Elliptical machines, sometimes called cross-trainers, are low-impact workout machines that tend to be easier on your joints than a treadmill, and the stepping motion better simulates a hike or stairs (how tall of stairs depends on the model) than a flat-surface walk. As a result, ellipticals tend to give you a better resistance workout in addition to cardio.
The name comes from the pattern created by the pedals—an oval, rather than the circular pattern of a bicycle. And they’re relatively new in the history of fitness machines; the first one was created in 1995 by Precor, and it was a hit right out of the gate because of the low-impact workout, which made it equally accessible for both the novice exerciser and the serious athlete. The first ones had stationary handles; later models incorporated the push/pull handholds we’re familiar with. Today’s ellipticals are as tech-savvy as they are functional workout tools.
all the rage because they use handles that are pumped in combination with the foot pedals, imitating the motion of cross-country skiing and fusing it with running. … They increase aerobic capacity, meaning they’ll help you perform activities for a longer period of time without getting out of breath, and they offer a comfortable way to work out since your feet stay still on the gliding platforms. Moreover, they give you a total body workout and burn more calories than most workouts…
Ellipticals can be big and bulky, but not always, and they’re an investment for sure. They can be a great investment if you find the right fit for you and your needs, as well as the right one for the available space in your home. We looked for well-designed, cost-efficient, smooth-running machines that will not only be great investments up front but last through the wear and tear of frequent workouts.
There are many different machines to choose from, so this review narrows it down to the best five choices depending on your needs.
The Criteria for This Review
The quality and durability of an elliptical will vary depending on which class you purchase, and I wanted to narrow down a few of the main reasons why one machine scored higher over another. There were a key marks the machine needed to hit in order to score well:
- Stride length
- Flywheel Weight
- Entertainment Features
Most people find a stride length of 20-38 inches to be a good range. Some higher-end models actually have adjustable stride length features for optimum customization. Basic models will list their static stride length.
Always look for a flywheel that weighs at least 18 pounds. The heavier the flywheel, the higher the price tag, but for good reason. A heavier flywheel results in a smoother feel and advanced workout performance. A home elliptical is a decent investment, so make sure not to skimp on this important detail.
There are bare-bones machines, and then there are machines that offer Bluetooth, smart phone capability, and even integrated workout apps to tap into. More tech means more cost, but some of these features really do come in handy. Simply knowing what features you will use, and what you can do without, will help you spend wisely.
Bells and whistles aside, a well-made elliptical that will last for several years means money well spent. Look for sealed bearings as opposed to unsealed. This simply means the machine is self-lubricating—which means less maintenance for you. A durable machine will keep its plastics to the safety and comfort areas rather than actual moving parts, and machines with a higher maximum weight capacity (think 300-plus pounds) will last longer (especially if you’re considerably below that max).
My Best-in-Class Picks
There are a few different styles of Ellipticals to choose from: The Compact/Folding Elliptical, Front Drive Ellipticals, Center Drive Ellipticals, Rear Drive Ellipticals, and Hybrid Ellipticals. Let’s get to know and then find the best pick in each style.
The Compact/Folding Elliptical
For people with limited space in their homes, this is a great option—in between workouts it can be folded up to about a third of its horizontal area, which is awesome for a small apartment or studio. A fold-up option can also be a deterrent to and safety factor for young children.
My pick in this class was the NordicTrack SpaceSaver SE9i. Only 32 inches wide, it folds up from its full open length of 79 inches to just 30 inches. Its 18-pound flywheel, 325-pound weight capacity, 24-level resistance, and 18-inch stride length, along with built-in fan, speakers, Bluetooth capability, and integrated tablet—you can even simulate real-world terrain in your workouts via Google Maps—make this a powerful little workhorse. It is priced mid-range at $1,249.
The Front-Drive Elliptical
“Front-drive” simply means the flywheel is located at the front of the machine. This is the most popular elliptical machine to purchase for your home.
My pick—and the pick of more than one consumer review group, earning “Best Buy” titles—was the NordicTrack Commercial 14.9. Retailing mid-range at $1,499, it has an easy to use health console with a 10-inch screen, a 32-pound flywheel, and a 20-inch stride length with oversized pedals for extra comfort. It has a 350-pound weight limit and 35 different workout apps logged into the entertainment console. Feel like you’re at the nicest gym in the city from the comfort of your best broken-in sweats.
The Center-Drive Elliptical
These are the newest machines to date; the flywheel is located on one side of the machine.
Again, NordicTrack takes the lead in the center-drive category with the FreeStride Trainer FS7i. The most up-to-date model on the market today, it was awarded a Better Buy award in the Under $2,000 range, retailing at $1799, and gets stellar reviews. The FreeStride offers one of the longest stride lengths on the market at 38 inches—though it automatically adjusts to shorter lengths and has a unique suspension system, making it essentially a 3-in-1: stepper, treadmill, and elliptical. Though the flywheel is only 20 pounds, the unique design seems to make the most of it. The weight capacity is 375 pounds, and the FreeStride offers Bluetooth, a 7-inch Smart HD touchscreen, 0-10 percent incline, and 35 different workout apps built into the console.
The Rear-Drive Elliptical
Hang on to your coffee—we’re about to take a price jump. Rear-drive ellipticals are the ones you find in commercial gyms; the flywheel is in the back, behind the user, and these beasts are meant for long wear. Even the home versions are the most expensive machines you’ll find.
It was a tight race, but the LifeFitness Club Series Elliptical Cross Trainer rear-drive scored well with many people—and many commercial gyms; it’s a widely-used model. The home version retails at a whopping $4299, but the devil is definitely in the details on this one.
Best known for its smooth and natural movement, you will get the “gym” feel of this machine in the comfort of your own home. There is also a built-in heart rate monitor system, as well as both stationary and mobile handlebars. The max user weight is 350 pounds, and its stride length is 20 inches. It’s not super-teched—the control panel is geared toward a basic workout rather than an entertainment center—but it’s very user-friendly and offers both pre-programmed and manually-entered workout parameters. It also offers a wide reading rack, iPod holder and connectivity, a cup holder, heart rate monitors built into both sets of handholds, and oversized non-slip pedals.
We mentioned above that the FreeStride Trainer could be a hybrid, though it’s not marketed as such. Hybrids offer what you’d expect from the name: the ability to do multiple disciplines, like run/elliptical/stair-step.
The ProForm CardioHIIT Trainer Pro, a top-rated hybrid that combines stair-stepping and boxing movements, wins major points with reviewers for its compact design—half the footprint of a normal elliptical—and retails at just $1,599. (I can get away with “just” after the sticker shock of the Club Series)
Unlike regular stair-steppers that can be a bit jerky in their up-and-down movement—and thereby harder on your joints—the TrainerPro has a 10-inch vertical/5-inch horizontal elliptical climbing path, as well as smooth magnetic resistance that runs almost silently. It has a 10-inch smart entertainment touch screen console, 34 workout apps, 26 resistance levels, and a heavy 30-pound flywheel.
The Bottom Line
In the end, any exercise machine is only as good as your commitment to use it. If a treadmill sounds boring, an elliptical might be a better choice for you. The array of models available today lets you choose a machine you’ll be happy to use. Even if you can’t afford the mid-range models reviewed here, there are models—Bowflex, Schwinn, and ProForm are the first brands that will come up on a search—that will give you a quality workout for less than a thousand dollars. You won’t get as many bells and whistles, and you should still look for the qualities we talked about (stride length, flywheel weight, etc).
But no matter which machine you choose, an elliptical can give you a great combination workout in a corner of your home or apartment.