Exercise enthusiasts and professional trainers love elliptical machines -- cheap as well as pricey -- because they work the whole body with minimal impact to the joints. Your feet never leave the pedals and most have handlebars that move, so you get a dual workout that burns more calories in less time. Better yet, exercising with an elliptical machine seems almost easy. You can certainly pay several thousand dollars for this privilege by buying the type of fitness equipment found in a gym. No need, though, because we've identified several cheap elliptical trainers that provide the same benefits, albeit with a few less frills.
Cheap Elliptical Trainers Buying Guide
The elliptical trainers universe is dominated by several manufacturers that each make a number of brands. Icon Health & Fitness produces NordicTrack, ProForm, Weslo, and Gold's Gym, for example, and Johnson Health Tech Group produces Horizon Fitness and LiveStrong machines. Under each brand name is a daunting array of models, including many in the cheap elliptical trainers segment where prices sit below $800. At the high end of the market you'll find models by the likes of Yowza Fitness, Precor, and Sole Treadmills.
All elliptical machines follow the same basic principle: the user stands upright on the foot pedals and strides either forward or backward while pumping (or not) the handlebars to and fro. As Fitness Equipment Reviews notes, the location of the flywheel (drive mechanism) determines whether the elliptical trainer is rear-drive, front-drive, or center-drive. On rear-drive ellipticals, the flywheel is behind you and the workout motion feels more like walking or jogging. When the flywheel is in front, you lean forward a bit, sort of like working out on a stair climber. Center-drive elliptical trainers have two smaller flywheels on either side of the user and a smaller profile than front- and rear-drive ellipticals; they're also more expensive. The best way to determine which design suits you is to try out the gym equipment at a fitness store.
Here's what defines a good cheap elliptical trainer: a minimum 16-inch stride length; pedals that are close together (preferably no wider than six inches) and larger than your foot; adjustable resistance; and a variety of preset workout programs. A few better cheap elliptical trainers also sport adjustable incline. Consoles with readouts on data such as distance, calories burned, and speed are common, and almost all models come with a heart-rate monitor (of dubious reliability, according to many users). Cheap elliptical trainers sometimes feature a water bottle holder, fan, and/or MP3 port. High-end ellipticals afford more opportunities to customize the workout and feature more frills, such as adjustable stride lengths, bigger and better console screens, cushioning on the foot pedals, and chest straps for heart-rate monitoring; they also generally accommodate higher maximum weights. Based on the reviews we read, frugal exercisers are willing to sacrifice such add-ons in exchange for value; that is, a good price on in-home gym equipment that's sturdy, easy to assemble, and provides a challenging workout.
After assessing features and performance, we picked two best cheap elliptical trainers and two good cheap elliptical trainers; all are front-drive design. The "best" bucket holds the Schwinn 420 (starting at $500), a solid machine with a smooth, whisper-quiet stride, and the Horizon EX69 (starting at $799), a sturdy, ergonomically-focused trainer with a relatively long stride. Our "good" bucket includes the front-drive Nautilus E514 (starting at $537), another quiet and smooth piece of gym equipment, and the ProForm 590E (starting at $582), which boasts rich electronics that compensate for what some perceive as a bit of performance shakiness. We identified two models, both rear-drive elliptical trainers, that don't make the grade despite their low price. The Weslo Momentum 630 (starting at $229) features a small footprint but an extremely short stride and is dogged by reports of poor build quality. Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380 (starting at $277) is fairly small and lightweight but users gripe about the assembly and some find it unstable.
Bottom line: The best cheap elliptical trainers will give you a serious workout and will likely do so for a good long while. Of course, no elliptical machine is worth even a penny if it sits and collects dust. Your ultimate satisfaction comes with results, be it weight loss, improved cardio endurance, or just a daily endorphin high -- milestones reached only if you use your cheap elliptical trainer on a regular basis. Professional reviewers, muscle magazines, and customers all agree that choosing the right machine for your size and fitness level increases the chances that you'll stay motivated and stick with your exercise routine.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Cheap Elliptical Machines Stride Length, Resistance
Elliptical Machines Stride Length.Stride length is the most important feature to check when shopping for an elliptical machine. Your leg movement should feel elliptical (i.e., like a stretched-out oval) and not circular or bouncy, which happens when the stride length is too short. Experts at All Ellipticals recommend that users taller than 5'7" choose a model with a minimum 20-inch stride length, but our research found that this standard would eliminate cheap elliptical machines with shorter strides that are otherwise worthy buys. Longer strides make for more challenging workouts but users with shorter legs or those who may be out of shape or constrained by a physical ailment may prefer a shorter stride. Some pricier elliptical machines accommodate improving fitness levels with a stride length that can be adjusted -- up to 32 inches on the Yowza Captiva (starting at $1,999), for example -- but fixed stride length is the norm among cheap elliptical machines.
We found cheap elliptical machines with stride lengths in the 12- to 20-inch range. The Horizon EX69 (starting at $799) boasts a 20-inch stride, while the Schwinn 420 (starting at $500), ProForm 590E (starting at $582), and Nautilus E514 (starting at $537) each feature an 18-inch stride. Two cheap elliptical machines with particularly short stride lengths are Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380 (starting at $277) with a14-inch stride and the Weslo Momentum 630 (starting at $229) with a 12-inch stride. Two models that break the cheap mold are the NordicTrack Pathfinder (starting at $700), whose 18-inch stride automatically extends to 20 inches when the adjustable incline is set at the two steepest angles, and the ProForm ZE5 (starting at $599), whose stride length can be adjusted to 13, 15, and 18 inches.
Elliptical Machines Resistance.Resistance -- the tension you feel while pedaling -- is caused by braking on the flywheel. The tighter the brake's grip, the greater the resistance and the tougher the workout. Cheap ellipticals generally come with pre-set resistance levels; the more, the better. The Schwinn 420, Horizon EX69, ProForm 590E, and Nautilus E514 each feature16 resistance levels, and users report that even the lowest level on some of these models is a challenge. By contrast, the Weslo Momentum 630 features 10 resistance levels and Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380 specs only indicate the resistance can be changed digitally.
Elliptical Machines Workout Programs.Cheap ellipticals also feature preset workout programs oriented around fitness goals, such as fat burning or cardio; targets, such as distance or speed; or performance, such as interval training or hills. The most generous of the elliptical machines on our list is the ProForm 590E with 20 programs and the most limited is the Weslo Momentum 630 with two preset workouts. The Nautilis E514 lets you customize workouts for two users and the Schwinn 420 gives you that option for one user.
Elliptical Trainers Incline.Ellipticals with an adjustable incline (i.e., ramp) keep your workout varied and challenging. A steeper incline increases the intensity of the workout and isolates different muscle groups (glutes, quads, calves) from those used on flatter angles. One of the premier features of the NordicTrack Pathfinder is its motorized power ramp, which has five incline settings that go from 15 to 35 degrees. Manual adjustments can be made on the Horizon EX69 (five positions) and ProForm 590E (four positions).
Elliptical Trainers Pedals.The pedals on an elliptical trainer should be larger than your foot so your toes don't jam up against the front. Most pedals on cheap elliptical machines offer some sort of traction so your foot doesn't slide off. Articulating foot pedals, featured on the Schwinn 420, align with the elliptical motion of the machine to keep your foot flat on the pedal throughout the workout. Pedals on a good elliptical trainer should also be close together; if too far apart, the action stresss your back, hips, and knees. The Horizon EX69 is the only model on our list that boasts "zero gap" pedals; that is, there's no space between them so they overlap as they move.
Elliptical Trainers Footprint.Any good cheap elliptical needs a large enough base for stability but not so large that it consumes half the room it's in. Our top picks measure at least 62 inches long by 22 inches across; the pricey Sole E95 (starting at $1,700) is 82" long and 27 inches wide. The Weslo Momentum 630 is diminutive by these standards; its 44"x21" footprint is well suited to small spaces, and one review notes that it easily fits on board a boat, which lets its owners stay in shape while cruising from port to port.
Most cheap elliptical machines have wheels so you can move them around. The base and pedals on the Nautilus E514, NordicTrack Pathfinder, and ProForm ZE5 fold, which preserves valuable floor space when sitting idle.
Elliptical Trainers Extras.Niceties such as an MP3 port, fan, and water bottle holder aren't necessary but can add fun and comfort to your workout. The Horizon EX69 features an MP3 port and speakers, as does the ProForm 590E; the latter is also compatible with iFit Live technology, which offers access (for a price) to a different set of workouts. A fan is built into both these models, as well as in the Nautilus E514; one 5'3" user of the Horizon EX69 sadly notes the fan blows onto her forehead. Three of our top picks and the Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380 provide space for a water bottle. The Schwinn 420 comes with the screws to attach a bottle holder but users' reviews express puzzlement about why the holder itself isn't included.
All the low-cost elliptical trainers we researched have sensors in the hand grips that ostensibly measure your heart rate while exercising. The catch is, you must keep your arms steady. Users often question the accuracy of these readings and some say you get a truer read by checking your pulse with fingers and a clock. The Nautilus E514 also comes with a wireless chest strap for heart rate monitoring, a feature more commonly found at the higher end of the market.
Reviews posted by users and experts say the greatest benefits accrue from machines that challenge you over the long haul. The best elliptical will match your stride and offer varied workouts at different levels of difficulty. Elliptical reviews also indicate that users care about ease of assembly and build quality. For the most part, users' reviews indicate that our top picks for best elliptical machines give good value for the money and generally exceed expectations.
Elliptical Workouts.Finding the right fit between user and machine means matching your natural stride to that of the elliptical trainer and making sure you can easily grip the handlebars. The harmony, or lack thereof, will make or break your workouts. One 5'8" expert writes in an elliptical review on Fitness-Equipment-Source, a stride shorter than 18 inches makes his workout more like a bounce session than the kind of smooth movement exercisers seek; his preferred stride length is 20 or 21 inches. But, to each his own. The 20-inch stride on the Horizon EX69 finds favor with users (including one six-foot-plus exerciser) who appreciate the length and smooth motion. The action feels much like walking or running, says an Amazon review, and related design features keep you standing upright, which is unusual for a front-drive elliptical machine. Experts say the ergonomics of the EX69 (also incorporated in other Horizon models) make this machine one of the best ellipticals for female exercisers, and we read numerous positive reviews written by women. Reviewers also assert that the preset resistance levels are challenging and the manual incline is easy enough to change.
Stride length is two inches shorter on the Schwinn 420, but that doesn't detract from its strong showing in the crowded gym equipment marketplace. Reviews of the best ellipticals posted on Walmart say the workouts are demanding; one writer considers level 1 "moderate" rather than easy and another reports the leg and butt burn lets you know you're accomplishing something. Experts like the long handlebars, which provide plenty of options for gripping and changing up your upper body workout. And for the record, a few reviews say the 18-inch stride length suits long legs although others argue it's a bit short.
Smooth and stable is the consensus opinion expressed in ProForm 590E reviews. Exercisers posting on sites such as Walmart applaud the performance; one woman says level 2 gives a good workout and another user reports it helps ease the pain associated with fibromyalgia, which affects muscles and joints. Users also like the placement of the handlebars, which seem to suit various physiques and heights. Several elliptical trainers reviews report the 590E wobbles a bit -- one user remarks that losing 20 pounds would probably put less strain on the machine -- and another says the pedal action seems more circular than elliptical, perhaps a reflection of the 18-inch stride length. In the opinion of Elliptical Trainers, the ProForm 590E is designed for moderate amounts of exercise by users who don't come close to the 300-pound weight limit.
Users also like the Nautilus E514, citing its fluid motion and stable stance. It's an effective complement to a treadmill, asserts an elliptical trainers review at Abe's of Maine, while a user writes elsewhere that she chose this gym equipment over a treadmill because it's better for her knees and back. The 18-inch stride length suits users of varying heights; one man writes in a review on Amazon that it easily accommodates his 5'6" height (ditto for his wife) and a 5'10" exerciser says it felt a bit short only when he broke into a sprint.
Stride length is a tad problematic with the Weslo Momentum 630 and Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380. The workout intensity with the Weslo is good enough, conclude elliptical reviews, but only if you're not too tall. One user who stands 5'9" reports on the Target site that her knees hit the front of the machine. With its slightly longer 14-inch stride, the Gold's Gym machine is considered the best elliptical for quite a number of fans, particularly users seeking a none-too-strenuous form of exercise, according to reviews posted on Walmart. The reviews note, however, that it might disappoint the already fit and trim and its light weight might not stand up to overweight users. This view is echoed by experts who doubt the StrideTrainer's effectiveness at working the upper and lower body simultaneously and say the stated 250-pound capacity may be wishful thinking.
Ellipticals Electronics.The electronic consoles on elliptical machines provide readouts of useful data (e.g., speed, distance, calories burned, time elapsed, heart rate) and serve as control central for changing workout programs and resistance levels. Note, though, that users generally doubt the accuracy of the heart rate (pulse) readout, the exception being the Nautilus E514, which comes with a wireless chest strap.
Indeed, electronics garner lots of comments in ellipticals reviews. Several consumers posting on Amazon, for example, say they chose the Schwinn 420 partly because it's not overloaded with digital gadgetry (i.e., easier to use and less can go wrong). Its simplicity, however, mildly disappoints others. Some ding the absence of a port for an MP3 player and a backlight on the display and others gripe that you can only program one user profile. A few find the programming instructions hard to follow and the preset programs not well explained.
Rich electronics at least partly explain the lure of the Horizon EX69 and ProForm 590E. The former appeals to exercisers for features the Schwinn 420 lacks. Appreciative shout-outs in ellipticals reviews on Horizon Fitness Outlet cite the iPod/MP3 port, sound system, and built-in fan; we did read a reviewon Amazon, though, saying the preset program controls aren't particularly intuitive. iFit Live technology and numerous preset programs are the hallmark of the ProForm 590E. Some users jump at the opportunity to follow a Jillian Michaels workout or Google Maps trail with iFit Live cards, according to elliptical reviews on Walmart, even as others comment on Amazon that the 20 preset programs are sufficiently motivating, with the MP3 port offering additional diversionary options. Several users grouse about the absence of a readout for distance.
Users don't have much to say about the electronics on the other models on our list. One ellipticals review on Amazon of the Nautilus E514 says the controls are intuitive but a handful report problems with the electronics from the get go. The console on the Weslo Momentum displays the usual metrics, but users gripe that distance is indicated by the number of rotations and the calorie and heart rate feedback is dubious; one user notes that increasing exercise duration and resistance level had no effect on the readout for calories burned. The control panel on the Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380 is easy to use, say ellipticals reviews posted on Walmart, although several note that the display can be hard to read because there's no backlight, and a few report problems with the wiring.
Ellipticals Assembly.Unless you opt to pay extra for professional assembly (some retailers offer this service), you're on your own here. All the models we researched arrive at your home in parts, accompanied by instructions and tools needed to put everything together, although some consumers opt for their own higher-quality tools. These pieces of gym equipment are heavy -- the ProForm 590E, for example, has a shipping weight of 216 pounds -- so you'll probably need help getting it into your exercise room. Several ellipticals reviews suggest unpacking the machine at the front door and carrying in each piece separately.
Assembly instructions typically say the job requires two people, but we read a good number of ellipticals reviews by users who completed the task solo. Be prepared to spend about two hours assembling an elliptical trainer. Consumers mostly say the instructions are clear and easy to follow, although a few report that those supplied with the Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380 aren't very clear and others say they received packages with directions in Spanish. Users also gripe about the large number of tiny pieces on the Gold's Gym StrideTrainer, which is the only model we researched that runs on batteries (four D batteries), although you can buy an AC adapter. A few purchasers of the ellipticals discussed here say some parts arrived broken but were quickly replaced by the vendor or manufacturer.
Consumers advise that you grease the parts well and often in order to keep noise to a minimum and the machine in good working order.
Ellipticals Build Quality.The ellipticals reviews we found indicate that most consumers post comments within the first few weeks or months of purchase, so it's hard to predict how well any given machine will hold up over time. That said, we came across numerous complaints about noise -- squeaking, whooshing, rattling, or knocking -- from the Weslo Momentrum 630; one ellipticals review says earplugs are necessary and another says it's a struggle to hear the TV while exercising. Users also caution that this lightweight model may rock to and fro and some report that parts break easily. We also read some reports about disquieting noises on the Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380, as well as loose fittings and components that broke within a year. Several ellipticals reviews note that anyone near the 250 pound weight limit would find the machine wobbly.
Assessments of the build quality on our top picks are largely positive. Almost without exception, elliptical trainers reviews of the Schwinn 420 praise the sturdiness, stability, and near silence of this model. Similar judgments are offered up for the Horizon EX69, with a dissenting report here and there about minor noises that were ultimately eliminated. Most users consider the Nautilus E514 to be very stable, but one user who came close to the 300-pound weight limit writes on Amazon about creaky noises and swaying. Build quality is barely touched on in ellipticals reviews of the ProForm EX69.
The best cheap elliptical machines come with a warranty of at least a year. The ProForm 590E and Horizon EX69 offer a lifetime warranty on the frame and one year on parts and labor; the latter also comes with a lifetime warranty on the brake. The Nautilus E514 comes with a 10-year warranty on the frame, two years on parts, and one year on the electronics. The Schwinn 420 boasts a five-year warranty on the frame, one year on parts and electronics, and 90 days on wear and labor. The cheapest elliptical machines we researched offer more limited warranties: 90 days for the Weslo Momentum 360 and Gold's Gym StrideTrainer 380.