An Elliptical Buying Guide
Ellipticals are quickly becoming a popular choice for buyers looking for a low-impact alternative to traditional treadmills. These machines provide calorie-burning, high-intensity workouts that exercise your upper and lower body. But what is the best elliptical to buy for home use?
Finding the right elliptical isn’t quite as easy. With so many models to choose from, the search can be daunting. Before you go to the sporting goods store or check out the wide range of options available online, there are a few factors you should consider.
- 1 An Elliptical Buying Guide
- 2 Tiers by budget
- 3 Performance Features to Consider
- 4 Space Constraints
- 5 Durability
- 6 Additional Features
Tiers by budget
The first consideration when buying an elliptical is often your budget. An elliptical’s features vary based on price, creating three tiers.
This is an excellent option if you’re a smaller person that enjoys a steady, less-intensive workout routine. The stride of a basic elliptical is usually very compact, that ranges from 15-20”. In addition, the flywheel is usually lighter and is only suitable for smaller users. A basic elliptical may have modern features, such as manual magnetic resistance or a digital display, but these features are often limited and inaccurate.
If you’re of average height and are looking for a stable machine for your daily workouts, a standard can be the best elliptical machine for home use. The standard is equipped with at least a 20lb flywheel and can handle more intense workouts. In addition, standard ellipticals usually have more features to keep your workout interesting, such as built-in programs, progress trackers, power-operated resistance magnets, and a heart-rate monitor.
Elite ellipticals can be expensive, but are well-worth the investment. Every feature is designed to provide you with the most stable, efficient workout possible. These machines have the heaviest flywheel, usually ranging from 25 to 32lbs. If you’re a tall person that has struggled with smaller ellipticals, you will really appreciate the 20-26” stride. Elite machines also have a higher weight capacity and can withstand daily use much longer than their standard or basic counterparts. Finally, they may come equipped with upgraded standard features, such as additional workout programs, an eddy current braking system, and a chest heart-rate monitor.
Performance Features to Consider
Ellipticals are very versatile machines and come loaded with different features. Here are a few basic features to consider and what to look for when buying an elliptical.
- Types of Resistance – In the past, ellipticals used belt resistance. The belt ran along the flywheel, causing extreme wear over time. Now most ellipticals use magnetic resistance. Basic ellipticals typically use a manual system; you would adjust resistance manually by pulling out a knob to move the magnets closer or further from the flywheel. This can make changing your resistance level very inconvenient.
Standard ellipticals control these magnets electronically with buttons conveniently located on the console or handles of the machine.
Elite ellipticals use the newest system available: the eddy current braking system. Like the magnetic system, the resistance is controlled electronically. However, the eddy current braking system creates electromagnetic currents to create resistance against the flywheel. Although this is a relatively new concept, manufacturers advertise that this method is much more efficient and less likely to break in the future.
- Maximum amount of resistance – The weight of the flywheel is a good indicator of the true maximum level of resistance. When the flywheel is heavier, the machine is more stable and can have additional levels of resistance applied.
- Number of levels – To get the best workout you can, try to invest in an elliptical with several levels of resistance. Resistance varies, depending on which tier you select. Basic ellipticals usually only offer up to five levels of resistance, if any.
Differentiating the levels of resistance between a standard and an elite is a little trickier, so if a machine offers more levels than seems necessary, it’s probably good enough for home use. When you’re at the sporting goods store, be sure to test the resistance. Although many standards advertise as many resistance levels as elites, the levels may increase in smaller increments, totalling to only a fraction of what an actual elite offers.
Ellipticals are not one-size-fits-all workout machines. The best home elliptical machine is the one that almost feels made for you. If you’re tall, you’re going to feel very cramped on an 18” elliptical. Likewise, if you’re 5’, a 22” stride will feel awkward. The most common stride length for those of average height is 20”. Higher-end ellipticals are equipped with a longer range of stride, usually between 20”-24”. Here are the best for tall people.
Upper Body Workout
Standard and elite ellipticals are equipped with moving arm bars, allowing you to exercise your pectorals and arm muscles. When you’re shopping, keep in mind the arm bar’s specific features, such as the comfort grip, button placement, and shape. You’re going to spend a lot of time holding the arm bars. Make sure they feel natural. Elite ellipticals are usually equipped with curved, inclining arm bars, and multiple grip points. This will ensure that no matter what your arm length, you’ll have a comfortable workout.
There are also small portable ellipticals that don’t have any arms, stationary or moving. They are meant to help you move your legs while you sit and work at a desk or watch TV on a couch. A few models allow you to stand and walk and come with arm resistance bands so that you can simultaneously work your arms as well. The Cubii is a good example of a high end portable elliptical.
If your household members have varying fitness needs, you may want to consider a hybrid. Hybrids usually come in two forms: elliptical-stair steppers and elliptical-recumbent bikes. The stair stepper hybrids are equipped with heavy flywheels and are excellent for interval training and high intensity workouts. On the other hand, recumbent bike hybrids are equipped with seats and pedals. If you, or your family member, needs a less intense workout, this is a great option. The downside to both machines is the fixed stride, so be sure to test each one out before purchasing.
Space ConstraintsEllipticals require a lot of space. To ensure that your machine will fit in your house, measure the total length of the elliptical at its longest stride. Also measure the tallest user in your household when they are at the highest point of the elliptical, including incline. Typically, the minimum ceiling height for an elliptical is 8’. If you’re confined to a small space, you might consider a center-drive elliptical since they are the most compact.
If you’re storing the elliptical in a multi-use room, consider buying a space-saver, where several brands, such as NordicTrack and Proform, offer ellipticals equipped with a hydraulic folding system.
Another alternative to an elliptical machine is a stair stepper. Not only does it take up very little space, but most models also cost a lot less than ellipticals.
We have picked our favorite compact ellipticals, including one foldable NordicTrack here.
Before making your final purchase, consider the durability of the elliptical. Even if an elliptical boasts several useful features, poor quality can cause you many frustrations down the road. To prolong the life of the machine and reduce frequency of maintenance, the following guidelines should be followed:
Max User Weight
Every time you use an elliptical, you put stress on the frame and moving parts. Manufacturers build specific models to withstand up to a certain threshold. It’s important to adhere to these guidelines, otherwise the elliptical may fail before the end of its lifespan.
Metal or Plastic Parts
Most ellipticals are a combination of plastic and metal. Ellipticals exclusively made of metal are often excessively heavy and may expose the frame to unnecessary dust particles and moisture. The important metal component is the frame. A frame should be made of metal tubing and covered with anti-corrosion paint.
In addition, observe the durability of the plastic components covering the incline motor, console, and flywheel. Many elite ellipticals use upgraded plastics, such as PVC, to cover these parts.
Drive DesignEllipticals come in three forms: Rear, Center, and Front flywheel.
Rear drive is more popular in commercial applications. It contains fewer moving parts and may require less maintenance overall. However, the better ones are often expensive and require a large amount of space.
Front wheel ellipticals have become more popular with home applications. The motion is controlled by a rolling, rubber wheel on a track. These rollers can wear with extended use. If you intend to use the elliptical for intensive workouts, consider investing in a front wheel elliptical with dual rollers.
Center elliptical is a relatively new concept without a long history of maintenance issues. The machines do have a flywheel on either side of the pedals, which may require more maintenance. However, like the rear elliptical, it doesn’t have a track or rollers that wear out.
You can get a powerful workout from any drive trainer, but they might feel slightly different in terms of your body form. A front drive can give you more of a stair climbing motion, while a rear drive feels a bit like walking or jogging while feeling slightly unnatural on the cheaper models. You may feel like you’re leaning forward a bit on a front drive and that can be uncomfortable at times too. To combat that, look for a machine with articulated pedals that compensate to give you a comfortable workout.
A center-drive usually feels the most comfortable but they are also expensive. They are the most compact too.
Brand and Warranty
Not all brands have a stellar track record for durability. Before making your final purchase, investigate the aspects of a manufacturer, such the brand’s key features, customer service, reviews, and warranties.
Standard and elite elliptical brands, such as Sole, Precor, and NordicTrack, build their ellipticals with commercial-rated steel, superior weight tolerances, and excellent quality control. In addition, they offer superior warranties. This typically includes a lifetime frame, 5 year parts and electronics, and 2 year labor warranties.
Reputable brands producing basic and standard ellipticals, such as Schwinn and Proform, should still use quality materials and offer excellent customer service. However, you may notice a decrease in the duration of their warranties. Schwinn offers a 10 year frame, 2 year mechanical, 1 year electrical and 90 day labor warranty. Proform offers a 10 year frame with a 1 year parts and labor warranty.
Keep in mind that manufacturer warranties do not cover wear and tear on parts, such as rollers, console buttons, or offer coverage for electrical failure do to power surges. Retailers offer extended warranties that cover these issues and may service your machine annually.
Additional FeaturesOnce you’ve considered the basics, you can select the bells and whistles.
• Adjustable incline – This allows you to exercise different muscles, such as your calves and glutes. Some manufacturers offer this feature via a manually adjustable ramp, usually ranging between 15 to 30 degrees. Many elite ellipticals offer automatic inclines that are adjusted with your specific workout program to emulate elevations.
• Adjustable pedals – This feature can be found in most standard and elite ellipticals. Long use of an elliptical may develop lower leg strain. You can adjust the position of the pedal to create a more natural stride and the incline to relieve pressure from your calf and ankle.
• Workout variety – Different workout modes are very motivational and can help you push yourself. Most modern ellipticals have at least five workout modes, while the standard and elite have more intuitive programs such as terrain emulators.
• Heart rate monitor and control – Standard and elite ellipticals include heart rate monitoring systems to track your cardiovascular activity. Almost all models include handle heart-rate monitors, but elite models can often pair with chest monitors, which are more effective.
• Display – Basic models often include a small digital display that can be run off batteries or AC adapters. Standard and elite models offer larger LCD screens that allow you to sync with your mp3 player or ipod and can give you a visual aid for your progress. NordicTrack has one of the most attractive screens on the market, offering 10” touchscreens.
• TV and Internet Programming – NordicTrack is also king of built-in internet programming. Some of NordicTrack’s latest models offer clear, HD displays that display live environments, based on real places. In addition, you connect to thousands of other fitness enthusiasts with iFit. iFit is a subscription that offers downloadable workouts and a personalized fitness coach. Proform now offers this program with its elite models. Sole offers features such as Bluetooth sync and can link to fitness apps such as ifitness and myfitnesspal.
• Built-in fan – Some models offer one fan on the top or bottom of the console, while others offer two. Fans lower your body temperature and give you just enough endurance to continue.
Ellipticals can be a great addition to your home gym. The right one can provide you with hours of safe, high-intensity exercise. Shopping for an elliptical can be confusing at first, but once you understand the basic features, you’ll know what is the best elliptical trainer to buy.
Sources for images:
Featured image: By Sport-Tiedje GmbH (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Front-drive Elliptical: [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Pixabay
Center-drive Elliptical: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jillclardy/2375667768/ [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)]
Rear-drive Elliptical: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidreber/4671489555 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)]