Elliptical Flywheel Explained | Everything you need to know

Have you ever wondered what makes an elliptical function? Unlike many cardio machines out there, ellipticals come with a unique design and movement pattern. 
The question is, what makes all of this possible? More importantly, how does it all work together?

One crucial component inside elliptical machines makes all of this possible: the flywheel.

In today’s post, we’ll take an in-depth look at the elliptical flywheel, how it connects everything, and what that means for you.

Ready? Let’s dive in…

What Is The Motion Of An Elliptical Trainer?

At first glance, you might conclude that an elliptical has a movement pattern similar to that of a stationary bike – a circle. The truth is, ellipticals offer an ellipse movement pattern, hence their name.

When seen from the side, the elliptical pedals form an ellipse (a squashed circle). The pedal moves forward, down, back, and up to the starting position. Simultaneously, the other pedal moves in the opposite direction, which allows for an alternating motion. As one pedal moves forward and down, the other moves back and up.

To initiate this movement pattern, you must push through one foot and force the pedal to go forward and down. Once you get started and gain some momentum, it takes less effort to keep going.

This movement of your legs is also combined by the activation of your upper body. Ellipticals come with dynamic handles that move with the pedals and create a natural movement pattern. Specifically, when one pedal goes up and forward, the opposing handle also moves forward, which forces you to extend that arm. As a result, you get to remain balanced and pair opposing limbs, similar to how you would while walking or running.

Ellipticals typically have a stationary set of handles to grab onto if you wish to keep your upper body out of the movement or take a brief break. In that case, the upper body mostly works isometrically to keep you balanced.

In general, the movement pattern can be described as something that involves walking, jogging, and sliding (similar to the movement you would do while rollerblading or skiing).

All of this is thanks to the flywheel of the machine. So, let’s see what it is.

What Is An Elliptical Flywheel?

The elliptical flywheel is the essential part of the machine. This large and circular piece of the device controls everything that happens on the inside and out. As you apply pressure to the pedals, it turns and controls the level of resistance you feel. The flywheel is also the piece of the machine that allows the pedals and handles to work together.

In general, the handle and footplate connect through a joint system and attaches to the flywheel that dictates the movement. Ellipticals come in different designs and sizes, but the premise is simple:

Alternating motion between your legs that is synchronized with your upper body and allows for natural and low-impact activity.

The quality of the elliptical also determines how good the flywheel is. Premium ellipticals have a heavy, stable, and durable flywheel, where cheaper models offer a lighter one that is more prone to breaking.

The flywheel’s weight and quality significantly impact your workout experience. Specifically, a heavier flywheel offers a smoother and more predictable motion. It also impacts the noise of the machine and the overall workout experience.

In contrast, low-quality ellipticals with cheap flywheels tend to rattle, offer poor motion, and feel less predictable. The noise is also higher, which makes for a bad experience. 

According to some experts, the flywheel’s weight can also serve to predict the machine’s longevity because that part is what typically gives out and needs replacement. Flywheels typically range from 15 to 40 pounds, which is quite the difference.

The Importance of Paying Attention to The Flywheel

If you’re looking to buy an elliptical for home use, you might feel a bit anxious. After all, there is so much to pay attention to, and it can be easy to miss something and make a costly mistake.

The truth is, getting yourself an elliptical doesn’t have to be so difficult. What matters most are the build quality, noise, and smoothness of motion. The moment you step on an elliptical, you will know. Is the ride smooth and seamless? Is the build quality good? How about the overall balance and silence of the machine? Can you reasonably see yourself using this machine for 30-60 minutes several times per week?

Since you can’t disassemble the elliptical in the store and examine the part itself, explore all of these characteristics because they mostly come from the elliptical flywheel. A high-quality flywheel means a more enjoyable experience, more motivation to exercise consistently, and better long-term results. It also means that your elliptical will have a longer lifespan, given that the flywheel is typically what gives out and causes problems in used ellipticals.

Elliptical Position: Does It Matter?

In general, elliptical trainers come in three configurations: front-drive, rear-drive, or center drive. Let’s take a look at each:

a) Front-drive

Front-drive systems (also known as front-drive trainers) are those in which the flywheel is positioned at the machine’s front with the pedals behind it. This configuration tends to be more common among the cheap and mid-range ellipticals, but some premium models also come with a front-drive.

Similar to other cardio machines like the Arc Trainer, using this configuration forces you to lean forward a bit more, which can be more beneficial for training your posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, and back.

The motion itself resembles walking uphill, which can be fun, especially if you enjoy hiking. These devices also tend to have more fluid pedals that adapt to the trainee’s specific style and anatomy, making them more comfortable for some people.

Given that front-drive ellipticals tend to be more affordable and compact, you might consider one for home use. But, keep in mind that these machines tend to have more moving parts, which can lead to more problems and a higher maintenance cost in the long run.

b) Rear-drive

As the name suggests, a rear-drive elliptical has a flywheel and driving system in the back. These are direct opposites to front-drive systems, and the trainee’s weight is placed in front of the flywheel.

Rear-drive ellipticals are far more common, especially in gyms. Most mid-range and premium ellipticals come with a rear-drive system, making them the ideal choice for gyms and other training facilities.

Unlike front-drive ellipticals, having the flywheel in the back typically means that you don’t have to lean forward to use the machine. Depending on your goals and preferences, this could be a good or bad thing. In general, it shouldn’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

If you’ve been used to training on a front-drive elliptical, switching to one with a flywheel in the back can feel strange at first because you get to remain much more upright. Also, the pedals of a rear-drive elliptical tend to be less fluid, which might not be great for some people with specific structures. 

On the other hand, rear-drive ellipticals are typically larger and more solid machines, which often means that their flywheel is of higher quality. As a result, the training experience tends to be more enjoyable because you don’t have to deal with instability, excessive noise, or a choppy motion of the pedals.

c) Center drive

As you’ve probably guessed, center drive ellipticals have their flywheel and drive system in the middle, right beneath the trainee. These are by far the least common ones. They are also a relatively newer technology, so it’s difficult to say how durable they are in the long run. Maintenance cost is also difficult to predict at this point.

A significant benefit of these elliptical machines is their size. Since the flywheel is in the middle, the machine tends to be smaller, which can benefit people who have less space to work with. 

These machines also offer a more upright training position, which some people find to be more natural.

With center drive configurations, the pedals tend to be closer together, allowing for a more natural movement pattern, mimicking jogging.


Think of an elliptical flywheel as the engine – it’s the central piece that impacts everything else and can elevate or ruin your training experience.

Like with a car, an elliptical engine is a huge determinant of the machine’s longevity. A cheap and light flywheel doesn’t last as long, begins to rattle with use, and offers an unstable and shaky training motion.

In contrast, a solid and well-built flywheel is durable, will last you for many years, and will offer engaging workouts.

While seemingly insignificant, the flywheel is a vital component of the elliptical, and you need to pay attention. Hopefully, this guide has given you all of the information you need to make better choices.

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