Elliptical Trainer Buyer's Guide
How Much to Spend on an Elliptical Trainer?
Front or Rear Drive?
Resistance Mechanism & Control
Upper Body Handles
Where To Buy?
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How Much To Spend on an Elliptical Trainer?
When it comes to elliptical trainers, the old adage that "you get what you pay for" could not be more apt. You should really not consider elliptical trainers under $500. These machines are just too flimsy and poorly made to be worth your time and money. In fact, you should even be cautious when considering elliptical trainers under $1000.
It's not to say that you can't do well for yourself by purchasing a low-end residential elliptical trainer between $500-$1000, but you need to be aware of their limitations and decide if you're willing to trade cost for risk. Please read our article on Cheap Elliptical Trainers.The sections below are an outline of the key features that make up an elliptical trainer and that go into making a buying decision. Top
Front or Rear Drive?
The drive mechanism is the heart of any elliptical trainer. You have 2 choices in elliptical drive mechanisms: front drive or rear drive. There are many fine elliptical trainers available in both types, however, our preference leans towards rear drive ellipticals for the higher degree of both smoothness and reliability.
Frontdrive ellipticals are by necessity, more complex and therefore somewhat more prone to malfunction. Many fitness manufacturers were forced to adopt front drive mechanisms due to the large patent portfolio that Precor holds for rear drive ellipticals.
Some people don't mind the feel of a front drive elliptical, but remember, only you can decide if something feels right to you - so be sure to try any elliptical trainer before purchasing. Top
Resistance Mechanism & Control
The resistance mechanism is the part that provides the resistance to the foot pedals and handle bars. This directly influences the amount of force that you need to provide to maintain a given RPM or heart rate, which in turn causes your body to expend energy in the form of calories burned. The net result is weight loss and increased muscle tone.
There are 2 basic types of resistance mechanisms for elliptical trainers:
* Belt Resistance
* Magnetic Resistance
Belt resistance is only found on the cheapest of elliptical trainers. As it name implies, it uses a rubber belt to create friction against a flywheel, which in turn creates the resistance to force. As you might imagine, belt resistance is not very smooth and all that friction eventually causes the rubber belt to wear down and eventually snap. Our advice: stay far away from these ellipticals!
Magnetic resistance works by applying a magnetic field to a cast iron flywheel. The stronger the magnetic field, the more resistance you experience from the foot pedals. However, not all magnetic resistance is created equal.
Once again it comes back to price. The lower-end elliptical trainers require moving a permanent magnet either closer or further away from the flywheel to vary resistance. This can be accomplished either by manually twisting a resistance knob or electrically via a motor. The motorized system has additional moving parts that reduce the durability of the mechanism and also tends to be noisier during use.
Higher-end and commercial elliptical trainers typically use what is known as an "Eddy Current Brake" (ECB). This is just a fancy name for an electro magnet. The magnetic field, and hence the resistance, is increased by providing more electricity to the electro magnet.
On some higher-end models, the resistance can be controlled by the heart rate monitor. This is what is referred to as "heart rate control". This feature has been around for a while on stationary bikes and is a nice way to keep your heart rate in a target training zone either for cardiovascular conditioning or fat loss. Though nice, we don't feel that it is a must have feature on an elliptical trainer. Top
Stride length is the total distance that your feet are allowed to travel front to back and is a critical feature that directly affects the feel of an elliptical trainer. The sweet spot for stride length is between 16-19 inches. Anything shorter than 16 inches will tend to make the movement feel more like a stepper rather than an elliptical trainer. Some of the higher end trainers have a self-adjusting stride length that adjusts to your personal stride. Top
Upper Body Handle Bars
One of the great advantages of most elliptical trainers is the ability to exercise both the lower and upper body at the same time. The upper body workout comes from pushing and pulling a set of handle bars attached to the lower rails. However, some ellipticals don't have upper body handles. You just move your feet and legs while holding onto a stationary handle.
This is not to say that you can not get a great cardio workout on a trainer without upper body handles. In fact, even ellipticals with upper body handles usually have a stationary handle bar to hold on to if you chose to. If you have a disability to your arms or upper body and can not use the handle bars, then this option is ideal for you.
Precor makes some of the best high-end elliptical trainers around, but many of them don't have upper body handles. Personally, we prefer elliptical trainers with upper body handles, but thousands of people love Precor ellipticals. Remember, this is a personal choice. Top
Reverse direction is the ability to rotate the foot pedals either forward (clockwise) or in reverse (counter clockwise). It's a form of cross training that allows you to place the emphasis on different muscle groups depending on direction. For example, the forward direction places more stress on the thighs and calves as opposed to the reverse direction, which places the emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. Top
In addition to increasing the resistance though magnetic friction on the flywheel, on some models, the intensity of the workout can also be increased by raising the incline of the trainer. This not only makes your workout more intense, but also places more emphasis on other muscles such as the hamstrings and glutes. Once again, this feature is a matter of personal preference - many people appreciate this feature, but our preference is to leave the trainer level and cross train these other muscles through weight training. Top
You will need to pay close attention to this specification no matter what you weigh. This is because only the higher end and we mean much higher end and commercial grade elliptical trainers are capable of safely accommodating heavier individuals - people weighing more than 250 lbs. Please see our article on Best Elliptical Trainer For Obese Trainees.
Even if you weigh much less than this you may be disappointed to find that a $500 elliptical trainer sways from side to side and gives out only after a few months. Not to sound like a broken record, but it keeps coming back to price. The cheaper models are lighter and less sturdy and can not handle regular use under heavy loads.
Take the manufacturer's weight capacity claims with a large grain of salt. Some low end trainers claim they can handle 300 lbs, but we'd be hesitant to let anyone over 155 lbs. get on one. Top
Elliptical trainers tend to take up less space than a treadmill, but slightly more than a stationary bike. When locating an elliptical trainer be sure to allow some extra room both in front and back for clearance of the handle bars and lower rails during movement.
The other dimension that many people often overlook is the vertical clearance. Granted, many people have 9 ft. ceilings and are 6 ft or under in height so hitting your head on the ceiling is not a problem. However, if you're on the tall side and you're looking at elliptical trainers that have a higher profile, then this is a dimension to need to watch (along with your head). Please see our article on Elliptical Ceiling Height.
You can obtain the dimensions for various elliptical trainers from the product links on this Web site. Top
This is probably one of the top features when evaluating an elliptical trainer. There is nothing more distracting during a focused workout than a swaying, unsteady machine. Stability also goes hand in hand with the durability of a machine since instability is a sure sign that stress is being exerted on the frame, which means that the bolts and welds are taking a beating. Add a heavy load along with heavy use and you have an elliptical trainer that isn't going to last long. Top
In addition to stability, other factors influencing the durability of an elliptical trainer are the quality of the components the manufacturer uses in its construction as well as the workmanship in putting those components together into sub-assemblies. The final assembly is done by you, the customer.
The individual product reviews on this Web site discuss in detail the quality and durability you can expect from each model. Top
The amount of noise that is produced while exercising on an elliptical trainer can range from so loud that you can't hear a TV in the same room no matter how high you crank the volume to a very low whirring sound. As usual, the higher end ellipticals tend to be quieter since they use higher quality components than cheaper machines.
Machines that use a motorized braking system for their resistance are noisier than machines that use an ECB. Cheaper machines also tend to be lighter and less stable and this results in movement in the frame components that can produce squeaks and groans under use. Top
Heart Rate Monitoring & Control
Many elliptical trainers, both low-end and high-end, offer the ability to monitor your heart rate on the elliptical trainer's console.
Their are 3 basic types of heart rate monitors. Heart rate monitors can be built-in to the upper body handles and don't require any additional straps or wires. These built-in heart rate monitors are found on more expensive elliptical trainers. Some of the lower-end ellipticals use a monitor that clips onto your finger and is attached to the console with a wire. We find this arrangement to be awkward.
Finally, there are heart rate monitors that strap around your chest and communicate wirelessly to the console. These monitors tend to be the most accurate, but some users find them uncomfortable.
Another option is to purchase a HR monitor separately from the elliptical trainer if the model you're considering either doesn't come with one or you're not happy with its accuracy. These consist of a chest strap along with a wrist watch readout. Top
Elliptical trainers that come with automatic resistance adjustment also come with a variety of workout programs to choose from on the console. Workout programs can add stimulation and challenge to your training. Top
Pay special attention to the terms of the manufacturer's warranty. It should come as no surprise that the lower-end models offer extremely short warranty periods - typically 90 days and that's for parts and labor. You can be sure that they've worked the numbers and they know they'd be loosing money on anything longer. Whereas, the higher-end elliptical trainers usually come with longer warranty periods that cover the frame, mechanical parts, and labor, but even these warranties rarely cover labor beyond one year.
As a general rule of thumb it's usually not a good value to purchase warranty extensions or service contracts on consumer items, especially on electronics. We do however, make an exception - a big exception when it comes to elliptical trainers. If an extended warranty is offered by the manufacturer, take it, especially on the cheaper models.
Refer to the product pages for the warranty periods for specific elliptical trainers and our recommendations for extended warranties. Top
Where To Buy?
You basically have 3 choices when it comes to purchasing a new elliptical trainer. We did say "new", but a fourth option exists if you choose to purchase a used one. For new elliptical trainers you can purchase from a fitness specialty store, a large retailer, or on-line from a reseller. Please see our article on Where To Get The Best Price On an Elliptical Trainer.
Fitness specialty stores tend to carry higher end models and these may be the only places where you can test drive some of these models, which we strongly recommend that you do. Of course, don't feel obligated to purchase from a fitness specialty store. You may find that their prices are not the lowest.
The large retailers are sporting goods stores such as The Sports Authority, Dick's Sporting Goods and discount stores such as Walmart and Sears. In most cases the sales people will not be very knowledgeable about elliptical trainers so be wary of what they try to sell you. These stores in most cases only carry lower to medium-priced elliptical trainers. Again, these stores are good places to begin test driving machines. You may be able to get a good price on a low end elliptical trainer at one of these stores during a sale, but keep in mind that warranty repairs are between you and the manufacturer and you will be responsible for transporting a rather large and heavy box back home.
If you're comfortable shopping on-line then perhaps your best bet is to test drive off-line and purchase on-line. On-line prices are competitive with their off-line counterparts and you don't need to hassle with rain checks on out of stock items. Delivery is straight to your door so you don't have to worry about trying to strap a large box to the top of your VW Beetle. Top