I’ve always wanted to write about this because I think it is an extremely interesting topic. A machine that has allowed broken runners to continue to move. It actually activates more glute maximus than walking. There is virtually no impact on the lower body as you move. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
On the surface, it would appear that it does. Looking a little bit deeper reveals a lot more.
I’m not going to tell you to never use one again. What I am going to do present you with information on how these machines alter how we are meant to move, what the muscles affected are supposed to do when we walk and what some of the potential negative long term use implications are. After that, it is up to you to form your own opinion. I will tell you however, that the two elliptical machines I inherited when I bought my facility, are no longer there.
Always the go to option for doctors to runners who want to remain active, the studies I read indicate an elliptical machine might not be the best option due to the fact it keeps the hips in a fixed range of motion. For people with tight hip flexors like 80+% of the 600+ endurance athletes I’ve talked to, worked with, corresponded with and train directly this isn’t something that would make sense to add in to their training program.
Especially since all of them had one thing in common: lack of glute function due to over active and shortened hip flexors due to the repetitive stress nature of endurance sports. This in addition to sitting with the hips in a flexed position for hours on end five days a week.
Adding in an activity that keeps the hips in a fixed flexed position as well as one that promotes anterior pelvic tilt (which will shorten hip flexors) makes it easy to see how prescribing the use of one these things would be counter intuitive from a strength and conditioning perspective.
Before we break down how you an elliptical machine may be detrimental long term, let’s talk about the above mentioned because it will give you an idea of the progression of regression once muscle imbalances take place.
Here are the typical postural distortion patterns seen at INTEGRATE Performance Fitness:
- Forward rounded shoulders
- Increased lumbar spine curvature or anterior pelvic tilt
- Decreased neural control of the lower body
- Tight Muscles: psoas/quads, hamstrings/calves¸glutes/ IT Band, pecs (chest), delts (shoulders), traps, neck flexors/extensors/rotators
- Weak Muscles: Glutes/ hip stabilizers, lower abdomen, lats, spinal erectors
- Overactive: hip flexors, traps, quads, adductors, neck flexors, deltoids, biceps
- Dysfunctional movements: poor balance, poor rotation, decrease hip extension, improper breathing, poor joint mobility, over active traps, over active hamstrings
- Joint Pain: low back, knee, neck, shoulders, elbows
All of these things occur because of the dysfunctional movement patterns caused by sitting all day at a desk and repetitive stress muscle imbalances. So, what does this have to do with using an elliptical machine on a regular basis?
Elliptical machines have shown that medial hamstring, gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior muscle activation were decreased during use (Similarity of Joint Kinematics and Muscle Demands Between Elliptical Training and Walking: Implications for Practice, Judith M. Burnfield, Yu Shu, Thad Buster and Adam Taylor). So let’s talk about this in terms of what those muscles do in our gate cycle as we walk, and we begin to see how one of these machines can affect your body.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine’s “Essentials of Corrective Exercise,” outlines the function of the above mentioned under active muscles as follows:
Decelerate knee, hip extension (push off phase of walking), stabilizes lumbo-pelvic hip complex and knee.
Gastrocnemius (upper calf)
Stabilizes foot and ankle complex, decelerates dorsiflexion (toes to the shin)
Soleus (lower calf): Decelerates dorsi flexion, stabilizes foot and ankle
Tibialis Anterior: stabilizes arch of the foot, ankle plantar flexion
“During walking, the tibialis anterior muscle is primarily responsible for foot elevation during swing, which is followed by controlled lowering during weight acceptance. Tibialis anterior muscle activity was reduced on the elliptical trainer because the elliptical pedal provided continuous external support for the foot (this has implications given that this muscle stabilizes the arch of our feet).
However, because of its dual role as a knee flexor muscle and an ankle plantar flexor muscle, the gastrocnemius muscle would have contributed an undesirable knee flexor muscle force at a time when the vastus lateralis muscle was rapidly increasing amplitude to support the flexed knee.
During the remainder of the elliptical cycle, gastrocnemius and soleus (two muscles that stabilize our ankles and feet) muscle activities were reduced and peaked earlier (mid stance instead of the terminal stance for gait). The lack of a single-limb support period during elliptical training eliminated the need to support the full body weight on one leg (Similarity of Joint Kinematics and Muscle Demands Between Elliptical Training and Walking: Implications for Practice, Judith M. Burnfield, Yu Shu, Thad Buster and Adam Taylor).”
We’ve got three things coming into play here that have potential negative implications long term. The first of which is that muscles responsible for the stabilization of our ankles, feet and arches are showing decreased function with one of these machines.
The second one is that when these muscles are working, they are not firing in the same pattern as our natural gait. The third is due to the two legged support of the pedals on an elliptical machine, this is in direct opposition of how we are supposed to move when we walk, supported by one leg as the other one goes through the gait pattern. This can lead to a whole host of single leg stabilization issues that may need to be corrected at some point.
Your body doesn’t know muscles, only movements and it is phenomenally efficient at rewiring the way it functions with enough repetitive stress. Alter enough muscle firing patterns, and you begin to alter the way those muscles move the bones. Do this, and you can end up injuring soft tissue.
So taking the above mentioned muscles (medial hamstring, gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior ) into consideration, here are the potential negative side effects of decreased activation as you move:
- Plantar fasciitis
- Posterior Tibialis tendinitis
- Anterior knee pain
- low back pain
NASM has also found this could very well “lead to over pronation of the foot during weight bearing activity (which can induce anterior pelvic tilt, keep in mind, an elliptical machine puts the user in an over pronounced anterior tilt as it is) causing altered alignment of the tibia, femur and pelvic girdle leading to rotational stresses at the lower extremity and pelvis which could lead to increased stress on soft tissues (achilles tendon, plantar fascia) as well as compressive forces on the joints (patellofemoral joint, tibiofemoral joint and sacroiliac joint).”
Take the ramp up higher, and you get into even trickier waters.
“The angle of the ramp can also increase anterior trunk tilt as ramp gets higher (Influence of Ramp Position on Joint Biomechanics During Elliptical Trainer Exercise, Kathleen M. Knutzen1,2,* Wren L. McLaughlin1, Andrew J. Lawson1, Brandi S. Row and LeaAnn Tyson Martin).”
An excessive anterior pelvic tilt shortens hip flexors, shuts down glute and lat function, lengthens the hamstrings (and unfortunately, hamstring stretching is very often prescribed as one of the ways to address excessive anterior pelvic tilt), tightens the quads and thoracic spine mobility in turn affecting shoulder mobility just to name a few things. There are several more including altered breathing patterns which can lead to a whole host of things. Click here to see what those are.
This study also showed that a high ramp setting stresses the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and may not be the optimal choice for a knee rehab setting. This is because “shifting your center of mass forward may increase the magnitude of the anterior joint reaction forces acting at the lower extremity joints. Keep in mind anteriorly directed joint reaction forces are opposed by the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).”
As we walk, the knee is supposed to straighten out twice as our hips extend as we walk, using an elliptical machine keeps the knee in a flexed position throughout the pedal stroke which is unnatural to our gait pattern.
“Data showed when using an elliptical machine the knee stays relatively flexed (bent); whereas when walking the knee straightens at two points in the gait cycle (Elliptical Exercise Machine – What do we know?).”
The concern here is how that affects the rest of the body. One of them is reduced neural drive to a muscle pulled out of alignment from a repetitive stress activity leading to altered joint mechanics.
“During level walking, the COP (center of pressure) started at the heel, while it started at the midfoot during EE (eliptical exercise). This indicates that initial contact was made by the heel during walking, whereas the average of all the forces was on the midfoot at the beginning of the EE cycle. These differences may affect the performance of joint moments (Influence of Ramp Position on Joint Biomechanics Using the Elliptical Trainer, 1875-399X/10 2010, Kathleen M. Knutzen1,2,* Wren L. McLaughlin1, Andrew J. Lawson1, Brandi S. Row1 and LeaAnn Tyson Martin1).”
So, with all of the information presented, are elliptical machines the devil? Should you stop using one?
I think a better question is what are you doing off the machine that combats what it may potentially do to your body on it? Using one periodically, and you can most likely get by relatively unscathed.
Like cycling, if you stay on top of insuring proper function of what I like to call “the big three” (glutes, lower abdominal wall and lats), you can most likely use one and not have it affect you all that much.
If you do use one for your cardiovascular activity, I’d recommend limiting your exposure each week, and be sure to add in running if you are able to, hiking when you can, swimming if you’ve got access to a pool and riding a bike if you’ve got one.
Al Painter, National Academy of Sports Medicine Performance Enhancement
Specialist, Corrective Exercise Specialist is a Cat 2 Mountain Bike Racer as well as the President and Founder of INTEGRATE Performance Fitness.
He has also been named the “Bay Area’s Best Personal Trainer” by CitySports Magazine, and he has also received a “People’s Choice Award” from the Palo Alto Daily News.
INTEGRATE Performance Fitness has also been named “Northern California’s Best Fitness Facility” by Competitor Magazine as well as a “Top 5 Bay Area Fitness Facility” by the SFGate.com.
He also holds a degree in Journalism from Santa Clara University.