Which Muscles Does an Elliptical Cross Trainer Work?

Cross trainer workouts target a wide range of muscle groups. Here are some of the most important – plus tips for emphasising specific muscles.

If you want a full-body cardiovascular workout, elliptical cross trainers are probably the best type of fitness equipment.

Few other machines allow you to work so many muscle groups at once, especially without putting any unnecessary strain on your joints. Of course, it’s still important to vary your workouts, but cross trainers are great if you need a solid workout on one machine.

Here are the muscles you’re working when you’re on the cross trainer, and how to use your cross trainer to emphasize the muscle groups you want to strengthen.

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There are three hamstring muscles (the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus) located at the back of your legs. During a cross trainer workout, these muscles are engaged through flexion and extension.

Flexion refers to any motion that decreases the angle between two bones, while extension does the opposite: it increases the angle between two bones. Every time you bend and straighten your legs, you engage your hamstrings.

To emphasize your hamstring muscles during a cross trainer workout, increase the incline settings on your machine if you have the option to do so. If your machine doesn’t have an incline function, you can pedal in reverse.

When exercising on the cross trainer in reverse, it helps to sit back slightly – but not so far that you lose your balance – and keep your knees at a right angle as you go. Lean back into your heels to shift your weight. This slight shift will actually push your large muscle groups to work harder and increase the difficulty of your workout without increasing the resistance or incline.


There are four major muscles in the quadricep muscle group: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis. Every time you push down on the pedals of the cross trainer, your quadriceps flex in order to move your body forwards.

Workouts that primarily engage the quadriceps can be challenging. Although your quadriceps will undoubtedly get a good quad workout on the cross trainer, you may not feel the burn until later. But since the cross trainer engages so many other muscle groups, not just your quadriceps, you won’t be quite as sore when your workout is over.

If you’re a beginner when it comes to working out, and you haven’t quite built up your endurance yet, exercising on the cross trainer is a great way to do so while avoiding some of the aches and soreness that generally occur after a typical quad workout.

This is also why cross trainer workouts are a smart idea for runners who need a light workout day or want to focus on active recovery and low impact conditioning. They can still get some exercise in, but a low impact workout will get them moving without putting too much pressure on your hamstrings, quads, or glutes.

Gluteus Maximus

Gluteus Maximus

The gluteus maximus muscle extends down your lower back and to the sides of your upper thighs. This muscle groups also includes the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, and they essentially serve to stabilize the hips.

Hip extension motions really engage the glutes during cross trainer workouts. To emphasize this motion, try increasing the incline.

Triceps and Chest


By using the moving handles on the cross trainer, you can combine your lower body and upper body workouts and engage the triceps and pectoral muscles.

The triceps are the muscles on the back of your upper arms, and the pectorals connect your chest with the bones in your shoulders and upper arms.

When you’re working out on the cross trainer, you move your arms as if you’re skiing with poles. Whether you’re pedaling forwards or in reverse, you’re still working the same muscles, so as long as you’re using the moving levers for your workout, you can move in either direction and engage these muscles.

Biceps and Back


When you’re working out with the moving levers on the cross trainer, the triceps and pectoral muscles perform the “pushing” motion as your arms straighten. As you grip the levers and move them towards your body, the biceps and rhomboids are activated to complete the pulling motion.

The biceps are engaged during elbow flexion, while the rhomboids work to pull your shoulder blades together across your back. By reversing your motion on the machine, you can work these muscles a bit harder and get a better upper body workout.

Cross trainer workouts won’t build the muscles in your arms, back, chest, and shoulders the same way that lifting weights will. But if you’re going for a toned look and lower intensity workouts, exercising on the cross trainer will help you reach that fitness goal.

Abdominal Muscles

Abdominal muscles

Using the cross trainer won’t specifically target your abdominal muscles, but by modifying your posture on the machine, you can strengthen your core over time through these workouts.

The best way to engage your core is to pedal without holding the handlebars. If you let go of the levers, you need to focus on your core for balance, which activates your abs.

For additional engagement, squeeze your abs tight by pulling the muscles inward. This will naturally help you stand up straighter, and maintaining a straight back while pumping your legs is an effective technique for building core strength. As you workout, your abdominals will contract, and these contractions are a great way to exercise any muscle group.



Your calves, or your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, are located in the lower back of your legs. Whether you’re pedaling forwards or backwards on the cross trainer, your calves will always be getting a workout.

It should be noted that since working out on the cross trainer does little to increase muscle bulk, this won’t make your calves any bigger. If that’s the goal, you may have to turn to weight training. However, it will tone up your calves and give them a leaner look as cross trainer workouts promote weight loss and calorie burning.


Since exercising on the cross trainer is a form of aerobic exercise, it provides a workout for your heart and lungs. By raising your heart rate and breathing rate, cross trainer workouts increase blood flow to your muscles.

We should all aim to engage in cardiovascular exercise several times each week, but incorporating a rest day in between these workouts is recommended to allow your muscles time to repair and recover.


Working out on a cross trainer will engage your upper body, lower body, and your abdominals, and it also improves your cardiovascular health. It’s an easy way to incorporate regular full-body workouts into your routine, and it’s a good option for people who are worried about putting too much strain on their joints while exercising.

Consistently challenging yourself on the cross trainer will gradually improve your endurance and your muscle definition over time. Regular cardiovascular exercise is key to good overall physical health, and working out on the cross trainer will ensure that you get your heart pumping.


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