The elliptical is a staple of the modern gym. That doesn't mean it's a great machine.
While the elliptical is certainly better than nothing, many athletes and fitness junkies find it to be a largely inefficient workout. If you just want to glide along for 40 minutes and whittle away some calories, the traditional elliptical is fine. But if you want a sweat-soaked, muscle-building workout that can really torch fat and improve athletic performance, you're better off exploring other options. One such option? The Helix Lateral Trainer.
I recently had the opportunity to try this machine and I was amazed at its effectiveness. Though the motion is smooth and low impact, I felt a tremendous amount of activation in my glutes, outer thighs and core—far more than what you'd get on a traditional elliptical machine. If you have access to a Helix Lateral Trainer, you'd be wise to hop on and give it a spin. It takes all the best aspects of a traditional elliptical machine while addressing its most glaring shortcomings. The result is one of the best cardio machines you'll find anywhere.
Change of Planes
The Helix Lateral Trainer (HLT) is essentially a lateral elliptical trainer. Both feet move in smooth lateral circles when the machine is in use. Check it out:
What makes the HLT so effective is that it takes users out of the sagittal plane—where front to back movements occur—and places them in the frontal plane, where side to side movements occur. Frontal plane training is highly effective, but it's M.I.A. from many training programs. This type of training not only sculpts the muscles on the front and back of your body, but the sides, as well. Most people find frontal plane training to be more difficult than sagittal plane training. Why? Because it's different.
We spend much of our lives moving in the sagittal plane—walking, jogging, biking, etc. We even perform many weight room movements in the sagittal plane, such as the Bench Press, Curl and Row. Mixing in frontal plane training is a great way to strengthen underutilized muscle groups and build a body that works the way it was designed to. Major benefits of frontal plane training are more efficient lateral movements (think playing on-ball defense in basketball), more explosive cuts (such as a wide receiver running a route) and a reduced risk of injury (particularly in the lower body).
Those factors alone make frontal plane training a must for any athlete. "It is difficult to move cardiovascular training out of the sagittal plane, and the Helix does just that," Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning, is quoted as saying on the company's official website. "I have had my clients slideboard for years to take advantage of frontal plane movement, but until Helix, there has never been a machine that provides that." Boyle believes the machine can be particularly helpful in getting injured athletes to perform frontal plane training since it's so low-impact.
Helix's website also includes a testimonial from Gunnar Peterson, who was recently named Director of Strength and Endurance Training for the Los Angeles Lakers. "The Helix is a terrific tool," Peterson says. "It's working laterally, it's changing your position in space from high to low, it's working inner thigh, outer thigh, and it's also challenging you from a balance standpoint".
Helix's website also notes that world-class ice hockey franchises and "one of the MLB's top all-time most winning teams" include the HLT in their training protocols. This is all great, but such endorsements would be worthless if the HLT didn't actually get the job done. Luckily, there's research to confirm the machine's effectiveness.
A 2011 study conducted by by the University of Tampa sought to compare the benefits of the HLT with those of a traditional elliptical machine (in this case, the Precor EFX Elliptical Rider). Researchers found that the HLT had "superior results in 7 of the 8 muscles tested." Specifically, the HLT demonstrated 55% greater activity in the obliques, 50% greater activity in the outer thighs and 37% greater activity in the inner thighs than the elliptical. The squatting position on the Helix also resulted in 40% greater activity in the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius than riding on the elliptical at its highest incline. I can testify to the fact that the squatting position on the HLT really burns your buns. Perhaps that's why celebrities like Megan Fox and Kim Kardashian include the HLT in their routines. But it's not just celebrities who can benefit from a stronger rear-end—the gluteal muscles are absolutely critical to athletic performance.
The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body, both by weight and volume. One of the most important functions of the gluteus maximus is that it's the main extensor muscle of the hips. Any educated athlete knows how important hips are to performance—we fire our hips during almost every explosive athletic movement. "Pretty much all sports and every type of activity is predicated on appropriate glute function," says Dr. Joel Seedman, an exercise physiologist and owner of AdvancedHumanPerformance.com. "For example, the No. 1 muscle in sprinting is the glutes. If they're not firing like they should, it's not only going to put the athlete at a greater potential for injury, but it's really going to compromise their speed."
The gluteus medius—a smaller muscle that runs alongside the side of your butt—has several functions. One of them is to stabilize the lower extremities and keep your pelvis steady as you walk or run. Since you're on a single leg during the majority of these movements, the gluteus medius must work to keep your hips level. If it's weak, your hips will become uneven. This creates additional stress on your body, particularly in your lower back and knees. Pain in the IT band—a common condition for many athletes—is often a sign that your gluteus medius strength isn't up to snuff. The fact that the HLT can strengthen your glute muscles much more effectively than a typical elliptical machine is a huge benefit for athletes.
The study also found that participants were able to reach 65% of their HRR (heart rate reserve) 23% faster on the HLT than the elliptical. Essentially, the HLT got people's heart rate up quicker. This means "more time spent expending fat calories in equivalently timed workouts" on the HLT than the elliptical.
The two biggest things to remember while riding the HLT is to keep your heels in contact with the foot pedals at all times (this ensures maximum gluteal muscle activation) and to maintain good posture while riding (don't slouch forward and put most of your body weight on the handles, for example). If you're ready to give the HLT a spin, their website has a locator to help you find the machine nearest you.
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