The Best Elliptical Machines

The best ellipticals provide high-intensity, low-impact workouts with smooth gliding pedals and intuitive controls, requiring no guesswork. To find them, we consulted physical therapists and everyday buyers before testing the most promising models ourselves. Elliptical design has evolved in recent years from exercise chopsticks to complex machines, and we’ve found the best for a range of budgets.

The 5 Best Elliptical Machines

Best Feel
Precor EFX 222
Precor
Intelligent design choices make this classic elliptical truly exceptional. A joy to ride.
Pros
Comfortable workout
Thoughtful design
Cons
No automatic incline

Why we chose it

Comfortable workout

Our testers unanimously loved this machine. Smooth and silent, the Precor EFX 222’s streamlined design makes for easy riding and easy adjustments. What's more, testers of various heights all found the spacing to be ideal — the handles allow for a comfortable reach that doesn’t force the arm to become hyperextended on the push or compacted on the pull. While the pedals are confined to a track, we didn’t feel restricted like we did on the NordicTrack SpaceSaver SE9i.

Thoughtful design

Most of the ellipticals we tested either forced us to toy with a small, grainy touchscreen that functions half the time, or experiment with a keyboard of mysteriously labeled buttons. Precor pares it down to a refreshingly simple console. Its crisp digital screen shows all the usual calorie, distance, and heart rate metrics, plus your workout progress on a blinking graph. It was the only elliptical we looked at that gives heart rate both numerically and as a bar that charts against heart rate zones (warm-up, fat burn, cardio, high). Just one of Precor’s many simple-yet-genius features.

The only other thing on the console is a set of soft, sliding pincers that adjust to hold your device at face-height. This is such a brilliant no-brainer, we were stunned. As one tester put it, “Unless it’s a screen that competes in size and clarity with my laptop, I don’t want it." We appreciated Precor’s intelligent, low-key design choices in everything from the device holder to the foot pedals (long instead of wide, with a raised lip on all sides).

Points to consider

No automatic incline

One complaint: It’s not immediately obvious how you make the manual incline adjustments. There’s no color coding — everything’s in undifferentiated grey — and there isn’t much in the way of markings to tell you where to press, tug, or give up. Once you do locate the correct panel, however, it’s an easy task. And don’t let the fact that it’s manual rather than automatic deter you — you may have to DIY, but its 25-degree max incline is farther than most models go.

Best Budget
Horizon EX-59
Horizon
Strong and smooth, this simple machine eschews extras and focuses on getting the important things right.
Pros
Challenging workout
Thoughtful design
Cons
Pricing

Why we chose it

Challenging workout

Minimalist by nature, the pint-sized Horizon might not boast anything beyond the basics, but what it does provide, it aces — like a silent gliding track and powerful resistance. Its intensity levels number just 1-10, while most others offer 1-25, but we found we had to pump just as hard to gain every step. The resistance numbering turns out to be the perfect metaphor for the Horizon: It can do everything bigger and flashier ellipticals can do, but doesn’t brag about it.

Balanced design

The tiny console is about half the size of a typical elliptical, and we appreciated its pared-down simplicity. In our experience, more buttons and more options don’t substantially improve a workout, they just add complication. A small screen gives clear indications of the essentials: progress, time, calories burned, and heart rate. It also presents your heart rate numerically rather than as a bar on an intensity graph like most competitors.

We were also impressed that the Horizon’s diminutive size offered more solid construction and more intelligent controls. The taller options were both guilty of substantial shaking, especially when we upped the intensity and our effort. The gritty, rolling sensation of pedaling on them prompted one tester to describe it as “like riding a skateboard over a ridged surface.” The Horizon, on the other hand, remained sturdy and exceptionally smooth, no matter how much power we exerted.

Points to consider

Pricing

The greater quality of the Horizon is reflected in its MSRP, which is almost double that of the Nautilus and Schwinn. This is on the higher end of front-drive ellipticals, which don’t feel as natural as a rear-drive or center-drive model. However, retailers like Amazon often cut the price down to size.

Best Upgrade
NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i
NordicTrack
Strong and smooth, this simple machine eschews extras and focuses on getting the important things right.
Pros
Excellent range of motion
Thoughtful design
Cons
Not for casual exercise

Why we chose it

Excellent range of motion

The NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i is a next-level machine. An evolved elliptical, it falls into the alternative motion trainer (AMT) category. AMTs offer the motion of jogging, running, and climbing all in one superiorly ergonomic machine. Springy, suspension foot pedals allow for an incredible range of motion (not to mention a stride of up to 38”), from loping strides to concentrated jogs. Moving on the NordicTrack FreeStride felt a bit like like running through water: slowed down yet weightless.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of our testers struggled to get the hang of it. With so many moving joints, there’s the potential for each step to be different. But with practice, it becomes an exciting freestyle ride, and the effort needed to keep your strides equal becomes part of your mental engagement with your workout.

Thoughtful design

The FreeStride conveniently embeds incline and resistance controls in the handles. Better still, they’re set where your palms naturally fall — instead of reaching up to the crown of the handle, you can just wrap your fingers forward a couple of inches.

The NordicTrack also includes an incredibly high-definition touchscreen. Its precise image quality and responsive controls made the same features we found in other models seem far less usable. NordicTrack’s tendency to put iFit front and center detracted a bit from our workout experience, but overall our testers were impressed.

Points to consider

Not for casual exercise

Depending on your preferred workout style, you might find the more experimental design of the NordicTrack to be pleasant (if you like the concentrated focus of yoga), or frustrating (if you prefer to let your mind wander during workouts). It helps to keep an eye on the cadence (number of pedal revolutions per minute) to make sure you’re evenly working out every quadrant of your body.

Our testers felt the FreeStride Trainer offers a happy medium between the traditional elliptical and the workout of the future. We loved its springy, bounding sensation and the extensive line-up of workout programming, but for casual exercise, other models are a better match.

Guide to Ellipticals

Consider the style

Reclining or Recumbent Ellipticals are great for overweight or novice exercisers, says Todd Olson of Boulder's Healthstyles Exercise Equipment. “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."

Elliptical Gliders, unlike typical elliptical machines, keep your legs straight as you swing them back and forth. Your arms also tend to be more engaged in powering the glider’s motion, as their movement ratio is more or less equal. Gliders or gazelles are simple machines (like a pair of skis with attached poles) and come pretty cheap — typically less than $200.

Lateral-movement ellipticals let users move both forward and backward and side to side. This offers big benefits for athletes in sports with a lot of lateral movement (tennis, soccer, basketball) but it's good for everyone “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.”

Leave room for resistance

Gym Source advises upping the set resistance level on your elliptical by 10 percent each week. Make sure there’s plenty of overhead to do so when buying: The available resistance levels on your elliptical of choice should start challenging you at about 75% of their max. You want a healthy margin for growth.

Elliptical FAQ

Are ellipticals better than treadmills?

The answer is… almost. An elliptical can exert the heart and leg muscles in a manner similar to a treadmill, but the low impact design means you won’t feel like it. Your heels remain in contact with the pedals as you move, placing less stress on muscles and tendons and consequently giving you a lower RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion.) “People actually work harder than they perceive when training on a elliptical,” says strength and conditioning coach Derek Zahler, author of The Tactical Fitness Manifesto.

Physical therapist Mitch Owens of Seattle’s Union Physical Therapy describes low-impact vs. high-impact exercise as a trade-off: “Increase impact, get a better workout.” If you want to make your low-impact elliptical workout compete with running, Owens said, you have to “go crazy turbo on it.” Set the resistance to high and elongate your strides to maximize muscle engagement and calorie burn. Let go of the handles to focus on core stabilization.

Isn’t impact good for bone health?

Scientific advisor to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, Dr. Robert Recker told The Washington Post that many people overemphasize the importance of weight-bearing exercise in improving bone health. “Anything you do is good for the skeleton,” he affirms, and that includes even extremely non-weight-bearing exercises like swimming. While the bones of an athlete who frequently experiences impact may be denser, the difference in bone density between average exercisers is minimal.

How long will an elliptical last?

Most fitness equipment — ellipticals included — have a 10- to 20-year lifespan if well cared for. Frequently check that foot pedals, hand grips, and screws are tight and functioning. Aside from that, regularly lubricate all the moving parts of the elliptical lubricated and check the drive belt for wear bi-annually. If any of these parts seem to be functioning less than optimally, contact your manufacturer.

The Best Ellipticals: Summed Up

Precor EFX 222
Horizon EX-59
NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i
Best Feel
Best Budget
Best Upgrade
Drive Location
Rear
Front
Center
Touchscreen
Automatic Incline

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