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Ellipticals in a row at a gym

A Guide to Buying an Elliptical Trainer

The elliptical trainer is one of the most popular pieces of exercise equipment selected at a gym, running second only to the treadmill (although Precor’s Adaptive Motion Trainer is closing in as well).

An elliptical trainer relies on pedals or footrests that operate in an elongated oval motion. While it doesn’t offer the natural range of motion provided by a treadmill, it provides users more stability and less impact.

Since the foot is supported through the full range of motion, the elliptical offers a lower impact than coming down on a treadmill belt will have, making it easier on lower-extremity joints and great for those recovering from injury.

Benefits of Elliptical Training

  • Low impact
  • Good for joints
  • Less stress on tendons and ligaments
  • Easy on knees, ankles and hips
  • Lower Perceived Rate of Exertion (RPE)
  • Upper and lower body workout
  • Higher caloric burn than on a flat surface
  • Increased muscle tone

Key Considerations When Purchasing Elliptical Trainers


Also known as the flywheel, it’s the mechanism that makes the elliptical work. The heavier the flywheel, the more it remains stable when the magnetic force is applied, making the operation smoother and quieter. Flywheels come in different weights, with higher end elliptical trainers having heavier ones.

There are two aspects of the drive that need to be taken into account: the location and the drive mechanism.

Drive Location

The drive is in one of three different locations on the elliptical: rear, front or center. Each can impact the smoothness of the ride, as well as the ergonomics and size of the machine.

Precor Rear Drive Elliptical fRear Drive

The elliptical began as a rear drive exercise machine. As the name alludes to, the flywheel is located at the rear of the machine. They are generally the least compact of the models but as such offer a longer stride.

The pedals are either on a track-and-roller or are suspended on arms between the flywheel and the mobile hand grips. The suspended arm models are ordinarily quiet and have a smooth glide to them. They are not the easiest to transport and will take up the most room in an exercise space.

Front Drive

In front drive ellipticals, the flywheel is at the front of the machine. They tend to be more compact than the rear drive models and are generally less expensive. They are, however, usually noisier (because of the track-and-roller setup) and less stable, with more vibration.

Users might have to lean forward to propel the flywheel a little more in a front drive elliptical, and they are sometimes less comfortable for some taller exercisers and those with longer strides.

Center Drive

The center drive elliptical is the newest innovation in elliptical technology with flywheels on both sides of the pedals. They have the dual benefits of the compactness of a front drive and the smoother, more balanced ride of a rear drive elliptical. These newer styles of elliptical will cost more, too.

Drive mechanism

Ellipticals use resistance to determine how easy or difficult the pedaling motion is for the user and, consequently, how many calories are burned.

One of the most important considerations when buying an elliptical is how the resistance is applied to the flywheel. This, along with the weight of the flywheel, controls the smoothness of the motion, the noise of the machine, and its durability.


Magnets are now the primary means of controlling resistance on an elliptical trainer. The type of magnets used varies according to the price point of the elliptical.

Lower and mid-range models ordinarily have a caliper with magnets attached to it. This caliper is raised or lowered toward the flywheel either manually or mechanically. The closer together the magnets, the higher the resistance. As this relies on moving parts, there is more of a chance of part malfunctions.

The other, more expensive option is known as the eddy current braking system. It uses an electromagnetic current to control resistance. The current is adjusted from the console automatically. As there are no parts to wear out or break down, this is generally a more stable and durable method of braking that requires less maintenance.

The stronger the magnetic field around the metal flywheel, the more resistance will be put on the motion of the pedals, making it harder to pedal.


Air provides the most rudimentary resistance of the elliptical options, and as such, is usually the least expensive option when buying an elliptical trainer. It consists of a large fan that is attached to the user’s pedals. Pedalling rotates the fan, which generates wind resistance as the exerciser pedals faster.


Pedals should be close together to make the stride as normal as possible. Some ellipticals have pedals that pivot in an effort to match the user’s normal stride.

Additionally, some models come with pedals that can be adjusted to suit the user. This is a great feature (although not as common). If the stride motion requires less foot lift, there is less strain on the lower body.


For any piece of exercise equipment, the footprint of the machine must always be considered. Ellipticals come in a number of sizes with the average model taking up roughly a 72×30” area.

The rear-drive models are generally the bulkiest and largest of the available models and can reach lengths of 84” with the tracks fully extended. You will also need to consider the space for safety on each side, as well as the ceiling height. At the apex of a stride, the user can sometimes be 25” off the floor.

Stride length

Like elliptical models, users come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The taller the user, the longer the stride length should be. Proper stride length allows the user to achieve full extension and is key to working the targeted muscles correctly for the most effective workout.

The length of the stride is anywhere from 14-24” and some machines have adjustable strides (which is preferable in gym settings with multiple users).


Ultimately, the more comfortable users are exercising on an elliptical the more likely they are to use it.

In order to maximize ease of use, the elliptical model should allow users to:

  • Stand upright
  • Pedal with a smooth, natural pathway
  • Easily reach the hand grips
  • Experience no pain in wrists while gripping
  • Not bump any fixed machine component (i.e. moving or static hand grips, frame)


elliptical console with features and personal viewing screenIn this day and age, with the myriad of features available on exercise equipment, users are spoilt for choice. There may be some aspects that exercisers might never use (or know how to). In some instances, too many options can be a barrier to a good workout and sometimes a deterrent. The simpler the operation and selections, the more approachable the machine is likely to be.

Higher end elliptical models will offer extras like:

  • Touchscreen technology
  • Device interactivity
  • Pre-set and customizable exercise programs (which are great for boredom busting!)
  • Bluetooth compatibility
  • Wireless heart monitoring

Remember that the more bells, whistles and performance-tracking software you opt for, the higher the price will be.

With all the options available, look for those features that best suit users’ needs. However, there are some that you should consider as standard to enhance an elliptical workout:

  • Heart rate monitor—the accuracy of the monitors will vary according to price, but having something to track heart rate is a good way to judge overall intensity and goal acquisition.
  • Adjustable incline—this can add a new dimension to a workout for both variety and intensity, as well as allowing users to target a different muscle group. The incline can be anywhere from 10-35º.
  • Adjustable resistance—most elliptical models will offer this option, but the easier it is to adjust and the more resistance settings it offers, the more enjoyable and engaging the workout is likely to be.


When purchasing new equipment, be sure to consider who will assemble the product. Ellipticals are heavy pieces of exercise equipment. More often than not, new elliptical trainers are shipped in pieces and parts. And if you just opt for delivery, it will usually end up in boxes on your doorstep.

If you have the necessary tools and time, you can save money by assembling the machine yourself. Otherwise, factor in the additional costs of having your elliptical shipped, delivered and assembled.

With a little research and sweat in some testing instances, buying an elliptical can be an interesting and rewarding endeavor.

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