hands free elliptical workout fitness fun time
July 5, 2013 6:14 AM   Subscribe

What are the pros and cons of exercising hands-free on an elliptical machine?

The Google seems doesn't give a lot of insight on this. Some say holding on to the swinging arms is better, some say hands free is better. What gives you a better workout, and why?

I'm usually doing some sort of interval or random hill program on the elliptical. On the more challenging higher resistance parts, I find that I usually prefer to hold onto the arms to help pull myself along. On the easier, lower resistance parts, I usually let go and swing my arms naturally like when you're walking or running.

What's better? What are the benefits of holding on vs. letting go?
posted by raztaj to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hopefully someone with an actual exercise physiology background will chime in; I'm just a guy who's worked out in gyms and ridden a bicycle a lot. But I'd say pros and cons are:

No hands: works on your balance more. works your legs some little % higher, because the arms aren't helping.

With hands: provides a bit of stretching and total body effort; I've never gotten on one of those machines and felt "boy am I working out my arms." Maybe I'm doing it wrong. I figure if I wanted to work out my arms I'd do resistance training (weights), or a rowing machine, or swim.

If you're using the arms when you are on higher resistance, I'd say you're getting whatever benefit there may be from using them. On lower resistance I doubt many of us are efficient enough to give much of the work to the arms. It's just far more natural to provide the power from your legs, and almost impossible to contribute to the work when you're on low power part of the cycle anyway.

There's a big debate in cycling that will never be settled (and which I may cause to erupt by just mentioning it) about hill climbing - spin the pedals fast in a low gear and remain seated, or get up out of the saddle and push, which tends to engage your arms more, as well as enabling your legs and buttocks to work harder? If you see racers on the TdF or the like, they will always do the latter, and it's almost unquestionable which is FASTER, but the question is which is more efficient, i.e. does the most amount of work with the least fatigue?

This question sort of reminds me of that one - the problem is that what SEEMS most efficient may or may not be, depending on the skill level of whoever's doing it.

I have about 15 degrees less range in my right elbow than my left, so I don't really like the kind of elliptical you describe anyway. I sorta "limp" on the arms. :-)
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:36 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am 5'4'' and always find that on most machines, my arms are too short to truly get the benefit of the 'moving arms'. I always want to scoot closer to the front of the machine but this is not possible since it's all of a piece.

I end up over-leaning forward and holding on too tightly. So I just ignore them and "race-walk-arms" freestyle. Sometimes I hold weights. Sometimes I do dance moves, especially if I am listening to things like "Dreamgirls." That is humorous to others but who cares.

I actually think this may burn more calories and helps work the core. I find when gripping the arms I use them to support too much and deny myself the advantage of making my body work harder to keep balance etc.; although part of this may be my aforementioned arm-shortness and the gripping is to compensate for the positioning deficiency due to my raptor arms.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:39 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think using your arms is good thing. I think your legs should be doing 90-95% of the work and your arms are going along for the ride (5-10%). I think the upper body is receiving a benefit, even if they aren't doing much of the work.
posted by Fairchild at 6:50 AM on July 5, 2013

I've noticed that if I don't use my arms my heels stay down and knees stay bent, which is a little bit of a squat position and I definitely feel it more in my legs that way. Whether or not that translates into more work I don't know, but it sure feels like it does.
posted by COD at 6:55 AM on July 5, 2013

Hands-free all the way! As mentioned above, it does help with your balance because you are forced to use your core to stay in position. I find that hands-free means I have better posture too.
posted by stompadour at 7:07 AM on July 5, 2013

It's a question of power output. You generate more wattage using the arms. Are you working hard enough that max wattage output matters? If not, do whatever is more comfortable.
posted by bfranklin at 7:17 AM on July 5, 2013

I've always found that if I'm working fast enough, at a high enough resistance, I pretty much have to use my arms to stay balanced. Which leads me to believe that the answer is...using your arms as well provided a harder workout (if you're using them because you need to).

Quite possibly, I'm wrong. With luck, some kind of expert will weigh in...
posted by Salamander at 8:03 AM on July 5, 2013

Not using my hands at all is totally possible but makes me much, much slower to the point of being more about working on balance than about working out hard. Resting my hands on the non-moving heart-rate monitor bars makes me the fastest but feels not as whole-body-engaging as moving my arms with the upper bars, which is somewhat more difficult and makes me work out harder and have to breathe harder than if I were going the exact same speed but with hands on the resting bars. So I try to always use the upper bars. If I were concerned about balance, I'd probably do at least 20 minutes with the upper bars (typical cardio minimum time needed as per the NYT) and then maybe do the last ten without arms.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:33 AM on July 5, 2013

I find that swinging my arms has the subtle effect of making me go slower on an elliptical. When I simply hold on to a handlebar on the elliptical's frame, my legs are basically free to be more active, even getting up to a sort of elliptical-run (if I have resistance settings low.) So my vote is for holding on to one of the bars and putting more of the focus and output into your legs.
posted by naju at 8:34 AM on July 5, 2013

Most of the ellipticals in my gym are machines that do not have moving arms (about 8 with rails -- non moving arms, and 2 with moving arms).

I think the people that hold onto the rails and lean heavily on them are doing it wrong. It's bad posture, and takes a lot of the weight off your body/feet (by leaning on the rails) -- so you might as well be sitting on a ledge and waving your feet back and forth for all the workout you'll get.

So I'm a hands free believer on those machines. (And I try to avoid the moving arm machines -- not my kind of workout)
posted by k5.user at 8:40 AM on July 5, 2013

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