Striding forward and backward on the elliptical gives you a full-body workout.
Elliptical trainers weren't designed to build muscles. The goal was to create a cardiovascular workout machine that would simulate running while putting less stress on the joints. But because you engage your legs to move the pedals of this low-impact cardio machine, you can't help but strengthen and tone them. And since the elliptical can be pedaled forward or backward, it works different muscle groups and puts variety into your workout.
When you pedal forward on the elliptical, your quadriceps on the front of your thighs and your glutes engage for a workout. When you reverse the motion to pedal backward, you work the hamstrings on the back of your thighs as well as your hip extensors. When using an elliptical trainer with handles, your pushing and pulling muscles -- your biceps and triceps -- get a workout no matter which direction you're pedaling, and so do the trapezius muscles in your shoulders and back. Your core muscles also engage both during forward and backward strides to help keep you upright and balanced.
Calves Work Forward and Back
As the muscle group that helps you flex your ankles, your calves get a workout when you spend time on the elliptical. Although different pedaling directions engage different muscles in the upper leg, your calves remain engaged regardless of whether you're going forward or backward on the elliptical. A study done at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, found that electromyograph activity remained the same in the calves of subjects during both forward and backward striding.
Creating a Complete Workout
The ellipticals with arm motion are extolled for providing a full-body workout, but one little piece of information that is often not conveyed is that incorporating the reverse motion into your elliptical workouts is essential for you to get a full-body workout. There are no tricks to reversing direction while you're exercising, but if you don't regularly reverse your stride, the muscle groups that backward pedaling targets won't get worked.
Forward/Reverse Elliptical Intervals
If you only use the elliptical for the cardio benefits, then it won't matter whether or not you reverse striding during your workout. If you'd like to incorporate reverse pedaling to work different leg muscles, you can do a challenging interval workout alternating forward and backward pedaling. You may find that you can pedal backward faster than you can forward. If so, the backward strides can be used as the "rest" intervals. An example would be to pedal forward for two minutes then reverse and stride backward for two minutes, alternating the forward and backward intervals for 20 to 30 minutes. You can change the work/rest ratio by alternating intervals of striding forward for 40 seconds and backward for 20 or pedaling forward for up to nine minutes and backward for three minutes.