The Best Ellipticals
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, and we’ve found the best for a range of budgets.
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The 3 Best Ellipticals
The Best Ellipticals: Summed Up
Precor EFX 222
No automatic incline
Why we chose it
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.
Posture is Paramount
Your body’s alignment during exercise on an elliptical is important. Slouch back just a little or hunch forward and you start to do more harm than good to your leg and arm muscles. One thing we really liked about the Precor was that the height and spacing of the various elements — the handles and pedals — helped to promote this proper posture for a variety of testers and their heights. We can’t stress enough the importance of posture when shopping for an ideal elliptical.
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.
Why we chose it
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.
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 machines we tested 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
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.
NordicTrack FreeStride Trainer FS9i
Excellent range of motion
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 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.
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.
How We Chose the Best Ellipticals
Drive system location
The location of the drive impacts machine size and ergonomics and comes in three styles:
- Rear drive ellipticals place the motor behind the pedals. This arrangement offers a natural-feeling stride comparable to jogging or running, and allows the user to maintain upright posture. Rear drive ellipticals tend to be more expensive and take up the most space. This is the elliptical style typically found in fitness clubs.
- Front drive ellipticals tend to be more compact. They encourage a stair-stepping motion and a forward-pitched posture. While front drive models are cheaper than rear drive, they also have more moving parts, which means more maintenance in the long term.
- Center Drive ellipticals are newer and tend to be quite luxurious, offering an exceptional range of motion. With their steep asking price, they typically come decked out with onboard entertainment and a wealth of fitness programming.
These drive placements generally align with three levels of price: mid-range, cheap, and deluxe. If costs were equal, we would say don’t bother with front drive. Its constrained movements don’t have the same comfort or fitness benefits as rear or center. But price can balloon dramatically, so we decided to bring in all three styles in order to find the best for every budget.
The engineering behind resistance — what happens mechanically to increase the difficulty of pedaling — makes for two more elliptical camps.
- Air Resistance utilizes your pedaling speed and a weighted fan to increase resistance — the faster you pedal, the greater the intensity. This simple design is by far the easiest to repair, but it’s generally dinkier than option No. 2.
- Magnetic Resistance is a more mechanically advanced way to control intensity, and operates by moving or manipulating the current of electromagnets. While magnetic resistance is expensive and requires professional repair, it also provides a smooth, quiet ride.
We decided to only consider ellipticals with magnetic resistance. Air resistance may be cheap (and generate a breeze), but the inconsistent and limited resistance doesn’t make for a great workout. High-quality ellipticals exclusively use magnets, which keeps the difficulty of every stride uniform.
The motion of your stride depends on the movement of the pedals: either sliding along a wheel-track or hanging in suspension.
- Wheel-track ellipticals have tracks that run along the bottom of the machine and anchor the foot pedals. These tracks control the length and path of your movement, and while you sometimes can adjust stride length and incline height, they are overall more restrictive and less ergonomic.
- Suspension ellipticals have no wheel track; instead, the foot pedals are suspended above the floor on jointed limbs. These machines tend to be quieter (no friction) and offer more freedom of movement. The stride length isn’t decided by the machine, but by you.
Less costly, more traditional ellipticals that have front or rear drives have wheel tracks. Advanced center-drive models offer suspension.
While some design choices will always provide for more natural movement, we expected that any worthy model would offer a satisfying stride length, smooth-sliding pedals, and arm handles that swung in comfortable unison with pedal speed. The best allowed us to naturally extend our arms and legs for a truly enjoyable experience.
Design and ergonomics
Exercise programming, and your ability to access it, makes a big impact on user experience. While the workouts most ellipticals offer are pretty similar (fat burn and hill climb are a couple of timeless favorites), the process of locating and switching between them varies enormously. We looked for consoles that were immediately understandable and allowed for quick access to both manual start and specific programs: We wanted to be able to go from powering on to powering through a workout with minimal button pushing.
A good elliptical should also keep everything in reach during your workout. We wanted to be able to comfortably access arm handles, controls, and shelving at any point during our workout. From the position of water bottle handles to the feel of changing inclines, we looked for ellipticals that could offer us a challenge without disrupting our workout momentum.
Guide to Ellipticals
How to find the right elliptical for you
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 ellipticals, 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.
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.
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.
Both, actually. Ellipticals provide weight-bearing exercise that can help burn calories. You’re also working both your arms and your legs, giving your body a good aerobic workout.
Unfortunately, no. An elliptical won’t sculpt or tone your stomach. You might need to incorporate some resistance training — free weights, medicine balls, weight machines. While an elliptical will make full use of your arms and legs, it won’t give you a chiseled six-pack.
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.
More Fitness Reviews
Looking for more fitness equipment? We’ve tested quite the range of products, and found top picks for a variety of exercise styles. Check out some of our other reviews below: