Research Suggests You Should Get Off the Elliptical Trainer

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I came across an interesting article over the weekend (actually, our soft-tissue guy, Nate Tiplady sent it to me) demonstrating how for those suffering from chronic low back pain, using the elliptical trainer might be more detrimental than good.

Click HERE to read the article.

As noted in the article, the research was part of a larger study looking at the effect of hip mobility on the low back, which is something many of us in the industry (Mike Boyle and Gray Cook most notably) have been drilling into people’s heads with regards to the joint-by-joint approach to training.

Simply put, some joints need to be trained with mobility in mind, while others, need to be trained with stability in mind. Starting at the ankles and working our way up, we see an alternating pattern of mobility/stability needs:

Ankles = mobility

Knees = stability

Hips = mobility

Lumbar Spine = stability

Thoracic Spine = mobility

Scapulae = stabillty

As such, whenever someone complains of joint pain (in this case, the lumbar spine), more often than not, we can look at the joint either above or below (or both) as being the culprit. And, as the study linked above showed, many of the subjects tested had less than stellar hip mobility. Ding, ding, ding. Take a joint that normally has a lot of amplitude and lock it up tighter than a camel’s ass in a sandstorm, and you’re bound to see some issues elsewhere in the kinetic chain.

As far as the elliptical is concerned, while I like the fact that it does provide a low-impact modality of exercise, again, it’s a form of exercise that doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of range of motion – and for someone with limited hip mobility as it is, this can be a recipe for disaster.

What’s more, as noted in the article, people tend to flex forward more while using the elliptical machine (hello tight hip flexors!!). And, even worse still, the elliptical forces people to twist in their lumbar spine, which if we’re speaking from a biomechanical standpoint, isn’t ideal given there’s only 13 degrees (roughly) of “acceptable” rotation in that area in the first place.

All in all, the point of the article wasn’t to bastardize the elliptical. Rather, it was just to shed some light on the fact that it may not be the most ideal form exercise for those suffering from certain types of low back pain. Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

I will say, however, as I wrote HERE, I’d much rather have people spend their time doing low-grade activation/dynamic flexibility, mobility circuits than get on an elliptical trainer anyways. Some food for thought.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Tony

    So if you have back and mid thoracic tightness and are trying to get low impact mobility, what would you suggest in place of the illicit cal

    October 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Reply to this comment

  • My name is Darren

    i disagree with the article. I think for best long distance running or walking form you should concentrate on knees being flexible and the hips stable. The elliptical trainer can work the upper and/or lower body. But i think for balance issues and a weak core doing it completely hands free while using the hipflexors to maintain balance is the best way to improve things. Most people who bob their head up and down while walking are not using their hip flexor muscles. These muscles therefore become weak and underused.

    January 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply to this comment

  • John Decker

    I love the elliptical machine and the workout I get from it. However, it can be a little pricey because I had to buy new ellipticalparts within the first year of owning one. Still recommend the machine though!

    June 5, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply to this comment

  • NWBL

    You didn't blow my mind. The elliptical caused damage to my neck (from the arm motion, rotator cuff (same issue) and knee (repeated friction on the joint). This machine is supposedly joint friendly but not for me.

    February 15, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dkong

    From personal experience I agree. After 6 weeks of using the elliptical (I'd never used one in the past) I developed very bad lower back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. These things are bad news. They should be banned.

    March 9, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Laura

      To Dkong: I was working our hard with an elliptical over 10 years ago. Ended up with pelvic floor dysfunction and haven’t been able to correct it since. So many hours and money on pelvic floor therapy. It’s ruined a lot for me. Hope you have found some relief.

      January 30, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • JPH

    I agree. I have three herniated discs in my lower back. I've recently started using an elliptical at the gym to get a low impact cardio workout. Every time I've used it, later that day into the next day I experience substantial lower back pain. I'm done with that machine. I'll stick with Yoga, walking and frisbee!

    June 20, 2018 at 9:21 am | Reply to this comment

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