elliptical machine comprehensive guide

How to Choose The Right Elliptical Trainer – A Comprehensive Guide

In this comprehensive elliptical trainer buying guide, you’ll learn how to choose the right elliptical machine for you, its benefits, a buying checklist, and my top recommendations.

The elliptical exercise machine also knows as an elliptical trainer isn’t all that popular when compared to exercise bikes and treadmills, but it has formed a huge fan base mostly among seniors, people with joint problems, those recovering from joint problems, sedentary task workers, and fitness enthusiasts of all ages. The reason being that, it’s a low impact exercise machine that mimics stair climbing, skiing, running, walking, but leaves a near-zero impact that doesn’t strain the joints as your foot is steadily on the pedals.

Also, its weight-bearing form of exercise that helps in improving bone density gives it a slight advantage over the treadmills and exercise bike.

What is an Elliptical Machine – A Brief History

The first design of the elliptical machine emerged late in the 90s, but not until 1995 when Precor introduced the first elliptical cross-trainers, a rear-drive elliptical design of which the company holds the patent to this design. Thus, led to other companies coming up with ever-evolving varying designs of the elliptical machine.

Today, we’ve different types of elliptical machines falling into different classifications. Some of the popular types of elliptical machines are the cross-trainers and gliders that affords both upper and lower body workout. There is also the front, rear, and center drives elliptical whose names simply signify the positions of the flywheel respectively.

These later designs of elliptical trainers, started with the second generation front drives and most recently, the center drive elliptical. There’s also the recumbent elliptical machine that offers a more comforting workout through a seat that lets you rest your back while working out, just like the recumbent exercise bikes. It’s expected with time, we’ll be seeing more varying designs of the elliptical trainer.

What Are The Benefits of an Elliptical Machine?

There’re lots of benefits you can get from training on an elliptical exercise machine. Just like the more popular treadmills and spin bikes, the elliptical machine also allows for cardiovascular and aerobic exercises that are some of the best ways to burn calories, lose weight, and prevent heart diseases.

However, the elliptical trainer is a more low-impact cardio machine that works on a four-bar linkage arrangement. This arrangement simulates walking, stair climbing, and running, but unlike the treadmill reduces the pressure and stress on your joints. Thus, eliminating the risk of joint injuries. A major reason the elliptical machine is the best choice for less active individuals or those just starting out.

So, the benefits of an elliptical machine include;

  • Total body workout
  • Although less intense when compared to a treadmill, it however has the advantage of working both the lower and upper body. Thanks to the movable hand bars.

  • Low impact on the joints
  • An elliptical machine offers a low-impact workout that’s yet very effective. The design of an elliptical machine allows for continuous movement without having to raise your feet. Thus, it reduces drastically the impact on your joints. And according to this reportresearch, over 80 percent of running injuries are caused by strains resulting from overuse.

  • A Cardio machine
  • Elliptical machines deliver the same cardio workout benefits as a treadmill. Although you tend to burn more calories in a shorter time while training on a treadmill compared to the elliptical machine. It however remains a great choice for losing weight.

  • Highly customizable
  • The adjustable design of an elliptical machine makes it a great choice for all ages for achieving varying fitness goals. Most elliptical machines have an inclination that allows you to choose inclination levels, as well as adjustable resistance levels.

  • Increases bone density and reduces risk of osteoporosis
  • When you train on an elliptical machine, you stand upright. While this reduces the impact on your joints, the pressure that’s associated with gravity helps increase bone density, and as well prevents the risk of osteoporosis.

  • Stay fit even with joint injuries
  • The design of an elliptical machine which results in a low-impact on your joints makes this machine a fantastic choice for seniors, and people recovering from joint injuries. Because you don’t have to lift your foot as you do on a treadmill meaning you can stay fit even with a joint problem that can help in faster recovery (you should always consult your doctor before deciding to train with an elliptical machine).

Elliptical vs Treadmill vs Exercise bikes

Which is the best; elliptical, treadmill, or exercise bikes? It is obviously one of the most asked questions among fitness enthusiasts. Whether you choose an elliptical, treadmill, or upright/spin bike, any of these is a cardio machine that can help you burn some more calories, while helping you stay fit.

However, the elliptical machine being a moderate-intense machine lets you work at your pace, and of course, an exercise bike leaves a less impact on your joints compared to a treadmill.

Obviously, treadmill or spin bikes are more high-intense machines that allow for a more vigorous workout. Thus, resulting in the loss of more calories in a shorter time compared to an elliptical machine.

The Anatomy of an Elliptical Trainer

parts of an elliptical trainer

A typical elliptical machine will have hand bars which is where the cross-trainer name was coined from, foot pedals, the console, flywheel, and perhaps hand rate hand grips (not every model have this feature).

  • Hand Bars
  • Hand bars are a significant part of a typical elliptical machine. Some elliptical machines will have movable hand bars, while some don’t. The movable hand bars or cross-trainer is a major benefit that comes with elliptical machines, unlike treadmills. It allows you to work the upper body muscles, making it a total body workout machine.

  • Foot Pedals
  • The foot pedals serve as the position for placing your feet on the machine. It’s a major component in any elliptical machine. Some elliptical machines have inclination and resistance levels that can be adjusted. Increased inclination and resistance results in you needing more power and pressure to move the pedals. Thus, a more intense workout that leads to increased calories loss.

  • Console
  • The console in an elliptical machine is the part that houses all the programmable features built into the machine. Typically the console contains a LCD display that shows time, distance, calories, loudspeaker, mp3 port, and other complications. Moreover, higher-end elliptical machines come with inbuilt fitness apps like iFit that’s a common feature on most of Proform’s and Norditrack’s elliptical machines.

  • Flywheel
  • Not all elliptical machines come with a flywheel, but for those that do, it’s the wheel system that houses the movement mechanics associated with the elliptical machine. It works based on a magnetic system that’s responsible for the resistance that you feel as you stimulate movements on the machine. The heavier the flywheel, the more natural and smooth feeling you will experience on the machine.

    Flywheel weights ranges from 13 – 39lbs which is why high-end elliptical machines have the heaviest flywheel. This types of ellipticals are mostly used for commercial purposes as they’re more durable.

  • Heart rate hand grips
  • Not all elliptical machines will have a heart rate tracking feature. However, a standard elliptical machine has this feature and it comes in two main designs. It can be a wireless or hand grip. Elliptical machines with heart rate hand grip let you hold these bars while working out.

    Elliptical machines with wireless heart rate system allows you to work out while the machine tracks your heart rate. Although, not so accurate when compared to the hand grip system or even better and more accurate is wearing a smartwatch.

Types of elliptical machines

There’re different ways to classify elliptical machines, which is why it can be a bit confusing to figure out what different types of elliptical machines are available. I was actually confused too while researching the different types of elliptical machines, but don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as clear as possible to understand.

Majorly, elliptical machines are classified into three main categories; elliptical trainer, elliptical cross-trainer, and elliptical gliders. Every other classification below is a subset of these main categories.

  • Elliptical trainer
  • types of elliptical machines

    The elliptical trainer is the simplest form of elliptical machine you can find on the market. It is different from the other types of elliptical machines because it lacks the movable hand bars found on these other types.
    It’s cheap to acquire but isn’t as sturdy and feature-laden as the other types of elliptical machines. Moreover, it lacks the fitness benefit of working out the upper body compared to the other types that work both the upper body and lower body.

  • Elliptical cross-trainers
  • The elliptical cross-trainer is the most popular type of elliptical machine you’ll find on the market. This type of elliptical machine are identified by the movable hand bars that allow you to work both the upper body and lower body, and comprises of the rear-drive, front-drive and center drive elliptical machine.

    High-end elliptical cross-trainers from industry leader such as Norditrack, Scwhinn, Soles and Proform are loaded with lots of features that make these machines very valuable machines for a comprehensive workout.

  • Elliptical gliders

Elliptical gliders are a bit different from the other two types of elliptical machines being that instead of stimulating stair climbing, they stimulate walking and running on a more straightened pattern. Although not different from the other types in terms of effectiveness.

Beyond the major classification of elliptical machines, you’ll see mentions of front-drive, rear-drive or center-drive elliptical trainers. These three types of elliptical machines are a subset of the main classification above.

This classification is based on where the flywheel/resistance system that drives the deck and rollers is located. Thus, when the flywheel system is at the back, it’s called rear-drive elliptical machine which was the original design by Precor who’d had a patent to this design. Thus, led to the introduction of the front-drive elliptical machine where the flywheel system is situated at the front as indicated by the name.

The other type, a more recent design, the center-drive has the flywheel system at the center and is the most compact of the three types.

  • Rear Drive Elliptical machine
  • example of a rear-drive elliptical machine
    The rear-drive elliptical machine has the flywheel system behind. It’s the oldest design of elliptical that was patented to Precor – the US Company that had first designed this type of elliptical machine.

    The rear-drive elliptical machine is a more balanced design that has the weight centered in the middle and has the most natural movement stimulation that is smooth and easy on the body, although less compact when compared to a front-drive or center-drive elliptical trainer.

  • Front Drive Elliptical machine
  • The front-drive elliptical machine, a follow up to the rear-drive design has the flywheel system at the front. It’s a more compact design that makes this type a better option for home use. Although, not so balanced when compared to the rear-drive design.

  • Center Drive Elliptical Machine

example of center drive elliptical trainer - types of elliptical machines
The center drive elliptical machine as the name suggests has the flywheel system at the center. It’s a more recent design that is more compact than the other two.

There isn’t much difference among these three designs, except in terms of compactness of which the front-drive and center-drive elliptical machines are easier to store which is why these two are mostly bought for home use.

However, there’re some claims that the rear-drive elliptical machine offers more balance and offers a more natural stimulation compared to the other two. It all boils down to what works best for you as there’s no proven fact that any of these types of drives offer a better workout experience than the other.

While not forgetting the hybrid models that allow you to sit or stand while working out. Also referred to as recumbent elliptical machines.

Subsequently, classifying elliptical machine might be extended to the mode of storage or say its compactness. You might have heard mention of foldable and non-foldable elliptical machines.

The foldable elliptical machines are designed to make this machine easy to pack and store when it’s not in use which is why it’s a popular choice found in home gyms. The non-foldable is a bit gigantic and is mostly seen in your neighborhood gym house and presumably sturdier than the foldable ones.

How to Choose The Right Elliptical Trainer – A Checklist

Not every elliptical machine will be right for you. That it works for Mr. A doesn’t mean it’s the perfect choice for Mr. B. Before placing your order for an elliptical machine you should take into considerations two important factors; your weight, height, and available space, these three factors will guide you to ticking the right options.

  1. What’s your budget?
  2. The price of elliptical machines varies from the low-end that cost a few hundred dollars to the high-end models that cost a few thousand dollars. And just like every other product on the market, the higher the price, the more features you get, so also is the quality.

    You should ask yourself, how much you are willing to invest into your next elliptical machine. If you’re going to use this machine quite often like you should do, it’s then best to go for something sturdier that can actually go the extra mile.

    Most high-end elliptical machines have lots of features that give you the most pleasant experience that motivates you to want to hop on your elliptical every now and then, but that means more money.

  3. Height – How tall are you?
  4. The elliptical machine that’s suitable for a 5ft tall individual, may not be for a very tall person. Why? Because the taller you are the longer stride length you’ll need. The rule of thumb is that a 5ft 3inches tall individual should go for an elliptical machine with 13-18 inches stride length, while an individual who is 5ft 7inches or taller should go for an elliptical machine for 18 inches stride length and above.

    Secondly, you should also check how tall the elliptical machine is. Most elliptical machines are within 5 – 6ft tall. You should add at least 2-3feet to your height, then compare to the height of your ceiling.

  5. Weight
  6. An individual weighing 100lbs shouldn’t use a 100lbs capacity elliptical machine. The rule of thumb is to add at 30-80lbs to your weight. So, if you weigh 100lbs, you should go for at least 130-180lbs weight capacity.

  7. What’s the stride length?
  8. The stride length is the distance between your toe on one of the foot pedals and your heel on the other foot pedal. The taller you are, the longer the stride length you will need. Like pointed out above, a 6ft tall individual will need 18 inches and above stride length, while a shorter person, say 5.5ft will need 13 – 20 inches stride length.

    Moreover, most elliptical machines have stride length ranging from 16 – 20 inches which is great for most individuals.

  9. Will it fit into my available space?
  10. You should also check the size of the elliptical machine if it will fit your available space. Most elliptical machines measure 5-6ft in height and depth, and about 2ft wide. The rule of thumb is to give at least additional 1ft for the width so that you’re not confined and feel uncomfortable while working out.

    As per height, it’s been talked about in the previous section above. It’s recommended that you add at least 2-3 feet to your height when you stand on the machine considering that most elliptical machines come in 5ft tall. So, at least a 10ft tall ceiling will be nice for a 6ft tall individual.

  11. Is the stride length adjustable
  12. The stride length should be adjustable if other people will be using this machine. Moreover, adjustable stride length will allow you to cover more miles by increasing your stride length which results in more calories burned.

  13. What is the incline level?
  14. Incline levels found on elliptical machines allow you to experience the natural feeling you get when you run outdoors on a hilly surface. It gives you that mountain hiking experience. Besides, a higher incline increases your intensity allowing you to burn more calories. If the inclination is adjustable, it’ll allow you to workout at your pace as you become more fit, while also targeting the quad, glutes, and calves. Most elliptical machine will have 10-20° or higher incline level.

    So, check the incline levels available before buying.

  15. How many resistance levels?
  16. The function of the resistance level in an elliptical machine is to allow you increase your intensity as you deem fit. You start easy and will want to take it up. Most elliptical machines will have 16 – 25 resistance levels which is great, while higher-end models will have 20 and above that are mostly used for commercial purposes.

  17. Quite magnetic braking system
  18. The resistance levels mentioned above works based on a magnetic braking system as seen on most elliptical machines. Switching to a new resistance level should happen silently and smoothly without jerking as sometimes encountered on low-end elliptical machines.

  19. How heavy is the flywheel?
  20. A heavier flywheel offers you a smoother, steady, and a more natural stride experience than lightweight flywheel that can feel awkward while working out. 18-30lbs is nice for a smooth and natural stride experience. Although, the higher the flywheel weight like you’ll find on higher-end models the better.

  21. Easy to use controls
  22. The controls for adjusting the stride length, resistance levels, and incline should be easy to access effortlessly while on the go. You shouldn’t have to stop to adjust these settings as it kills the vibes and tempo of your training.

  23. How’s the machine delivered?
  24. Most times when you order for an elliptical machine, it can be delivered in its component parts where you’ve to assemble it yourself. However, some companies might offer to assemble it for you at an additional cost or free as the case may be. If you’re not too sure about the DIY, you should have it assembled for you so that you don’t get things messed up.

    Moreover, most of these elliptical machines are very easy to assemble.

  25. Any Warranty?
  26. Is there any warranty is one question you should ask. Most manufactures will likely offer warranty that covers a year or more on both maintenance and durability of the machine. You should check to be sure the warranty on the machine is ok with you before parting ways with your money.

    You should bear in mind that warranty only applies when you’re the original purchaser which is why I recommend you buy from only authorized dealers.

  27. Other features

Many elliptical machines will have an LCD display also called the console which houses the programmable features of the machine. You should check to know how many programs are available, inbuilt fitness apps like iFit, plus any other feature available.

Also, look out for the hand bar grips for tracking heart rate which tracks calories burnt while also giving you insight that lets you know when to increase your intensity or tone it down.

However, wearing a smartwatch will give a more accurate reading as seen with the Apple Watch 4, the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus or Fitbit Versa.

Should I Buy an Elliptical Machine?

Elliptical machines are fast becoming very popular among fitness enthusiasts of all ages. The design of an elliptical machines makes it a great choice for everyone, whether you‘re an athlete preparing for a competition, a beginner, or senior, you’ll find the elliptical trainer a great choice that helps you achieve more fitness goals.

Unlike the treadmill and exercise bikes, an elliptical machine offers a total body workout that targets your biceps, triceps, quad, glutes and your core which helps tone your whole body, strengthens your core and improves your balance.

The elliptical machine being a low-impact machine is the best choice for those recovering from joint injuries. It also allows you to train eliminating those impact on your joints that could lead to a tear as experienced sometimes on treadmills or mostly while running outdoors.


There’s no doubt that elliptical machines leave the lowest impact on your joints which is why these sets of machines are the most preferred choice for less active individuals, or those recovering from joint problems. If you’re recovering from joint problems, you should always consult your doctor before deciding to train on an elliptical machine.

Buying the right elliptical machine is easier when you go through the checklist above as its quite comprehensive to help you buy the right elliptical machine.

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