The Ultimate Guide to Buying an Elliptical
Table of Contents
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1
Learn everything you need to know about elliptical machines, also called cross trainers, before deciding what to buy.
2
Before exploring the many features of ellipticals, ask yourself some key questions to establish a baseline of your needs.
3
Ellipticals are interesting, but what makes them different? Get the scoop on the benefits of ellipticals, especially as they relate to treadmills.
4
Every elliptical comes with some version of these basic features, explained in detail here.
5
The biggest price differentiators come in premium features—from sophisticated consoles and software connectivity to automatic incline/resistance and hybrid machines.
6
See our picks on which ellipticals are best for cardio, home use, avid runners, and small spaces.
In 2005, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association reported a 158% increase in elliptical use over the previous five years, marking the official overtaking of stationary bikes and Stairmasters. Since then, ellipticals have only gained in popularity and continued to make waves in the exercise community. You'll be hard pressed to find a gym that doesn't have ellipticals these days, even if it's a small facility.

When you look at the benefits of ellipticals, it makes sense why they've become so popular. But first, let's define what an elliptical is and who benefits most from owning one.
BASICS
What is an Elliptical?

Ellipticals are stationary cardiovascular exercise machines, often compared to treadmills or stationary bikes. You may hear them called "cross trainers" because you can get a full body workout while using one. They consist of two pedals that move along a track, simulating a running motion without actually picking up your feet. Most machines also include handlebars, a console with various features, and resistance/incline capabilities; We'll get into the details on this a little further down.
What are Ellipticals Best Used For?

Ellipticals are best for toning your muscles and a having a balanced workout. The primary muscles used are your glutes and quadriceps, depending on the direction of your feet, as well as most of your upper body muscles, including the lats (latissimus dorsi), pectorals, triceps, and biceps. Elliptical users love that they can work so many muscle groups in one machine. It's highly efficient, in both money and time.


Who Benefits from Elliptical Use?

The types of people who benefit most from an elliptical are those who are looking for muscle definition, rather than bulking up. If you don't have a lot of space in your home, ellipticals are great because you can do several different workouts on one machine, allowing for a full body workout without needed an entire gym full of equipment to do so.

In addition, due to the low impact nature of the workout, those with previous knee or lower back injuries can get a great workout on an elliptical without the risk of further damage. It's also great for rehab after an injury.
If any of that sounds interesting to you, you may be considering an elliptical purchase. A quick search will show you just how many options are available, at vastly different price points, with highly variable features. What's the difference between a $500 machine and a $3000 machine? How do you decide which one is right for you? Luckily, we've got the answer to those questions and so much more in this buying guide. So, let's dive in!
Questions to Ask Yourself
Before we get into the features that distinguish different classes of elliptical machines, you first want to assess your personal situation. Be honest with your needs and expectations - if you are not a regular runner, buying an elliptical will not suddenly turn you hardcore cardio enthusiast who needs all of the expensive training apps and bells and whistles.
What's your budget?
As with any purchase, you should be honest with how much you're willing to spend. Ellipticals can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. You may not know how what features you're willing to splurge on (and which you're willing to go without), but you should at least have an idea of a general threshold. On average, a good household elliptical machine will probably cost you between $1,000 and $1,500. However, you can find models for much cheaper than that, if you don't plan to use it very often or determine you don't need any extra features.
Who will be using it?
All ellipticals have limitations based on the height and weight of the person using the machine. For this reason, take into consideration all the possible users of the elliptical. For example, taller people will require a larger stride length, as well as a higher ceiling wherever you decide to place the machine. Some elliptical machines also rise on an incline, which is important to know if you are a tall person planning on using the machine in your low-ceiling basement. Each machine will also have a weight limit, ranging from 250-300 pounds. Budget models typically have a lower weight limit. Keep this in mind when assessing your different options.
What are your fitness goals?
Different ellipticals have features designed for different fitness goals. Are you interested in weight loss? A machine with built in high-intensity interval workouts will help you get the best results. Looking for a solid full body workout? Handlebars and automatic resistance/incline settings are must. Just need your daily cardio workout? You'll probably be okay without a lot of extra features. Your fitness goals will be a key driver of the type of elliptical you buy.
Are you easily motivated to exercise?
Another simple, yet important, question to ask yourself is how motivated you are when it comes to exercise. If you're like me, cardio bores you and you need all the entertainment you can get to pass the time. Because of this, I prefer machines with a more sophisticated console with a place to put my phone or tablet, power to plug into to charge my device while I use it, etc.

Built-in workouts are also hugely helpful in encouraging motivation. A constantly changing exercise routine keeps things interesting and gives you a goal to work towards, whether that's time, a calorie count, a hill climb, or a completed program. Features like this help keep you motivated while working out.
Where will you put the machine?
The last question you should consider is the footprint of the machine in your home. Ellipticals come in all shapes and sizes—you'll want to ensure the machine you choose fits in your desired location. Measure the dimensions of the space and allow for some wiggle room for movements. How tall is the ceiling? Will the tallest person using the machine hit their head while using it? If you plan on moving the elliptical around (into different rooms or into a closet, for example), you should consider a foldable or compact machine with wheels for easy transport.
Benefits of Ellipticals over Treadmills
Earlier, I briefly mentioned some of the benefits of ellipticals over other machines, especially treadmills. As it turns out, ellipticals have many positives, making them a top exercise choice for many people. And understandably so! Here are some of the key highlights of elliptical machines.
Easier on the Joints

Perhaps the most important and well-known benefit is the impact of an elliptical on your body, compared to regular running or running on a treadmill. Because you do not actually pick up your feet, using an elliptical allows you to imitate the act of running without producing any impact or shock on your knees, hips, and back from the solid ground. Your joints are supported at all times, which decreases the potential for injury—provided you use the machine correctly and with the proper form, of course. Always maintain good posture while on an elliptical. Do not slouch or curl your shoulders, keep your eyes facing forward (not down at your feet), and never lean on the handles for support.

Assuming you follow these tips, ellipticals are also much safer than treadmills. Because your feet never leave the pedals, you reduce the likelihood of tripping, falling, or getting something caught in the moving parts.
Optional Full Body Workout
A second glaring difference between ellipticals and treadmills is the potential for working multiple muscle groups. Many machines (not all) have moveable handles that you can hold onto while "running." With the right level of resistance, you can exercise your upper body and your lower body at the same time—and increase muscle toning and definition from resistance training, something you cannot get on the treadmill. This is also a huge advantage over bikes, which share many other benefits with ellipticals (like being easy on the joints and relatively quiet), since you cannot work your upper body on a bike.

In addition to an upper body workout, some ellipticals also allow you to reverse your stride so that you're essentially running backwards. While this may not seem like a big deal, it actually allows you to work opposite muscles (calves and hamstring), even further expanding the multitude of workouts you can achieve. For those tight on time and space, being able to do all of these things on one machine is a huge plus.

Less Noise



Unlike a treadmill, ellipticals make a lot less noise. You won't hear the pounding footsteps and conveyor belt because ellipticals use a wheel and pedals. For an upstairs gym or in an apartment where thumping sounds could be especially disruptive, you don't want your exercise to bother others. You simply cannot get this quiet experience with treadmills.
Similar Exercise Results
The one area that treadmills have ellipticals beat is in calories burned. You tend to burn more calories on the treadmill. However, studies have shown that at a sufficient resistance level, people can burn calories at a similar rate as they do on a treadmill. For example, one study cited here found that people burned 705-866 calories for one hour on the treadmill and 773 calories for one hour on the elliptical.

Before you start cheering, keep in mind this means you have to WORK HARD on the elliptical. Don't assume you can run on the elliptical for 30 minutes at the default settings and match results on a treadmill. Up the resistance and incline, and use the moveable handles. If the workout still feels easy after 15 minutes, increase the settings.

That's not to say, however, that people who have certain limitations, such as mobility issues or injuries, can't get a solid workout on an elliptical. You can still get your full body workout, get that heart rate up, and burn some serious calories. Ellipticals are great for all levels of ability. But remember to always listen to your body to find the right difficulty.

Other studies have also found that while ellipticals can have a similar level of effort as treadmills, users typically perceive less exertion. This means that while they were actually exerting as much effort as they would on a treadmill, it didn't feel like it. If you could burn a similar number of calories for less perceived effort, wouldn't you do it? I would!
Easier to Pass the Time


As I mentioned earlier, I find cardio mostly boring. There's nothing worse than the metronome-like thump of your feet on the ground and aimlessly staring at the clock, wishing it would move faster. If I'm going to do cardio, I need to distract my brain with some other activity—reading, watching TV or movies, checking email… anything really! That's why I love ellipticals. Because they are stationary, you can more easily read, watch, or generally pass the time. It's much harder to do that while you're bouncing up and down on a treadmill.
Basic Elliptical Features
Now that you're sold on buying an elliptical because of all of these awesome benefits, let's look at some of the basic features you'll see while shopping. Every elliptical will have these features, though there will be different levels that will determine price, quality, and usability.
Size & Weight

Ellipticals range from 4 feet long and 4 feet high (1.2x1.2 meters) to 6 feet long and 5 feet high (1.8 and 1.5 meters, respectively). Always measure the space you plan to put the elliptical in before buying, while keeping in mind the tallest person who will be using the machine. You'll also need to consider how high the incline goes, as that could also move your body higher. Allow for more wiggle room than you think you'll need - the last thing you want is to be hitting your elbows against the wall or bumping your head on the ceiling with your elliptical in a tight corner.

Another size to take into consideration is the stride length, or how far the pedals move front to back as you "run." Stride length ranges from 12" to 21" (30cm to 53cm), depending on the machine. The length you need will depend on how tall are you. The general recommendations are as follows:
  • 5'3" (1.60 meters) = 16-18" stride (40-45cm)
  • 5'4" and taller (1.62 meters) = 18-21" stride (45-53cm)

You should also verify the size of the pedals to fit the feet of all users comfortably with shoes on.
Next comes weight of the machine. Obviously, a larger piece of equipment will be heavier and sturdier, so it's typically able to support heavier weights, but is much less portable. The heaviest part of the machine is the flywheel, which can be front-drive, rear-drive, or center-drive (in newer models). Generally, front-drive machines tend to be more portable and compact. Flywheels weigh anywhere from 13-30 pounds, and the heavier the flywheel the smoother and quieter the machine.
Front-Drive Flywheel
Rear-Drive Flywheel
Center-Drive
Maximum User Height & Weight

In addition to the height and weight of the machine itself, ellipticals come with weight restrictions and, inadvertently, height restrictions. Weight limits range from 250-300 pounds, though most hover around the 300-pound mark. Height limits are dictated by the stride range. If you're too tall, you won't have a full stride on a small machine because of the size of the base. Some ellipticals come with adjustable strides, which can alleviate this problem, but most of the time you'll have to consider the height of all users before purchasing.

As a general rule, the cheaper the machine, the more restricting the requirements will be, i.e., lower weight limits and an inability to accommodate tall people. Most budget machines (under $300) are too small for taller or heavier users.
Console Setup

Every elliptical will have some sort of console. The capabilities of this console, however, vary greatly between machines. Basic console features include a water bottle holder, tablet shelf for reading or holding your phone, a built-in fan, and additional stationary handlebars that can include heart rate monitors. Pay attention to the location of the water bottle holder and the shelf especially—some users have complained of machines placing the holder so low you have to stop your workout to drink water or to reach your phone. You probably want something that keeps your water and your music within arm's reach.
Manual Incline & Resistance

Photo Credit: Precor
We've already discussed the importance of resistance and incline in getting a good elliptical workout. But not all machines come equipped with automatic versions of these features, and this holds true for cheap treadmills as well. Though typically rare, if you're looking at the cheapest machine that you can find, you might end up with manual incline settings only (if any at all).

Manual resistance is usually controlled through a tension knob, while manual incline is usually done by using a level and pulling up. You should always double and triple check that the incline is secured and locked in place before stepping onto the machine.
While manual settings might save you a buck or two, they're not ideal since you have to stop your workout, step off the machine, and adjust the settings by hand. Lifting up the platform for a manual incline can also be quite heavy. And, generally speaking, moving pieces around more increases the wear and tear on the machine, and might reduce the shelf life of it.
Warranty & Customer Service

As with any major purchase, you should always read the fine print on the warranty in detail. Ellipticals are especially fickle because each part of the machine typically has a different warranty. You should get a lifetime warranty on the frame, but that's not always the case. Check that first.

Parts and labor warranties are going to vary based on price and brand. Budget machines can have warranties as low as 90 days. The average ranges from 1-5 years. In general, labor warranties are shorter than parts warranties, and brakes warranties are listed separately. You may also have a separate electrical warranty, if you opt for a machine with an electronic console.
Finally, customer service is a huge area of frustration for many elliptical buyers. Be sure to read the reviews on products before buying to assess other people's experience. Some brands are notoriously bad with customer service, and even worse at replacing the broken parts even when you're within the warranty. A little investment now for a better quality machine and brand could save you tons of headaches down the road.
Premium Features
The differences between budget and high-end machines become clear when you explore some of the premium features available for ellipticals.
Electronic Console

As I've mentioned previously, most ellipticals will have some sort of console. The most basic versions hold your water bottle, and may have some digital workout information, such as time, distance, and speed. A more sophisticated console can include calories and heart rate, an LCD screen ranging from 6-10 inches, and numerous workout programs. The more advanced the machine, the more advanced the console features (and usually the more expensive the elliptical is).

Machines with pre-programmed workouts typically have 8-28 options, often including cross-training, intervals, hills, heart rate and weight loss oriented programs. These programs are especially helpful in upping the intensity of the workout to ensure you work hard and burn serious calories. They also add that extra motivation and variety for those, like me, who aren't particularly fond of cardio. Price will vary greatly based on the console features, so it's important to consider what you and any other users feel is important for your elliptical workout.
Automatic Resistance & Incline

Automatic resistance is controlled by electromagnetic brake systems that use magnets to increase the difficulty of the run. It is typically controlled by pressing buttons on the console or handlebars. You may hear this feature referred to as "silent magnetic resistance" or "quiet drive system," depending on the brand—this just means the machine has an electromagnetic brake system to control resistance.

Automatic incline works a little differently, but will allow you to change the incline via the electronic console. This is also done automatically during workout programs, so you don't have to worry about changing it yourself. For the smoothest, easiest workout experience, automatic features like this are a must.
Software Connectivity

Along with the electronic console, some machines are able to connect to third party applications on your phone or computer via Bluetooth or USB data transfer. These can range from brand-specific programs, such as NordicTrack iFit or Schwinn Connect, to outside apps, such as MyFitnessPal. The connectivity allows you to transfer workout data from the machine, so you can track progress and log workouts. While not typically a must-have feature, it's certainly nice to have for someone who's trying to follow a stringent workout plan or who likes to track all of their data in one application.

It's important to note that some of these apps require monthly subscriptions in addition to the cost of the machine. However, these subscriptions usually come with added benefits, like other programs and customized workouts, which are great for those who struggle with motivation.
Heart Rate Monitoring

Though mentioned briefly in other sections of this article, it's important to mention heart rate monitors as their own feature. Having it built into the machine can be excellent for tracking and monitoring throughout the workout, rather than having to pay attention to a third-party app or wrist watch to see your heart rate. Heart rate monitors can be contained within the moveable handlebars or stationary handlebars under the console. They may also be wireless, though this will come at a premium price.

For some, holding onto the handlebars may be uncomfortable, and not ideal. You may wonder if you can use a chest strap to monitor your heart rate instead. In this case, you would definitely need something with wireless heart rate monitoring capabilities. Most machines do not come with a chest strap, but some can sync up to one if you purchase it separately.
Speakers or Media Players

Another bonus feature—but usually not a deal breaker—is built in speakers. Having this feature may not matter if you prefer to wear headphones… and it definitely won't matter if you prefer not to disrupt other members of your household with your workout. The speakers will need to be relatively powerful to drown out the sound of the machine, and that can definitely be disruptive. Regardless, it is a feature that some consoles have and may be appealing to you depending on your individual situation.

In addition to speakers, some ellipticals either come with a built-in media player (on a small screen, for example), or they have a shelf to hold and charge a tablet. Being able to watch a movie, read a book, or play games, all while tracking your workout, is very convenient and efficient. You can usually transfer data to your tablet or smartphone through this feature too. It's an all-in-one benefit.
USB Charging Port
If you plan to use your phone, tablet, or e-reader while on the machine, a USB charging port is a huge plus. There's nothing worse than getting to the good part in your TV show, only to have your device run out of battery. Some machines (usually as an add-on to higher end ellipticals) will have a USB charging port to conveniently charge your devices while you work out. Once again, this is a huge convenience, but typically not a requirement. Still, it's something to look for while shopping machines.
Portability

A key feature for those who want to move their elliptical around, tuck it away in the corner so it doesn't take up room, or stick it in a closet while it's not in use, is portability. Some ellipticals are made to be portable. They're lightweight and can include wheels to roll the machine around more easily. Some are even foldable for easy storage. Only choose this feature if you must—the downside is that lightweight machines may not be able to accommodate all users and might break more easily.
In general, treadmills tend to be slightly more portable than ellipticals because they fold easily in half and take up very little space. Ellipticals with a flywheel are a little bit bulkier. However, portable treadmills carry the same disadvantages as portable ellipticals—they're not as sturdy, better suited for smaller individuals, and can be shaky. Both ellipticals and treadmills tend to be more portable than bike machines.
Hybrid Machines


Finally, while you can get a ton of great features out of an elliptical, you may want something with even more variability. That's where hybrid machines come in. You can get an elliptical-bike or elliptical-stair stepper. For someone who likes to switch up their workout, but doesn't have enough space for multiple machines (or doesn't want to spend a bunch of money on multiple machines), hybrids are a huge advantage. They are, however, typically much more expensive. You'll have to pay a premium for this kind of machine, but it may be worth the investment for you if you want to switch up your workout regularly.
Recommendations
Deciding how much you want to spend on an elliptical is more than choosing a price point. Your fitness goals should drive your decision, too. Do you just plan to use it once or twice a week? A basic model will probably work. Are you using it for personal use for everyday cardio? A slightly upgraded machine will last longer. If you have high weight loss and fitness goals, or if you struggle with motivation, a more advanced model with workout programs and a sophisticated console will help you reach your goals. Keep that in mind as your browse our recommendations below.
Best Elliptical for Minimal Use
Fitness Reality E5500XL

Very basic features, but extremely affordable
  • 24 levels of magnetic tension resistance
  • 21 preset workout programs
  • LCD computer display for distance, time, RPM, calories, speed, and more
  • 18" stride length
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Best Elliptical for Everyday Cardio
Schwinn 470

Lots of great features for an even better price
  • 25 levels of resistance
  • 29 workout programs, 4 users, goal tracking included
  • Two LCD screens to monitor progress
  • Schwinn Connect available via USB data transfer
  • Charging USB port
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Best Elliptical for Extra Motivation
Sole Fitness E25

Advanced features for that extra edge of motivation
  • Backlit LCD screen to track training data
  • Pulse grip and chest strap heart rate monitoring
  • Automatic resistance and power incline
  • Build-in fan, speakers and water bottle holder
  • Adjustable stride length
  • 10 workout programs
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Best Elliptical for Multiple Users
Nautilus E616

Bluetooth-enabled to save multiple user profiles
  • Bluetooth LE connectivity to share data on up to 4 user profiles (for multiple users) and charging USB port
  • 25 levels of resistance
  • 29 workout programs
  • Charging USB port and built in speakers
  • Heart rate grips in handlebars, or telemetry enabled for chest strap
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Best Elliptical for Avid Runners
Sole Fitness E95

Elite features for the workout enthusiast
  • Quiet drive system functions forwards and backwards
  • 20 levels of resistance for a challenging workout
  • Adjustable moving handlebars, plus stationary handlebars with heart rate monitors
  • Adjustable foot pedals for optimal comfort and reduced ankle/knee strain
  • Built-in fan and speakers
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Other Ellipticals for Home Use
Exerpeutic 5000
Level: Budget
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Horizon Fitness EX 59
Level: Mid-range
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Bowflex Max Trainer (Hybrid)
Level: Elite
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Best Compact & Portable Ellipticals
Universal E40
Level: Budget
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NordicTrack C 7.5
Level: Mid-range
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Horizon Fitness Evolve 3
Level: Elite
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Best Hybrid Machines
ProForm Hybrid Trainer
Type: Bike & Elliptical
Level: Budget
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ProForm Cardio HIIT
Type: Stair Stepper & Elliptical
Level: Mid-range
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Bowflex Max Trainer M7
Type: Stair Stepper & Elliptical
Level: Elite
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