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The Best Elliptical Machine

Last updated on January 21, 2024
Best Elliptical Machine

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You already know about the mental and physical benefits of exercise, but it’s tougher for some people to break a sweat. If you’re recovering from an injury, exercising with chronic pain or just new to working out, you’ll want a routine that’s simple to learn and easy on your joints. Elliptical machines are an accessible alternative to treadmills, stair climbers and stationary bikes.

Elliptical machines are standalone exercise machines that mimic the movements of running, stair climbing or skiing. They are very low-impact, so they won’t aggravate existing injuries to your joints, and you don’t need any special training to use one. 

“An elliptical machine is a fantastic piece of cardio equipment that is simple to use and great for burning calories,” says Stephanie Mansour, personal trainer and host of “Step It Up With Steph” on public broadcasting. “It’s great for people with knee issues, joint pain, hip issues, or anything preventing them from walking or running.”

Most ellipticals offer a full-body workout. You can push your legs, glutes and calves to the limit with the machine’s gliding pedals, then you tone your biceps, triceps and upper back with the elliptical’s ski pole-inspired handles. 

“Look for the arm handles,” says Mansour. “Do they move or are they stationary? If you’re looking for an arm workout, look for the arm handles that move.”

There are three major categories of elliptical machines. “Rear drive” ellipticals have a large flywheel behind the foot pedals. The pedals are usually in a track-and-roller configuration or they’re suspended on long arms between the drive wheel and handgrips. Some users say that rear-drive ellipticals feel more like natural walking or running than other types of ellipticals. They tend to have the longest “strides” of all ellipticals, with more lateral movement and less vertical motion. Many rear-wheel-drive models also offer an incline feature to add another layer of difficulty to your workout.

“Center drive” ellipticals have drive wheels in the middle of the machine. The pedals ride on cylindrical rollers and a crankshaft. Center-drive ellipticals have a rounder, bouncier and shorter stride than rear-drive ellipticals. 

The flywheel on “front-drive” ellipticals is stationed in front of the pedals. The pedals glide forward and backward on tracks. Front-drive ellipticals have much shorter stride lengths than rear or center-drive ellipticals. This makes them very compact, and the motion feels more like a stair climber. Front-drive ellipticals are more affordable than most rear or center-drive machines. 

There are a few other types of ellipticals that fall outside of these three categories. Some ellipticals don’t have a flywheel at all. These machines rely on the momentum from your feet, hands and arms to get moving. Sometimes they’ll have a support pad for your abdominals to help you keep your spine straight and maintain your balance as you exercise. These ellipticals are very lightweight and convenient, but they don’t have any digital settings to play with.

Under-desk ellipticals are portable machines with two pedal footpads on tracks. You can use them standing in place or sneak them under your desk for a workout at the office. They have very short strides, creating a round, energetic gait. They’re incredibly popular due to their convenience and easy setup.

Now that you know your elliptical basics, stride over to the Tips & Advice section for more detailed notes.

Our Picks For The Top Elliptical Machines

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Product Overview
Our Take
 Best Overall

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Elliptical Trainer

Don't Waste Your Money Seal of Approval

Sunny Health & Fitness

Magnetic Elliptical Trainer

Keep your body in shape with this easy-to-use elliptical machine. The handles feature pulse sensors, so you can keep an eye on your heartrate while you work out. There are also eight different resistance levels, which allow you to start out slow and work your way up to your desired intensity.

Overall Take

Budget-Friendly OptionThe economical price tag on this elliptical machine makes it accessible for most.

 Upgrade Pick

Schwinn Fitness 430 Goal-Tracking High-Speed Elliptical Machine

Schwinn Fitness

430 Goal-Tracking High-Speed Elliptical Machine

Whether you need to outfit a commercial gym or you simply want the best equipment in your home gym, this elliptical machine is a top choice. It's outfitted with an astounding 22 preset workout routines and 20 resistance levels. There are even two LCD screens to better keep track of your goals.

Overall Take

High-End ModelThis elliptical machine starts up quickly and runs quietly for a more relaxed workout.

 Fits Under Desk

Stamina Portable Quiet Elliptical Machine

Stamina

Portable Quiet Elliptical Machine

You won't have an excuse not to exercise with this elliptical trainer. It's small enough to fit under your desk for workouts at work, and it's portable enough to take along on vacation. You can break a sweat sitting or standing with this machine.

Overall Take

Small Yet MightyThis elliptical machine is a portable elliptical for tough workouts at home, at work or while traveling.

 We Also Like

body power Resistance Training Elliptical Machine

body power

Resistance Training Elliptical Machine

A smooth workout is what you'll get from this top notch elliptical machine. The machine also doubles as a stepper, giving you more options when planning an exercise routine. Users are sure to love the machine's compact design as well, especially if storage space is an issue.

Overall Take

Designed to Save SpaceThis elliptical machine uses a special curved crank technology that is easier on the joints.

Our Expert Consultant

Stephanie Mansour   
Certified Personal Trainer, Health and Wellness Expert

Stephanie Mansour, host of “Step It Up with Steph” on public broadcasting, has been coaching women for over a decade on how to lose weight and make it last. She has a Bachelor of Arts in communications with an emphasis on women’s studies and psychology from the University of Michigan. She holds certifications in life coaching, personal training, yoga and Pilates.

What to Look For

  • Elliptical machines can be your best friend if you’ve just started exercising or if you have problems with your knees, hips and back. However, you should always ask your doctor before you start or change a workout program, especially if you have joint problems or nagging injuries.
  • Ellipticals are for everyone! “The elliptical machine is so beneficial for people looking for a good form of cardio that anyone at any age could benefit from using it to exercise,” says Mansour. “Elderly people and teenagers alike can work this easy-to-understand machine to speed up their metabolism, burn fat, build muscle, and get their heart rate up.”
  • Your elliptical machine’s stride length is one of its most important features. A too-short stride length creates tight, awkward movement. A too-long stride length can pull muscles in your legs or hyperextend your knees. Your height determines the stride length you should look for. If you’re 5’3” or shorter, shoot for an elliptical with a stride length of 18 inches or less. If you’re 5’7” or taller, look for an elliptical with a minimum stride length of 20 inches. 
  • Many elliptical machines have a screen with digital controls. You can modify the resistance and incline, time your laps, track your distance, choose from custom workout programs and more. Go for an elliptical with many different settings options if you want to track your progress and change up your routines. 
  • Measure the length, width and height of your available space before you buy. Make sure to include estimates for any extra room you’ll need to accommodate moving pedals and handles. “Keep in mind that this is not a small piece of equipment; you’ll need to find a space for it in your home, office, basement, or wherever,” Mansour says. “You cannot fold it to make it smaller. However, this does mean that it’s very sturdy and durable and will last a very long time.”
    Fear not; you can almost certainly find one for a smaller space if you opt for a front-wheel-drive model or a portable under-desk version. 
  • Many elliptical trainers have heart rate monitors built into the handgrips. This isn’t as helpful as it sounds: handgrip heart rate monitors are notoriously unreliable. If you want to track your heart rate throughout your workout, use your smartwatch (or better yet, a chest-strap monitor). 
  • You should feel challenged at the mid-range settings on your elliptical trainer. That way you have room to increase the difficulty as you get stronger, and you can drop down to lower settings when you need a break. 
  • Check out your elliptical’s weight before you order it. Full-size elliptical trainers can be well over 100 pounds. Make sure that you have another person at home to help you if you need to lift it or assemble heavy parts.
  • All ellipticals should have a weight limit listed in their specifications. Make sure that your current weight falls under that limit before you buy. If you use a machine that you’re too heavy for, you could wind up damaging the elliptical or hurting yourself.
  • Mansour recommends testing ellipticals out in person by going very fast to make sure you feel sturdy on the machine. “If the machine feels or sounds wobbly, look for a sturdier machine,” she says.
  • Try to check out the assembly instructions before you buy your elliptical. You can find many instruction manuals with a quick internet search. Do you have all of the tools you need? Will you need a second person to “spot” you? Is it too complicated to put together without professional help? Answering these questions before you buy will save you time and stress later. 
  • Wipe down your elliptical regularly with disinfectant wipes or spray cleaners. Follow any included instructions for cleaning the pedal tracks and flywheel, too. 
  • Carefully examine the warranty and return policy before you click “Complete Purchase.” Ellipticals can be heavy and expensive, and you want to make sure you understand all of the fine print before you pay.

More to Explore

The world’s first elliptical trainer was introduced in 1995 by Precor. The fitness company was run by industrial designers who created some of the most widely-used workout machines around, and most of their designs were a smashing success. However, Precor’s former president Paul Byrne remembers one huge failure: the StretchTrainer. 

The StretchTrainer is a smaller piece of gym equipment that improves flexibility. In just 10 minutes you could stretch all of your major muscle groups, and the StretchTrainer’s design makes it impossible to hyperextend any muscle.  

So what went wrong? Byrne went all-in with the StretchTrainer’s advertising, shooting a pricey infomercial in Florida with professional actors and physical therapists. But the flashy ads didn’t attract individual consumers, and Precor took a huge hit in the revenue department.

Today, StretchTrainers are available in thousands of fitness centers across the United States. But you’d be hard-pressed to find one in someone’s home — they’re much more likely to have an elliptical machine.