All Elliptical Crosstrainers are NOT Created Equal

When considering buying an elliptical crosstrainer, remember that they are NOT all created equal. Fitness equipment typically differs in specifications (length, width, speed, incline, weight, resistance mechanism, etc.) and models may also differ in quality of construction and components. Elliptical crosstrainers vary in these ways and also have many other factors that will affect a person’s exercise experience and results. Each of the following variables should therefore be considered when buying these machines.

People often gravitate toward an elliptical as their choice of exercise machine because they are trying to minimize the joint stress and pounding associated with traditional running. The general thought is that if there is no impact then the exercise will be easier on the knees, hips, back, etc. This is not always the case however, since poorly designed machines will put the body in very unnatural positions and add stress to the joints. Because of this, there are several key areas to look at when shopping for one of these machines.

Pedal Spacing

Everyone is a different size but all people walk one foot in front of the other and with some space between their feet determining the “width” of their stride. Every elliptical on the market has a fixed pedal spacing (or width) ranging from 1 ½ inches apart to 8 inches. My experience is that pedals spaced somewhere in the middle of this range seem most comfortable to the greatest number of people. 1 ½-3 inches is too close together for the human hip structure and 7-8 inches is too wide. For a while manufacturers were using pedal spacing as a marketing tool and were taking pride in having the closest measurement. But this eventually back-fired because people don’t feel comfortable walking – or pedaling an elliptical – with minimal space between their feet.  For example, if you look at your footprints after walking on the beach; it’s very likely that you’ll find there is between 3 and 5 inches of width in your stride.  Look for an elliptical machine that matches your natural stride in this way.

Stride Length

Sports Art ellipticals have a rear drive with adjustable strides between 17" and 26".
Sports Art ellipticals have a rear drive with adjustable strides between 17″ and 26″.

Ellipticals, for the most part, are designed to fit users of average height. It has been determined that people between 5’3” and 6’1” who are walking briskly have a stride length of around 20”. The original machines had strides as short as 17” but most currently being produced are 19.5” to 21” in fixed stride length. Additionally, several manufacturers now offer units with either manual or motorized adjustable strides. This feature allows the exerciser to elongate the ellipse to as big as 26” for a taller user or to simulate sprinting. It also allows for a shorter user to have a stride length as small as 17”.  This is also very useful for going in reverse while crosstraining because the hip flexor muscles are never as flexible as the hamstrings and glutes and therefore pedaling an elliptical backward will necessitate a shorter stride.  Again, find an elliptical that fits your natural stride and is comfortable to use. The more comfortable you are on the machine, the longer and more often you’ll use it.  And therefore you’ll more quickly achieve your fitness goals.

Upper Body Pivot Point

Most ellipticals on the market have moving upper body handles of some sort. Remember: these handles are always dependent in motion; they are attached to the pedals and move in tandem with them – regardless of whether any upper body effort is given to move them. The primary purpose of these arms is to elevate the heart-rate by involving more muscle activity. A secondary purpose allows the user to physically push and pull with their upper body muscles. This will take some of the energy requirement away from the legs and actively involve arm, back and chest muscles to truly “crosstrain” the body. An important observation to make when trying an elliptical is where the upper body arms pivot. A high pivot point has a very short and somewhat ineffective stroke. Also, by pivoting above the user’s waistline, these arms will cause the user to lean into the machine.  This shifts the bodyweight forward and onto the knees/toes.  If you’re on your toes while exercising, blood flow will be restricted in your feet, creating discomfort and causing you to cut short the length – and benefit – of the workout.  Therefore, seek a longer, lower pivoting arm for proper body positioning and exercise results.

Vertical Travel

The vertical rise of the elliptical path is a statistic seldom mentioned or compared but has importance when trying to find the proper machine. Good ellipticals will elevate the heart rate appropriately as well as effectively shaping and toning the glutes and thighs. However, a shallow ellipse with little vertical travel does neither of these things very well.  On the other hand, the vertical lift should not be so high that it feels choppy or staggered.  Be aware of this when trying to find the right machine for your workout.  Once again, your determination of what is a “comfortable” elliptical motion is key here.

Machine Length

LifeCORE's VST ellipticals are front drive with a space saving footprint and adjustable stride options.
LifeCORE’s VST ellipticals are front drive with a space saving footprint and adjustable stride options.

Elliptical crosstrainers have snowballed in popularity over the last 15+ years and there have been many good innovations in this time period. One constant that has never changed and cannot change is the overall spatial requirement for one of these machines. Many people are on the quest for a ”space saving” elliptical and some are now available.  But an elliptical will never feel good or move properly in too small of a footprint. It’s really very simple: to move in an ellipse involves both upward lift and horizontal travel. As a machine becomes shorter this movement suffers from restricted horizontal travel, shortening the ellipse. Eventually the movement becomes almost circular rather than elliptical and the result is an awkward and “bouncy” feel that causes the head to bob up and down like a boat on rough water and can even make the exerciser feel “sea sick”.

Front Drive, Center Drive Or Rear Drive?

Which is best?  The truth is that it doesn’t really matter where the internal drive mechanism of an elliptical is located. There are examples of good machines with all three of these systems. Length of lever arms and placement of linkages which determine the pedal motion will have a great effect on how an elliptical feels and operates. But where the “guts” reside has little relevance. The important consideration is not the location of the drive mechanism but rather, does the machine have a natural and comfortable motion.

Heel placement

A lot of people who are in the market for an elliptical are looking to take stress off their joints – specifically their hips and knees. After all, one of the elliptical’s greatest benefits is impact free weight bearing exercise. That being said, many elliptical designs seem to do exactly the opposite by pitching the user forward and rocking the heel up and down on each pedal stroke. Some companies have even erroneously stated that this heel lift is a better design. However, simple biomechanics and common sense prove these claims wrong. It is painful – and virtually impossible – to land on your toes as you walk with fairly long strides. This would cause shin splints and sore knees. Similarly, proper form for leg exercises like squats and lunges requires pushing through the heel to involve the posterior chain of the body: the glutes, calves and hamstrings.  This also keeps pressure off the knees. Always look for an elliptical with the least amount of heel lift for these reasons. If you are pushing with your large, calorie burning glutes and hamstrings while keeping your heels in contact with the machine, you will accomplish more while hurting less.

Ramp Adjustability

The Precor EFX series of ellipticals have an adjustable angle ramp for crosstraining a variety of different muscles.
The Precor EFX series of ellipticals have an adjustable angle ramp for crosstraining a variety of different muscles.

Some manufacturers take the crosstrainer to the next level by not only allowing the user to adjust resistance but also having the ability to place emphasis on different muscle groups by changing the plane of the movement. The “ramps” or “inclines” that accomplish this can vary in range from 15 degrees to as much as 40 degrees and, unlike a treadmill, the torso doesn’t have to lean forward to counter the incline plane. This allows for effective glute and leg toning as well as calorie burning with no stress on the back. By having a variety of choices such as low to high resistance, ramp angle adjustment, forward or backward movement, faster or slower tempo and upper body arm travel, you’ll never get bored or have the workout become stale by being forced to do the same old thing while exercising.

Sales of elliptical crosstrainers for home use have now roughly equaled those of treadmills.  This major fitness category continues to evolve and improve. Ultimately, the end user of a piece of exercise equipment should determine what “feel” is best for them. Ellipticals, as this article has pointed out, have many factors to consider when making this determination. For this reason, these machines should not be purchased online or sight unseen.  Take a “test drive” or two before settling on the unit in which you’ll invest your time and money in order to reach your fitness goals. I recommend trying several different brands and styles and/or going to a health club to experience a workout on a few ellipticals before making your purchase.  That way you can find the one that is right for you and your fitness needs.

Yours in health,

Jon Grove
Premier Fitness Source


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