If you tend to gravitate toward the elliptical when you go to the gym, you're not alone. The machine offers a low-impact workout that's kind to your joints while still getting your heart rate up and leaving your muscles feeling the good kind of sore. That said, if you're making any of these common mistakes, you may not be getting as rigorous of a workout as you think — or worse, you could be putting yourself at risk of an injury. Experts share the pitfalls they see most often and how to perfect your form.
1. You Never Turn Up the Resistance
"Many people use the elliptical because it's joint-friendly, but without resistance, you're not challenging yourself enough to elevate your heart rate," Alex Carneiro, an ACSM-certified personal trainer in Denver, CO, told POPSUGAR. Getting your heart rate up is essential for burning calories and fat (find your target heart rate here), but if you never check the resistance level or leave it at zero, your muscles also aren't working hard enough for you to see the gains you'd expect from the work you've put in.
2. You Slouch
The second most common mistake Alex sees is slouching to the point that you're "almost resting on the handles." You'll get a more effective workout when you stand up straight, which allows you to better engage your working muscles, including your glutes and core. Plus, it's safer. "[Poor posture] can cause lower back discomfort and injuries," he said.
3. You Push Too Hard With Your Toes
It may seem like a small thing, but the position of your feet on the elliptical can make all the difference. If you notice that your toes go numb mid-workout, it's likely you're placing too much weight on the front of your feet, Alex explained. Instead, shift back onto your heels to fire your muscles and eliminate that discomfort.
4. You Rely on the Machine's "Calories Burned"
Unfortunately, the numbers on cardio machines are often inaccurate. "They estimate the amount of calories burned if you put in your age, weight, and height," Morgan Rees, an ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach in Los Angeles, told POPSUGAR. "Some machines rely on even less information than that. These numbers are not individualized to your body."
Instead of taking the machine at its word, Morgan recommends wearing a tracker that can estimate your calorie burn based on your heart rate. If you don't have one, you can still manually count your beats per minute to ensure you're hitting that target heart rate. "Try to keep your heart rate up for at least 15 to 20 minutes of your elliptical session," she said.
5. You Work the Same Muscles Over and Over
To get the most from your workout, it's important to switch up your routine. For example, you might pedal backward on the elliptical or add some incline to target different muscles. "A higher incline puts more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings, whereas a flat level provides an overall lower-body workout, including the calves and quads," Alan Snyder, DPT, a licensed doctor of physical therapy who has a private orthopedic practice in New York City, told POPSUGAR.
6. You Bounce Up and Down
"Like walking or running, the body should maintain a level position while using the elliptical," Rocky Snyder, CSCS, told POPSUGAR. In other words, you shouldn't be bobbing up and down as you move through your stride. Staying level reduces excess impact on the joints and prevents you from "cheating" the movement by using your weight and gravity to drive the pedals around. "It's harder but worth it in the long run for healthier joints and higher caloric burn," Rocky said.
7. You Don't Engage Your Core
Even if you're not slouched over the handles, paying little attention to your core can put undue stress on your lower back, explained Lauren Murray, an ACSM-certified personal trainer at Houston Methodist. When you're on the elliptical, "draw your belly button into your spine while you continue to breathe," she told POPSUGAR.
8. You Stick to One Setting
While you may be tempted to choose the "fat burn" setting every time you get on the elliptical — and that's fine occasionally — it's best to try a variety of workouts. "Even using the manual setting and alternating between fast and moderate intensity would be a great option to switch things up," Morgan said.
9. You Keep Your Hands Tied Up
You might be inclined to hold on to the elliptical's handles for the duration of your workout, but they're not really meant to be used for long periods of time. "By gripping the immovable, stable handles, the body reduces its need to be stable," Rocky said. "This means that not only are you finding a way to compensate for your lack of balance, but the small muscles that help transfer force through your frame don't need to do their job." Doing this consistently will affect your posture and can increase your risk of injuries like tendinitis, lower-back pain, and other musculoskeletal issues.
If the elliptical has moving handles, it's OK to hold on to them, Rocky explained — just be mindful of your posture and engage your upper body to help propel the motion, then take breaks from the handles to more effectively focus on balance, core strengthening, and calorie burning.
10. You Only Use the Elliptical
"Many people think that the elliptical will provide everything they need in order to be fit overall, but it is important to remember that the elliptical cannot build muscle or strengthen bones," Jennifer Bailey, an NASM-certified personal trainer, told POPSUGAR. She explained that a variety of strength training is needed in addition to cardio. "It's also important to remember to switch up the use of cardio machines so that you don't burn out on one routine and find yourself in a slump," Jennifer added.