Elliptical Trainer Buyer's Guide

Elliptical Trainer
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Elliptical Trainer Buyer's Guide

elliptical trainer with rear driveThe first elliptical trainers began showing up in American health clubs in the late 1990ís and quickly became popular to the point where they all but replaced Stairmasters as the lower-body-only, cardio-toning workout of choice. For the first several years, only lower-body ellipticals were available, mostly through Precor. Those machines were designed primarily for short women and featured an incline ramp which was touted as a mechanism that could target various muscle groups in the lower body (glutes, quads, calves, etc.).

elliptical trainer with front driveAs the years progressed, that lower-body-only workout was replaced by total body elliptical trainers which made it even easier to get your heart rate up into the training zone faster and with MUCH LESS perceived effort. In addition, users could expect to burn up to 40% more calories in the same amount of time. Just for comparison purposes, ellipticals can burn 70% more calories than walking on the flat and 20% more calories than walking at a reasonable incline level. Aggressive elliptical training (using more than 100 watts of resistance) can even burn more calories than running an 8-minute mile pace!

If you are seriously looking to make an elliptical purchase in the near future, here are three major criteria you should consider:

  1. How well does the elliptical fit your body size and the sizes of all users in your family?

  2. How does the elliptical feel?  Remember that the feel is a subjective matter and you should either try the unit or buy one online with at least a 30-day money back guarantee. 

  3. Does this elliptical machine exhibit quality construction?  Evaluate the design and components to determine whether the smoothness and durability will be there down the road. 

Take your time going through this manual and try to ask yourself some of the key questions that we will pose to determine which machine is right for you.

Is there more than one type of elliptical on the market?

The first things you should understand is that there are several types of elliptical designs in the marketplace today.  Front drive, rear drive and center drive ellipticals are the three general drive systems available.  Sub-categories include adjustable stride elliptical machines, Arc Trainers, and the newest category of cardiovascular trainers known as Adjustable Motion Trainers.  The adjustable motion trainers are clearly the future of the elliptical exercise class, so if your budget is $3500 or more, you may even want to skip to the end of this guide to take a look at the cream of the crop.  Either way, we will walk you through all of the differences in these various classes of elliptical trainers and show you what is and what is not important.

There is an industry misconception that one kind of drive system is better than another in terms of feel.  We all have our preferences, of course, but we will attempt to objectively provide the advantages and disadvantages of each and let you decide which is right for you.  Rear drive ellipticals were the first on the market; at that time, only commercial club-quality units were available in the marketplace.  Precor, Life Fitness, Nautilus and Technogym are the dominant players in the club side of the business and all of those companies initially only offered rear drive.  Even today, rear drive is dominant in the club side of the business.  Those machines are proven in their feel, reliability and serviceability for both home and club use.  Generally you should expect to pay over $3000 for a rear drive unit, but Kettler, Smooth Fitness and Diamondback all make machines in the $1000-$2000 price category with excellent quality and good warranties. 

One of the advantages of rear drive units is the silky smooth feel that you get by putting the flywheel behind the user.  There is just more inertia in rear drive than front drive and therefore even with a lot of resistance, these machines will never have a herky-jerky feel.   Most brands have a direct link from the handlebars to the foot skis and therefore require NO maintenance at all!  If you look at Precor, you will notice an incline ramp that uses rollerblade wheels sliding up and down an aluminum ramp.  This design is also very smooth, but in order to maintain this feel, you should expect to clean and lubricate the wheels and ramp on a weekly basis.  If you don’t, dirt will collect in the grooves of the ramp and on the wheels themselves – you won’t like the bumpy feel that will result. 

The number of front drive ellipticals on the market has surged recently since those designs are more generic and it is the easiest way for a treadmill manufacturer to enter into the elliptical market.  Most front drive machines have aluminum, plastic or steel tracks in the base with rubber wheels traveling back and forth across the track.  This design requires even more maintenance than the incline ramp design and can sometimes be next to impossible to clean and maintain.  This is why you should stay away from brands like Sole, Keys, Ironman and Vision; if you do like the front drive, go with an Octane. Though not as smooth as a rear drive, the Octane does have fancy electronics and nice pedals.

One thing you should consider with front drive ellipticals is that the motion generally tends to be much flatter. In order to get a good workout, you will need a longer stride on the machine.  A good rule of thumb is that a 20” stride on a front drive elliptical (shuffle trainer) is about equivalent to an 18” stride on a rear drive elliptical.   On a rear drive design, your heel will rise up much more than your toe, causing the elliptical path to be taller and more natural-feeling.  That said, older folks or de-conditioned individuals will probably do much better on front drive for the very same reason.

Which type of resistance system is best to buy?

You will see that there are several types of resistance systems on the market. Even within one brand, there is often a variety depending upon price points.  On the very low end, you will see a manually-adjustable magnetic resistance usually on units under $399 retail.  The next type is what is called a particle brake system, sometimes called electromagnetic.  This type will adjust on the fly and can support preset programs, but the resistance changes very slowly when you press the button and you will have to be patient if making big changes or doing interval training.  Also, electromagnetic brakes are a bit noisy when adjusting compared to the high end systems.

The best type of resistance system is the eddy-current resistance system.  It functions by having a belt-driven chrome plated flywheel which turns at a very fast rpm speed.  There is a magnetic U-shaped braking device which is a few centimeters away from the flywheel, and as you change resistance, that magnet will move ever so closer to the rotating flywheel.  Yes—we know—this is way too technical for you to care about, but what you will get is a totally silent drive system that is extremely reliable and very responsive.  All the high-end companies who are making club units are using the eddy current drive system.  Under $2000, there are just a few and those include Smooth and Kettler.

Don’t be fooled by made-up terminology.  Horizon, for instance, uses a cheap motorized brake system which we would classify on the low end of the particle brake variety but they call it an ECB system which would falsely lead consumers to believe that it is eddy-current.  There are other such misnomers from the Icon and other lower-end brands generally sold at the sporting goods store level.

Should I buy an extended warranty?

No, those are not worth the paper that they are written on.  Folks, there is a warranty war going on in the industry and you can get a really long warranty (in some cases lifetime on the braking system) so why buy a cheap unit with only a 90 day warranty?  There is a reason why a manufacturer would offer a very short warranty on their unit.  Those models typically have very cheap key components and getting a third party insurer to issue a warranty is NOT a good idea.  Go with a reputable manufacturer who services what they sell or go with a quality brand that is supported by a strong network of dealers with local service.

Where should I buy my elliptical?  In a mass merchant or sporting goods store, a fitness specialty store or online?

Mass Merchants

Due to the sheer volume of products they sell, mass merchants like Sears, Sports Authority and Wal-Mart can offer bargain prices.  You’ll find their inventory is generally limited to budget products from low-end brands like Weslo, ProForm, Horizon and Sportcraft.  The sales people won’t have a clue and good luck getting service.  You will call 1-800-WHO-CARES and nobody will pick up!

Fitness Specialty Stores

Fitness specialty stores were once the best option and still are an option in some areas.  Unfortunately, many regional retail chains have come upon hard times recently and most are outsourcing their service and scaling back on quality.  The one big advantage, though, is that you can try the product to see if the feel is right for you.  We do recommend doing much more than a few minutes though.  Get it into your home and use it under a 30-day trial.  Some salespeople are very knowledgeable in fitness specialty stores, but beware.  Most are on straight commission and will push you into the most expensive unit.   Expect to pay additional retail costs for the middleman.

Online stores

Many brands are available online now and more are becoming available all the time.  The advantage, of course, is that you can shop a particular brand online and find several places to verify that you are receiving the best possible price.  The downside is that you can’t try it in a store but you can opt for the free in-home trial.  Who wants to get dressed up in fitness clothes and work up a sweat in a strip mall anyway? 

The Internet is also the best place to research ellipticals and we suggest looking at as many sites like ellipticaltrainers.com as you can find.  Third party ratings sites like Consumer Guide, Consumer Reports, About.com and Epinions are all good avenues to look at.

The top selling brands on the Internet are ProForm (very low-end quality), Smooth Fitness (excellent choice and factory-direct pricing) and Life Fitness (commercial use).


What stride length should I get?

The best tool we have seen to date is available here:  http://www.smoothfitness.com/ellipticals/strideselector.htm

Heart Rate Control

Using heart rate control to manage the level of your workout has become very popular on fitness equipment, particularly treadmills, elliptical trainers and exercise bicycles. The logic is that your heart rate determines the degree of your exertion while exercising, so you don't simply rely on your perceived exertion. On elliptical machines, the level of your heart rate will determine the degree of resistance.

You will now find heart rate control a standard feature on many elliptical trainers, in others it is an option. With wireless heart rate control, you attach a strap around your chest and your heart rate is fed to the console. The machine automatically adjusts resistance so that you stay within your target heart rate zone.

The programs available with heart rate control can vary. Some come with just one heart rate program, while high-end elliptical trainers like Life Fitness have up to five separate programs like hill training, intervals and extreme heart rate.


Would you please tell me more about the Adjustable Motion category?

Adjustable Motion ellipticals will very soon obsolete fixed-path elliptical trainers as we know them today!  The idea here is that the user will be able to make the machine go into multiple workout paths, resulting in as many as 12 completely different motions on one machine.  

It is a two-horse race for market share!  Right now there are two competing technologies:

Precor AMTPrecor has a brand new machine out with an $8100 price tag (ouch!) called the AMT (adaptive motion trainer).  It starts off as a stair stepper, and as you are stepping up and down and bouncing the footplates off of a rubber bumper, you can begin to push forward and take the motion into an elliptical path.  The cool thing about the AMT is that it has a user-defined path. This does sound inviting, however, the feel is not as fluid as a machine-defined path of movement in our opinion.  Only time will tell whether this AMT becomes the next big thing in clubs.

Agile DMTSmooth Fitness has taken on Precor in a big way with their new Agile Dynamic Motion Trainer (DMT)   The Agile trainer takes users through a workout that employs12 distinctly different planes of motion that can do things like tone the abs and glutes or reduce and tone the thighs.  The motions are controlledby a dynamite new patented thumb control system called Lite Touch™ which is located on the moving handlebars.  Early indications show thatthe Agile trainer is running away from the field in terms of consumer acceptance.  The $3500-$4000 price tag with online financing has made the Agile DMT the hottest selling cardio machine on the market.

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