Elliptical vs Ski Machine

Elliptical vs Ski Machine - which is better?
by Robert Forster, PT

Exercise Science 101
The health benefits of sustained aerobic exercise are well established. Nearly everyday we see research that shows exercise, and in particular, relatively low intensity continuous movement, has a positive impact on health and provides a preventative value against many of the lifestyle diseases that plague our population. Exercise coupled with dietary modification has also been shown to be the most effective weight control strategy and only exercise can make permanent changes in metabolism that make weight loss sustainable. While high intensity (anaerobic) workouts, including interval training, may burn more calories per minute they do not create the positive metabolic adaptations needed for the sustained weight management or the highest levels of performance. The foundation of all fitness for all sports or activities is created by first developing the aerobic energy system that burns fat calories. i.e. becoming a better butter burner".

Training Intensity: Both the elliptical and ski machine are ideal for aerobic exercise and can be used to train anaerobic fitness as well. However high intensity workouts on theses machines is a bit riskier for injury because the motions are not completely natural to human movement, as apposed to walking. Of the two machines the elliptical machine requires movement patterns that are similar to the human experience and may result in fewer injuries.

All fitness programs should begin with longer duration exercise to develop a metabolism that favors fats as its primary energy source. At the start of an exercise program, the most productive pace that will result in the most valuable fitness adaptations is a slow one. The "conversational pace" is the best indication you are in a fat burning mode. If you can speak evenly to someone next to you or on the phone without breathing so heavy that your ability to speak without gasps and big breaths while you workout then you are most likely training at the right intensity to create an efficient fat burning metabolism.

Training Duration: Beginning with 15-20 minutes for people who are somewhat de-conditioned and 30-45 minutes for someone is fairly fit will help the body adapt to the new activity and avoid injury, if stretching is done before and after every workout. Increase the time by now more than 10 % per week up to 60 minutes.

Training Frequency: Two days per week of moderate distance (see above). One day per week attempt to go 15 minutes longer for your LSD workout. i.e. Long Slow Distance. On the days in between perform a recovery workout of shorter duration (10-15 minutes). This can be as simple as a walk around the block of a quick workout on the elliptical of ski machine.

Results will begin immediately at the cellular level. The first outward signs will be increased muscle tone after a few weeks. When matched with dietary changes your body will begin to change shape in the first three weeks and net weight loss should occur in the first month. Don't be alarmed if at first the scale shows you gained a few pounds as the body will hold more water as it grows more muscle and muscle weighs more than fat. But as you build muscle and loss fat you will like what you see in the mirror.

The Ski Machine vs The Elliptical
Both the elliptical and ski machines offer low impact alternatives to running and walking for aerobic training. This is valuable to those carrying excess body weight making it is difficult to maintain low heart rates with higher impact alternatives and for those with orthopedic issues of the joints in the spine, pelvis and the lower extremity.

Both machines provide adjustable resistance levels to accommodate for one's current level of fitness and the range of motion can be limited on each to avoid provoking pain from sore joints. The adjustable resistance allows for the performance of intervals on either machine where the work effort is increased for a short period to increase heart rate and then allowed to recover before repeating. Intervals should only be done after an aerobic base is well established.

Both the elliptical and the ski machine work the big muscle groups of the lower extremity and pelvis as well as those of the upper extremity and those that stabilize the mid section and trunk. Working the big muscle groups increases the metabolic cost of the exercise and improves the aerobic value. The particular benefits of these machines over others is that they both work all the right muscles, i.e. those located in the back of the body.

In physical therapy we quickly learn that the human body requires increased strength of the anti-gravity muscles to fix the most common aliments that affect all of us. Most gym workouts focus instead on the 'mirror muscles" including the abs, pecs, biceps and quads. Instead these muscles need to be de emphasized and the muscles located in the back of the body need to be targeted for exercise. Both the elliptical and ski machines target all the right muscles including those that maintain the body in an erect posture i.e. the erector spinae muscles next to the spine, the trapezius and rhomboid muscles that keep our shoulder blades held back and down. They also work those responsible for locomotion including the gluteals, hamstrings and calf. All with great benefit for function and avoiding common orthopedic injuries and conditions.

The machines differ in that the elliptical machine motion is more akin to the walking and running motion that we have done all our life, where as the cross country skiing motion is a bit more foreign to our typical movement patterns. For this reason the ski machine may challenge the muscles and brain to master the motion and would make it a good choice for those with higher fitness levels and are looking for something new to further their fitness or if they are preparing for a ski trip. Conversely, those who wish to use either of these machines for cross training for running or when coming back from a running injury should choose the elliptical because it's motion more closely resembles the up and down movement of the legs that is most like running.

The ski machine motion requires nearly fully extended positions for the lower and upper extremities, i.e. the limbs are held nearly straight. This places greater stress on the joints closer to the trunk i.e. shoulder and hip joints, because of the greater distance between the point of resistance and the larger "prime movers" that are most responsible for the movements. Therefore the ski machine might not be tolerated with people with neck and shoulder problems or hip and low back issues as well as the elliptical machine. Also the ski machines are difficult to find in most gyms and therefore make it harder to stay on track with your fitness program if you travel.