Cross Training With the ARC Trainer

ARCTrainerI’ve talked about the ARC Trainer’s benefit in runner cross training before. But how do you effectively use it?

The machines are infrequently used for a reason. Most people aren’t just not comfortable with the machines… they don’t really know how to integrate it with their fitness goals and training plans.

I pointed out a key valuable use in my previous linked post: To cross train as part of runner training. But most are not totally sure how to best utilize the machine and its many settings.

I’m going to share 10 tips on how to get acquainted and effectively utilize the ARC Trainer in cross training for your fitness or goal race… possibly even for other fitness goals as you wish:

1. Make sure you feel comfortable on the ARC Trainer before you use it to cross train.

While this seems obvious, we take for granted how easy it is to use other cross training apparati like spin bikes, rowing machines, swimming pools, etc. These ranges of motion are so natural that it takes seconds to get comfortable using these for the first time.

The ARC Trainer is much less intuitive, as like the elliptical it’s not a common range of motion. The closest approximation movements are skiing and uphill running, and even then it only incorporates elements of each while being completely different in enough other ways to not match either movement. Plus, unlike either movement, you are never in direct contact with the ground while using the ARC Trainer. This makes a big proprioceptive difference.

Prior to using it as a workout for the first time, you should test it out for a few minutes in a separate gym visit and get to know the movement. Grab the handle bars firmly before stepping one foot into the appropriate foot-rest, then the other into the other foot-rest. Keeping your dominant hand on the correct handle, use your other hand to start the machine (there’s usually a big green button that allows you to manually start).

Hands on the handles, move your feet deliberately and get to know the motion. There are usually two numbers displayed in the bottom corners: The left indicates the incline (defaulted to 6), and the right indicates the resistance intensity (defaulted to 15). If moving the legs is rather difficult, turn down the intensity using the lower right arrow buttons until it moves comfortably (usually, it’s easy enough for virtually anyone at about 10-12).

It will feel awkward at first, even once you’ve got the movement mostly down, and you may even not want to bother at first. Unless the movement just feels totally out of whack and dangerous, give it a few minutes of easy use. It often will grow on people after a bit of use.

The good news for anyone testing out the machine at the gym is that they’re not that popular, thus many of them at the gym are often freely available. You don’t risk anyone stink-eyeing you because the machines are full. So more than other machines you can take your time sampling it and getting comfortable.

2. Before any cross training workout, make sure your core muscles feel okay with no undue soreness.

The ARC Trainer is surprisingly easy on the legs (which is why it’s a good cross training exercise), but it’s somewhat more demanding on your abdominal, gluteal, hip flexor and core muscles. They ultimately will bear a good deal of weight in the motion, and need to be up to the demand.

So make sure you’re not sore or cramped in your abs or other core muscles before getting on. You don’t want them to give out or cramp up in mid-stride, since you’re not standing on the ground or planted in a seat. You could end up taking a spill if they give in while you’re at the wrong angle. If your core’s not feeling right and you still want to work out, consider using another cross training method for that day.

3. Only do easy workouts on the ARC Trainer. Don’t use it for speed, long, key or quality workouts.

The ARC Trainer is a difficult apparatus to go hard with. The lack of ground contact has a similar effect to swimming, in limiting overall impact. On the plus side, this takes it easy on your bones and joints, allowing them to recover while still working but demanding less of your key muscles.

The flip side is that there’s a low ceiling of aerobic intensity. To get into an anaerobic state, you have to set the intensity so high that your muscles are now doing a rather tough strength workout, which defeats the purpose of a typical aerobic cross training workout. Plus, you increase the risk of injury or burnout by going that hard.

In a bit I’ll go more into how higher intensity ARC Trainer workouts can or should be used, but generally you use the ARC Trainer as an easier form of cross training. Thus you don’t want to use it as a substitute for harder, faster running workouts unless you are recovering from illness or injury and are just trying to maintain your aerobic base.

Also, I would highly recommend avoiding use for long run replacement workouts, on its own. It’s certainly possible to use for 60 minutes, hop off briefly and then continue. But even 60 minutes alone gets into the upper limits of what the affected muscles can handle, and you risk strain, injury or at the least serious enough delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) to interfere with future training. Add in another hour or two or ARC Trainer use, and you’re playing with fire.

At the very least, if replacing a long run with cross training, use the ARC Trainer for an hour, and then switch to another cross training method, plus be sure to use it early in the session while your whole body is relatively fresh.

Otherwise, keep your ARC Trainer workouts at an easy, manageable intensity, probably in a zone 1 heart rate with no more than occasional, comfortable drift into zone 2.

How long should these workouts be?

4. For best results, spend 30-50 minutes working out on the ARC Trainer.

This I have found to be true from experience as well as based on general aerobic science from Magill, Daniels and others.

Because of the low aerobic intensity, workouts shorter than 30 minutes don’t do much in terms of results. You might as well have gone for a walk instead.

Yes, ARC workouts do begin to feel intense at around the 20 minute mark, but to stop there basically makes the session a glorified warm-up.

In fact, side tip: A 10-20 minute session on the ARC Trainer could be a decent warm-up for many aerobic activities, as long as high intensity isn’t demanded right away in your main workout (if you’re doing speed-work or starting at fast tempo, you may want to do a warm-up with more demanding elements).

I mentioned earlier the flip side of making the workout longer than an hour, that even at 60 minutes you’re risking serious fatigue of core muscles that don’t get as much work while running.

The sweet spot for ARC Trainer workouts is 30-50 minutes, long enough to aerobically work you out but not long enough to unduly exhaust infrequently used muscles.

5. The more demanding of a workout you need, the more likely you should warm-up elsewhere before using the ARC Trainer.

If you’re doing a recovery workout or are just working out to get your easy volume in, then all you need to do is get on the ARC Trainer and ease into your workout.

However, if your scheduled easy workout (or whatever easy workout you’re replacing with cross training) requires a certain heart rate zone and needs to be closer to a moderate workout, it’s probably a good idea to do a focused warm-up beforehand on a treadmill or other cross training apparatus that better allows for intense activity.

If you try to do so on the ARC Trainer alone, you’ll have to strain way too much over the entire workout to go from zero to zone 2 or 3, and end up risking injury or compromising recovery and future workouts.

Since it’s rather difficult to really get your aerobic heart rate up on the ARC Trainer alone, you should warm-up elsewhere where you can safely hit a higher intensity and heart rate, then begin the ARC Trainer with an already elevated heart rate.

When warming up elsewhere, the best recommendation is to start easy and then over 10 minutes build up to a zone 3 type of tempo/effort, before you get on the ARC Trainer for the actual workout.

From experience, this will almost always allow you to maintain zone 2-3 heart rates on the ARC Trainer through steady aerobic activity.

6. If you get on the ARC Trainer “cold turkey”, take your time getting up to speed.

If there’s no other exercise or warm-up before you get on the ARC Trainer, start slow and take your time working up to the desired speed or intensity. Get the settings where you want it, and just focus on keeping your legs moving easy… until they feel more up to moving at your desired cadence.

The reason is akin to why you don’t just get on a treadmill and run very fast right away, or why you don’t walk up to a power rack and immediately bench press your one rep max. You need to warm up to the task before you go all out, or you risk injury.

Even if you decide to fore-go a warm-up, you still need to approach the start with a warm-up mentality, taking it slow and easy before working up to the needed intensity.

Again, if you need to hit a moderate heart rate in the workout, I would recommend doing a separate warm-up on a bike, treadmill or elsewhere that’ll allow you to briefly hit that higher intensity before you hit the ARC Trainer.

7. The easiest incline isn’t the lowest, but is actually set around 6-10.

The ARC Trainer defaults to an incline (shown on the display’s lower left as a single number) of 6. If you ever take the incline down to 1-5, you will actually find the flatter inclines more challenging for the ski-like range of motion your legs need to use.

Without ground contact to force an eccentric/concentric change within your leg muscles, the pendulum motion demands more than if you were moving at a more uphill incline, where your legs would have a chance to move with gravity and briefly relax. On a flat plane your legs are working more against gravity in both directions.

That said, beyond an incline of 10 the leg at its lowest point is now beginning to lean a bit forward, and once again your legs and core work against gravity at both end points.

To ensure the workout stays easy, you are best off keeping the incline between the default of 6 and a high of 10. I personally keep it at 7 as I find this is the sweet spot for me.

8. Set the ARC Trainer’s intensity between 10 and 20.

The ARC Trainer defaults to an intensity (shown on the display’s lower right as a single number) of 15. Unlike the incline settings, the motion does get easier as you set the intensity lower (as all devices typically do). And of course, the motion gets more intense as you increase.

The reason you should keep the intensity above 10 is not just because you don’t want the motion to be too easy for workout’s sake, but because at lesser resistance you may start to move too fast and risk injury that way. Your leg can slip out, or you can get proprioceptively out of whack and risk straining something by leaning on a leg or hip at the wrong place.

Ever pedal a bike with low chain resistance or on a hill, and end up with the chain fruitlessly spinning? Ever find that you legs in turn kind of go out of control? Ever have a foot slip and hit a pedal or something? The risk is similar on the ARC Trainer if you set the intensity too low.

Keeping the intensity at the default 15 is totally fine if that feels comfortable. Take it no lower than 10 if you need the machine to ease up. I have found that once you get to about 20 the pedals require enough strength to turn the exercise into more of a strength workout than an aerobic workout (akin to climbing a hill on a bike). I personally set the ARC Trainer at 16 almost every time.

9. The stride rate doesn’t need to match your running. Anything less than 160 “steps” per minute is fine.

Since the ARC motion is more of a long, weaving motion than conventional running, your cadence need not match your normal 160-180 step per minute run cadence to accurately reflect run-level aerobic intensity.

Once you get warmed up, getting to at least 120 steps per minute on an incline/intensity that allows for steady aerobic motion should lead to an acceptable aerobic workout. There’s no rule that it needs to be at least 120: If you find yourself challenged at 80-100 per minute, that’s completely fine. Go at the pace that works for you. I just find that this is the average cadence most people find once they’re up to speed.

I have found that it’s rather hard to exceed 160 steps per minute on the ARC Trainer without going to anaerobic lengths to maintain the cadence. I generally find that I settle into the 140-150 steps per minute cadence on most decent workouts.

10. Only do the programmed workouts (or any hard workouts) if you’re looking for more of a strength workout.

The pre-programmed ARC Trainer workouts take you up to higher intensities, and are clearly geared towards giving you Cybex’s oft-advertised total workouts. These are designed to test your core and lower body strength as much as your cardiovascular conditioning.

As a runner, that’s not necessarily your goal when using an ARC Trainer. You’re generally looking to do some lighter aerobic cross training, or replace an easy run workout. So you’re often not looking to work at intervals of a 25 intensity or on a 12-15 incline.

Generally, tinker with the manual settings and find the levels that work for you. Of course, if you get the hang of the ARC Trainer and you do want to mix in demanding lower body strength workouts, then by all means test out the pre-programmed workouts and get after it. Otherwise, just start the machine and go at your own intensity.

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