The elliptical trainer, sometimes called a cross-trainer, is a piece of stationary exercise equipment that simulates walking or running without causing pressure to the joints. Researcher, Janice Moreside, is a University of Waterloo PhD candidate and a physiotherapist who’s been a clinician for more than 30 years. She has found that while many people like using the elliptical and have not experienced problems with it, there’s a subset of people who experience associated back pain.
Moreside works with Waterloo professor, Stuart McGill, whose specialty is spine research. While McGill and Moreside were researching the effect of hip mobility on the low back, they came across some interesting data on low back pain and elliptical machines. In their study, 43 males (aged 19 to 30) exercised on the elliptical trainer at two speeds: a self-selected speed and a speed 30 percent faster than the self-selected speed.
Moreside noted that participants in the study tended to adopt a more flexed posture than compared to walking, no matter the speed, stride length, or hand position. She also found that the participants in the study twisted more on the elliptical trainer than when walking, despite changing the variables such as speed and stride length.
Repeated flexion and twisting of the spine is known scientifically to encourage degeneration and cause pain. “If you’re already starting to get a bit of disc breakdown or sensitivity, this may not be the medium of choice for you,” Moreside explained. Individuals with lumbar disc problems should probably refrain from using the elliptical (just because it puts you in such a forward posture, something that should be avoided when at all possible if you are somebody with lumbar disc issues). She suggests that walking would be a much better form of exercise over an elliptical for people with lumbar disc problems.
It is important to note that while the elliptical isn’t great for people with lumbar disc problems, it can actually help for people with other conditions (such as lumbar joint problems or hip injuries).
For those with lumbar joint problems, being in a flexed position is often preferred—so the elliptical may actually work well as a form of exercise.
The elliptical “also does not require as much hip extension as normal walking,” Moreside said. “So if somebody finds that going into hip extension is painful or has had an injury, they may find that this is quite satisfactory because they are safe, they’re holding onto something.”
For those of us without any low-back problems and who are pain-free, Moreside suggests that there shouldn’t be any issues when it comes to using the elliptical. “There’s a lot of good things about the elliptical,” Moreside explained, “It’s a tremendous workout for your gluteal muscles … and it’s a great cardiovascular workout.”