Does Elliptical Build Muscle? (No!)

March 4, 2022

If you’re looking for unique ways to build muscle, the elliptical is probably the last piece of equipment you’d consider. And for a good reason.

The elliptical does not build muscle as there is little mechanical tension or metabolite build-up to satisfy the key mechanisms of muscle growth.

If the elliptical doesn’t build muscle, why do you feel like your muscles had a great workout? And what are the other benefits of using the elliptical?

What Muscles Are Worked Doing Elliptical?

The elliptical could be considered a full-body cardio workout. Unlike running, which works only the leg muscles, the elliptical works the calves, quads, glutes, shoulders, and arms. The elliptical design incorporates the shoulders and arms into the movement through the handles.

Does Elliptical Build Muscle?

While the elliptical works many muscles, it does not build muscle (aka hypertrophy). Forget what the fitness magazines have sold you. Unfortunately, most of their information is misguided at best. Building muscle requires high levels of mechanical tension and metabolic stress [1].

Don’t worry about these fancy terms. Generating high levels of mechanical tension is simply about lifting heavy weights through stretch. Also known as using a full range of motion. But heavy lifting isn’t the only way to maximize tension on the muscles.

Lifting light loads to failure or very close to failure (i.e., high levels of effort) also creates a lot of tension within the muscle [2]. On the other hand, metabolic stress is associated with the “burning” sensation you get during the last few reps of a challenging exercise set.

This burning sensation is the build-up of by-products from energy production, stimulating muscle growth but negatively affecting force production [3].

Unfortunately, while the elliptical may cause your muscles to burn initially, there isn’t enough resistance or range of motion to create enough tension to signal muscle growth. Further, the elliptical is a concentric only (muscle shortening) exercise.

The eccentric phase (muscle lengthening) of an exercise is important for hypertrophy, where most muscle damage occurs under high mechanical tension [4]. Overall, if you’re using the elliptical to build muscle, there are much better options, such as lifting weights.

Benefits Of The Elliptical

Does The Elliptical Build Leg Muscle

So, why use the elliptical if it doesn’t help you build muscle?

Develop Cardiovascular Fitness

The primary purpose of using the elliptical is to develop cardiovascular fitness. Depending on the intensity and duration of your workout, you can primarily target aerobic or anaerobic energy system development. For example, a long slow workout will mainly stimulate aerobic adaptations to the heart and muscles.

A short and sharp HIIT workout will still develop some aerobic qualities but mainly stimulate anaerobic adaptations such as tolerating high metabolic by-product build-up within the muscles.

No Impact

In my experience, this is the number one benefit of the elliptical. There is no thudding impact when using it. Going for a run is great since you only need a pair of running shoes before you head out the door. But pounding the pavement can be aggravating on the joints for many individuals.

The elliptical removes this impact so you can enjoy a running-like motion without the joint pounding present when running.

Full Body Exercise

Exercises like cycling and running are primarily lower body cardio exercises. This means adaptations mainly occur in the lower body muscles. On the other hand, the elliptical is a whole-body cardio exercise making it easier to increase your heart rate since more muscles are involved in the exercise.

Further, you can gain some upper body conditioning adaptations that you would not get when cycling or running.

Frequently Asked Questions About Elliptical Building Muscle

Does Elliptical Build Arm Muscles

Here are some frequently asked questions about building muscle with the elliptical.

Does Elliptical Build Arm Muscles?

While the arms are heavily involved when using the elliptical, especially when sprinting, it does not build arm muscles. There is not enough resistance placed on the arm muscles resulting in little tension. The stimulus isn’t strong enough to signal a muscle-building response.

Does The Elliptical Build Glutes?

I’m yet to do an elliptical session without my glutes burning. This may seem like a great sign for the elliptical to be a booty builder. However, the same issues arise where there is not enough range of motion of tension placed on the glutes as there is very little resistance.

Does The Elliptical Build Leg Muscle?

While the legs are the main drivers of your elliptical workout, it’s not going to add muscle mass to your thighs. There is minimal range of motion and resistance, resulting in little mechanical tension on the muscles.

Does Elliptical Build Calf Muscles?

The role of the calf muscles is to dorsiflex the ankle (e.g., standing on your toes) and help with flexing the knee. While your heel may lift slightly on the elliptical, it is not enough resistance to build muscle.

Can You Get Abs From Using The Elliptical?

You can get abs from using the elliptical, but it’s not directly because of it. You can use any piece of cardio equipment and get abs. Instead, it comes down to your caloric intake. You must be eating fewer calories than you are burning throughout the day for a consistent period.

This is the only way to reduce body fat and be lean enough to show your abs. Using the elliptical helps as you expend energy (calories). Meaning you don’t need to restrict your food intake as much.

Essentially, you create a caloric deficit by using more calories instead of reducing your caloric intake.

Is It Ok To Elliptical Every Day?

If this is something you genuinely enjoy (or maybe you love self-punishment), then you can elliptical every day. However, there are diminishing returns for fat loss or cardiovascular fitness goals. Your body gets used to the stimulus you throw at it.

After a short while, your body becomes very efficient at the movement on the elliptical so that you will expend less energy at similar intensities.

At some point, to spur further progress, you’ll need to vary the exercise modality, so you are using different movements.

Summary

If working out on the elliptical built muscle, you’d see it in every muscle building training program. Unfortunately, the elliptical doesn’t provide enough resistance or range of motion to induce hypertrophy. Instead, you need to lift weights through a full range of motion to maximize the muscle-building response.

References

1. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

2. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Sports medicine43(3), 179-194.

4. Douglas, J., Pearson, S., Ross, A., & McGuigan, M. (2017). Chronic adaptations to eccentric training: a systematic review. Sports Medicine47(5), 917-941.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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