Elliptical Buying Guide

Bringing the gym experience into your home makes it easier to exercise. Many people opt for treadmills, but the pounding can be loud, and 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, such as a torn meniscus. The moving handgrips and adjustable resistance allow you to create a more intense, full-body workout.

High-end ellipticals cost upwards of $2,500, but you can get a good machine for less than half that price. More expensive machines are often heavier and have a larger footprint because of 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 the 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 that you try it out in person if you can. 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.

Size
On average, ellipticals are about 6 feet long by 2.5 feet wide, but the length can range 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 and 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 the back for safety.

Ergonomics
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 that the lowest resistance setting is easy to pedal and that 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.


Connectivity
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, or Bluetooth that connects to an app on a mobile device. Some allow you to use a USB drive to move workout data to a web-based tracking feature accessed via a laptop. 

Programs
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 essential offerings might include Manual, Random, Hill Climb, Interval, Long Slow Distance, and Target Heart Rate. Custom programs 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.

An elliptical with a heart rate program.

With Heart Rate Programs

Heart rate programs automatically adjust the elliptical’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.

An elliptical without a heart rate program.

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 our 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 desired intensity or 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, the machine’s cost, and other factors.


A front-drive elliptical.

Front-Drive Elliptical

The drive wheel is 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.

Ellipticals Ratings
A center-drive elliptical.

Center-Drive Elliptical

The drive wheel is 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.

Ellipticals Ratings
A rear-drive elliptical.

Rear-Drive Elliptical

The drive wheel is 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.

Ellipticals 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

Delivery
Ellipticals are heavy, so ask about delivery. Check to see 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 the machine back, as well as restocking fees. If you’re purchasing online, find out how return shipping is handled.

Warranties
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.

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