Elliptical trainers offer an intense, but low-impact workout
An elliptical trainer provides a workout that resembles a combination of walking (or running) and climbing in place. Ellipticals feature oversized pedals that move with the motion of your legs. Many people like ellipticals because they are easier on the joints than walking outside on a hard surface or running on a treadmill. You can go as fast or slow as you'd like on an elliptical machine, and in either forward or reverse to vary your workout. In addition to giving you a great cardio workout, most elliptical trainers have moving handlebars that provide full-body resistance as you pedal in place. One great feature of a home elliptical is that it is very quiet, so you won't disturb your downstairs neighbor -- a big plus for apartment dwellers.
Many people use ellipticals in a home gym alongside other stationary workout equipment like treadmills, exercise bikes and stair steppers, all of which we cover in separate reports. All of these exercise machines have different functions and purposes, and many people who prefer working out at home like having a circuit of exercise options handy, or just like having a machine for everyone during family workout sessions.
There are two primary types of elliptical trainers -- rear-drive and front-drive. Some users feel that front-drive elliptical trainers give them a slight forward lean, while rear-drive elliptical trainers let them remain more upright. Rear-drive elliptical trainers are more common in commercial settings, while front-drive elliptical trainers are the most common type sold for home use.
In addition, if space is a concern, you can find a handful of compact center-drive elliptical trainers. Center-drive designs position individual drive systems to either side of your feet, providing a relatively tiny footprint. One thing to note is that the pedaling motion of a center-drive elliptical is different; these work more in a swinging pendulum-style motion, rather than the forward, almost circular stepping motion of rear- and front-drive styles.
Which elliptical is right for you?
There are two main factors that will influence your home elliptical purchase: price and available space. Elliptical trainers can be extremely expensive -- close to $10,000 in some cases. Those gym-quality ellipticals are the best you can buy, and usually come with white-glove service as well, but, realistically, they're out of most people's price range. Fortunately, there are many terrific elliptical trainers for home use that sell for just a fraction of that price.
Full-sized elliptical trainers. In our research, we found plenty of really good ellipticals in the $600 to $1,700 price range. Of course, a sub-$1,000 elliptical won't have quite as many bells and whistles as a pricier machine, and it will likely have lower user weight limits, so a machine in that price range won't be a good fit for heavier users. However, if you're an average weight person (300 pounds or less) and don't need multiple programs and user profiles, you'll likely be very happy with a cheaper machine. If you like the bells and whistles or need a higher weight limit, an elliptical priced at $1,000 and up will be nearly as sturdy as anything you'll find at your local gym. All of the full-sized ellipticals we cover in this report have high owner satisfaction and are offered by companies with excellent customer service track records -- always a huge plus with any large home fitness machine.
Compact and portable elliptical trainers. If you simply don't have the space for a full-sized elliptical, we found a couple of very highly-rated home ellipticals that give you a great workout, but have a relatively small footprint. One drawback is that these elliptical machines are designed to have one, relatively low workout level. However, users who are just trying to move more, who describe themselves as "un-athletic" or who simply want an easier workout love them.
Portable ellipticals focus only on the lower pedaling portion of the elliptical machine. While some have handlebars for balance, others do not; they are, essentially, a pair of pedals that you can operate standing or sitting, such as under a desk at work. As minimalist as they sound, these portable machines get a lot of love from apartment and dorm dwellers who don't have the room for anything larger, and office workers (and others) who like to "move" while sitting. Another plus is their bottom line, with some top choices selling for less than $100.
Finding the best elliptical trainers
To find the best home ellipticals, we looked at a few important factors: Smooth, stable and quiet performance; easy-to-use features and controls; long-term durability and reliability; and a good warranty backed by responsive, helpful customer service. There aren't a lot of expert roundups that compare and rank elliptical machines, but there are expert sources that review individual ellipticals. Most important, we evaluated hundreds of customer reviews to gauge user's satisfaction with the features and usability of their home elliptical machines. This information, along with expert evaluations, led us to finding the best ellipticals for any home fitness regimen.
Best Home Ellipticals
The best home ellipticals offer good value for the money
A full-sized elliptical trainer is most like the types of high-end elliptical trainers that you'll find in a professional gym, yet even good models can be highly affordable. While some home ellipticals don't have all the bells and whistles of gym-quality models, many come pretty close -- and get excellent reviews for sturdiness and durability as well. For those who don't have the room for a full-sized elliptical, see our separate discussion of the best compact elliptical trainers.
Of all the elliptical trainers we evaluated, the front-drive Sole Fitness E95 Elliptical Machine (Est. $1,700) boasts the best combination of stability; durability; useful features; smooth, quiet resistance; and affordability. Users say it feels very solid, like a gym-quality elliptical trainer. Many say they, and sometimes other members of their family, use it every day, multiple times a day.
The Sole E95 offers 20 levels of eddy current braking -- the gold standard for quiet operation and reliability -- and is backed by a solid warranty: Lifetime frame coverage, five years on parts, and two years of labor coverage. Sole Fitness has an excellent reputation for customer service; owners say they're prompt, efficient, and honor their warranty with no hassles.
The Sole E95 also has a plethora of useful features, including an incline ramp that power-adjusts between 0 and 40 degrees (adjusting the stride length between 20 and 22 inches); 10 workout programs, including two custom workouts and two heart rate control workouts; cushioned, adjustable foot pedals that angle slightly inward to reduce stress on your joints; a 9-inch LCD console that tilts for easier viewing; and handgrip controls for easy adjustments to both incline and resistance. Users say the built-in sound system and fan are just adequate -- but we see similar feedback for those features on almost every elliptical trainer -- indeed, on almost every piece of home exercise equipment we review.
For a few hundred dollars less, the Sole Fitness E35 Elliptical Machine (Est. $1,200) shares the same excellent build quality and warranty, and almost all of the same features. The LCD screen is a little smaller (7.5 inches), the max incline is a little lower (30 degrees), and the flywheel is a little lighter (29 pounds instead of 34). It's also got just a bit smaller footprint and a lower upper weight limit -- 375 pounds to the E95's 400 pounds. However, the E35 gets just as good of reviews from experts and owners for performance and features.
That's not to say that the Sole E95 and E35 are perfect. The most common complaint we found for both was persistent squeaking or clicking noises from the foot rails. Most users say lubricating the foot rails will resolve this, while others simply let Sole's excellent service department take care of it.
Another great choice in the mid-range price category is the Best Fitness E1 Elliptical Trainer by Body Solid (Est. $1,100). It gets raves for its solid construction, ease of assembly and good range of electronic features, including a heart rate monitor. Best of all, it has a smaller footprint than either of the Sole Fitness models, so if you want an elliptical with all the bells and whistles of a full-sized model, but don't have the space, this may be the best choice. However, it can only accommodate up to a 275 pound user. The Best Fitness E1 offers a full body workout and functions in both forward and reverse. The center drive design is quiet and smooth, users say, and many describe it as a great value.
Inexpensive home ellipticals don't have to be cheap
The least expensive full-sized elliptical in this category, and one of the highest-rated home machines in spite of its low price, is the Schwinn 430 Elliptical Machine (Est. $600). Bargain-priced elliptical trainers tend to have short, choppy strides, but the front-drive Schwinn's 20-inch stride length is the equal of many high-end home ellipticals. It has 20 levels of eddy current resistance (another great feature for the price), and users say the motion is smooth and stable, even for larger users -- its maximum weight capacity is 300 pounds.
Eight heart rate control programs may be overkill, especially since the Schwinn 430 relies on handgrip heart rate monitors and is not compatible with a wireless chest strap heart monitor. The two user IDs and custom programs, however, are welcome additions; as are the built-in speakers and fan.
The Schwinn 430 also has a USB port for data export to Schwinn Connect and MyFitnessPal.com -- online tools to help users upload and track their workout data and fitness goals; the USB port can also be used for charging your portable gadgets. We found a couple of comments that the 430's moving handlebars might be set just a little too narrow if you're planning on holding onto the stationary handlebars as you pedal -- but overall, the Schwinn 430's quiet, smooth performance, excellent stability and good durability are all remarkable finds in this price range
The Horizon Fitness EX-59-02 Elliptical Trainer (Est. $800) is another inexpensive home elliptical that's highly rated by experts and owners. It receives a Very Good rating for ergonomics, exercise range, ease of use, construction and safety in one professional test.
Users also give this elliptical machine high ratings, saying the Horizon Fitness EX-59-02 is very easy to assemble and use, and offers a great workout. They also note that it's smooth and quiet, with a good array of features, including 10 manual programs, a heart rate monitor (although it's a grip monitor, which is less accurate than a chest strap), and tracking for time, distance, speed and calories. The EX-59-02 also has 10 levels of resistance. It does not have quite the number of bells and whistles as the Schwinn 430, and a slightly lower upper weight limit of 275 pounds, but reviewers say it's very durable and they expect it to last for years.