Elliptical Buying Guide
Elliptical Buying Guide
Tracking Down the Perfect Machine

Bringing the gym experience into your home makes it easier to exercise. Many people opt for treadmills, but the pounding can be hard on your joints. Ellipticals mimic the motion of running but without the impact. That’s especially beneficial if you have bad knees or are rehabbing from a lower-body injury. The moving handgrips and adjustable resistance allow you to create a more intense, full-body workout.

High-end ellipticals cost upwards of $2,000 but you can get a good machine for less than half that price. More expensive machines are often heavier and have a larger footprint, due to their beefier frames. The number of features also tends to increase with the price of the machine. Use this guide to learn about the different types and many features out there–and to simplify your choice.


Choose the Model That's Right for You

Good exercise equipment can be expensive but cost isn't the only thing to consider before buying. Here’s a checklist:

Try Before You Buy
Whether you want to shop online for the best price or purchase a machine from the store, we recommend you try it out in person. You might notice a problem with the ergonomics that you can't detect by sight or user reviews alone—maybe your knees keep bumping against the elliptical's framework or the machine just doesn't move to your liking.

On average, ellipticals are about 6 feet long by 2.5 feet wide but can range in length from 50 to 84 inches. Keep in mind that during operation, the pedals may extend out beyond the length of the machine. You'll also be more elevated than you would on a treadmill, so make sure you have a space with a sufficiently high ceiling. We’ve measured step-up heights between 5 to 15 inches with pedals reaching up to 25 inches above the floor at the apex of the elliptical cycle. You'll also need a minimum of 20 inches of free space on at least one side and either the front or back for safety.

Unlike a treadmill, which allows you to move free-form, an elliptical constrains you to its movement. Pay special attention to how comfortable you feel when using an elliptical. You should be able to maintain an upright posture when holding on to the moving handles. Moving handgrips should be easy to reach and not force your wrists into an awkward position. The elliptical path should feel comfortable. For most people, pedals should be as close together as possible. And the moving handgrips and fixed frame components should not interfere with your arms, shoulders or knees.

Exercise Intensity
All ellipticals have variable resistance. Make sure the lowest resistance setting is easy to pedal and it becomes challenging to pedal at about 75 percent of the highest setting. This will provide some room to grow. You should feel a significant but incremental change whenever you increase or decrease the resistance. Some ellipticals come with an adjustable incline. Check to see whether it's automated or requires you to manually adjust it.

High-Tech Features
Exercise equipment in general is becoming more and more connected to the cloud to provide workout tracking, a competitive environment, social networks and access to a library of exercise programs. Ellipticals can have built in wireless connectivity and browsers, or Bluetooth that connects to an app on a mobile device. Some use USB drives to move workout data to a web-based tracking feature accessed via a laptop. Keep in mind that it’s not all that easy to use a browser or an app while exercising.

Exercise programs can make a workout more varied and less boring, which might get you on the machine more often. But don't pay for frills that you don't care about. You can get by with a few basic programs that address specific types of workouts. Programs may be called different things by different manufacturers but an essential offering might be: Manual, Random, Hill Climb, Interval, Long Slow Distance, and Target Heart Rate. Custom programs would allow you to create your own resistance profile.

Safety Features
Ellipticals are inherently dangerous for children, who could get pinched or trapped in the moving parts. People with children at home or as visitors should make sure that the little ones can't access the machines (by locking the room) and employ safety features.


Elliptical Types

We divide our ratings for ellipticals into two groups: Those with heart-rate programs and those without.

With Heart Rate Programs

Heart rate programs automatically adjust the ellipitical’s resistance (and may adjust incline if it is an included feature) based on a target heart rate. The elliptical will increase exercise intensity if your heart rate is below the target you set, and decrease it once your heart rate exceeds the target. Accordingly, heart rate must be tracked for these programs to work. The best way to do this is with a chest-strap heart-rate sensor. Relying on handgrip contact sensors can be inconvenient and less accurate. This type of machine would be suitable for those who need more direction in their fitness program and prefer to have exercise effort automatically determined by the elliptical.

Without Heart Rate Programs

Ellipticals without heart rate programs are not equipped to automatically adjust the intensity of the exercise based on a target heart rate. For these machines, the highest possible score in the “Heart rate features” category in the ratings is a “good.” These machines still provide contact and sometimes chest-strap heart rate sensors, so that your heart rate can be monitored and displayed. This type of machine would be suitable for those who have the knowledge to decide what their target heart-rate should be to achieve their exercise goals. 


Elliptical Configurations

There are three basic configurations of elliptical machines. The position of the flywheel in relation to the footpads can influence your workout, cost, and other factors.


The drive wheel is located at the front of the elliptical often in a large housing. This type of machine usually has pedals that are supported on wheels that glide on a track. This setup can contribute to noise and vibration depending on the quality of the rollers.

Elliptical Ratings


The drive wheel is located at the center of the elliptical. This type of machine has pedals that ride on cylindrical rollers and a crank shaft. This configuration is usually the most compact of the three styles and can take up less floor space. But the total space required may be as much as for the other configurations because the pedal arms extend well beyond the body of the machine when in use. The elliptical path tends to feel more round and the transitions more gentle.

Elliptical Ratings


The drive wheel is located at the rear of the elliptical in a smaller housing. This type of machine can have a track-and-roller setup for the pedals or pedals that are suspended on long pedal arms between the drive wheel and the moving handgrips. With a track-and-roller setup, the track (or ramp) often tilts to provide an incline. For suspended pedals, the ride can be very smooth and quiet. These ellipticals tend to be very long machines.

Elliptical Ratings

Elliptical Video Buying Guide

Our video below has helpful tips on ergonomics, pedal size, button size, safety, and other must-know topics.


Before You Buy

Ellipticals are heavy, so ask about delivery. Check whether assembly, complicated and tricky even for experienced DIYers, is included or available at an additional cost.

Return Policy
Also confirm the store’s return policy, including how much (if anything) it will cost to send back, as well as restocking fees. If purchased online, find out how return shipping is handled.

Look for a warranty that provides three to seven years of coverage on parts and at least one year on labor. Most ellipticals have a lifetime warranty on the frame. More expensive machines tend to have a longer parts and labor warranty. Our surveys suggest that an extended warranty probably isn't worth it.


Elliptical Features

Some elliptical features can make your regular exercise routine more productive, safe, and entertaining.