Elliptical trainers are the younger and less common cousin of the home exercise bike, but their popularity has been growing in recent years. Like the exercise bike, they offer all the convenience of working out at home and break down some commonly-cited barriers to working out.
Ellipticals simulate the acts of stair-climbing and hill-walking, which are some of the most potent, low-impact ways to work out. This makes ellipticals suitable for a wide range of users, from people just starting out on their fitness journey to fitness enthusiasts. That also means there is a wide range of ellipticals on the market, which can make choosing the right one tricky.
In this guide, we look at what ellipticals are and how to choose a model that’s right for you. We’ll also give you our top picks for the best ellipticals of 2020.
Our Top Picks: Summary
- Best Overall: Sole Fitness E35
- Best Budget: Schwinn 470
- Best Features: Precor EFX 225
- Best for Small Spaces: NordicTrack Spacesaver SE9i
The Best Ellipticals: Our Top Picks
Why We Picked It
For our Best Overall elliptical, we looked for something that balanced cost, features, and accessibility, which led us to the Sole Fitness E35. It’s a great all-rounder with some excellent features.
This elliptical has a 25-pound flywheel and offers 20 levels of resistance, which will work well for users at a variety of fitness levels. The drive system can work in both forward and reverse settings, and the ramp angle can be adjusted from 0 to 30 degrees for a tougher workout.
The E35 also comes with a chest strap heart rate monitor and a grip heart rate sensor built into the handles. The E35’s 7.5-inch LCD display is readable and the console is easy to use. The console also features a built-in fan, sound system, and a holder for a water bottle.
The Sole Fitness comes with the following warranty: lifetime for the frame, 5-year on electronics and parts, and 2-year on labor.
Keep in Mind
The LCD display isn’t as advanced as the consoles available on some models, though it keeps things simple and legible.
In a Nutshell
- 20 resistance levels
- Ramp angle of 0-30 degrees
- 7.5-inch LCD display
Why We Picked It
If you want the benefits of an elliptical trainer without breaking the bank, then the Schwinn 470 could be the ideal purchase for you.
The Schwinn is an inexpensive model with a great range of features. It offers 25 levels of resistance, which will suit both newcomers and experienced walkers. The main console comes pre-programmed with 29 workout programs with a variety of different aims to tailor your workout.
Bluetooth connectivity allows the Schwinn to sync with Schwinn’s Trainer App and other fitness apps, as well as the free downloadable Run Social app, which comes with 27 pre-programmed real-world routes.
The Schwinn also includes a media shelf, as well as an MP3-compatible input port and USB media charging. An adjustable fan helps walkers keep cool during their routines.
Keep in Mind
Although a good entry point for new users, some users report that the lowest resistance levels may still pose a higher challenge than expected.
In a Nutshell
- 25 resistance levels
- Bluetooth connectivity
- 29 workout programs
Why We Picked It
Advanced features can really upgrade a workout, which is why we’ve selected the Precor EFX 225 for our Best Features category.
The Precor brand has been making ellipticals for over 20 years. That experience shows in the design of this model, which is adapted from Precor’s commercial line. The EFX features 10 preset workouts and 16 levels of resistance, so you can focus on particular workout objectives. Two sets of handlebars, one moveable and one fixed, allow users to switch between different workout types with ease.
The EFX can store IDs for two users, allowing your household to switch between different settings profiles. The console can track a wide array of vital stats, giving you control over your workout regime.
Keep in Mind
While the EFX is feature-rich, this is reflected in the price, which won’t suit buyers on a budget.
In a Nutshell
- 16 resistance levels
- 10 preset workouts
- Can store two ID profiles
Why We Picked It
Not everyone has space for a home gym, which is why we made sure to look for a smaller, space-saving elliptical, and the NordicTrack Spacesaver SE9i was our top choice.
The NordicTrack has a great space-saving design, allowing you to fold the vertical elements of the machine down to create a small footprint that can then be stored in a spare corner of your home.
With 24 resistance settings and an 18-pound flywheel with magnetic resistance, the NordicTrack feels smooth, quiet, and responsive in use. The resistance level can be adjusted with a button press using the bright, 7-inch HD screen. An automatic fan keeps you cool while you work out, and there’s also a slot above the screen suited to holding a tablet device.
The NordicTrack also comes with a wireless iFit Bluetooth chest strap along with built-in heart rate sensors in the handles.
The NordicTrack is protected by a multi-leveled warranty, with 10-year coverage for the frame, 2-year for parts, and 1-year for labor.
Keep in Mind
Although the NordicTrack folds away for easy storage, it does have a large footprint when in situ.
In a Nutshell
- Space-saving foldable design
- 24 resistance settings
- HD screen
How We Chose the Best Ellipticals
We looked at several key areas to choose the best ellipticals, including price, settings, adjustability, and customer reviews. Here are some of the areas we used to assess each elliptical, and how they affected our rankings.
Settings allow elliptical users to exert control over their workouts and gain the full benefits of the machine. We looked at the settings on offer for each machine, including resistance levels, incline settings, and different workout modes.
We placed a special emphasis on machines that allowed users to adjust their preferences automatically, as we believe an exercise machine should make things as easy as possible for the user. This means users won’t have to waste workout time fiddling with settings.
We noted especially high-tech features where included, but we don’t consider these an essential aspect of a quality elliptical machine. These often come with an associated price tag that can put them out of reach of some shoppers, and the elliptical may have to work harder to justify its value with these features included.
Programs allow users to quickly move between different workouts with ease, so we prioritized machines that offered at least a few built-in programs.
However, programs are a nice-to-have feature on an elliptical, not an essential one. For most people, a few basic programs will be adequate for their everyday workouts. Machines with a large list of built-in programs often have a higher price tag, which makes them better suited to enthusiasts or users looking for an upgrade on their existing machine.
Exercising places a lot of demands on the body, and each body is different. In practice, that means two people can use the same elliptical and have a different experience.
That’s why adjustability is an important trait of a high-quality elliptical. We looked for ellipticals with adjustable stride length and other adjustable elements, selecting for machines that allowed users to tweak the experience to their specific needs.
To assess each model’s value, we looked at its price and weighed it against the features and build quality on offer. Features justify a higher price, as does better durability and build materials, but this can also place a machine outside the budget of new customers.
Primarily, we looked at whether the machine reflected a good investment—such as whether the price delivered the equivalent value and whether the machine was robust enough to last.
Customer reviews provide a key piece of information when assessing the quality of an elliptical, as they reflect how the machine performs in everyday use. A machine that looks good on paper may fail the home usage test, so we keep an eye on the reviews to note how people feel about the product. This also allows us to highlight any notable quirks, such as whether the machine is noisier than competing products.
What is an Elliptical?
While ellipticals may be less common in homes than their older cousin, the exercise bike, they have become widespread in recent decades. Like exercise bikes, they offer a way to exercise without leaving the comfort of your home and dealing with other barriers, like gym membership costs or adverse weather.
An elliptical simulates the experience of walking activities, like power-walking or stair-climbing. The machine consists of a set of pedals and a flywheel or two, attached to a base unit and with a center console and handlebars. Users mount the pedals and walk in place, while the machine provides resistance.
Ellipticals are a low-impact way to exercise a wide variety of muscle groups and improve your cardiovascular health. As a low-impact exercise, elliptical walking places relatively few stresses on the body, and can be more gentle on the knees than walking outdoors. This makes an elliptical well-suited to people with limited mobility or who may be just starting on their fitness journey, though the levels of resistance on offer can keep pushing even advanced users.
Who Should Buy an Elliptical
Most people can benefit from using an elliptical, as they provide an accessible path to better health. They may be particularly appealing to people who experience significant barriers to exercising, like existing health problems, or a lack of suitable local venues.
Thanks to their adjustable levels of resistance, ellipticals can work for people at a wide range of fitness levels. As fitness improves, users can simply adjust their resistance to make the workout harder and avoid plateaus.
Ellipticals won’t necessarily work for everyone, however. One of the primary drawbacks is a practical one: ellipticals can be expensive and have a relatively large footprint, which makes them poorly suited to people on a tight budget or those lacking space in their home.
Serious fitness enthusiasts can still benefit from an elliptical, but they may prefer a treadmill for more intense workouts and for training running-specific elements, such as maintaining form.
An elliptical can present more physical challenges than alternatives like the exercise bike. If you have limited mobility or suffer from weight-related problems, you may not have the balance or stamina needed to complete a full routine.
Types of Ellipticals
Ellipticals come in three different design styles, each with their unique pros and cons.
- Front-drive: Front-drive designs have the flywheel located at the front of the machine, which places the center of gravity further forward and creates more of a climbing sensation when walking. This can range from an uphill to stair-climbing experience, varying from machine to machine. One advantage front-drives offer over rear drives is that they keep the pedals clear, so users with limited mobility don’t need to climb over the machine to mount it.
- Center-drive: Center-drive ellipticals are typically the most compact option on the market, as the design features a flywheel next to the pedals, making the overall footprint more square. Center-drive ellipticals have a neutral center of gravity, which allows users to use their natural gait. As the newest style of elliptical, center-drives aren’t as widely represented on the market, so your model choice may be more limited.
- Rear-drive: Rear-drive ellipticals are the opposite of front-drive designs, with the flywheel located at the rear. This pulls the center of gravity back toward the middle of the machine, so, like the center-drive, they allow a more natural gait. A notable drawback of the rear-drive elliptical is that users will often have to step over the machine to mount it, which can be impractical for users with limited mobility.
What to Consider When Choosing an Elliptical
When choosing an elliptical, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind, both to choose a quality model and one that works for you. Here are a few things to think about.
Although designed to work in the home, you’ll need to have enough space available to use your elliptical. They have a larger footprint on average than an exercise bike, and often larger height requirements, too, which may not work well in properties with low ceilings.
If the machine’s size is likely to be a problem for you, then be sure to carefully check each model’s measurements before you buy. Some models are foldable, allowing you to store them when they’re not in use, which can reduce the space needed.
When exercising, you want to keep the focus on your routine and only feel the burn where you want it. Choosing an elliptical with the right ergonomic options for you will help you to achieve that. For this, you’ll want to take into account your body type and overall level of fitness.
Many ellipticals allow you to make adjustments to suit your individual needs, but some elements, such as the distance to the handles, might be fixed. If so, consider your specific needs, such as your mobility, weight, and height when choosing a model.
Ellipticals exist at a wide range of price points, and higher price points typically come with more advanced features. This can include everything from better console screens and stat tracking to more settings for your exercise program. Some ellipticals also feature Bluetooth connectivity and may work with companion apps.
When used incorrectly, an elliptical can be dangerous, particularly in houses with pets or children. If you live in an environment where non-users will be coming into contact with the machine, then you may want to opt for a model with additional safety features to protect your family.
Elliptical trainers are typically more expensive than exercise bikes, so budget-conscious shoppers may want to shop around for the best deal. Ellipticals can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands, so you should be able to find something to suit your budget.
However, it is important to note that cheaper ellipticals will not only lack features but may also suffer in terms of build quality. Ellipticals work via complex mechanical actions, so a poor-quality build will become apparent quickly.
Tips for Using your Elliptical
To get the most out of your elliptical, you should take the time to familiarize yourself with good elliptical technique and keep a few elements of good practice in mind. Here are a few things to consider:
- Safety: Take care when mounting and dismounting the elliptical and be sure to do it as the manufacturer instructs. If you have children or pets, we advise choosing a model with additional safety features, as an elliptical can be dangerous when misused.
- Protect your body: If you notice signs of muscle or back pains beyond the expected “burn” of your routine, then make adjustments accordingly. This may mean your machine isn’t set up quite right for your ergonomic needs.
- Storage: Whether it’s in situ or stored away, make sure to keep your elliptical somewhere you can access easily. One of the benefits of a home exercise machine is the way it knocks down barriers to working out, so don’t impose them yourself by storing your machine in an out-of-the-way spot.
- Vary your workouts: To avoid plateauing or overworking certain muscle groups, be sure to vary your workout. Ellipticals can also go in reverse, which will change up your routine and give you a more even workout.
If you’ve found this guide helpful, be sure to check out some of our other exercise equipment guides.
- The Best Treadmills
- The Best Home Workout Equipment
- The Best Exercise Bikes
- The Best Leg Exercise & Workout Machines