There are three basic design types for the elliptical trainer. Some machines including the commercial ones are large and imposing. While others will take up relatively little space in your home. Each design offers a different elliptical motion that translates to different effects to your body and the intensity of your workout. A machine that will work perfectly for a younger fit person may be far from the best choice if you are an older person and/or out of shape.
Why the elliptical trainer is the best choice in aerobic exercise...
...for most people. The only exercise an elliptical compares to is jogging or running. Regardless of your level of conditioning, it is almost impossible to do a rigorous jogging or running program AND an effective resistance program such as lifting weights. There are four factors that come to play here: damage to your body, time, intensity and using opposing muscle groups (these factors are also covered on the "Starting With Aerobics" and "Aerobic Exercise Comparison" pages).
Running or jogging outdoors requires the proper surface. You should run on a track or trails with a fine gravel surface. Fine gravel allows a circular motion of your foot when it hits the running surface. Running on a hard non-giving surface such as pavement or a sidewalk delivers destructive impact and disallows circular motion of your foot on the surface. These impacts and forces will wear out bones and joints in your legs and feet. If you don't live right next to a fine gravel running surface you should take the time to travel to one. There is no impact with an elliptical trainer. There is some isolated circular motion. But for most people it is easily tolerated.
Other elements consume time when you run or jog. You must dress for the workout. Running around a circular track is boring. Because of that most people run on trails that cover many miles. After you run your set distance, you will have to take time for the return walk to your vehicle. Getting to your running trail will minimally take 15 minutes each way, for a total of 30 minutes of travel time (minimally)...depending on how far you live from the track. You will find that all of these things combined can add an hour (or more) to the time you spend actually jogging or running. You can wear (or not wear) any type of clothing when you use an elliptical in your home...no one will see you. The machine is immediately accessible. There is no walk or drive time.
Combining resistance exercises (anaerobics) with aerobics makes your aerobics much more effective. What this means for you is that your aerobics will not have to be as intense as they would be if you were just doing aerobics alone. Using the proper rate of exercise (see the "Starting With Aerobics" page) will allow you to complete your elliptical workout in 35 minutes and get almost the same results as a moderate run. Most importantly, you are conserving and managing your energy. Running is much more tiring than elliptical training. Most people can't do a complete resistance (weight training) program and an effective running program. One of the two will suffer from the other and be inadequate. The elliptical is the least tiring of the effective aerobic workouts. For the average person, it is absolutely the best aerobic exercise to combine with resistance training.
The muscles used in running are negatively affected by resistance training. If you go to a running trail, you will not see many people built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those giant quadriceps can't exist if you are doing a vigorous running program. Young and fit people can do an effective running and weight program. But it requires tremendous energy levels that most working people won't have. To do an effective run you will have to sacrifice key strength exercises, specifically squats and/or leg presses. Not so with the elliptical. Using the elliptical in reverse involves the quadriceps muscle much less than running or doing the elliptical in the forward motion. In fact, you can do any level of resistance (weight) workout using your legs with very minimal negative effect to your ability to do the elliptical in the reverse motion. Because of this, elliptical training is the best effective aerobic you can do in conjunction with lifting weights or other resistance workouts.
Which elliptical trainer design is best for you?
That depends on your physical condition and/or your age. It also depends on if you are going to combine aerobic and anaerobic programs. Differences in elliptical trainer designs affect some of the factors outlined in the first part of this writing (above). These will be the elements we will be considering as we look at each individual design. The machines used to represent each design type in this writing are for example only. They are not an explicit recommendation of what you should buy. There are many fine elliptical machine manufacturers for each design represented. The goal of this writing is to educate you about each design type and features that are available.
Long rear flywheel elliptical trainers
The most expensive machines almost always are long with rear flywheels. The primary superiority achieved by the rear flywheel design is smoothness. These are the largest of the elliptical machines being considerably longer than less expensive models.
The longer machine length is due to having longer lower arms where the foot pads are attached. This allows for a more forward mounting of the footpads relative to the flywheel. Being mounted closer to the fulcrum of the lever causes the vertical motion (rise) of the footpads to be less than if they were mounted closer to the flywheel. Less rise makes for a much easier motion which is especially good for older people or those who are out of shape. More importantly the longer arms cause the downward angle of the foot pad motion to much less than machines with shorter lower arms. Less downward forward angle causes there to be much less stress on the ankles. Some machines angle too far downward in the forward motion and can really stress your ankles. Downward angle in the forward position of the stride is probably the most important thing to consider when evaluating a machine. Adjustable foot pads are a very good feature that can be made available on mid to high priced machines. This feature allows the user to adjust the footpads to be more forward or rearward. This lets the user control the amount of rise of the foot pads and the distance of the user to the pole arms. This allows the customization of the machine architecture to the size of the individual user. I cement wood blocks to the foot pads of my less expensive machine in order to customize it for my stature.
Stride length is usually 18 to 20 inches on a high end model. I have always used a machine with a 14 to 15 inch stride length at home. I have used machines with a longer stride length and didn't find them to be noticeably more difficult than the shorter stride...I just did less time on the machine. The machine I use at home is very inexpensive. The expensive models will be considerably smoother in operation due to higher quality bushings and the use of roller bearings. The smoothness of the machine nullifies some of the additional intensity provided by the longer stride length. The longer stride will be considerably better for younger people and those who are fit because it offers more stretch. 18 to 20 inches of stride length could conceivably be too much for an older and/or out of shape person to start with. If you are healthy, middle aged or younger and you plan on forgoing resistance training and using the elliptical as your only exercise, you may want to use a machine with a longer stride length. It will stretch, tone and build your muscles to a larger degree than a machine with a short stride length.
Nordic Track makes really good long frame rear flywheel elliptical machines. They have a unique roller system at the front of the machine. The lower arm has a roller on it that travels upward on a ramp. This levels the arm and footpad causing it to remain in a very level position throughout the motion. As you can see in the photograph there is almost no forward angle in the forward position. These machines typically have every bell and whistle available and are very reasonably priced given their excellent design. The machine shown here cost $850 directly from Nordic track at the time of this writing. Some long frame rear flywheel machines (including the one above) cost over $4000.
Short rear flywheel elliptical trainers
The least expensive elliptical machines are short rear flywheel designs. They can be had for as little as $200 (or less) and are available at discount stores. But not all short rear flywheel machines are cheap. Expensive short rear flywheel machines deliver the most intense workout of all the elliptical machine designs. Conversely, cheap short rear flywheel machines deliver the least intense workouts. In either case the footprint of these machines is the smallest of all the elliptical machine designs.
The unit shown to the right is made by Kettler. All equipment made by Kettler is of the highest quality. Kettler spares no expense in manufacturing their fitness products and you can sense that quality the moment you mount one of their machines. Kettler ellipticals offer the smoothest function and are made of materials expertly designed to be thicker and stronger than conventional products.
The problem with short rear flywheel machine is high rise and we are not talking about skyscrapers here. Because the lower arms are short, the foot paddles are mounted more rearward resulting in a less elliptical, more cyclical motion such as that of a bicycle. The paddles (foot platforms) being mounted rearward also causes a higher rise of the platform which also results in a more radical forward angle being placed on the user's ankle when entering the forward position. A shorter stride can translate into a less intense workout. But the higher rise causes the motion to be more intense. So you can get a very intense workout form a large diameter rear flywheel elliptical because of the radical rise. Machines with a heavy large diameter flywheel like the Kettler above can deliver a tremendous kick, particularly if you attempt to stop the motion too quickly. If you have previously used a machine with less rise, you probably will not be able to tolerate the upward popping motion of the foot platform on a short rear flywheel machine with a large diameter flywheel. You must learn to slow down gradually to a stop. The geometries of large diameter flywheel machines such as the Kettler (above) are too much for me. Their long stride and enormous rise deliver the most intense workout of all the elliptical machine designs.
Obviously smaller flywheels will generally be lighter. Less expensive units use a smaller diameter flywheel which translates into a smaller amount of rise and a shorter stride which lowers the intensity of the workout. You can't lessen rise without lessening stride length. Flywheel weight facilitates the capability of the machine to allow the user to get into a rhythm. The flywheel propels the motion forward. Flywheels can range from 5 to 60 pounds in weight. I feel that too heavy of a flywheel can lessen the intensity of the workout for users that apply little to no resistance. The machine perpetuates too much of the motion without energy being applied by the user. On the other hand, if the flywheel is too light the user may not be able to achieve a natural rhythm. This may cause the user to work too hard and result in a shortened workout, possibly less than the 35 minutes required to get into an aerobic zone. I have been on some really effective machines with 10 to 20 pound flywheels (like the Horizon machines below). The Kettler machine (shown above) has a 50 pound flywheel. With the proper resistance applied this machine is unbelievably smooth. But some resistance must be applied or the unit will freewheel presenting little to no resistance to the user.
My first elliptical was the cheapest short rear wheel unit I could find. I used it for almost two years before it fell apart. I paid $150 dollars for it and because the price was so low I just went ahead and replaced with a newer version of the same machine. The second machine fell apart after five months. Seems that I was lucky with the first unit. With fitness equipment you typically you get what you pay for. These machines probably had a stride length less than 14 inches. But they delivered an adequate workout intensity because of the rise inherent to the short rear flywheel design and the lightweight flywheel. You could get a marginally better machine at a discount store for a little more money. If you chose to start with a very cheap machine, you must learn to deal with the uncomfortable upward popping motion of the foot platform and the fact that the machine may fall apart much sooner than higher quality units. You should try a few better quality machines before you buy a cheap one. Do this to learn what the correct geometry of an elliptical machine feels like. Some inexpensive machines are geometrically incorrect and will not allow users to get into a comfortable position for exercise. Sometimes they position the user too far from the hand poles, causing the the user to lean forward and uncomfortably out of balance. This will kill your workout.
Eclipse elliptical machines offer one of the best designs for elliptical trainers. This is the elliptical I use presently. Shown in the photo is the Eclipse's unique roller and linkage system that allows the paddle to have a stride length of 15" with very little rise. This design dramatically lessens downward angling of the paddle and results in virtually no stress on the ankle. This machine can sometimes be found in local discount sporting goods stores (Sports Authority, Oshmans) for as little as $300. It would be the machine I recommend for new users except for two considerations. First, the factory packs the roller assembly with thick grease to eliminate noise. The thick grease causes the roller not to function (rotate). The bar atop the roller slides on the grease rather than the roller turning. This will eventually cause a flat spot to form on the roller which results in a thunking noise and possibly a malfunction. If this grease is not removed, it will liquefy over time and damage carpeting. Second, the reason the grease is there in the first place, to quiet side to side motion of the lower arm as it rolls upon the roller. Without the grease this machine does produce noises above that of machines such as the Kettler (above) or the Horizon (below). The first thing you must do before using this machine is remove the grease with a solvent. Then you should lubricate it with a Teflon lubricant. Even the Teflon lubricant will drop from the roller assembly requiring the machine be positioned over a mat, rug or towel. Overlooking these weaknesses, for the money this machine has a truly excellent design especially for older people or those doing extremely heavy anaerobic (weight lifting) workouts. It has the smallest footprint of any high quality machine. So if space is an issue you might overlook the very minor issues above.
Front flywheel elliptical trainers
Horizon fitness produces the highest quality elliptical machines and treadmills at the lowest prices. They have been in business for years and maintain a complete support system. Most significantly, they maintain a parts inventory for all of their equipment. Their latest models incorporate a linkage system that almost flattens paddle motion so there is almost no downward angle to stress your ankles. The linkage system also enables the machine to be shorter than any other front flywheel machine. These models range from 18 inches to 20 inches in stride length which is as long as any high end machine. The long stride length makes them just as capable to deliver the most intense elliptical workout. They are strong well designed machines that are as smooth as glass and completely noiseless. The Horizon 2.3E is the lowest model in their latest Elite Series line of ellipticals. At the time of this writing, I couldn't find one of these units for sale on line. I have found older model machines using the same design at discount sporting goods stores (Sports Authority) on sale for $500. The regular price was $800. The upper models of this design type are rated for a 325 pound user. Most elliptical machines are typically rated for a 275 pound user.
Horizon makes elliptical machines that fold for storage. This is a feature that you will probably rarely use if you exercise regularly. Most people will leave the machine unfolded and ready for use. Typically, a machine will be located at the side of a room where folding the machine offers little advantage. But this feature does make the machine easier to move from room to room. These machines offer every bit of the strength and quality built into all Horizon equipment. Some of the higher models in this line also have a linkage system that controls foot platform angle like the higher line models (such as the Horizon 2.3E above). I have never personally seen this feature present on the machines in this line that I've looked at in retail stores. Adjustable foot pad placement is also available on higher models. It is another feature I have not seen first hand in retail stores, so you may have to order your machine directly from the manufacturer in order to get these features. The newer versions of this machine including the Andes 507 shown here have a 16 inch stride length. The older models can have a 14 inch stride length. There is one negative possibility with older models. The foot platform can have a downward slant when entering the forward position. Later designs in this line have improved or eliminated this problem, some using linkage systems. As we have discussed, the forward slant can stress a user's ankle so make certain you try an older machine before you buy. Because you must try a given machine to determine if it has the forward slant, you might not want to buy an older model on the internet if your ankles are weak. All machines that have a linkage system will not have this problem. You can get a foldable Horizon elliptical on sale for as little as $400. This is the brand of machine I recommend to users at any level of fitness. For only an extra $100, I would buy the higher line model such as the 2.3E (above). Horizon machines are built to last a lifetime and probably will have parts and support available over your lifetime too. You might ask why anyone would pay $3000 to $5000 for a commercial grade machine? The answer is abuse. Again, commercial machines are built with roller bearings or specialized heavy duty bushings. They are designed for continuous use, typically in a fitness club or gym. You might consider a commercial model if you have a very large family of athletes. But I suspect that that Horizon has a model that will work for any family regardless of usage level. You could use the money saved to purchase a really good weight machine.
Programs, heart rate feedback and features
I have never used the programmability feature on an elliptical trainer. I'm not saying that you shouldn't use those features, but I will tell you why I don't. The idea is that you can program in the effect of having a hill or a patterned series of hills into your run. You can supposedly even adjust the grade of the hills. I found that the effect does not feel like climbing a hill. The machine only adds resistance and becomes harder to cycle. The elliptical is used as a replacement for running. Generally people run on a flat track or trail. Running on a flat surface is strenuous enough to get most people to their target heart rate...you don't need a hill. People do use running uphill to develop strength. They are typically health extremists or tri-athletes trying to develop burst energy. They are certainly not working on aerobic stamina. If you are new to fitness and especially if you are older, you will have a difficult time sustaining your training session over more than ten minutes at the outset. You don't need hills, the challenge is large enough. Aerobic exercise such as the elliptical or running requires you to learn how to not think about sensations affecting your physical body. It is a very high form of meditation that is prerequisite to being capable of doing long distances in the shortest period of time. If you throw a hill into the middle of the session you might break the state of mind required to do the time necessary to obtain your aerobic goal...which is 30 minutes while sustaining your target heart rate. You will hit your target heart rate without adding any hills. Therefore, I try to save money by buying the model that has the least programmability features because I do not use them. Conversely, if you use the elliptical as your only method of exercise (without resistance or weight training) you may want to use programmability features to add variety to your workout as your fitness level improves.
The heart rate feature has never worked for me. Realize that I am using less expensive machines so maybe it might work on better models. I think it has something to do with sweat on my hands. The most prevalent mechanism for heart rate measurement is two plates mounted on a hand grip that you must electrically bridge with your hand as you grip it. Typically for me the heart rate monitor begins working and then the readout almost immediately goes crazy. As I have said it's never worked for me. Some machines connect with your body using a strap or finger grip. These mechanisms might perform better, but I have never used any of them. I did have one that gripped the end of my finger...it hurt. I am certain that I meet and exceed my target heart rate as I do a very intense workout for about 45 minutes. I am getting older and might need to consider slowing down and for that reason I may need to find a better device to measure my heart rate. Because of my negative experience with heart rate measurement, I don't recommend it as a feature to consider as a buying criteria. There are heart rate monitors available that can be worn around your arm or on your wrist like a watch. It is important that you measure your heart rate when you do aerobic exercise, particularly If you are older and have not consistently exercised over your lifetime. If you are older, you should make certain that you do not exceed the target heart rate for your age group, unless your physician determines you are healthy enough to do so.
Resistance adjustment can be done manually or with an electrical control. Using an electrical control uses more electrical energy. Many machines and most of the inexpensive to mid grade machines use batteries to power their monitor and resistance controls. With a manual control you set the resistance using a wheel or knob that screws in or out. It stays set exactly where you want it with no variance ever. Battery consumption is much less because power is used only by the monitor which measures time, speed, and distance as you workout. Resistance can vary as batteries become old in machines with electronic resistance controls. My present machine has electronic resistance control and it applies more resistance as the batteries fade. The bottom line is that batteries do not last nearly as long in machines that electrically control the resistance. You may not be able to choose whether you get manual or electric resistance controls or not. Upper models invariably have electric resistance controls and you might find a spectacular sale on one of these machines. Don't avoid it, but if you have a choice, get the manual resistance control. If the machine plugs into the wall, there is no issue.
You only need to monitor your speed, overall time and distance. Some machines have very elaborate electronics and sometimes they can be very confusing. Simple and easy to read displays are best because you don't want to think about how to read a confusing display. Remember, your goal is to not think about anything during your workout. It is best to have a constant display of speed, time and distance rather than a display that cycles those readouts. Keep in mind that you should also be measuring your heart rate. Some machines have very elaborate electronics and sometimes they can be very confusing. Simple and easy to read displays are best because you don't want to think about how to read a confusing display. Remember, your goal is to not think about anything during your workout. It is best to have a constant display of speed, time and distance rather than a display that cycles those readouts. Keep in mind that you should also be measuring your heart rate.
Is flywheel weight important? It is considered to be one of the highest qualitative features by dealers. But as I stated earlier, a heavy flywheel can create an inertia that might not be comfortable for all users. It keeps the peddles pumping past the point you might want to stop. As I have said, I have used very cheap machines with very light flywheels and found them adequate. This is because all the flywheel has to do is help one motion blend into the next enough for the user to get into a rhythm. It really doesn't take much of a flywheel to do that. On better machines with heavy flywheels, the magnetic brake that applies the resistance is much better than on cheap machines. The combination of a higher quality brake with a heavy flywheel results in the smoothest action. The brake controls the heavy flywheel so that the motion is smooth and even throughout the cycle. While Kettler machines use 45 to 50 pound flywheels, Horizon's flywheels weigh 14.3 to 23.1 pounds. For me the Horizon 14.3 pound flywheel performs perfectly. Keep in mind that better machines are smoother typically with heavier flywheels requiring you to apply some resistance.
Using an elliptical trainer
Elliptical trainers can be used in a forward or backward motion. If you buy a machine, you might get an instructional tape with it...you will certainly get a book. They will instruct you to cycle between the forward and backward motion. This is a great thing to do if you can do it for 35 minutes...I never have. Especially when I integrate a resistance program that includes leg presses or squats. The backward motion on an elliptical machine is by far a more natural motion than the forward one. In fact, the forward motion for me is very awkward and unnatural. I couldn't do it more than 10-15 minutes. As I have stated above, the backward motion is much better to do if you are doing a program that includes leg presses or squats. Leg presses and squats develop muscles (quadriceps) that will inhibit your ability to do elliptical training using the forward motion or a jogging/running program. Leg presses (for older people) and squats (for younger people) are the best overall body shaping exercises you can do. The backward motion on the elliptical is hardly affected by squats or leg presses. This is the true beauty of elliptical machines. On the other hand, if you don't do squats or leg presses you may want to consider using cycles of the forward motion to better condition your quadriceps. Another thing I do that may surprise you is that I never use any resistance at all when using the elliptical. I turn the resistance all the way down. For me the motion itself delivers ample resistance. I prefer to extend my workout to about 45 minutes to make certain my aerobic component is complete rather than add resistance. I build muscles doing leg presses, I don't need the elliptical to perform that function for me. If I want to intensify my elliptical workout, I do more leg presses and my legs become sore and this subsequently adds intensity to the elliptical workout without stopping it due to pain. Controlling your breathing, posture and mind are covered on the "Aerobic Exercise Comparison" page. You can get there by clicking this link (below).
Remember that high-end machines are smoother and easier to cycle than cheaper machines, so they will in most cases require that you apply some resistance.
Before using this information or beginning any exercise program, consult your physician. This is especially important for persons over the age of 35 or with pre-existing health problems. Mark Jorgensen, Dr. Terry Simpson and all of his affiliated organizations assume no responsibility for personal injury or property damage sustained by or through use of this information.