Ellipticals are excellent cardio equipment for boosting the heart rate, burning calories and increasing endurance. But can these also help with muscle building? And if so, what muscles does elliptical work?

An elliptical machine is ideal for building muscles as it allows full-body exercises. Pedalling targets your lower body muscles, while the movable handlebars work your arms and chest. Your midsection or core also gets an effective workout as it keeps your entire body stable on the elliptical.

However, some exercise guidelines are necessary to develop specific muscle groups on the elliptical.

Read on to find out how to optimise your machine for muscle development.

I’m also sharing other tips to make your elliptical muscle-building routine more effective.

What Muscles Does Elliptical Work?

Ellipticals target a variety of muscle groups, and some say about 80% of them. There’s no research validating this, though.

However, one study concluded that compared with treadmills and bikes, ellipticals generate higher muscle activation.

Researchers linked this finding to the upper-body exercise you can do on the machine.

Another research also confirmed that ellipticals encourage muscle activity, more so when you add variable speed, hand positioning and stride lengths.

While elliptical exercises will not turn you into a bodybuilder, they can surely enhance your muscle strength and improve your physique.

Here are some major muscle groups you can develop during your elliptical routine.

Person facing the sun pedalling on an elliptical cross trainer in the gym

Lower-body muscles

The muscles of the lower limbs take the most impact from your elliptical exercise. These include your calves, hamstrings, quads and gluteal muscles.


These are the muscles at the back of your lower legs. The elliptical builds them up by encouraging the movement called plantar flexion.

This action involves putting pressure on the ball of your foot as you step on the pedals.

  • How-to train: Adjust the incline or increase the resistance of your elliptical if you want to develop your calves more.
  • Benefits: Elliptical training for calves reduces fatigue during long-distance runs, stabilises feet and ankles to avoid injury, and strengthens your knee joints.


The hamstring muscles are at the back of your legs. They work during your elliptical exercise as you move and flex your knees.

  • How-to train: Increasing the machine’s incline should give your hamstrings a good workout.
  • Benefits: Strengthening your hamstrings improves stability, prevents pain (due to extended sitting hours), and enhances flexibility.


The quads are a big muscle group at the front of your thighs. You get to contract and work them out as you push your foot down on the elliptical machine.

  • How-to train: Pedalling backwards is the best quad burner. It also results in a higher caloric burn, considering it’s a large muscle group. You can also pedal in reverse to break exercise monotony and fitness plateau.
  • Benefits: Exercising your quads stabilises your knees and prevents injuries. If you are into compound lifting, strengthening these muscles also powers up your deadlifts and squats.


As you flex your thigh muscles, you also target your bottom or glutes.

These muscles become more active through hip extension or the backward movement of your thighs.

  • How-to train: Like the quads, pedal backwards to put your gluteal muscles to work on the elliptical. Try increasing the resistance, too. Then, keep the handlebars still and slightly tilt your buttocks backwards.
  • Benefits: Training the glutes helps release tight muscles. It also improves your posture and reduces back problems.
A muscular man working out on an elliptical trainer

Upper-body muscles

The movable bar handles of the elliptical trainer allow you to target the muscles of the upper limbs.

These include your abdominal, chest, arm and back muscles.


Any cardio workout engages the abdominal muscles to some degree.

In an elliptical routine, your core muscles keep your upper and lower body balanced and aligned.

  • How-to train: Keep your form correct, your back straight, and your core tight while walking or jogging on the elliptical. And give equal attention to both legs. Also, avoid putting too much weight on the handles since this decreases core muscle engagement.
  • Benefits: Tightening the core increases the energy transfer to other muscle groups. It also improves your posture and tones your stomach wall.


The chest or pectoral muscles are part of your “pushing” muscles.

  • How-to train: Push the mobile elliptical handles to activate your pecs.
  • Benefits: Chest exercises strengthen your shoulders and improve your overhead press.

Triceps and biceps

These make up your arm muscles, but they have different functions. Specifically, your triceps are part of the pushing muscle group.

On the other hand, the biceps are pulling muscles. You get to target these on the elliptical through the elbow flexion.

This movement happens as you pull your shoulder blades together and back.

  • How-to train: Push the movable handles to work out your triceps, then pull them to target the biceps.
  • Benefits: Triceps training significantly powers your upper body, allowing you to do more push-ups or lift heavier weights. It also enlarges your arms. Strengthening the biceps makes everyday tasks like lifting heavy objects easier, too.


As you pull the handles, the elliptical machine targets the back by working out your large dorsal or the “V” muscle.

  • How-to train: Increase the resistance for a better back workout on the elliptical.
  • Benefits: Exercising your back stabilises your spine. It also protects you from back injuries when doing everyday activities.
Heart detector bars of an elliptical cross trainer

How Can I Build Muscles on an Elliptical More Effectively?

We now know the answer to “what muscles does elliptical work?”.

But there are other ways to improve your fitness routine for increased muscle development.

Follow and incorporate these tips into your fitness goals and next elliptical workout.

Eat a healthy diet. 

Consume enough calories to energise your body and grow muscles. Make sure to eat at least every 3 hours and not skip breakfast.

Also, include more fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats in your meals. And don’t forget to stay hydrated.

Do interval training. 

To intensify your elliptical workout, increase the incline or resistance level.

Aside from burning calories, either of these changes can engage different muscle groups.

When you’re ready, try doing an interval program. Switch your elliptical settings at a specific time.

For example, perform fast bursts for a few seconds before returning to normal pedalling.

You can also alternately pedal forward and backward to exercise different lower-body muscles. Check the built-in programs in your machine as well.

Use the right elliptical trainer. 

Resistance, incline, movable handlebars and built-in programs are some of the elliptical features that can help build muscles.

So, when possible, choose a machine that has these functions. The NordicTrack 9.9 Elliptical is an excellent example.

However, you can always improvise if you already own an elliptical without some of these muscle-building features.

For instance, incorporate dumbbell workouts into your routine. Getting a portable home gym is another alternative.

Go hands-free. 

Occasionally, remove your hands from the elliptical handles and pump your arms as if running.

Going hands-free engages your core more as it keeps your body balanced on the elliptical. It also intensifies your leg workout for better results.


What muscles does elliptical work? It looks like it targets the upper and lower body muscles, making it a well-rounded machine.

And with proper exercise habits, a healthy diet, and the best elliptical machine, you’ll build up those muscles in no time.

A group of fit people working out on elliptical machines in a gym

1. Are 20 minutes on the elliptical good?

A 20-minute elliptical session can result in a 150-calorie deficit. You can do this for 5-6 days per week to start seeing results within a month or two. But progress is more evident in the 8th or 10th week. You can also speed up the effects through interval training and pedalling variations or adjusting the incline and resistance settings.

2. What should my stride length be on an elliptical?

Using an elliptical trainer with a 20-inch (51 cm) stride length suits people who are 175 cm tall (5’9”). Petite individuals (165 cm and below) should be fine with an 18-inch (46 cm) stride or less. An optimised stride length lets you target and activate the right muscles. In turn, you get optimum toning and calorie burn.