The Science Behind Cross Trainers – Explained

Cross trainers (or elliptical machines) are a good choice for people who are looking for an enjoyable, low-impact form of cardio exercise.  You may think that the treadmill is the be all and end all of the cardio machines, but the cross trainer is a good alternative for people who may not want to jog on a regular basis or those who want a gentler and less exhausting workout.

The cross trainer may feel less intense, but it is still a good form of exercise which helps you lose weight, get fit, build muscle and workout multiple muscle groups at the same time. Cross trainers are really popular both at the gym and for home use, but what do they actually do to your body? What muscles do they work?  Read on to find out!

Full-Body Workout

One of the best things about the cross trainer is that these machines can work out the top half as well as the lower half of your body at the same time. Cross trainers come with moving ‘arms’ as well as foot pedals, so you can push against the resistance of the machine by holding onto the mechanical arm levers whilst working your legs or, if you just want to focus on your legs, you can let go of the arms and concentrate on working your lower half.

Lower Body Muscle Workout

The cross trainer is great for a lower body workout because it gives your legs a thorough workout and helps you tone and condition your lower body. Read on to find out which lower body muscles the cross trainer concentrates on.

Gluteus Maximums- I.e. The Butt

Lots of people want a firm and nicely toned butt, and the cross trainer can help you get there! Moving your legs engages the butt and helps you work harder, and if you increase the cross trainers incline you will work your glutes even harder.

Once you get used to using the cross trainer you can even perform squats as you use the machine, but make sure you’re comfortable on the cross trainer and watch some Youtube tutorials to make sure you are aware of safety measures and the correct form.

Quadriceps – i.e. The Front Of Your Thighs

The quadriceps are engaged when you extend your legs, and as this is a big part of the cross training motion it stands to reason that these machines can give your quads a great workout.

One of the best things about the cross trainer is that, whilst it engages various muscle groups and gives your body a thorough workout, you won’t feel as much of a burn as you would with other machines or exercises. You may worry that it’s not working if it’s not painful, but it just means that the cross trainer is working multiple muscles at once rather than overworking one specific muscle group and so the work is evenly distributed and you are less likely to strain one specific part of your body.

This distribution of the work means that you should be able to use the cross trainer for longer than you could use a treadmill or exercise bike without overworking yourself. When people overwork their thigh muscles it can cause moderate discomfort over the next few days, which may make it harder to establish a regular workout routine and may even discourage the user from working out in the future.  However, if you use the cross trainer your thigh muscles should be less sore the next day so you can get started on a regular routine.

Hamstrings – i.e. The Back Of Your Thighs

The cross trainer will naturally engage your legs and the muscles on the front and back of your thighs. The hamstrings are engaged when you flex your leg, and as this is a big part of using a cross trainer any way you use it will engage this part of your leg.

If you want to make your hamstrings work that little bit harder, you can try reversing the motion or increasing the incline. Not all cross trainers will have an incline feature, so double check if you want to work those hamstrings extra hard.


Most whole-leg exercises will work your calves somewhat, but if shapely calves are your main priority then you can focus more on your legs by letting go of the hand bars for a more intense lower body workout.

You should also be able to increase the resistance if you want to work extra hard, although you will need to check the specifications of different machines to ensure that they have enough resistance levels for the long-term.

Upper Body Workout

Many cross trainers will come with upper body ‘levers’ (i.e. large moving hand bars) which you can push with the opposite arm to your moving legs. This allows for a more ‘natural’ running motion, and it also takes some of the pressure off your legs so you can workout more of your muscle groups at the same time. If you want to concentrate on your upper body, you also have the option to stop moving your legs at all and power the machine by just using your arms.

Cross trainers do offer a full body workout, but they won’t be as effective on your upper half as weight training. If you want to gain muscle or upper body strength then consider adding some weight lifting to your exercise regime. Read on to find out which upper body muscles the cross trainer will focus on.

Pectoralis Major – i.e. The Chest

Many cross trainers have moving upper body levers that move at the same time as the legs. These moving arms work your upper body and they, therefore, take some of the pressure off your legs so you can get a more well-rounded workout.

The muscles around the chest will be engaged if you move your arms as well as your legs during the exercise. It won’t work them as much as a chest press or weight training, but it will still engage these muscles for a gentle workout and strength building.

Triceps – i.e Upper Arms

The triceps are also engaged when you use the upper body half of the cross trainer. These muscles will be used when you push on the arm levers and they will be utilised during the first part of the motion.

Biceps – i.e. front of the arm, & Back

The cross trainer will also help engage your biceps and your back. When you pull the lever back (i.e. during the second part of the cross training motion), it will engage your biceps and your shoulder blades at the same time.

Core Muscles – Including The Stomach

Cross training engages your core muscles (i.e. your abs, lower back and part of your spine) because all these muscles are constantly working to keep your spine straight throughout the exercises.

Cross trainers are versatile machines which let you work different muscles during different workouts so you can focus on any specific goals you may have. If you choose to give your arms a break and just move your legs, it will utilise your core muscles even more in order to keep you secure and stable throughout the motion.


Cardiovascular exercise isn’t just designed for weight loss. Cardio workouts raise your heart beat and actually workout your heart muscle to keep it strong and healthy.


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