Complete Guide to Buying an Elliptical Trainer

If you want an elliptical trainer, here is a guide on choosing the best one for you. There are many options, and ellipticals aren’t cheap, so it pays to read up on them before making your final decision.

Read through each section below and you’ll be ready to make an informed decision.


First and foremost, before even thinking about the machine’s features, you need to consider the sizes. Most importantly, the size of machine you can fit in your house. If you have tons of space, it’s not an issue, but chances are, you need to find an elliptical that will actually fit into your house.

If you are really tight on space, you will want to look at a compact elliptical. These are generally smaller and lighter, so they’re great for tight spaces and a little easier to maneuver into place.

However, a compact elliptical comes at a price. The small size means it will be less stable. As you get into faster-paced, more intense workouts, you may get the machine to rock in place or shake a little bit. This can be annoying, and sometimes dangerous.

You are also limited in the stride length of a smaller unit. The shorter the stride length, the more your elliptical will feel like you’re on a “stair stepper” machine. If you are tall, you will probably feel unnatural and uncomfortable on a compact elliptical.

Note: There are some ellipticals that are relatively compact, yet stable.

Bigger ellipticals will be heavier, which means more stability for a solid feel. You can also get them with a longer stride length, so you’ll actually feel like you’re out for a walk or run.

But of course, you need to have the space for one of these bigger ellipticals.

Front vs Rear Drive

Elliptical trainers give you two options, front or rear drive. You can easily tell these apart based on whether the fan resistance unit is in the front or rear of the machine.

The big difference between front and rear drive is the feel of the machine. It’s not so much an issue of one being better than the other. If you will be at the store testing out ellipticals before you purchase, choosing between front and rear drive won’t make much difference. You just pick which machine “feels” more comfortable to use.

But you should know that generally, the ellipticals with a rear drive are nicer units. They almost always provide a more natural motion, and the movement just feels better during exercise.

Companies like Precor and Smooth Fitness have patented designs for their rear drive systems, which are high quality and very hard for competitors to work around. You aren’t going to find a cheap rear drive unit, because it would be too expensive to develop a new design.

However, that’s not to say that all the front drive ellipticals are terrible. Some are just fine, and if you get one with articulating foot pedals (discussed more in the next section,) it can feel like a natural movement.

Just watch out for department store ellipticals, which are usually front drive without articulating foot pedals, making for a poor experience.

Stride Length and Foot Pedals

I think this is the most important step, so pay attention. This is what you feel each time you use the machine, the basis of your workout. If you’ll be using the elliptical for 30+ minutes each day, you want it to be comfortable!

The correct stride length will vary a little bit for each person. Most people will be comfortable with a 16-20″ stride length, while some taller individuals may prefer a 22″ stride length.

A shorter stride length, perhaps 14″, will make you feel like you’re on a stair stepper machine. You want to feel like you’re actually moving, more like you’re out jogging than climbing a steep flight of stairs.

Nicer ellipticals will give you the option of adjustable stride length, which is a very nice feature, especially if more than one person will be using the machine.

At the same time, look at the foot pedals on the machine. Some machines use articulating foot pedals, which means your foot can move naturally withing your stride. Again, this makes it feel more natural, like you’re out running.

In some cases, articulating foot pedals can make a short stride length feel fairly natural. Be extremely wary of an elliptical with a short stride length and fixed foot pedals – it probably won’t be comfortable.

Also, look at the quality of the foot pedals themselves. It should look like a sturdy platform and offer more than enough room for your foot on top. A rubberized pedal will be more comfortable than a hard plastic pedal.

Resistance Control Option

Most elliptical machines use some sort of flywheel surrounded by magnets to create resistance.

The question is, what do you have to do to adjust resistance during your workout? You could do it manually (like with a twist knob or lever,) use a programmed mode (you pick a mode and the built-in computer changes resistance for you,) or use heart-rate control (you pick a HR zone and the machine increases or decreases resistance to keep you in the zone.)

Lower-end machines have a simple magnet that is turned with an adjustment knob. You’d spin the knob clockwise to increase resistance, counter-clockwise to decrease resistance. Slightly better machines will use the same magnet system, but have a motorized control system. This is where you hit a button (usually up and down arrows) that then uses a motor to move the magnet.

This type of resistance set-up can be noisy and will wear out eventually.

The top-of-the-line resistance system is called the Eddy Current Brake (ECB) system. This uses varying levels of electric current sent to the resistance magnet to increase or decrease the resistance. It is easily controlled by you at the push of a button.

The ECB system is also quiet and extremely durable. You will find this set-up on the high-end elliptical trainers

Lastly, let’s talk about heart rate control. This is an automated way for you to control resistance. You pick out a heart rate zone that you would like to exercise in, then the machine automatically adjusts the resistance for you. If your heart rate drops to the low end of the HR zone, resistance increases. If your heart rate is on the verge of going too high, the machine will decrease the resistance.

All you have to do is wear your chest strap (that’s what measures your heart rate.) You also have to pay extra for a machine with this feature, so keep that in mind. If you don’t mind watching your HR and hitting the button yourself, there’s no need for this feature.

Display and Controls

While build quality and stride length are the most important features to look at, you should still consider the display screen before making a purchasing decision.

On an elliptical (just like on a treadmill,) the display screen will show you things like speed, time, calories burnt, and resistance level. Usually, the higher the price, the more features the elliptical will have.

One option I enjoy is the pre-programmed workouts. This lets you choose a style of workout and it will increase the resistance at certain times. It would be similar to doing an interval workout out on the track, but with less thinking on your part.

The only real thing to worry about, though, is having a screen that is easy to read and a menu that is easy to control while working out.

The Warranty

When spending $1000 or more on a single piece of equipment, it’s a good idea to look at the warranty. If you’re paying for quality, the company should stand behind their product.

Watch out for companies that offer a paltry 90-day warranty. That’s pathetic. That’s also what you can expect on a machine from the department store.

Look at Sole and Smooth Fitness for better examples. Sole offers a five year parts and two year labor warranty on most of their ellipticals.

At a bare minimum, look for AT LEAST a one year warranty. Ideally you could get a ‘two year parts, one year labor warranty.’ That means if anything breaks within two years, they will replace that part under warranty. If it breaks within one year, they will replace the part and provide a mechanic who will install it for you.

At the same time, consider the company’s reputation for customer service. Even a good warranty is useless if the company is hard to contact or very stingy about the fine print.

Where to Buy

There are two main options for purchasing an elliptical: in store or online.

For brick-and-mortar stores, you have your general department stores like Wal-Mart for lower-end units. One step up will be sporting goods stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods. Then in some cases, you can find a specialty store in your area that sells only treadmills, ellipticals, and accessories.

Obviously, the more specialized the store, the better service you will receive. At the fitness specialty stores, they can tell you all sorts of things about each machine and help pick one out that fits your needs. At Wal-Mart, you’ll be lucky to find someone who know what an elliptical machine is. Dick’s Sporting Goods falls somewhere in between. Usually the employees are knowledgeable, but it’s not quite the experience of a specialty store.

Why buy in store?

If you shop in a physical store, you get to see the machine and test it out, and there are no shipping charges. The biggest plus is definitely getting to test out the machine and see how it feels and if it fits you well.

Personally I would never spend $1000+ on an exercise machine I’ve never used in real life.

Online, you have similar options. You could order from Dick’s Sporting Goods or a general store. There are specialty dealers online, too. But then there is the direct from the manufacturer option. A great example is Smooth Fitness – the only way to get a Smooth Fitness machine is direct from their website.

So if you want to shop online, definitely look at the manufacturer websites.

Why shop online?

Online, you probably don’t pay any sales tax. You can sometimes find free shipping and set-up offers, as well. On top of that, there are sometimes special offers and rebates that you can only get when purchasing directly from the manufacturer.

But keep in mind, some brands (like Precor) aren’t available online. They are only sold within their dealer network, meaning you’d have to find a physical store for those brands.

Lastly, another option is Craigslist. It’s like a hybrid online/offline setup. If you get lucky, you might find an elliptical in good condition, locally, for cheap. You have to be careful with used equipment, but you might get such a good deal from someone that it’s worth the risk. (Like if they are moving away shortly and can’t transport such a big, heavy object.)

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