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Elliptical Buying Guide: Choose the Right Elliptical for You

by Gregory J. Florez

Elliptical Trainers is one of the fastest growing fitness categories. Elliptical training combines the best of stair climbing, cross country skiing and running in a low impact, variety rich workout. It is a highly effective cross training activity that is viable for anyone from beginning exercisers to elite athletes.

It is worth noting that Precor® was the first to introduce elliptical trainers to the world in 1995 with the Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer™ (EFX®).

Now elliptical trainers are a mainstay in cardiovascular equipment.

Shopping for Your Elliptical

  1. Consider your goals and the goals of other potential exercisers in your home before you start your search. Most families will have more than one individual that will likely be using the equipment. Runners will benefit from the non-impact movement as a complement to their running. Older users will appreciate the fluidity and ease of the motion.
  2. Start your shopping by researching online to find the equipment that interests you. Find out the top rated brands through rating websites, product reviews and more. You should visit the manufacturers’ websites and even their Facebook pages to see who is using their equipment. Often the best brands also make commercial equipment used in gyms and health clubs.
  3. Find out where you can purchase the equipment once you find a few companies and models that interest you. Most can be purchased online through the manufacturers’ websites or other shopping sites and through retail stores. For retail stores, better quality equipment is sold through specialty fitness retailers, not discount stores.
  4. Think about the level of service that you want. The highest level of service will come from a specialty fitness retailer. Purchasing online is often less expensive, but you will need to do more research beforehand about which products you want, and often have to assemble the equipment yourself when it arrives – though this varies by shopping sites.
  5. Authorized specialty fitness retailers. Make a list of local retailers who specialize in fitness equipment and which brands they carry. Many dealers exclusively sell certain brands. This is why it is important to do your research ahead of time. Specialty fitness dealers will likely have a more educated staff, higher quality equipment and the ability to assemble and service your product more effectively. Some have financing options. Sometimes these dealers will also have relationships with personal trainers to help you start your program.
  6. Test the equipment. If you choose to purchase online, try to find a way to test the equipment through a friend, gym, spa or hotel. The best manufacturers often sell commercial products, so you can get a feel for their equipment somewhere else. Note that it isn’t really fair to retail sales staff for you to go into their store, take up their time then go purchase cheaper somewhere else.
  7. If you go to a store, be prepared to test the equipment in the manner in which you will be using it. Almost any equipment will feel and seem adequate if you test it for 5 minutes. It's only when you begin to put an elliptical through its paces, using different programs, or exercising in both forward and reverse motions that you will start to notice major differences in quality and comfort. Plan on wearing comfortable exercise clothes and walking or jogging shoes.

Must Haves

Adjustable incline. This is a feature that makes this product a true cross-trainer. Adjusting the incline varies the focus on muscle groups and provides a great way to add variety to the routine. It’s a feature worth finding since that added variety can reduce boredom, enhance motivation, and keep you from reaching an exercise plateau.

Smooth elliptical motion. The elliptical motion provides the closest simulation to walking and running available without the impact. An important factor to look for here is the feel of the motion. Some machines have a "kick" in their motion where the heel comes up off of the platform. You don't want to feel any "kick" or "bounce" in your motion. Find a machine that provides a true elliptical movement pattern for both forward and backward directions.

Natural movement. How does the movement "feel?" This is a critical question to ask when trying an elliptical. Does the product feel smooth? You can only determine this by trying several types. Spend at least 20 minutes exercising on a unit. You should not feel unusual stress on your knees or hips. Also when using the unit, you should be able to exercise in a neutral position without reaching for the handrails or bending over.

Dependent upper body motion. Some machines have upper body levers to add an upper body workout element. If you are not strength training, having upper body movement can help accomplish some upper-body strengthening. Keep in mind that if you are testing an upper and lower body elliptical trainer, make sure that both motions are comfortable and intuitive. You should not have to lean to complete the range of motion or otherwise compromise your position. Test different machines to find what is most comfortable for you.

Adjustable resistance. Good units will have a broad range of resistance that is adjusted electronically. Look for a system that makes resistance changes simple and intuitive so that interval training sessions can be easily incorporated into your routine.

Forward and reverse motions. The ability to move in a forward or reverse motion adds variety and challenge to the workout. This also greatly reduces the risk of repetitive use injuries common with some treadmill and stair climber users. Most ellipticals have this option.

Quiet operation. Look (and listen) for a product that feels smooth and is quiet in operation. A truly well designed elliptical trainer should be relatively silent at all intensity levels.

Electronic features. Many ellipticals have a spectrum of features to lure buyers ranging from fans and interactivity, to displaying calories burned. Consider what is important to you and how you will use it. The key is to look for electronic features that are both motivating and challenging to YOU. Look for an electronic package that will grow with you as you progress and one that will accommodate the needs of multiple users.

Programming and motivation

The basics from a fitness point of view are: elapsed time, stride, and incline. Having a measure of calories burned can also be very motivating. Consider what additional information or features will help keep you motivated day after day. Some of the most useful added features include:

Heart Rate interactivity. Measuring your heart rate (HR) is the surest indicator of progress and intensity. Everyone has a target heart rate range which they should work within. Too high and you risk injury. Too low and you won't reach your goals. The best ellipticals have heart rate control programs that will actually adjust your workout variables while measuring your heart rate to make sure that you stay within this range. You simply enter the desired heart rate and the machine will respond accordingly throughout the workout.

Pre-set and custom programs. One of the biggest reasons people quit a program is boredom. Having a product that provides a myriad of programs will help keep a program fresh and full of variety. The ability to customize a program for your specific needs is also a great feature. Look for some research behind the programs.

Custom Courses. The best products will "remember" your favorite workouts or allow you to create your own custom course. Look for the ability to create and store custom courses in order to duplicate them again.

Ease of Use. In the world of personal training we have found over the years that many clients are intimidated or simply frustrated with the amount of features and buttons on electronic equipment. It becomes another obstacle to regular exercise. The best products keep it simple. It should take no more than 2 to 3 steps to launch a program. Look for an elliptical that has a manual or "quick start" mode. These modes require only 1-2 pushes of a button and you go.

Variety. The key to success in any exercise program is consistency over the long haul. If you find a product that can add variety and challenge to your routine, you are more likely to stay motivated and experience success in reaching your goals. Minor tweaks to one or more of these variables will keep your routine fresh and challenging.

Safety and Maintenance

Safety features. Look for other safety features that secure your equipment when it is not in use, such as locking features to keep the pedals from moving or the machine from being started.

Maintenance. Look for a product that is maintenance-free. A well-designed unit takes normal wear and tear into account so you don't have to.

Warranty. An elliptical is an electronic piece of equipment. A quality unit is a long-term investment that, with regular use, will require service at some point. Most quality units will offer a lifetime warranty on the frame. When it comes to other components, look for a warranty that provides for at least 1 year of labor and a minimum of 1-3 years coverage on parts. Ask what components are covered. Be sure your warranty includes electronics and other key components.

Important: If you purchase from a retail store, does the dealer from whom you are purchasing have their own service staff who are trained and authorized by the manufacturer to service your equipment?

About the author

Gregory Florez, founder and CEO of First Fitness, Inc, is one of the country's leading experts in several health and fitness categories including: personal coaching and training, product trends, and fitness technology. His companies, First Fitness, Inc. and FitAdvisor.com have worked with over 40,000 executives and employees of Fortune 500 companies around the world, including DuPont and Intel, to improve the health of their valued employees over the past 22 years.

Mr. Florez's FitAdvisor Health Coaching Services were rated as the top coaching service by the Wall Street Journal. He has published several books, served as a board member for IDEA, and is a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. He is featured regularly as a writer, speaker, and expert in industry publications and conferences including: Health and Fitness Business, The American College of Sports Medicine, Club Industry, and consumer media, such as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Men's Health, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and Smart Money magazine. He is also a featured columnist for Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro magazine, and The American Council on Exercise's Professional website. Gregory is a former college and Nike sponsored athlete and participates in a variety of endurance athletics.