This is a concern that comes up all the time. People will often say "I don't feel like I'm getting a good workout on the elliptical." Or they will ask a question like "Is the elliptical an effective workout?"
It seems that there is a lot of misconception out there about aerobic exercising for weight loss and general fitness. People tend to feel that they should feel like they are getting a good workout to make it worthwhile. The truth is, if you feel like you are getting a good workout, you're probably working too hard and harming your body in the process.
Here's a common scenario I see. Someone will start using an elliptical machine and at first they will feel challenged by it. This is because their bodies are just getting used to this type of exercise. After a while though, they will start to feel like it is too easy and think that they aren't getting any results.
Often times they will step up their resistance level and/or speed because they feel like they need to break a sweat or feel their heart pounding in order to get a good workout on the elliptical. This is a misconception. If you can feel your heart pounding or have trouble carrying a conversation without losing breath after your workout, your heart rate is probably too high and your body will start to sabotage your muscle to get energy to burn.
This is where a good understanding of the different heart rate zones comes in handy. One thing to look for in an elliptical trainer is one that comes with a chest strap. That way you can keep an accurate count of your heart rate. There are basically four heart rate zones I want to discuss:
Not Doing Enough Zone:
This is a very light workout where your heart rate remains under 100 bpm. If you are in this zone, chances are you aren't working hard enough and will have to go longer to see results. Personally, I think it is very hard to stay this low with an elliptical because of the design of the machine. You are practically forced to work out harder than this.
The Fat Burn Zone:
This is the zone you want to be the most concerned with if you want to loose weight. To stay in this zone, you want to maintain a heart rate of 100-140 bpm. You will also get a good aerobic exercise which will help your heart and can lower your cholesterol AND you will tone your muscle, which is good for your metabolism. It's a good idea to aim to stay in this zone for about 30-45 minutes.
It can be very tempting to feel like you need to work harder than this. It doesn't take much work at all to hit the high end of this zone, and it doesn't feel like that much of a workout most of the time.
The Cardio Zone:
This is from about 140-170 bpm. This zone is great for your heart, but it's not as good for weight loss. That being said, it's still a good idea to aim to stay in this zone for about 15-30 minutes. Further down in this article I will discuss strategies to get a good workout by mixing the Cardio Zone with the Fat Burn Zone.
One of the reasons this zone is important for weight loss is that you will burn calories fairly fast. However, there is a common misconception that burning more calories by staying in this zone longer will yield better weight loss results than staying in the Fat Burn Zone, which burns fewer calories.
It's important to realize that weight loss is not all about calories in an calories out, as many people think. It has a lot to do with the type of calories coming in and where the calories going out are being burned from. More on this later.
The Too Much Zone:
Anything over 170 or bpm is too much for most people. Unless you are really fit and have good understanding of fitness nutrition, I'd avoid entering this zone at all. In this zone, you will be burning too many calories too fast and your body will bypass the energy stored in fat and go directly to a faster source of energy, your muscles. Your muscles will be eaten up to supply you with the energy to maintain this level of effort.
Strategies To Get A Good Elliptical Workout:
There are 3 different strategies I would like to talk about to help you get a good workout with your elliptical trainer. It is important to track your heart rate so either use the chest strap that comes with many elliptical trainers or buy a heart rate monitor to use.
Fat Burn Zone Only:
This one is easy. Just stay in the Fat Burn Zone (100-140 bpm) for the whole exercise. 30-45 minutes of this 3-5 times per week should get you some good results. This is a good option if you are just starting out.
The Fat Zone works because you are working out hard enough to burn a good amount of calories, but not so hard that your body will go to quick sources of energy and bypass your fat reserves.
First Cardio, Then Fat Burn:
Start off in the Cardio Zone (140-170 bpm) for about 15 minutes. The objective here is to quickly burn of calories stored as sugar before it gets converted to fat. Then, spend 15-30 more minutes in the Fat Burn Zone (100-140 bpm) to burn off your fat reserves.
With this strategy, you will alternate between fast and slow pedaling at 5 minute intervals. A lot of people swear that this is the best strategy because it will have your body constantly switching gears, which should produce better results.
Here are some extra tips that you should use with any of the three strategies above:
Stretch out before you start
Use a program that has you pedal in reverse to work on different muscle groups
Weigh yourself daily first thing in the morning
Drink plenty of water
Eat healthy foods
Don't consume too few calories