Elliptical Trainer Buyer’s Guide
Over the years, elliptical trainers have made a significant impact by being reliable machines for intense workouts. It looks deceptively comfortable to use, and you might find yourself wondering,
“Hmm, does that thing even burn calories?”
Trust us, it does!
Ellipticals became popular because they burn as many calories (if not more) as treadmills, without hurting your joints. These machines come power packed with built-in workouts that challenge you. Inclining features that hit every muscle in your body and different resistance levels that push yourself even further.
There is none.
And that is exactly why we love these machines. You can get an elliptical that can whoop your ass and keep your joints safe at the same time with even a flimsy budget of about $500 dollars.
While we do not promise you that by the time you have finished this article, we’ll identify the perfect elliptical that was ever designed, but we do promise you that you’ll be imbued with all the knowledge to know when to swipe right when you come across a top rated elliptical.
How come other machines don’t do as much?
Working out on an elliptical is kind of like going to a disco in the 70s, minus the shiny clothes — it really moves your body.
Elliptical cross trainers ensure that you work your hands, feet and upper body against the force of the machine. The resistance from the flywheel forces you to push yourself consistently. All of this happens with you maintaining a good posture and having the pressure equally distributed throughout your entire body.
The outcome? A total body workout.
Price Tags: you get what you pay for
The prices of ellipticals vary from around $80 to up to even around the $8000 mark. Don’t get too excited seeing reading those elliptical machine reviews when you finally find out how low you can actually go. Eventually, you tend to get what you pay for. If you go too cheap with the wrong brand, don’t be surprised if the metal frame casually falls off without warning.
We’re not kidding.
Let’s talk a bit about the budget machines – they are mostly risky buys, but not all of them. Some models by Schwinn and ProForm offer great products at impressive prices. However, at these low-end prices, you will find it impossible to get a combination of ALL the features a proper machine can offer you. Such as incline options, extensive workout libraries, high resistance levels, tablet connectivity, etc. Just make sure you do your research and read some elliptical reviews before you go flying into a store.
Most budget machines tend to have these following issues:
- Short Stride Lengths – This makes it very difficult for taller people to get into the groove of a good workout. A short stride means that your motion is restricted to a small area. Just not disco enough.
- Bad Ergonomics – One of the worst things to do is work out with bad posture. Budget builds are sometimes not well thought out and have a chance of triggering a workout injury when compared to standard models.
- Low Dynamics in Resistance – Users are often seen complaining that there is very little difference between the multiple levels of resistance available on some budget machines. Well, you can’t expect too much if you are paying that low, but some units still have decent performance.
- Longevity Issues – The most notable issue with almost anything budget, really. Low-end machines don’t last for too many years and have questionable build quality. The frames snap, bolts loosen, and consoles stop working, and by the time that happens, you might run out of that meagerly one-year warranty too. If Murphy’s Law kicks in, the possibilities are limitless. If you don’t want to hear awkward squeaking noises while jamming out to Metallica on your elliptical, we highly suggest not be a cheapskate here.
Moving on to the more pricier machines, you start getting decent ones above the $300 mark. If you are serious about fitness and want to get the best elliptical for home, we definitely recommend you start at this range.
Each price range has something different to offer. In a nutshell:
- $200 to $500 – You start getting the standard combination of features required for a good home workout.
- $500 to $1000 – You enter an area of intense customizability where you get greater control over what output you want from each of your sessions.
- $1000 to $2000 – This is the good stuff. You get the premium machines built for proper enthusiasts with unquestionable quality. If fitness is life, this is your range.
- $2000 and Above – This is the insane stuff. You see these in gyms and training facilities for professional athletes. You can go as high as you want, but anything past this mark whip out way more than you can handle, unless you are somehow related to Chuck Norris.
Inspired by Sia’s 2016 hit single Cheap Thrills, the year 2017 has seen a large influx of cheap ellipticals in the market. Low-end units are getting better, and at the same time, solid ellipticals are also becoming more affordable. Brands like Exerpeutic, Xterra, and Body Champ all have great home ellipticals under the $500 price point.
At the end of the day, the challenge is to make the right compromises towards getting that perfect gear for yourself- hitting that sweet spot between affordability and features. A feature that is important to you may not be to another person, which essentially means that there is no one elliptical to rule them all.
So what are the major factors that you should consider?
The Deal Breaker: Stride Shape
Ellipticals are called ellipticals for a reason – the two footbeds that you rest your feet during a workout are supposed to move in an elliptical shape. This is an imitation of how you would normally lift and move your feet when walking and running. It should neither be circular like a bicycle nor linear like when you’re skiing.
In the same way that a tofu burger is not a real burger, ellipticals which have their footpads attached directly to the flywheel are not really ellipticals (the motion is strictly circular). The stride on these machines will be so humped that it makes it ergonomically bad, resulting in a bad workout experience where you’ll find difficult to get a good rhythm. We can take note from the ProForm StrideSelect series- a series which was eventually discontinued due to poor review and poor sales. As you may guess, the units in this series all suffered from having the footpad attached directly to the flywheel.
You’ll know you’re looking at a good machine when you see that there is some sort of space/track to distance the footpads from the flywheel. This effectively reduces the amount of lift you make on each motion, meaning that your movement is more of an elongated oval. This is the mark of a real elliptical. The strides are more natural,and you’ll have an overall smoother experience with your workouts.
You might be asking yourself- why would someone then even think about attaching the footpad directly to the flywheel? The answer is simple- this makes these units VERY compact. This basically means that in a general sense, good elliptical are not the most compact of machines, and at the same time, not the cheapest either.
If you are looking for ellipticals that don’t take up as much space as Jabba the Hutt, you can look into side-flywheel variants as well.
Size Matters – 16″ or else you’re a bit short.
The stride length on an elliptical is basically dependent on the size of the flywheel. When you’re walking, your stride length is roughly 1-2 feet. This becomes longer when you run. Ellipticals come with a defined footpad, which basically means that you can’t adjust your stride length freely as you could, let’s say, on a conventional treadmill or cross country ski machine. This means that having an adequate stride length is vital in ensuring your legs have enough freedom.
Elliptical cross trainer, as you know by now, should have a signature oval motion, or you’ll have a pretty un-fun experience on your unit.
So unless you’re one of the 7 dwarves in the Sleeping Beauty, you should always consider a 16” stride length the bare minimum. If you are over 6” tall, you should ideally be looking for 20” strides, but 18” work nicely as well. The Sole, Spirit and Pecor lines cater to tall people very well with a good range of 18” and 20” units.
Closer Footpads plez
When you run, you’ll notice that your feet stay pretty close to each other as they take turns to move you forward. On an elliptical machine, you have the flywheel sitting between, so it is difficult to come up with a machine with footpads that can keep your feet that close together.
You can potentially risk straining your ankles, knees and hips when that footpad on your machine is spaced too far apart. In the long run, this can be painful and unwanted.
Larger people tend to be able to tolerate greater distances than smaller people. We suggest buying ellipticals with footpads no more than 6 inches apart, give or take. Theoretically, models with side flywheels can offer you the shortest distance for your feet to be apart, but you will find other units in the market that offer designs with footpads that are close enough for you to say close enough.
The Curious Case of the Flywheel Location
A flywheel is the main source of resistance for your workouts, and it can either sit at the front, back, or on the side. If you don’t know which one to take, let us help you.
A flywheel on the back supposedly offers better geometry for having a good stride shape. For this to be true, however, the design implementation has to be on point. You’ll find rear flywheels on brands such as Precor, Life and Body Champ.
Sole and Spirit trainers are good examples of how the front flywheel can be nicely implemented. What makes these a good implementation is that the curved foot pad rod facilitates the stride shapes to be more level and oval-esque.
The key takeaway is that the location of the flywheel is not as nearly important as to how well they are engineered into the devices. The geometry of the flywheel’s connecting rods is also critical.
A rather recent technique is having two separate flywheels on either side. This has two positives that come with it. One, your feets get to be closer together when working out (discussed above). Two, these units can sit much lower compared to the other variants, making them ideal to be placed in a basement or any room with low ceilings. The downside, though, is that the two flywheels will not have the same resistance levels as you’d find on a front/rear based singular flywheel.
- A high-end side-flywheel elliptical: Endurance E5000 
- A mid-priced widely distributed side-flywheel elliptical: Endurance Endurance E400 Elliptical Trainer 
- A lower cost lighter weight side-flywheel elliptical: FreeMotion F5.6 FreeStrider 
When you’re dating someone new, it’s a good indicator when they share their fries with you. When you’re shopping for a new elliptical, it’s a good indicator that the brand offers at least a year’s warranty. In both cases, there’s a good probability that things will work out in the long run.
In general, the longer the warranty, the more confidence the manufacturer has in their products. 90 days warranties are quite common, but are super risky, and you should look for at least a year. Trust me, you’re worth it.
If you want to know more about warranties and what each kind of warranty entails, you can read about it here.
Other features to look out for
Weight capacity of a unit is a general testament to its build quality and how solid the machine is. If you’re on the heavy side, then go for machines that have a higher weight capacity, or else be ready to feel like you’re running on an oversized strawberry jello.
Top rated ellipticals are usually equipped with a good electronics head; this head should have clear display quality, and you should also expect to find some programmability options with a good choice of preset routines pre-loaded. How good the head is can make a huge difference to how much fun you’re having on your machine 😉 Programmable routines allow you to customize your sessions. This means that if you have a budget machine that doesn’t offer HIIT workouts, but still has at least one programmable routine, that means you can define it to imitate a HIIT. Hashtag winning at life.
Calorie counters on such machines are highly unreliable in general, and some also come with fans, TV screens, and ports for plugging in your musical devices. Some of these are nice to haves, but fans, even though sounds great, are usually small (80-120mm) and can never really cool down a bad boy/girl like you when you’re working out hard.
Generally, the bigger the flywheel, the smoother the motion and (potentially) the longer the stride length. A big flywheel unit is usually a good sign. Magnetic resistance is much smoother and more mechanically reliable than mechanical resistance. The more resistance levels, the more customizable the workout. Resistance levels are of utmost importance if you want your machine to keep pushing you.
Adjustable footpad angle is a nice ergonomic enhancement to have on your elliptical and is offered on some models by Sole and Schwinn.
If you like to drink during a long workout, you should also look out for a nifty water bottle holder. It is advisable not to use this feature to keep a cool can of beer, which will be counter-productive.
The build quality of the rods that connect the flywheel and the footpads is also something you should consider. Brands such as Sole, Precor, Spirit and Schwinn have some models that come with traveler wheels, so you must pay attention to the build quality of the wheels and rails. Ideally, they should be big and sturdy. Superior models, such as the Sole E95, come with two rails for each rod which offers the user greater stability. These rollers are common problem areas on cheaper models. For models without traveler wheels, a lot of the weight is carried on the hinges connecting the rods (as seen in Life Fitness and Smooth Fitness models), and hence the strength and durability of these hinges should be your main concern.
Ellipticals are cardio machines, and the ability to monitor your heart rate can be important information for your workout. You can always choose to have an external HRM on your wrists, but it is far more convenient to have one built into your machine. Heart monitoring on a device can be accomplished through either a chest strap or a pair of hand grip sensors, and sometimes both in conjunction. Grip mounted sensors are usually stationary grips that stem from the middle of your machine. This effectively means that you can no longer keep your arm on the moving handles, which is necessary to ensure upper body workout. Chest straps, for that reason, are a better alternative, but people who sweat a lot find it a tad annoying since you need a moment to take them on or off.
Beyond these two solutions, you could also simply buy a Polar H7 (or any good HRM) and track your heart with your smartphone. You could try chest straps initially and see how you feel about them. Knowing your heart rate and calibrating your workout to an appropriate level of challenge is essential in ensuring a quality cardio workout.