Does a Cross Trainer Build Muscle?

The benefits of cross trainers are relatively well documented these days – good for certain injuries due to their low-impact movements, a full-body workout targeting a wide range of muscle groups, exercise from the comfort of your own living room or in front of the TV.

But is a cross trainer good for building muscle? Cross trainers are unlikely to be the best form of exercise if you’re looking to increase muscle mass. When compared to traditional weight training and lifting you are unlikely to be able to achieve the same gains in the same period of time.

That said, cross trainers are renowned for being able to effectively target a number of different muscle groups simultaneously, and can play their part in an overall body building routine, particularly if you are in the process of ‘cutting’ – that is to say, switching your exercise routine to one focused on burning off weight and excess fat whilst maintaining muscle mass, rather than ‘bulking’, during which you seek to expand the targeted muscle groups.

Furthermore, if an elliptical happens to be your only option for a workout there are ways you can adapt it to help build muscle and, though it is unlikely to be as effective as machines or workouts designed to help people build muscle mass, there’s no doubt that a cross trainer can improve strength. 

Does a Cross Trainer Build Muscle?

In this article, we have a quick refresh of how muscle is built, followed by how you can try to use an elliptical to build muscle, by adapting the settings or your workout style. We will also take a look at some of the different muscle groups targeted by cross trainers and consider how effective it may be in helping these muscle groups grow.

How Are Muscles Built? 

Time for a bit of science revision! Let’s remind ourselves how muscles are actually built – i.e. how do you make a muscle, any skeletal muscle that is, get bigger? A skeletal muscle is just another word incorporating the types of muscles we are likely to be talking about when talking about body-building and weight training – for example, biceps, triceps, quads, or anything that’s in some way attached to the skeletal frame via tendons. The distinction is important because the heart, which is also technically a muscle, does not necessarily function in quite the same way. 

Muscles become bigger through a process of damage and repair. The ache you feel in the gym after a healthy workout is a symptom of this localised muscle damage. When we work out, what we are doing is putting our muscles under a certain amount of tension and strain. If this tension and strain is greater than the muscle is habitually used to dealing with, muscle fibres are likely to be damaged in the process of the muscle dealing with whatever we’re asking it to do. 

Muscle expansion then occurs during the resting period following a workout. When the damaged muscle fibres are repaired or replaced, the body fuses fibres together in order to form new muscle protein strands, or myofibrils. If the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceeds the rate that muscle proteins are breaking down, you’re gaining muscle. Over time, this is likely to become visible, especially if the area is not obscured by excess fat.  

So what do we need to do in order to make this process happen, and how do we adapt our elliptical training to help us on our way?

How to Build Muscle on An Elliptical

The process of building muscle, rather than merely toning up or losing weight, relies on being able to add progressively higher levels of stress on the muscles you are targeting, levels that continue to exceed what the muscle has been used to dealing with before.

This is why bodybuilders have traditionally used gym weights and other scaleable equipment in order to get the gains they’re aiming for, as there’s technically no limit to the amount you can push, pull, and press, and you can gradually increase the stress placed on your muscles so that they can continue to grow and strengthen. 

The elliptical has a limited range and, even from the outset, is not designed specifically to put high amounts of stress on muscle groups, rather to exercise a number of different muscles simultaneously at a rate which results in an aerobic work out as well as a toning or strengthening exercise. 

If you want to try to use the elliptical to build muscle, you’re going to need to ramp up the resistance, so that your muscles are having to work harder in order to operate the machine. Even when you do this, the lower muscles are likely to be working harder than the upper, since the strain on the lower body is usually greater than that placed on the upper limbs, although different machines will have different balances in this sense.

Some point towards the benefits of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as a good method for ‘building’ muscle and you may hear suggestions that adopting a HIIT approach on the elliptical is another good way of using it as a muscle building machine. Although HIIT, which involves exercising at a hard and fast rate for short bursts interspersed with periods of comparatively gentler activity or rest, may be effective at boosting your metabolism as well as the function of your motor neurons (vital in improving practical strength), the actual effects on expanding muscle are still not going to match progressive weight lifting or exercises which involve lower frequency reps but at higher levels of strain.

Once again, HIIT isn’t necessarily going to harm your bodybuilding aims – and it can certainly help to shape, tone, and burn off excess fat in order to show those muscles off – but interval training on an elliptical, even at higher resistances, is still unlikely to give you the muscle boosts of a traditional weight training programme. 

Does A Cross Trainer Build Leg Muscle?

The cross trainer is often billed as a great leg and lower body strengthener, particularly for people who may be looking for a workout which is less jarring on the limbs and joints than running. With its smooth range of motion and non-impact functioning, the elliptical is a good way of targeting your leg muscles if you’d prefer not to put them through the hammering of a five mile jog on solid concrete. 

However, this has led some people to worry about their legs, thighs, or buttocks getting too big when using the elliptical, and the term ‘elliptical butt’ appears to have become a relatively common phrase amongst home work-out enthusiasts.

This is, in fact, a misplaced fear. As with other muscles of the body, the elliptical is not designed, nor particularly effective, in building leg muscle mass. Although it is likely to tone and sculpt your leg and lower body muscles, which could result in them looking more defined, less flabby, and more ‘tight’, it is unlikely to significantly expand the size of the muscles. You’re not going to end up with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legs any time soon, just from working out on the cross-trainer. 

Does Elliptical Build Arm Muscle?

If what you’re looking for is bulging biceps, deltoids, and muscular pecs, then this is a case where traditional weights training, with progressive increases in the amount you’re lifting, is going to outclass any form of workout you can do on the elliptical. It’s also worth mentioning that the range of motion afforded by most cross trainers is unlikely to target the chest as effectively as press-ups, bar-bells, or rowing machines.

You will be better off buying adjustable dumbbells which you can use after your cross trainer workout.

BCBIG Adjustable-Dumbbells-Sets,Free Weights-20lb(10lb*2)Dumbbells Set of 2 Convertible To Barbell A Pair of Lightweight for Home Gym,Women and Men Equipment

Cross trainers do work the arms as well as the legs and, when compared to running – the sport they mimic most closely – are a good way of getting a certain form of upper body workout whilst also giving you an overall cardio boost. However, even with higher levels of resistance, you’re not likely to be able to replicate the process of rupture and repair on the same scale as when you put pressure on your arm muscles through targeted weight lifting. 

As we have discussed, getting your muscles to tense and work at levels they’re not used to is the way to bind and build new muscle protein, leading to muscle growth overall. 

The bottom line

Is the elliptical going to turn you into a strong man extraordinaire? Probably not. You need progressive weights and increased strain on the muscles in order to reliably micro-tear and then subsequently rebuild muscle proteins, so that your arms, legs, chest, and abs build back bigger and stronger after being put under the stress of a workout.

That said, incorporating cross-training into a weights routine is a good and relatively safe way of maintaining cardio fitness, burning excess fat, and ensuring that even when you’re doing an aerobic workout you’re also helping to strengthen and tone your muscles. 

Remember, strength and muscle gain, though linked, are not literally the same thing. It is possible to strengthen the various muscles in your body group through elliptical training in a way that you will notice in everyday life and in your other workouts, without it leading to huge visible gains or muscle expansion.

As with any muscle building routine, proper intake of protein is always going to be vital in ensuring your body has the raw materials it needs to repair and grow. Simultaneously, rest and recuperation is the process by which the body builds muscle, and is as important as the workout itself in ensuring you have the time that is needed to strengthen, stay free of injury, and grow in the way you intend to. 

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An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!