If you’re looking to add a cardio option to your at-home gym, you may have considered buying an elliptical. These machines are a staple for good reason: They provide a great low-impact cardio option for people who don’t want to (or can’t) run. And if you have a quality elliptical machine, you can progress the intensity over time—via resistance and incline—when you feel ready, so you can continue to add challenge to your workout.
There are some things you should think about before buying an elliptical, though. Like with all other exercise machines, the way you plan to use your elliptical will help you determine what features are most important to you.
When you shop for an elliptical, it’s a good idea to have a list of things you want (more on that below), Tammy Whyte, certified personal trainer, RRCA running coach, and Equinox group fitness instructor, tells SELF. Ideally, you’d be able to test out the machines in person to see if the fit is comfortable and the stride smooth, as well as to play with the available features.
Due to safety reasons, though, that might not be feasible right now—and that’s OK! If you can only shop online, read as many reviews as possible. Look at all the specs on the site, and reach out to customer service to ask any and all questions you can think of, Whyte adds.
The space you’re going to use the machine in matters, too. “There are three types of ellipticals: front-drive, center-drive, and rear-drive,” Marcel Dinkins, C.S.C.S., personal trainer and group fitness instructor in New York City, tells SELF. This means that the drive system, which powers the machine, is either located at the front, center, or rear of the machine. “This factor will significantly affect the space that you need to allocate for the equipment, the loudness of the machine, the quality of your stride, as well as the machine’s ability to provide incline.”
For instance, center-drives tend to be the most compact and offer more stride variability, while front-drives tend to have fewer bells and whistles but are more cost-effective. And rear-drive machines are often quieter but more expensive. Again, the best machine for you is all going to come down to your priorities.
No matter what your preferences, there are some important criteria that experts suggest keeping in mind when shopping for an elliptical. For SELF’s product reviews, where we rigorously test and evaluate all kinds of wellness products to help you decide what’s worth buying, we wanted to know exactly what to look for in a quality elliptical machine. We spoke with Whyte, Dinkins, and Ava Fagin, C.S.C.S., a coach and class instructor at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City, to find out what the experts suggest. Based on their input, here’s what we pay attention to when testing ellipticals for reviews.
Elliptical Evaluation and Testing Criteria
- Stride length options: Multiple stride length options will make an elliptical more versatile. “The ability to vary your stride directly impacts your workout and changes the degree to which different muscles of the legs and even the trunk are engaged,” says Dinkins. For example, short steps mimicking climbing stairs will engage the quads more than longer strides, which will work more of the posterior chain—the hamstrings, glutes, and even the muscles of your back if your arms are involved, Dinkins explains. Check if you can change stride length via the console or if you do it manually during your workout.
- Resistance options: “Having multiple resistance options is important not only for workout variability but also for training progression,” says Dinkins. She suggests choosing an elliptical that has at least 10 levels of resistance. Anything less, and your ability to progress will top out really quickly. And since ellipticals have you moving on a fixed track, your ability to increase speed is limited, meaning that resistance (and incline, if the machine has it) is your best way to progress.
- Incline options: Adjustable incline isn’t a requirement, but definitely a nice feature to consider, says Whyte, “especially if you like a lot of variety in your workouts.” This is another way to change up the intensity and progress your workouts without having to move to a different machine.
- Adjustable handles: In general, handles are a good idea, since they give your upper body some work and movement instead of having you just hold onto the sides, says Fagin. Adjustable handles, in particular, can help you make sure an elliptical will work for your body build and size. “Check to see if the height of the handles can be adjusted, as you don’t want to be hunched over or overreaching for the handles because this will throw your body out of alignment,” says Whyte.
Ease of Use
- Easy and smooth transitions: Changing your stride or resistance, whether done electronically or manually, should be a smooth process. If they’re jarring or require you to stop abruptly mid-transition, that’s a no-go, says Dinkins.
- Well-positioned screen or shelf for phone or tablet: Most ellipticals have a dedicated spot for your phone, Whyte says, but if you plan to watch TV or follow along to workout videos, this is an important feature to look for. Similarly to other exercise machines, you want to make sure that you are able to place the screen at eye level so you’re not straining your neck up or down to watch.
“If you’re wanting to measure progress from day to day and have an objective way of knowing how hard you’re working, [metrics] are really important,” says Whyte. Watts (power), RPMs (number of rotations in one minute), resistance level, distance traveled, and time are all metrics an elliptical might show you. Other features you may see, but are not as important: heart rate and calories burned. Whyte says that since both are only going to be rough estimates, if you’re interested in these metrics it makes more sense to track them with a wearable, like a watch or a heart rate chest strap.
For some people, this may be important, Whyte says. (Hello, apartment dwellers!) Like any other exercise machine, you want to make sure your elliptical isn’t so loud that you’ll avoid using it for fear of interrupting your roommates or neighbors.
Pre-programmed workout options are not essential, but for many people, they are high up on the priorities list. Some elliptical brands have just a handful of pre-programmed workouts; others have as many as 30, Dinkins says. “Having a variety of programs allows you to create some variability in your training, which can prevent boredom and again ultimately decreases the chances of plateauing too soon,” she adds. These can be things like speed interval workouts, hill climbs, or programs that help you hit a certain distance or time.
“Ellipticals are lagging in the on-demand fitness space,” Dinkins says. Only a handful of ellipticals come equipped with screens ready to stream live and on-demand workouts. If that’s important to you, look into if there’s an additional cost, how easy the interface is to use, what the workout options are, and if you’ll actually use them, Whyte recommends.
How SELF Tests Ellipticals
We evaluate exercise machines by using them consistently over a set period of time, ideally at least three weeks.
Experts Consulted for These Guidelines
- Tammy Whyte, certified personal trainer, RRCA running coach, and Equinox group fitness instructor
- Marcel Dinkins, C.S.C.S., personal trainer and group fitness instructor in New York City
- Ava Fagin, C.S.C.S., coach and class instructor at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City
Product Reviews Using These Guidelines