The 30-Second Review

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.

Best Overall

Simple and smart, the Precor EFX 222 combines a silent motor, smooth motion, and streamlined functionality for $2,495. Together, these features make for a truly superior ride. It also lets you go from powering on to starting a workout in record time, and we found its range of motion to be more satisfying than other, more restrictive machines.

Best Budget

Horizon EX-59
Compact and affordable, this machine is minimalist in design but packs a workout punch. We found it sturdy, smooth-riding, and challenging for its price ($999). The relatively constrained up-and-down leg movement isn't as pleasant as what you'll find on more expensive machines like the Precor, but it's a big step up from anything else in the Horizon's price range.

Best Upgrade

A cutting-edge machine featuring springy, suspended pedals that allow for more human movement. If you want maximum freedom on your elliptical, the FreeStride ($2,999) was the best we found, allowing the user to march, run, or leap at will. However, its advanced design comes with a learning curve, and at times we struggled to navigate the extensive programming. The Precor offers a more traditional workout experience, but the NordicTrack is worth the money if you're looking for an elliptical, deconstructed and unbound.

The Best Elliptical Machine

A whole-body elliptical workout keeps your joints happy and your cardio health high. All our top picks offer ergonomic movement and positioning, with a wide range of resistance levels and workout programs. If you can afford to go big, opt for a machine with training perks, suspended pedals, and high adjustability, all of which bring comfort and motivation to your daily workouts. Looking to save? You’ll sacrifice some customization, but you can pick up extra portability.

For an overall smooth ride and easy programming, we love the Precor EFX 222. Its silky gliding motion and well-placed handles make the machine feel spacious and solidly constructed. Precor invented ellipticals back in 1995, and the company is still getting it right. Other ellipticals have programming quirks or non-intuitive controls that prove frustrating, but the Precor excels at providing the functional tools you need and omitting the features you don’t. In other words, we were able to put more attention into getting a good workout, and less into wondering how to trick the machine into behaving. With a retail price of $2,495, the EFX 222 is in the midrange of the ellipticals we tested, and we think it fits the bill for most people.

If you want a low-cost elliptical that won’t set you back several grand, look no further than the Horizon EX-59 ($999, though we found it for $650). Its spindly-looking frame had us expecting a jolting, low-intensity workout — instead, we were blown away by a velvet smooth ride capable of supplying impressive resistance. We also appreciated the ability to jump on, press “Go,” and immediately start our workouts — a blissful level of simplicity that most budget-priced equipment won't provide. The flipside: It doesn’t boast much in the way of extras, and has no incline at all.

Looking to break the elliptical mold? The innovative NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i ($2,999) features high-quality suspension pedals that double the stride length of traditional models. You have the option to move your legs in the ellipses shape that gives ellipticals their name, pump your knees up and down like you are climbing stairs, or stretch your legs out long, imitating a running stride. All three movements offer a smooth, bounding sensation like springing between clouds. Elongated motions are great for muscle development, so if you're looking to get the best possible elliptical workout, the FreeStride is in a league of its own.

Our Picks for the Best Elliptical

Best Overall

Precor EFX 222Intelligent design choices make this classic elliptical truly exceptional. A joy to ride.

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 similar, rear-drive NordicTrack SpaceSaver SE9i.

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.

Precor Heart for Elliptical Machines

Apart from a couple of resistence toggles, 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. Because why would anyone want to use an outdated touchscreen, if that’s all the price bracket offers? As one tester put it, “Unless it’s a screen that competes in size and clarity with my laptop, I don’t want it." Just about everyone has a state-of-the-art smartphone or tablet that can be put to work, if a virtual tour of Hawaii or a tv bingefest is what keeps you going.

Precor Stand for Elliptical Machines

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). 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 chore. 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 second only to the 28-degree Diamondback.

If no automatic incline is a dealbreaker for you, we recommend the Sole E95 — but only if you can find it at a discount price. The Sole’s MSRP is even higher than our super-deluxe, suspension-pedal contenders at $3,400. However, you can find it on Amazon and elsewhere for $1,800, and at that price it beats the Precor by $700.

Best Budget

Horizon EX-59Strong and smooth, this simple machine eschews extras and focuses on getting the important things right.

Minimalist by nature, this 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.

The tiny console is about half the size of a typical elliptical's, 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, lime-green 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, which is all that’s available on the similarly priced Nautilus and Schwinn models.

Horizon for Elliptical Machines

When we compared all three three front-drive ellipticals around $600, we were 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.

The greater quality of the Horizon is reflected in its MSRP, which is almost double that of the Nautilus and Schwinn. However, retailers like Amazon cut it down to size — from $999 to $650.

Best Upgrade

NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9iKeep your body surprised and your mind engaged with this incredibly engineered elliptical from the future.

The NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i is a next-level machine. An evolved elliptical, it falls into the alternative motion trainer (AMT) category and, once again, followed Precor into the genre. Precor produces only commercial-grade AMTs that cost $10,000-plus; NordicTrack and a few other manufacturers have repackaged the idea for home use. AMTs offer the motion of jogging, running, and climbing all in one superiorly ergonomic machine. The prices may hurt your eyes, but these ellipticals are certainly easy on the joints.

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, weighted down yet paradoxically weightless.

Freestyle for Elliptical Machines

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 excitingly freestyle ride, and the effort needed to keep your strides equal becomes part of your mental engagement with your workout. Depending on your preferred workout style, you might find this 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.

Like the lesser NordicTrack SpaceSaver, the FreeStride embeds incline and resistance controls in the handles. The FreeStride’s are even better, however, because they’re conveniently 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 inches.

NordicTrack for Elliptical Machine

Another upgrade from its SpaceSaver counterpart: the incredibly high-definition touchscreen. Its precise image quality made the same features we found in the SpaceSaver seem like an entirely new system. We ended up having trouble with the console buttons — we had to press them very hard, which isn’t always practical mid-workout — so we appreciated the extra usability of the touchscreen. That said, NordicTrack’s tendency to put iFit front and center continued to detract from our workout experience.

While the NordicTrack FreeStride reimagines the elliptical, the other AMT we considered, the Zero Runner, throws away the whole blueprint. Its unharnessed pedals stretch to an incredible 58” max stride length and allow for jogging, running, and strait-legged leaping. This is a wholly user-powered make, without any workout programming and hardly any resistance levels to speak of. If you like the sounds of a truly experimental piece of exercise equipment that will make you ask yourself “How do I run without a surface?” “What is running?” and “What are glutes?” then you may find yourself as enamored with this machine as some of our testers (especially the taller, more experienced runners).

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 (a lot is available even without shelling out for an iFit subscription).

There is also price consideration between the two models. The Octane Zero Runner carries an MSRP $300 above the NordicTrack FreeStride — $3,299 vs. $2,999. But while we didn’t find any retailers beating NordicTrack’s MSRP, we did find the Zero Runner for just $2,475. We liked elements of each, but for overall experience and ease-of-use, we believe the NordicTrack is the better buy.

Elliptical vs. Treadmill

It’s a question as old as time: Are elliptical workouts as effective as running? 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. “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.”

Physical therapist Mitch Owens 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.

Owens acknowledged that the constricted motion of on an elliptical isn’t exceptionally beneficial for muscle development, or that natural for the body. In fact, “Your hips go through a greater range just walking around, running, or climbing stairs.” Still, Owens was quick to point out that the movements we are built for — walking and running — aren’t necessarily the best calorie-burners. The very unnaturalness of the elliptical movement may be what makes it a surprising and therefore effective workout. Exercise variety is a benefit specific to ellipticals — change it up with pre-programmed routines, utilize forward and backward pedal movement, and vary hand positioning. Workout diversity is known to promote peak physical health.

Did You Know?

There’s more than one style of elliptical to love.

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.”

Vive La Résistance.

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% their max. You want a healthy margin for growth.

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. The benefits of an elliptical machine workout in terms of bone density is comparable to a run.

Give your elliptical some love.

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. Wipe the machine after each use with a non-toxic cleanser to keep bacteria at bay. And help your elliptical’s joints stay as healthy as they do yours: all moving parts of exercise equipment should be regularly lubricated. On a less-frequent basis, check the power cord for fraying. Bi-annually, unplug the machine and open the cover to check the drive belt for wear. If any of these parts seem to be functioning less than optimally, contact your manufacturer.

The Best Elliptical Machine: Summed Up

Elliptical Machine
The Best
Precor EFX 222
Overall
Horizon EX-59
Budget
NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i
Upgrade

More Elliptical Machine Reviews

We've been digging deep into Elliptical Machines for several years now, and have published additional reviews for specific needs. Check them out below: