Best Elliptical Machines For At-Home Cardio

An elliptical machine (a.k.a. elliptical trainers, cross trainers) is one of the most popular workout machines in the gym. It’s a stationary exercise machine that simulates walking and running. An elliptical machine is designed to give a user a cardiovascular workout. Which means it’s great for warming up, cooling down and weight loss routines.

Elliptical Machine Buying Guide

There is a huge price range, and in each bracket, you will find some quality options to consider, some of them costing less than £700. What features should you look for when you are purchasing an elliptical for your home?

Rear Drive vs. Front Drive

Front Drive Vs Rear Drive Ellipticals
Generally rear drive is preferable to front drive and if money is not object then you want to purchase rear drive units. That is why you will see top brands like Precor, Life Fitness and the high end models of companies like EVO and Nautilus using the rear drive design. They don’t have articulating pedals (pedals that angle with your stride) nor do they need articulating pedals. The rear drive provides a true elliptical movement with a heal toe ellipse on it.

On the front drive design you have an awkward feel if you don’t have articulating pedals. In terms of a front drive Vision Fitness and Schwinn are a good choice because of the articulating pedal feature. It will feel comfortable because it will flatten the pedal to give a shuffling movement, but it will not perform and be as strenuous a workout as found in the rear drive.

Why do some manufacturers use front drive and other rear drive?

Those that use rear drive have very strong patents associated with their rear drive design. Example is Precor with a rear drive with bicycle crank leading to an aluminum angle ramp with adjustable incline. It is a great design and unique feel that no one can copy. Others like Life Fitness and Smooth have their own patented design that works on different principals that work on rear drives. In general it is more expensive to build rear drive models.

Overall we prefer the rear drive if you want a natural elliptical movement and benefits associated with it. The majority of users tend to like the rear drive better.

At the bottom of the pecking order is ellipticals with front drive and no articulating foot pedals. The elliptical motion lacks a smooth and natural elliptical motion. You’ll find these machines predominantly sold at mass merchants.

Resistance System

In the budget range you have the manual resistance system it consist of a u-shape magnet that is about a ¼” away from the flywheel. That magnet is manually tensioned closer or further to create resistance.

In the budget to mid-range you will find elliptical trainers equipped with motorized brake systems, also called particle brake system. The design consist of a small motor that controls the magnetic brake. Motorized breaks have more mechanical parts and inherently require more service and are not suitable for any kind of commercial use.

Horizon uses the misnomer ECB, which leads people to believe that it is an eddy current brake system, when in reality it is an acronym for a different term. They use the motorized brake.

The high-end models tend to use the eddy current brake system. ECB technology works electromagnetically with a precision-balanced aluminum disk spinning freely between variable magnetic fields. Because it has few moving parts and no friction, eddy current resistance technology is extremely reliable and durable, requires little maintenance, and allows systems employing the technology to operate smoothly and quietly.

Dimensions and Ergonomic Design

  • Stride length that is comfortable and/or adjustable for comfort. Most people will be comfortable with a stride length around 20 inches. Too short of a stride can lead to a choppy elliptical motion. We recommend a 16″-19″ stride. Anything less would be like having a treadmill with a very short belt. The industry is moving in the direction of adjustable strides allowing the user to adjust to their preference.
  • Check the other dimensions for the machine to make sure it will fit in your house.  It is usually best to assemble in the room you want the elliptical trainer to stand in, since they are heavy.  Many units include wheels underneath to facilitate movement after assembly however, which adds convenience to the machine.
  • A sturdy, strong frame like that you would find on a gym elliptical.  A well-made elliptical will be in great shape years later.
  • Ergonomic design features such as adjustable foot pedals and handlebars.  Pivoting foot pedals absorb shock and protect your joints.  Stride length is part of this as well.
  • A smooth, quiet, comfortable ride. This comes from a good flywheel

Programming

You will find the programs on elliptical trainers are similar to those found on treadmills. In some cases companies that offer both use the same electronics. If you use an elliptical or treadmill at a health club, then you know how much variety you need. Most people either manually control their workout, or they utilize one or two programs that they are comfortable with. Ultimately any program can be simulated manually.

It really is a matter of preference. If a selection of challenging programs will motivate you into using your fitness equipment more often, then go ahead and get a machine with a wide selection. Programs can vary with different fitness goals. There are those geared towards fat burning, aerobic, cardio an anaerobic exercising.

When purchasing an elliptical trainer quality should be your #1 priority, and features like programs should rank secondary.

Heart Rate Monitor

Most of the better ellipticals but the very low end bargain basement models have a built in heart rate monitor these days. The most common variety of heart rate monitor is the pulse grip sensor.

The pulse grip sensor heart rate monitor is a system that provides a rough estimate of your heart rate through electrical impedance. This method of monitoring is acceptable for elliptical machines in the sub £700 price range and can be improved by purchasing a separate heart rate monitor.

When you get into the mid-level ellipticals, you’re machine should come standard with a wireless or telemetric heart rate control unit. The wireless heart rate monitor is the most accurate method for measuring heart rate available.

Look for an elliptical that has wireless heart rate control, and heart rate controlled workouts. Heart rate controlled workouts are where the elliptical trainer will adjust resistance automatically based on a predetermined user input.

Display Console and Built-in Workouts


The display console is the heart of any elliptical trainer. A good console can provide extra motivation and feedback while your using your elliptical trainer.

If you don’t think a good display console is important, take it from someone who knows better. I’ve owned elliptical machines on the low end, and the high end of pricing and can tell you a good display console that provides feedback on speed, distance, heart rate and workout information is essential for a good workout.

My old Nordic Track elliptical has a very minimal display and crappy heart rate monitoring with an ear clip (old machine technology from about 10 years ago) and I couldn’t get any visual cues about how my workout was progressing.

If you have a good display console you can monitor exactly how your workout is progressing and fine tune your upcoming workouts later based on feedback and results of your current workout.

It also gives you additional motivation when you glance down at the console and see you’re almost done!

Make sure your elliptical trainer has built-in workouts. You’ll thank me later when you’re still using your machine everyday, while the people who bought the cheap elliptical trainers are using them for coat racks.

Price

Shopping for an elliptical trainer and don’t know how much to spend? That’s a common problem for most people. There are just too many choices available today.

Unlike treadmills, elliptical trainers are much more closely grouped in price, and you can get a good machine without breaking the bank.

Don’t even consider spending less than £300 bucks for an elliptical trainer or you’re going to be sorry later. Cheap elliptical trainers are just as bad as cheap treadmills. If you buy an elliptical based solely on price you may as well take your money out of your wallet and set it on fire.

To get a quality elliptical trainer expect to spend in the neighborhood of £500 and up. That won’t get you the top of the line ellipticals, but you can do pretty well for yourself in that price range.

High end elliptical trainers range in price anywhere from £700 to £2000. The high end machines offer must have features like built-in workouts, longer stride lengths, wireless heart rate monitoring, longer warranties, higher user weight limit, a more natural elliptical motion and better ergonomics.

Buy the best elliptical trainer you can afford even if you have to stretch a bit to get one. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Features to Look For

  • Accessories and/or places to put them.  Most good elliptical trainers include a spot for your water bottle, a fan, and a port to hook up an iPod or other music player. Ellipticals may also come with heart rate monitors.
  • A large LCD display that provides you with a number of programming options (look for around 10, a couple of which should be customizable) as well as feedback on calorie burn and more.
  • A great warranty on parts, service, and labor.  You may be able to purchase an extended warranty for a little extra.  This is usually a smart option, since many ellipticals (even high quality machines) require labor and replacement parts now and again.  A warranty will extend the life of your trainer.
  • Excellent customer service.  It is easy to overlook this aspect of the purchase process, but it is very important that you buy from a company that will provide you with answers, parts and support should you need it.

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