There is a lot going on while using an elliptical machine. You may wonder what muscles this works and whether it is enough to build mass.
The main muscles you work with ellipticals include the glutes (butt), hamstrings (back thigh), quadriceps (front thigh), calves, latissimus dorsi (middle/upper back), chest, deltoids (shoulder), biceps, and triceps (outer/back upper arm).
Additionally, you work your hip adductors (inner thighs), hip abductors (outer thighs), and core muscles like your abs, obliques, and erector spinae to a smaller extent.
That being said, you need to know that elliptical machines are typically not that good for building muscle.
If you can do more than 50 steps without your muscles fatiguing, you are likely not really growing your muscles.
At the same time, you could still see muscle endurance improvements in the areas above and keep the muscles healthier. This can be helpful too.
You could theoretically really turn up the resistance of your elliptical machine and let your upper body do most of the work to build some muscle mass.
Even so, people who want to build muscle mass likely just want to do resistance training exercises instead.
Primary muscles worked with the elliptical trainer
One of the benefits of ellipticals is that they allow you to work a variety of lower and upper body muscles. Some of these will have to work harder than others.
More specifically, some of the primary muscles you work with elliptical trainers include the glutes (butt), hamstrings (back thigh), quadriceps (front thigh), calves, latissimus dorsi (middle/upper back), chest, deltoids (shoulder), biceps, and triceps (outer/back upper arm).
An interesting aspect of elliptical machines is that you can choose whether you focus more on the upper body or lower body muscles.
This is possible by mainly letting your arms, legs, or both do the work.
You could even decide to let your arms only push or only pull the elliptical handles.
Gluteus maximus and hamstrings
The gluteus maximus is your main butt muscle. Your hamstrings are your back thigh muscles.
These muscle groups get the same section because they are both responsible for hip extension while using an elliptical trainer.
In simpler words, they pull your thighs down and back from a flexed position. This will be one of the main movements that push the pedals of the elliptical down and back.
Your quadriceps are the four muscles in your front thighs. One of their functions is stretching your leg.
While using an elliptical trainer, the quadriceps have to work somewhat while pushing the pedal down. In this movement, the quadricep muscles push your body up too.
The calf muscles barely make the list of primary muscles you work with elliptical machines but they deserve a quick mention.
These muscles help you push the front parts of your feet down and prevent these parts from going up.
Your calves will mainly have to work while pushing the pedals of the elliptical machines down but only to a relatively small extent.
Latissimus dorsi and biceps
Your latissimus dorsi is a middle/upper back muscle that runs under your arms. This muscle helps you pull your upper arm down while you are pulling back the elliptical handle.
In this pull motion, the biceps also help. These are the muscles in your front upper arms that fold your arms at the elbows.
As briefly mentioned, you could theoretically really focus on the pull movement only to really work these latissimus dorsi and bicep muscles with the elliptical machine.
Chest, deltoids, and triceps
The deltoid muscles are your main shoulder muscles. While using an elliptical trainer, your front deltoids will help you raise your upper arm to push the handles away from you.
Your triceps at the back of your upper arms also help with this by stretching your arms at the elbows.
The chest muscles can also work a nice amount while using the elliptical. Mostly if you keep your upper arms pointing somewhat outward instead of keeping them by your sides.
Do ellipticals build muscle?
To grow and strengthen muscles you have to pressure them with enough resistance, do enough repetitions, and give your body the rest and nutrition it needs.
A rough general guideline is that if you can do more than 50 repetitions without fatiguing, you are likely not building that much muscle.
So whether ellipticals help you grow your muscles depends on your current strength, what resistance setting you use, and what body parts you mainly use.
That being said, in the most standard way of using an elliptical machine, you will likely not build muscle.
This gym machine is mostly aimed at improving your cardiovascular health. To grow and strengthen muscles you want to turn to resistance training exercises.
Secondary muscles worked with the elliptical
Besides the primary ones from before, ellipticals also engage a few other muscles to some extent to keep you balanced and keep your upper body upright.
The secondary muscles you work with the elliptical include your hip adductors (inner thighs), hip abductors (outer thighs), and core muscles like your abs, obliques, and erector spinae.
You should definitely not expect any growth in these areas either. However, you could potentially see some muscle endurance improvements.
Can the elliptical make you toned?
Many people who consider using the elliptical are not interested in becoming the biggest guy or gal in the gym.
Instead, you likely just want to achieve a more toned look which means making your muscles just a bit more visible.
There are two parts to getting more toned.
The first one is building more muscle. As explained, elliptical machines are not that good for this purpose.
Secondly, you can lose the body fat that is hiding your muscles. Since ellipticals can be good for weight loss, they can help you with this second step.
So the elliptical can make you look more toned by helping you lose body fat. However, to grow your muscles, you want to turn to other workouts.
What muscles the elliptical works going backward
You may wonder whether going backward on the elliptical changes anything in terms of the muscles you mainly work. This is actually the case to some extent.
While there are no studies that measure this to my knowledge, there are some predictions I can make.
From a high-level view, you will engage the same muscles as using the machine forward. However, in what ratio you work these muscles will be a bit different.
More specifically, using the elliptical backward will likely work your hip flexors and quadriceps slightly more and glutes, hamstrings, and calves slightly less.
When it comes to upper body and stabilizing muscles, things will mostly stay the same. These muscles will mostly have to do the same movements.