In a world of misinformation, Fitness Pudding is here to separate fact from fallacy, and science from fiction.

Elliptical Handles: Cheating Calorie Burn?

Elliptical Handles: Cheating Calorie Burn?

The latest myth to be brought to my attention is one of the top 10 exercise cheats "that blow your calorie burn." — holding onto the handles while doing the elliptical machine.elliptical-handsSince this made the top 10 of all exercise cheats, get ready to see a bunch of people in the gym refusing to hold on to the handles while doing their cardio!

The article, which was re-posted by Yahoo! states:

" ...hanging on tight to the handles of the elliptical trainers cheats you out of the largest possible calorie burn..."

The argument is based on the idea that holding onto the handles will take effort away from your legs, thus you will tire faster. Although plausible at first glance, the research actually tells us something quite different.

What Does the Research Say?

Two studies have actually directly tested this question, and both support — given everything is the same (e.g. intensity, resistance, time) — that greater energy expenditure occurs when using the arms compared to not using the arms on the elliptical.

Study 1: Mier & Feito (2006)

  • 26 men and women exercised on the elliptical at varying stride rates and resistance settings.
  • They found that the metabolic cost (as measured by oxygen consumption) was HIGHER in the leg+arm group compared to the leg-only group.
  • They did not directly calculate calories, but for a 150 pound person, the leg+arm group would expend about 0.20 calories per minute MORE than the leg-only group.
  • WARNING! They also showed that the elliptical machine overestimates how many calories you expend during your workout. Big shocker! :)

Study 2: Sullivan and colleagues (2013)

  • 15 men and women exercised on the elliptical at a constant workload of 70% of heart rate max.
  • They found that leg+arms, on average, nearly 6% MORE calories every minute – compared to legs-only. 
    • Approx. 0.55 calorie per minute difference
  • For 30 minutes of cardio, that is a difference of about 16.5 calories.
    • Legs-Only = 273.78 calories   – versus –   Legs+Arms = 290.22 calories


Use the handles . . . or don't. The calorie difference is not going to be that much more (~0.20 to 0.50 calories per minute). 

Despite what these internet articles would have believe — using the handles is NOT going to blow your calorie burn.


  • The key here is NOT to use the handles to reduce your overall effort.
  • We do NOT burn calories.
  •  If you eventually get bored with the elliptical, you can try this.



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