Here’s the problem:
1) Reinforces poor motor programs. The arc of motion available on the elliptical causes you to heel-strike (if there is such a thing as strike on these things) too far in front of the center of mass which only serves to teach you to over-stride when you go to run. We already know heel-striking is costly and injurious. I also think it drives the femur forward in the hip socket repetitively via the iliopsoas and we never get to triple extension (full extension of the hip, knee, and ankle = maximal force). Furthermore, instead of falling thru the ankles as with proper running form – you smash into them while grinding and pulling each step.
Essentially, the entire arc of movement occurs in front of the body. Many clients I’ve ended up seeing report hip pain with symptoms of impingement when on an elliptical – not a surprise after they sit all day driving their femurs forward then reinforce that for 40 minutes on the elliptical while watching television. *If you can watch television while exercising, please don’t call it training*
Don’t believe me? How do you feel as soon as you get off the elliptical? You’re gait is jerky, almost ataxic, and it feels like you’re still floating. The knees stay bent throughout the gait cycle and you’re looking for a foam roll as soon as possible – it’s a nightmare.
*And why have injured athletes use this, especially as a warm-up? We just end up spending the rest of the training session undoing all of these faulty mechanics incurred on the elliptical.
3) “Low Impact”. Ellipticals are marketed as low-impact. However, all the aforementioned co-contraction around the joints causes a lot of compressive forces – especially to the knee. The running literature supports this too, showing increased joint forces when running in cushioned shoes (which are supposed to lower the impact) vs. barefoot – the exact opposite of “low impact”. Besides, ground-reaction forces are necessary to build bone mass. Essentially, we’re getting all the negative joint forces from improper muscle activity without the benefits of skeletal loading.
4) Broken midline position (over-extended or over-flexed). The set-up of the elliptical really makes it difficult to maintain neutral spine, instead causing you to look like either a bent-over tree or a broken pole-vaulter. Glutes are under-used and hamstrings are over-used on the elliptical altering lumbopelvic control and contributing to the chronic hamstring and/or back irritation I’ve seen in clients who love the elliptical. No wonder gait mechanics are jacked up.
From CrossFit Endurance coach Jeff Ford: