training and Walking: Implications for Practice, Physical Therapy, Volume 90, Issue 2, 1 February 2010, Pages 289–305, https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20090033

[2] 2011. Medifocus Guidebook On: Osteoarthritis Of The Knees. 1st ed. [ebook] Silver Springs: medifocus.com, p.29.[Accessed 25 November 2021].

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