The Best Elliptical Machine
Never step on a treadmill again
Ellipticals are best known as no-impact machines perfect for those with aching joints or injuries that keep them from pounding the pavement. But newer ellipticals have evolved, and while you still glide effortlessly (and painlessly) above the ground, they now deliver complex, intense, full-body workouts that leave treadmills in the dust. The key to finding the best: a hard look at the ergonomics to see which ones take into account — or can be customized to fit — your unique body.
The smoothest ride around, this elliptical intuits your stride length and adjusts to meet it as you're working out, while "converging" handles mimic that natural swing of your arms.
How We Found the Best Elliptical Machines
With the at-home exerciser in mind, we gathered data on 58 ellipticals, focusing our research and testing on versions that were both motorized and forward-motion. These are the most common types of ellipticals — although we did initially explore some other options.
Because motorized ellipticals are large and often come with an even larger price tag, at first glance their inexpensive and lightweight non-motorized counterparts seem to have the advantage. But even though non-motorized designs are streamlined enough that you can fit them in a closet or even under a bed post-workout, they aren’t so great to actually use.
Case in point: While the lower leg motion of a non-motorized elliptical trainer is similar to a motorized one, the simplest machines lack arm handles, a console, and in extreme cases, even a supportive frame. This makes them next to impossible to use with any speed or intensity: Our tester compared her workout to marching furiously in place — more Richard Simmons exercise tape than serious training.
There are also specialized categories of ellipticals, like ones that offer lateral and recumbent workouts. Lateral ellipticals let users move their legs not only forward and backward, but also side to side. “These machines offer big benefits for athletes in sports with a lot of lateral movement, like tennis, soccer, and basketball,” says Boulder-based body worker and assistant manager at Healthstyles Exercise Equipment, Todd Olson. Recumbent ellipticals are more closely related to stationary bicycles. “These are great especially for a beginner or someone who is overweight, as there is very little pressure on the knees and ankles as you pedal,” he explains.
Since these machines have more specific types of users in mind, we decided to skip them, keeping our focus on the ones designed to give the widest variety of users the widest variety of fitness goals: forward-motion machines.
To find the best, we started by designing a massive evaluation to compare specs, key features, and core functionality.
We wanted ellipticals suitable for lots of different people.
Unlike a treadmill, where you propel yourself forward and only require the machine to help you move faster or harder, an elliptical guides all movement — which means the more adjustable the stride, resistance, and incline, the more suitable a machine is for lots of different users and lots of different workouts. This is key for households with more than one exerciser (or one user who really wants to mix it up) and we focused on three key criteria.
“Ellipticals with a small stride range will feel uncomfortable for a taller user. Conversely, for a shorter user, a large stride length will also not fit correctly,” says Denver-based corrective exercise specialist and personal trainer Robyn Hull. Exercising on an elliptical that doesn’t allow your body to complete your full range of motion would be like running with your knees tied together in a three-legged race, yet there are a ton of ellipticals from pretty much all brands that have wheel tracks bracing their foot pedals (as opposed to suspended foot pedals) and don’t offer any customization to accommodate different heights and physiologies.
“Ellipticals that come with adjustable stride lengths allow multiple users of different statures to have a comfortable experience. Additionally, most standard ellipticals will not perfectly fit each person's unique stride length, so having the adjustable option is also great for single users,” says Hull.
Different users will require different resistance levels to keep their workouts challenging. Most machines have at least 20 resistance presets (including upper- and lower-body options) and will adjust incline up to 25 percent, and this is likely good enough — a machine with 30 or 40 resistance levels doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the better model. It all comes down to you, the exerciser: A short, lightweight runner who wants to do a grueling interval will require different adjustment options than someone who is taller or heavier looking to do the same workout.
How much weight an elliptical needs to accommodate is another thing that depends entirely on who is doing the exercising, but we were happy to discover you don’t have to sacrifice functionality or portability to accommodate a heavier user. While some machines, like the Best Fitness BFCT1 and Precor EFX line, max out at 250 pounds, all our top picks are able to accommodate at least 300 pounds — and one of our top picks, the SOLE E95, is good up to 400.
We ranked them on their home-friendliness.
Ellipticals are big and heavy, and it's worth noting that ergonomics and portability don’t go hand in hand. The machines that offer the most ergonomic adjustment aren’t going to be tucked away in the coat closet — and it's going to take some man power to move them from where they are parked.
Pretty much all 58 ellipticals we looked at were inch for inch with each other: about the size of a washer and dryer pushed together. That said, the most portable ones weigh less than 300 pounds and include wheels for easy transportation. A few, like the Vision Fitness X40 and the Horizon Evolve 3, one of our top picks, even fold for storage, making them solid choices if you're looking for a space-saving elliptical.
And we took a look at their features.
Before we started, we predicted that selecting the best ellipticals would come down to their dashboard features for training and entertainment. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case.
In fact, nearly every elliptical we looked at had the same features: a brand-specific training platform with a blend of cardio, resistance, and virtual personal training; the option to connect a device via Bluetooth; the ability to upload or download training information and data from third-party apps; and ample fitness programming and web-based fitness-tracking integration to keep even the most avid athlete busy and fit. When it comes to these features, it’s truly personal preference, although we’d be surprised if any really tipped the scales for better or worse. That said, we did expect a few bare-minimum features:
- Health metrics display. This is considered standard equipment on most ellipticals, whether it’s analog or digital. We wanted displays to show four basic metrics: heart rate, pace, mileage, and calories burned. Every single machine hit this bar.
- Compatible with an MP3 player. We’d like the option to listen to music without having to hold a phone.
- A variety of hand grips. Also considered standard equipment on most ellipticals.
At this stage in elliptical evolution, all three of these features are run of the mill and wouldn’t be difficult to find on any machine. What was difficult to find were the ergonomic considerations that created the safest, most thoughtful, and most versatile workouts. Those are what truly differentiate the best from the rest, and after culling our list of contenders to eliminate the lowest-scoring machines from our evaluation, we strapped on our sneakers and hit the gym to see which ones delivered.
We took each top-scoring elliptical through some workouts.
We sampled fitness programs and explored ergonomics. We crushed ourselves with interval courses, changed strides, hiked mountains, and met our virtual trainers. We found tiny muscles in our shoulders we didn’t know we had.
Because all exercisers have different preferences — from unique fitness goals to varying budgets — user experience played the biggest role in our testing. Our favorite machines were quiet and smooth; our movements felt natural; and we were inspired to push our limits with the fitness programming. Our least favorite machines made us feel like jogging robots; their controls weren’t as intuitive; and their displays were difficult to read (is that blinking light moving around the circle supposed to be me?).
Our Picks for Best Elliptical Machines
Octane Fitness Q47 The Octane’s ergonomic considerations nearly made us forget we were on a piece of equipment at all.
From the moment we stepped on the Q47 machine, we were immersed in the exercise: Instead of punching a button and jolting into a workout, it slid into motion and we were immediately striding weightlessly through the room.
The Q47 is a suspension-based machine, meaning the foot pedals aren’t moving along a static track. This alone isn’t particularly unique (one of our other picks, the Vision S7200, is also a suspension machine), but its onboard SmartStride system is a standout: It will actually intuit your stride length based on how fast you’re moving and automatically adjust to suit your body and movement. Want to walk, run, jog, and then hike, just like you might on a trail run? Hop on, start going, and the Q47 will make it happen without you having to punch in any new settings.
The ergonomic adjustments don’t end there: Converging Path Technology on the handles allows you to customize your upper-body movements. Most ellipticals’ handgrips just go forward and back on a linear path, which, while effective enough, can feel a bit robotic. The Q47 lets you grip anywhere on the rubberized handles to target different muscles; those handles then “converge” in front of your body for a dynamic range of motion that’s more in line with your natural arm swing.
If you do want to adjust your stride manually, there are buttons integrated into the handgrips so you don’t have to interrupt your flow to fiddle with the console.
The Q47 actually has two dashboard versions: Q47X and Q47XI. The X version is more basic — just the health metrics and 10 workout programs. For $500 more, the swankier XI can connect a tablet via Bluetooth to Octane’s free SmartLink app, which integrates virtual personal trainers; 30-, 60-, and 90-day workout plans; and 70-plus training courses into the machine.
The XI elliptical makes your iPad part of your workout.
SmartLink is also home to Octane’s CrossCircuit exercise programs, which will run you through exercises and intervals on the XI machine, as well as strength training with hand weights, body weight, and resistance bands that can attach via hooks on the back of the console or on the legs. (The XI even comes with a pair of resistance bands.)
Our advice: Download the app and see if you like what it has to offer before choosing between the X and the XI. This is especially true for Android users — Octane’s app is Apple-first, and there are mostly negative reviews for SmartLink in the Google Play store. (That said, at the time of this review, Octane is giving away an iPad Mini with any Q47 purchase.)
Both the X and XI machines encourage cross-training exercises, and are compatible with Octane’s stationary add-on shown here.
Offering lots of fitness options isn’t unique to Octane — far from it, in fact. Many other machines at its price range have seemingly endless programming. But this level of features coupled with the best ergonomic considerations of any machine we tested convinced us that we were getting the most comprehensive, body-natural workout possible.
Best Fitness Programming
Vision S7200 Talk to any personal trainer and they are bound to bring up this versatile machine with weight-loss-focused programming.
While exercising on the Octane felt freeform and dynamic, the Vision S7200 is more what you expect with an elliptical: not as quiet, not nearly as fluid, but still an excellent workout (and up to $1,000 cheaper). Both machines make it easy to change resistance, but on the Vision, stride is connected to incline (both increase together), whereas the Octane intuits the stride length that’s right for you based on your speed and movement. In the end, neither one is better for your body than the other — both ensure you (and especially your hips) are comfortable — but the Octane offers a lot more freedom.
The other big difference is the inclusion of rails on either side. This “cage” is personal preference: A beginner might like the added sense of stability, especially when mounting the machine, while others might feel boxed in. It doesn’t affect the performance of the machine beyond that, though — the Vision was still one of the smoothest rides we tested.
Where the Q47 features SmartLink and CrossCircuit programming, the Vision S7200 offers Sprint 8 fitness programming, an exercise protocol developed by King’s Daughters Medical Center that encourages intense 20-minute workouts three times a week to help exercisers trim fat, build muscle, and boost energy. True, all workout programs are going to help you achieve some fitness goals — but this one has proven results, which makes it especially appealing.
For those users looking for even more training options, the S7200 is compatible with Vision’s proprietary Passport programming that delivers an immersive exercise experience on your TV or tablet. Want to go for a hike in northern Italy? Pop Passport on a tablet or your TV and you're there — or it can at least make you believe you're in a video game version of "there," and even that is more engaging than staring at the console during your workout.
Best Budget & Most Portable
Horizon Evolve 3 Folding Elliptical What this lightweight model lacks in ergonomic personalization, it makes up for in portability.
If portability is your number one priority, the Evolve 3 is your elliptical: In one move, you can fold it in half and wheel it wherever you want.
That convenience should mean this machine is lacking a lot, but we were surprised at the smoothness of its ride and that its folding wheel track was as quiet as it was.
Even the programming is robust enough: Evolve’s display is simple and pretty; it integrates with the ViaFit workout app; and the console connects to the same Vision Passport system as the Vision S7200 so you can trot around the globe from your living room on your tablet or TV.
What the Evolve lacks is ergonomics: Its stride is set at the average 20 inches, so if you’re taller than average, shorter than average, or have any specific physical considerations, your workout won’t be nearly as comfortable. That said, for only $1,600, that might be worth it.
SOLE E95 This elliptical has more ergonomic considerations than the Horizon and is at lower price than some of our other top picks.
If you’re looking for more physiological consideration than the Horizon Evolve 3, but don’t care much about portability, we loved the Sole E95. While you won’t be able to change your stride length on the fly, the Sole does have a manual adjustment on its base — if you’re the only one using an elliptical at home, you can set the stride between 20-22 inches, which is ideal for leggier users. Other customizations include the angle of the foot pedals (great if you have high arches or flat feet), and you can adjust the incline and resistance using buttons in the handles, so you won’t have to let go while you’re cruising to change the challenge of your workout. And while this track-based machine is much louder than the suspension-based Octane and Vision, it’s quieter than the Horizon, even on high resistance and strenuous operation.
Did You Know?
Ellipticals come in two forms: wheel-track and suspension ellipticals.
The difference is straightforward. Wheel-track ellipticals have tracks that run along the bottom of the machine that anchor the foot pedals. These tracks control the length and path of your movement, and while you sometimes have the capability to adjust their stride (the SOLE E95 is a good example), overall they have less ergonomic customization than suspension ellipticals.
Suspension ellipticals have no wheel track; instead, the foot pedals are suspended above the floor. These machines tend to be quieter (no friction) and offer more ergonomic adjustment because they can typically be extended to any length, instead of just what the wheel track will allow.
Looking for a more specific workout? Try a lateral or recumbent elliptical.
Lateral-movement ellipticals offer big benefits for athletes in sports with a lot of lateral movement: tennis, soccer, basketball, etc. These machines are also great for all users “to counterbalance all the movement we typically do in the sagittal plane: forward and backward, but mostly forward,” says Olson. “Working our muscles in the frontal plane (side to side) helps stabilize and balance the musculature around our hips, pelvis, knees, and ankles. This can have the added benefit of easing any low-back issues.”
Olson also recommends exercising on a recumbent elliptical for overweight users or those just starting an exercise routine. “The seats on recumbent machines are usually a lot more comfortable and inviting for consistent use: There is very little pressure on the knees and ankles as you pedal,” he explains. For those who are hunched over during their daily work, a recumbent machine is likely better than a regular spin bike, and perhaps better than an upright bike if you can't maintain good posture for long. “With the lower center of gravity, recumbent bikes are also a little safer and more stable than uprights and spin bikes, and easier on the hands and wrists.”
In the elliptical vs. treadmill debate, ellipticals win out for effectiveness.
Propelling your body forward on a treadmill requires substantial effort, and that’s where serious calorie burning happens. That said, treadmills only do their one thing, whereas elliptical machines help cross-train — meaning if you use them to their fullest potential, ellipticals are more effective, especially when it comes to weight loss.
This cross-training is most noticeable in elliptical handles, which force you to push and pull with your upper body. You can imagine what it would be like to walk through waist-deep water with your arms at your sides in comparison to walking through the water while pumping your arms — that extra energy you’re expending is the same idea behind working out on an elliptical. Ellipticals also allow you to use a reverse stride, as if walking backward, to exercise different muscle groups. (Imagine doing that on a treadmill!)
On top of that, your perceived level of exertion while exercising on an elliptical is typically lower because there isn’t the same pounding sensation on the joints. “People actually work harder than they perceive when training on an elliptical,” says strength and conditioning coach Derek Zahler, author of The Tactical Fitness Manifesto. “Particularly where interval training is involved, athletes underestimate their output and heart rate zone. And since you’re typically using different muscle groups in concert on an elliptical than you would on another piece of equipment, and because you don’t feel overworked, you’re likely to continue to work harder, or exercise longer, to burn more calories and have faster weight-loss results.”
In a nutshell: If you’re aiming to lose weight, an elliptical is the way to go.
Regular maintenance will keep your elliptical working well — and for a long time.
Most fitness equipment — ellipticals included — have a long 10- to 20-year lifespan if well cared for. On a frequent basis, check to be sure that the foot pedals, hand grips, and screws on the machine are tight and functioning. Also, wipe the machine clean after each use with a non-toxic cleanser to keep bacteria at bay. On a less-frequent basis, check the power cord for fraying or wear. Bi-annually, it's a great idea to unplug the machine, open the cover and check the drive belt for wear. If any of these parts seem to be functioning less than optimally, contact your manufacturer for more information about their recommended lubricants, service protocol, and warranties.
The Bottom Line
The best elliptical machines will give you a whole-body workout that keeps your joints happy and your cardio levels high. If you have extra cash to burn, go for a machine with suspended feet and ergonomics that can be tailored to fit your body perfectly. Looking to save? You’ll sacrifice a lot of those customizations, but you could pick up some extra portability.
Octane Fitness Q47 The most ergonomically thoughtful elliptical we tested, with on-the-move stride adjustments and converging handles.
Make sure you have enough space. Even portable ellipticals like the Horizon take up a lot of room when they’re in action. You’ll want at least a 6-by-6-foot space and 8-foot ceilings — most ellipticals boost you about a foot off the floor while you’re exercising, so unless you’re 7 feet tall, that should be adequate.
Test more than one machine to assess your comfort. Pay particular attention to whether or not your movement feels inhibited during exercise, especially if you’re interested in a machine with wheel tracks.
Ask about delivery, warranty, and returns. Ellipticals are big and heavy, and they can be tricky to assemble. Make sure your seller is available to help you get it up and running, and to show you the maintenance ropes.
More Elliptical Reviews
We've been looking into ellipticals for a few years now, and you can check out some of our other reviews. They aren't consistent with our latest round of research (yet!) so be on the lookout for updates in the upcoming weeks: