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.


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.

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.

Long rear flywheel elliptical trainerThe 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.

Stride length is usually 18 to 20 inches on a high end model. 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 Nordic Track long rear flywheel elliptical trainerwho 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  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.

Short rear flywheel elliptical trainerThis unit  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.  Their long stride and enormous rise deliver the most intense workout of all the elliptical machine designs.



Front flywheel elliptical trainers

Horizon 2.3E front flywheel elliptical trainer 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.


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.

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.  Buta 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.

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.

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.  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.