Elliptical Machine Buyer’s Guide

Elliptical Machine Buying Guide

Available in virtually every gym, elliptical machines are a staple of the cardio cannon, popular among casual and devoted exercisers alike. Even from afar, they seem inviting and user-friendly: Plant your feet on the pedals, grab the handles, and get moving.

Yet, in many ways, ellipticals remain poorly understood – even by those who use them regularly. Additionally, these machines are often judged unfairly by fitness enthusiasts, who incorrectly assume that the elliptical is too easy-going to deliver an intense workout.

True, ellipticals can be refreshingly smooth, sparing your body from violent impacts. But that doesn’t mean that ellipticals are necessarily less demanding: When used correctly, they can burn calories like the best gym equipment. 

Moreover, their design can help prevent injury, allowing exercisers to maintain their workout routines over time. Because aerobic exercise offers a multitude of benefits across one’s lifespan, the elliptical is a sustainable way to keep up with cardio – even if you’ve been injured in the past.

In short, the elliptical could be a great addition to your next workout, no matter your current fitness goals. And to help you understand all the advantages that these ellipticals offer, we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide.

First, we’ll show you how ellipticals work, walking you through common features and types. From there, we’ll cover the distinct benefits of elliptical machines and contrast them to other kinds of cardio equipment. We’ll also provide some expert tips to help you reap more rewards from your elliptical workouts.

Ready to learn what ellipticals are all about? Let’s get started.

Elliptical Essentials: Common Types and How They Work

First, a bit of history: While ellipticals are ubiquitous today, they first appeared just decades ago. Introduced in 1995, ellipticals were immediately celebrated for their low-impact spin on cardio, providing aerobic benefits while protecting the body from repetitive jolts. While early models featured stationary handles, innovators soon added movable ones for upper-body engagement. This combination appealed to a broad range of fitness enthusiasts – from occasional gym-goers to avid athletes – and made ellipticals a popular addition to gyms around the world.

The term “elliptical” refers to the path of the machine’s pedals, which trace an oval-like shape as individuals move their feet back and forth. Accordingly, that name is something of a catch-all, denoting a variety of machines that are operated in this manner. In fact, ellipticals can be constructed in several different ways, and each method presents particular advantages.

Common Kinds of Elliptical Machines

While ellipticals are manufactured in countless varieties, they can generally be assigned to four separate categories. The central distinction is the placement of the “drive system” or “flywheel,” the core component that facilitates the elliptical motion.

Front-drive ellipticals: Simple and budget-friendly, front-drive ellipticals locate the machine’s flywheel in front of the exerciser. As a result, users lean slightly forward while on the machine, much as if they were using a stair-climber.

Center-drive ellipticals: A relatively new form of elliptical, center-drive machines takes an innovative approach to drive system placement. In these models, the drive system is located off to one side of the user, creating compact designs ideal for small spaces. Some center-drive machines approximate the feeling of walking or jogging, which many users prefer.

Rear-drive ellipticalsTypically found in more expensive models, rear-drive systems place the wheel behind the exerciser. Manufacturers claim that this design permits a smoother, more circular pedal motion, which can feel a lot like running. Rear-drive ellipticals can require users to maintain an upright position, minimizing strain on one’s lower back. However, some exercisers find this position awkward.

Hybrid ellipticals: Hybrid exercise machines blend multiple functions, and elliptical hybrids typically incorporate the functions of a stationary bike. You can usually adjust the machine to move between modes, rearranging your seat and pedals. In many cases, these machines don’t sacrifice durability for versatility: Despite their multiple functions, they can stand the test of time.

Other Key Components and Features

Beyond the placement of an elliptical’s drive system, a few other characteristics define the machine. One key consideration is stride length, or the maximum distance each pedal can move forward and backward. For tall exercisers, limited stride length can be a deal-breaker, forcing them to make choppy, abbreviated motions. Conversely, models with stride lengths of 20 or more inches can keep most people comfortable.

infographic on stride length on elliptical machine

Another essential component is the resistance system, which can increase an elliptical’s level of difficulty and bring the machine to a complete stop. Lower-end ellipticals often have manual systems, whereas more expensive ones are motorized.

Beyond ellipticals’ core machinery, there are many bells and whistles available, from heart rate monitoring and live-streamed coaching to Apple and Android compatibility. In fact, these high-tech features are too numerous and varied to cover fully in this guide. Suffice it to say, these technological perks are nearly as important as the underlying mechanics to some users: They make the machine appealing enough to use it consistently.

Elliptical Benefits: How Ellipticals Enhance Any Workout

After familiarizing yourself with elliptical machines’ core components and characteristics, you’re well prepared to understand their distinct advantages. Indeed, ellipticals are explicitly designed to deliver cardio benefits while minimizing injury risk, a highly desirable combination of objectives. 

According to experts and trainers, ellipticals do precisely that – and so much more. Here are some major reasons that ellipticals are a smart source of cardio to include in any workout.

Low-impact exercise lowers the risk of injury.

Many of the most popular forms of aerobic exercise take a hefty toll on your joints and bones through repetitive movements and impacts. This unfortunate dynamic frequently leads to aches and pains – as well as more serious overuse injuries.

By contrast, ellipticals keep your feet in constant contact with the pedals, so your body never takes a beating. The smooth, continuous motion creates little to no impact upon the lower body, sparing vulnerable areas like your knees, ankles, and hips. Whereas runners can deal with nagging injuries for years, ellipticals virtually eliminate the risk of significant damage.

As a result, ellipticals are an excellent option for those recovering from injury who want to keep up with cardio. Ellipticals will be gentle on the areas of your body that have been hurt previously, preventing problems from reemerging.

Ellipticals engage the full body.

Ellipticals encourage full bodily involvement: When you work the pedals and handles simultaneously, nearly every major muscle group gets moving. While a well-rounded fitness routine demands variety, the elliptical is a pretty efficient all-around option.

Cardio needs? Check. Large lower-body muscles such as quads and glutes? Absolutely. Chest and delts? You got it. Even your core will get some indirect strengthening benefits by keeping you balanced throughout the process.

Ideally, these full-body benefits can complement a more comprehensive strength training plan. Ellipticals can even put you on that path: After spending time on one for a couple of months, you may feel more comfortable expanding your strength training regimen.

Customizable options enable you to pursue your personal fitness goals.

If you’re looking to build strength in certain areas of your body, ellipticals offer you the opportunity to tailor your workout accordingly. Exercisers seeking stronger leg muscles, for example, can choose to release the handles, emphasizing their legs exclusively.

Changing the incline and resistance will provide additional options to challenge yourself and target certain muscle groups. Similarly, if improved balance and core strength are fitness priorities, find a sustainable mix of incline and resistance and let go of the handles. Using your legs alone will help you incrementally reach those goals.

Another appealing possibility is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which entails brief periods of intense exertion followed by active recovery. HIIT can provide more benefits than exercising at a steady pace, and the elliptical is the perfect machine for such a routine. You can for example, do 30 seconds of all-out effort at an intense incline, then follow it with a less challenging two-minute recovery. Keep alternating for 20 to 30 minutes and you’ll have a complete workout.

Ellipticals are easy to use for all types of exercisers.

The elliptical has virtually no learning curve: Hop on, get moving, and fall into a good rhythm. While the machine’s motions may feel unfamiliar at first, most people acclimate quite quickly, falling into an automatic pattern of movement.

For those at the beginning of their workout journey (or people who are returning to fitness after some time away), the elliptical presents relatively few barriers to entry. That’s a huge upside in the early stages, when more complex machines can seem daunting.

By the same token, accomplished athletes can also benefit from the elliptical’s advantages, especially if they do so as part of a cross-training regimen. Accomplished runners, for example, often use the elliptical for low-impact cardio on days between long runs.

You can quickly burn through calories.

When used correctly and vigorously, ellipticals can torch calories quite efficiently. Because you’re involving your upper and lower body simultaneously, you’ll need ample energy to fuel your exercise (several hundred calories, in some cases).

This energy consumption can translate to weight loss over time, particularly when combined with a moderate, balanced diet. If you’re trying to shed pounds or prevent weight gain, therefore, the elliptical is a trusty tool.

In fact, many ellipticals help you track calories burned over the course of your workout, using your weight, age, and exercise stats to provide an estimated total. These estimates are hardly precise, but they can serve as a helpful benchmark for the calorie-conscious.

Cardio Comparison: Ellipticals vs. Other Exercise Machines

While ellipticals offer a compelling array of benefits, they certainly don’t have a monopoly on cardio exercise. The treadmill is the obvious alternative, and it can certainly burn through calories as well. In truth, neither machine is clearly superior: Each offers certain advantages, so one may be better suited to your fitness goals. Additionally, varying your exercise routine is often a wise practice, so you may benefit from alternating between machines.

We can’t make sweeping generalizations about the best fitness equipment for your needs and goals, nor would we want to. But we do want to share some of the particular ways in which ellipticals excel relative to other cardio machines. If these benefits match your fitness priorities, an elliptical might be the ideal machine for your aerobic exercise.

Elliptical Advantage No. 1: Full-Body Workouts

One elliptical advantage is immediately clear: Grab ahold of the handles and enjoy a workout that engages your full body. While we discussed this benefit earlier, it’s worth reemphasizing in comparison to other cardio machines. With the notable exception of rowing machines, what other gym equipment gets your full body involved? The treadmill certainty doesn’t.

infographic of muscle groups worked on elliptical machine

On that note, you can also vary your approach during your workout, such as choosing to use your lower body alone to target large muscle groups in your legs. The same can’t be said for more limited cardio equipment.

Elliptical Advantage No. 2: Preventing Injury and Aiding Recovery

As we discussed above, ellipticals facilitate low-impact cardio exertion: Because your feet stay engaged with the pedals throughout, there’s no jarring thump at the end of each stride. For this reason, ellipticals are arguably the best cardio machine for certain kinds of exercisers who are especially wary of injury. 

If you have a history of knee, hip, or back pain, for example, there’s no safer choice than an elliptical to avoid exacerbating these issues. Similarly, beginner exercisers often encounter injuries, getting sidelined just as they begin to develop a routine. For this crowd, the elliptical might be a better choice than the treadmill, at least until their bodies adjust to consistent, vigorous activity.

Even if you’re completely injury-free, the low-impact elliptical may be the best way to ensure you stay that way. You may love running, for example, but can you do it for decades without pain and chronic problems? In this sense, the elliptical positions you for sustainable exercise across your lifetime.

Elliptical Advantage No. 3: Lower Price, Smaller Footprint

In most categories of cardio equipment, prices vary widely. But if you’re considering purchasing an elliptical for use at home, you’ve probably noticed a considerable fiscal upside: Ellipticals are typically less expensive than treadmills and some other popular kinds of cardio machines. You can use the extra cash to buy other equipment and gear, building out your at-home fitness resources.

Space is an equally important practical concern, and ellipticals offer advantages in this sense as well. Many high-quality ellipticals can be collapsed when not it use, freeing up square footage in your home. While other kinds of cardio machines can also be packed away, ellipticals are particularly well-suited to be tucked into small spaces.

Elliptical Advice: Workout Tips to Maximize Ellipticals’ Benefits

While one of the elliptical’s benefits is its ease of use, there are some techniques you can keep in mind to make the most of your workouts. You can take us up on these tips right away, or try them once you become more comfortable. By implementing these small but significant adjustments, you’ll reap even greater rewards from your time spent on the elliptical.

Align your feet.

Elliptical pedals are typically pretty roomy, allowing for exercisers with various shoe sizes to use the machine. Unless your feet are on the larger end of the spectrum, you may have trouble deciding how to position yourself on the spacious pedals.

The most important thing is aligning your feet with the pedals, rather than placing them at an angle. By keeping your feet parallel with the pedals, you can avoid straining your hips. If you notice your feet pointing outward during a workout, take a second to safely adjust.

Maintain the right posture.

When you set foot on the elliptical, you may automatically hunch forward as you reach for the pedals. Pause for a moment and straighten up, rolling your shoulders back and pushing your pelvis forward. If helpful, imagine a string extending from your head to the ceiling.

Additionally, keep your head upright and face forward throughout the workout. Many exercisers are tempted to look down, especially to push through challenging inclines and resistance levels. Don’t fall into that habit: Keep your eyes straight ahead instead.

Keep your feet flat on the pedals.

infographic of foot problems over time using elliptical

We’ve described the elliptical’s low-impact properties, which spare your body from jolts that other forms of cardio entail. But if your heels are constantly coming off the pedals and landing back on them, you’re not taking advantage of the elliptical’s impact-saving design.

Keeping your feet fully pressed against the pedals will likely improve the quality of your workout and save you from aches and pains. Moreover, it will keep you from slipping and sliding as your workout goes on.

Mix up the incline or resistance.

Don’t fall for the comfort of the familiar: Try new inclines and resistance settings to keep your body guessing. You’ll benefit more from a varied workout routine than a dull, fixed regimen – and you’re much less likely to grow bored of the elliptical if you take advantage of all its features. Push the incline to new heights, for example, and your glutes will really feel it.

Try pedaling backward.

It’s true: You can safely pedal backward on most elliptical machines. Doing so will target your hamstrings, which too often get neglected. Sure, reversing your typical motion may feel odd at first, so start slow and speed up gradually. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll have a whole new way to put your elliptical to good use.

Incorporate other exercises.

Ellipticals make a great addition to any workout circuit, especially in combination with exercises that strengthen your upper body and core. For example, you can swiftly move from the machine to a static plank – then jump right back on after a minute. Or keep dumbells a few feet from your elliptical and bust out a few bicep curls to punctuate your cardio.

Give high-intensity intervals a try.

As we mentioned briefly above, HIIT is a great way to earn even greater cardio benefits than you would from maintaining a steady pace. But the rhythms of HIIT are also an excellent way to stay focused and driven, rather than lapsing into a lackadaisical pedaling. Additionally, you can set increasingly ambitious goals for yourself, decreasing recovery time as your endurance improves.

Elliptical Ownership: Choosing a Complete Cardio Machine

Throughout this guide, we’ve made the case for the elliptical’s benefits, describing how they can further your fitness goals while protecting against injury. With a firm understanding of how ellipticals function and a few tips for using them properly, you’re well on your way to making the most of this well-rounded machine. Still, a central question remains unanswered: Should you get one for your home?

In many ways, ellipticals are the optimal machine for at-home ownership. Relatively affordable and available in a range of sizes, ellipticals can be a good fit for many kinds of living spaces. Additionally, because ellipticals can challenge and support all kinds of exercisers, your whole family can benefit from this single piece of equipment.

Last but not least, ellipticals are built for the long haul, offering a low-impact form of cardio that you can sustain or adjust with little risk of injury. What better kind of machine to invest in? In contrast to many other forms of workout equipment, an elliptical can remain relevant as your needs and goals shift over time.

Still, there’s much to consider when weighing an elliptical purchase. While you can find excellent value in virtually every price range, it can be difficult to decide how much you want to spend. Additionally, which type of elliptical will feel most comfortable for your particular body? Should you invest in a hybrid elliptical machine or stick with a more straightforward option?

In considering these questions, many shoppers quickly (and understandably) become overwhelmed. Unsure of how to proceed with their purchase, they make an impulsive selection or abandon their search altogether.

EllipticalReviews.com is built to help you avoid these outcomes. Our expert reviews and unbiased guides help real customers find the perfect machines in their respective price ranges. Armed with the honest info we provide, shoppers can invest in ellipticals perfectly suited to their particular needs.

Feel free to explore our site and let us steer you toward an excellent elliptical. With a comprehensive cardio machine right in your own home, you’ll be ready to begin a new fitness chapter.

[Updated: November 2019]


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