Shopping for an Elliptical? Here's What You Need To Look For

So, you have decided to purchase an elliptical trainer for your home. If you're anything like me when it comes to purchasing decisions, you are probably spending a fair amount of time on the web researching specification sheets & reviews, looking at photos, and watching videos.  All of the information out there can be a bit daunting, so let us help you identify the most important aspects to consider and separate what you need to know from the gobbledygook when shopping for an elliptical trainer in this two-part series.

Update: part two is available here.

Also a brief disclaimer: I am not being paid by anyone to write this, and there is no financial gain or any other compensation received for me to recommend any specific brand(s). Like anyone else, I have my own preferences, and my opinions do not necessarily reflect the thoughts and opinions of G&G Fitness or any of its brands; however my own personal opinions have no basis or influence in the following important qualities you should be considering.  It is my sincere intention to be as objective and transparent as possible, in good faith, to assist you as you go down the long road of finalizing the decision that is best for you. This is where it gets really tricky and confusing, because there is a lot of misinformation on the Internet as well as many complex variables to consider when finding the right machine that fits you best. A lot of companies with poorly-designed machines would rather you not try their products . . . and they will pour money into highly thought-out initiatives that all lead to one destination: you clicking “add to cart.” They will bombard you with unrealistic testimonials and scripted reviews, as well as videos and photographs with forced perspectives to make their products look the way they want you to see them. There are a lot of elliptical machines out there to choose from, and when a company knows that their chances of selling their products actually decline when an informed consumer goes to the extent of trying out their products before making a purchasing decision, they will do everything they possibly can to get that person to buy it before they try it. It should be no different than trying on a pair of shoes or a pair of jeans, or test driving a car. Try it before you buy it! 


First Things First – The Elliptical's Purpose

I think it is important to understand the origins of the elliptical trainer when you are shopping for one, because it may help you better innately understand what exactly you are trying to get out of it.  Perhaps knowing why the elliptical was conceived and also how it became so popular in such a relatively short period of time will help prove or disprove any preconceptions you may have.

In the early 90's, a gentleman by the name of Larry Miller had a daughter with a gift. She was an exceptional tennis player and had a bright future ahead of her, and Larry wanted to do everything he could to flush that out. Ultimately, Larry wanted to help improve his daughter' overall cardiovascular and fitness capacity but save her from the high impact drills associated with doing that, and possible injury.  Larry would record his daughter running and watch the tape on his VCR. He would take a dry-erase marker and trace her footpath on his television screen. After mapping the overall ellipse of his daughter's stride as closely as possible, he developed a basic (and somewhat crude) prototype machine around the way she moved. And the elliptical was born.

Larry caught the eye of Precor, a fitness equipment manufacturer located near Seattle. Over the course of three years, they worked with Human Performance and Wellness, Inc. and the University of Oregon to determine what benefits users would experience, as well as a comparative analysis of other cardiovascular fitness equipment products on the market. Even more importantly though, how would the machine be perceived by its users?

One of the most fascinating aspects at the conclusion of their research was the significant decrease of the users' rate of perceived exertion (RPE) without any loss of workout quality. It was groundbreaking, plain and simple. A person could get optimal caloric expenditure and oxygen consumption and be much more comfortable while doing so when compared to other products on the market.  Make no mistake – you can get an excellent workout on an elliptical machine, and you can go longer, faster, harder and use it more frequently, all because of the workout variability and reduction of impact. In 1995, the unique modalities of Precor's brand new “EFX,” with its adjustable crossramp and ability to go backward, changed the name of the game in the fitness industry. And it hasn't been the same ever since.

Front Drive vs. Rear Drive – What's the Difference? Is One Better than the Other?

The very first elliptical, Precor's EFX 554, utilized a rear-drive design. The overall supposition was that when the flywheel is behind the user, it is more bio-mechanically correct. There are a few reasons why this idea was generally accepted: when the flywheel is behind the user, the user is required to pull it to make it go. Look at your side profile in a mirror and divide your entire body vertically down the middle. All of your anterior muscles (that face forward) are the muscles you use to push things. These include your pectorals and quadriceps. Your posterior muscles (that face backward) are the muscles you use to pull things. These include your back, glutes and hamstrings.

This is important and you should really understand this concept if you want to know the difference between a front and rear drive elliptical machine. So we are going to do a little experiment.

As you read this I want you to stand up and give yourself a little space. Stand with your feet at shoulder-width apart, turned outward about 30 degrees and with your knees aligned with your toes. Now, put all of your weight on the balls of your feet. You can even lift your heels off the floor slightly to ensure you are doing it correctly. Now squat down slowly. Don't round your back . . . keep it straight, stick your butt out and look directly ahead. Squat down as low as you can comfortably go, and hold that position for several seconds. Don't stand back up right away. Make sure to keep your knees behind your toes the entire time.

Now pay attention. Where do you feel it most? If you are doing it correctly, you should absolutely start to feel a burn in your quads, and it won't take long at all. Do you feel it there?

Now stand back up and rest for a second because we are going try it again. But this time, I want you to get off the balls of your feet, and set back on your heels. Put all your weight on your heels now and squat down again, using the same form. Hold that position for several seconds and listen to what your legs are saying (or screaming) to you.

Where did you feel it this time? You should have felt it primarily in your hamstrings and glutes, and the burn in your quads should all but have disappeared.  Why did that happen? You're doing the same movement, right? Your distribution is the key.

This is very analogous to what you will experience on an elliptical depending on where the flywheel and drive axles are located and where the resistance comes from. Front drive elliptical machines are like that first squat you did - anterior – because you are required to push the flywheel to make it turn. Because you have to push it, you'll be more on the balls of your feet and using your quads.

Rear drive ellipticals are more similar to the second squat you performed. The wheel is behind you and you are pulling it to make it turn, so it's posterior, which means you will more naturally want to drive through your midfoot or heel,  recruiting your hamstrings and glutes (which is exacerbated with the addition of a crossramp).

Now, why is this so important? There are a couple of  points that come into play here, and the following two tidbits are primary reasons why a lot of professionals will commonly tell you that a rear-driven elliptical is generally “better” (although “better” is still relatively subjective).

First, it's a proven higher overall workout efficiency. Different folks use different means to assess how efficient their training sessions are, and for this example, we will use overall caloric expenditurebecause that is the most widely-used metric. You should know that when it comes to calorie burn and muscle recruitment, bigger is better. Your hamstrings are about three times the size of your quadriceps, and your gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. Those muscles, when contracted, will result in a higher caloric output requirement than your smaller anterior muscles such as your quads. Not only that, but you'll get the benefits of increased blood flow and nutrient transport as well.

Second, when you are using an elliptical machine, you want your spine to be in a neutral position. This is one of the most important things I look for when I fit my client to an elliptical.  You don't want to be excessively leaning forward the entire time you are on the machine, which puts undo stress on your lower back. Typically, it is generally considered by professionals that a rear-driven elliptical trainer naturally puts you in a straight and upright position. This is because you are pulling the wheel, so your feet are flat and your posterior chain muscles are doing most of the work. You typically won't have to consciously correct your posture when using a rear-driven elliptical because the machine is designed around the natural way your body operates. Since front-driven elliptical machines require you to push the wheel to make it turn, you will be more likely to be on the balls of your feet more and using more anterior muscles, resulting in the natural tendency to lean forward.

If rear drive is generally better, why are they the least common type, you might ask? It's because when Precor invented the EFX and put it to market in 1995, they filed somewhere around 250 patents on their new machine. The rear-drive system was one of them, and they only licensed it out to a handful of companies. 

Inversely, it is worth noting that some front-drive manufacturers have taken big steps to counteract the effect of pushing the wheel, and a few of them have done an excellent job. One company puts you at a low, static incline to set you back so you don't lean forward. Another changes your overall articulation and range of motion so you  bring your knees up higher to work your glutes and stand more upright.

Still, just because there is a common belief about something doesn't mean you won't have to adjust to every single elliptical you try, regardless of what is considered to be “better.” This is why it is a good idea to ask a professional fitness consultant in your area to fit you to a machine that flows best with the way you uniquely move, and have them explain it all to you in great detail. This way, you can minimize the adaptiveness you will have to contribute on your end over long and frequent workouts and for many years ahead. These things tend to snowball and from my experience, it's one of the big reasons why an elliptical that doesn't fit you correctly could be a potential clothes-hanger in the future; you won't enjoy the experience if it is uncomfortable, right? Are you more likely to use something less comfortable?

Not All Frames are Made the Same

The frame is the skeleton of the machine, and depending on how the machine is constructed (wheel on ramp vs. suspension system) the frame will have a huge impact on how the machine feels under you. When you use an elliptical in a way that requires you to output high levels of intense energy, you are going to create a lot of force that the frame will be required to absorb.

If you look at the machine where two pieces of steel are joined, check to see if bolts or welds are used. Welds will be much stronger at those connections because welds will maximize the integral strength of the steel due to no unnecessary tightened pressure created by bolts. Also, bolts will loosen over time, and welds will not. Be careful though, because not all welds are equal, and you want to look for full welds around the entire connection, as opposed to spot-welding.

Also, this is something that will require a little investigative work by you, but knowing what types of steels are used can be very important. Some manufacturers use carbon steel frames with little-to-no heat treating process to strengthen the steel which results in a a very low Rockwell hardness. Also carbon steel is highly susceptible to rust, and because the electrolytes in your sweat are corrosive, that means a lot of preventative maintenance is going to be required of you. Higher quality machines that are designed to be used intensely and over long periods of time will use high-speed steels that have been strengthened by heat treating processes and use materials that are more impervious to rusting, such as air hardened steel, electrostatic powder-coating, stainless steel and aluminum extensions on exposed parts of the frame in high-sweat areas.

Lastly, the overall weight of the machine itself should be a good reference for you as to the integrity of its construction and its ability to hold up to the demands of being used regularly and intensely.  Light and compact machines are designed around lower costs and minimizing your space restraints and personal inconveniences; and heavier, more robust machines will hold up more often when you need them to, and be more comfortable to use.

Stride Length Significance

A lot of review sites out there on the web talk about  how important stride length should be, and frankly, I think it is highly over-rated. There are a few reasons why. Many review sites will beat you into submission with the importance of stride length, because most of those websites have ulterior motives to direct you to specific products and/or brands. This is called affiliate marketing. It is unfortunate, but it is true, and it is a big problem in the fitness equipment industry. They talk about stride length a lot because they have to sell you their products somehow and some way, and they don't really have a whole lot else to talk about, with respect to bio-mechanics and ergonomics.  Stride length is something that's easy to construct an intangible value around, and these companies and paid review sites are betting that the average consumer will not take into account some of the more complex considerations that make stride length moot. Here are few examples for you:

  1. There's a large emphasis on the user's height in correlation with appropriate stride length. This is incorrect. In all actuality, the user's hip index number as well as their own respective desired pace should be a more important factor when considering “appropriate” stride length. Two people who are both six feet tall will likely have different stride lengths because the distance from the ground to their hips is highly unlikely to be exactly the same.
  2. The overall range of motion and angle of the elliptical pattern could sabotage the so-called effectiveness of what a company states as their idea of optimal stride length. Because all ellipticals are designed substantially different from one another, Company A's 20-inch stride is going to feel completely different than Company B's 20 inch stride because of  bio-mechanical design, pedal articulation, range of motion, position of linkages, flywheel and drive axles, types and locations of resistance systems, and so on. Knowing this, stride length should now become more of a trivial consideration in the overall purchasing decision. What's more important is a focus on how far the knees, hips and ankles bend while in motion; yet companies and paid review sites continue to lift up stride length as one of the most important factors when comparing ellipticals! Look at it this way: a school bus and a Ferrari can both go 20 MPH, right? Even though the speed is the same, is it going to feel the same driving a school bus at 20 MPH and driving a Ferrari at 20 MPH? Nope! They are two completely different products of engineering designed with two completely different objectives in mind. Given that information, the speed you are trying to travel now becomes inconsequential when you are shopping for a Ferrari in a parking lot full of school buses.
  3. Are you really getting a better workout because Company A has a 1 or 2-inch difference in stride length over Company B? The answer is no, you are not. And if you want proof, stand up and take a few long steps, and then go climb a flight of stairs. Which elevated your heart rate more quickly? Taking long, flat steps or climbing the stairs? The stairs did it, of course, and they'll do it every time. Your pace stayed the same but your muscle recruitment and required  energy changed dramatically. And your stride actually gets shorter when you climb! If the primary reason why you are shopping for an elliptical is cardiovascular exercise, and you are comparing a machine with a longer stride versus a machine with a crossramp, and your heart rate, RPE and resistance levels are all equal, the added modality of the crossramp will give you better cardiovascular results than the simple adjustable stride. And the kicker is, when you climb, your stride actually gets shorter! So much for the significance of stride length!

Still, to be devil's advocate, one could present an argument based on performance. If a user is only covering “x” amount of distance for each step they take,  it will take longer for them to cover a specific distance when compared to running outside, because their natural stride is longer than the elliptical can provide. It's a tad unfair, because now you are using your elliptical machine outside of the scope of its purpose. What you're doing is driving the school bus like it is a Ferrari, but it doesn't have the same suspension. It doesn't have the same acceleration. It doesn't have the same brakes.  It's apples and oranges. Ellipticals aren't running machines. Treadmills are running machines. Ellipticals are cross trainers, and if you use the elliptical they way it is designed to be used, stride length becomes much less important.

Also comfort is absolutely important because you need to be comfortable as you use the machine. I won't overcomplicated it for you and try to make it as simple as possible. Your formula for assessing the degree of importance for stride length to ensure optimal comfort as you shop, should look something like this:  

Does the machine have an adjustable ramp?

Your stride length automatically changes appropriately depending on the ramp angle, so stride length is a non-factor. over a fixed-stride elliptical. Because the motion is fixed, flat and does not change, a machine with adjustable  stride will allow you to find comfort at  desired pace over a fixed-stride elliptical.

Don't completely ignore the stride length, let it be one of the many factors that contributes to your overall purchasing decision. Just don't let it be one of the most important ones!

That's all for Part I of this two-part series on what to look for when you are shopping for an elliptical. In Part II, we are going to cover the types of resistance systems, electronic options and programs (including heart rate workouts), movable arms versus non-movable arms and their effectiveness, linkages, and a comparative analysis of wheel-on-ramp versus suspension ellipticals. Stay tuned!

Update: Part Two is Available Here.

About Bryan

Bryan has been with G&G since 2008. Along with experience as a personal trainer, Bryan has a BS in Education and is licensed to teach. He is an adjunct instructor for Wright State University. He has also taught grades 7-12... more about Bryan

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  • Chris,

    Sorry for such a long delay to reply to your comment. I am not sure how I even missed it! Thank you so much for pointing that out . . . you are absolutely correct. I mistakenly had the “YES” and “NO” column headers backward. I really appreciate you bringing that to our attention and it has been fixed.

    Live Fit,

    Bryan Shutts
  • Thanks for the write up, very useful.
    In the table “Does the machine have an adjustable ramp?”, are the YES/NO in the wrong column though?

    Chris Smith

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