What Is the Difference Between Elliptical Machines?

Moving handlebars provide an upper body workout.
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You've been looking for a low-impact, high-intensity cardio workout, and you've read that ellipticals are just thing. Only when you arrive at your new gym, you find a confusing array of elliptical machines. Some have moving arms; some don't. The guy on one machine is sweating out long strides, while the woman on the machine next to him looks more like she's working a stand-up bike. How do you know which is right for you? Understanding the differences can help you decide which machine is best for meeting your particular goals,but, ultimately, you'll need to just jump on and try them out for yourself.


    The majority of elliptical machines are front-drive, as they are the cheapest to manufacture. Unlike the other types of ellipticals, some front-drive ellipticals have a seat, looking more like a bike with moving handlebars, allowing for a seated workout that's much more intense than a recumbent bike. Front-drive machines have an unequal weight distribution, and the seat and pedal placement make you lean forward when using the machine, which mimics more of a stepping workout. Front-drive machines that have articulating foot pedals -- that is, pedals that adjust to the motion and angle of your joint -- allow for a more natural motion.


    Rear-drive machines also have an unequal weight distribution, but the pedal placement allows you to stand upright, reducing back strain. Since you are not forced to lean forward, you won't need to lean on the handles for support, and it will be easier to maintain your balance. Because the pedals flow in a true elliptical --or circular -- motion rather than in a stepping motion, rear-drive machines provide a workout that's closer to your natural movements when walking or running.


    Center-drive are the newest type of ellipticals, which makes them -- as you can probably guess -- more expensive and less common. These machines center your weight, helping you to stand up straight and maintain proper spine alignment. Proper spine alignment during exercise is essential to preventing back pain and subsequent injury, according to a 2012 article by Schroeder Jan and Mattes Klaus of the University of Hamburg, Department of Human Movement and Training Science.


    Elliptical machines may have stationary handlebars or moving handlebars. Moving handlebars are designed so that you can move your arms in alternation with your legs. Moving handlebars add another dimension to your workout by working the upper body in addition to the lower body. Using an elliptical with moving handlebars causes increased oxygen uptake and exertion, meaning a harder, more effective workout, according to a 2006 "Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport" article.


    When deciding on an elliptical, consider your individual needs and limitations and choose one that's right for you. For example, if you want to focus only on your lower body, select one that has stationary handlebars. Begin your workout on a low resistance setting, as light aerobic activity will help loosen your muscles. Make sure to stretch before and after working out and drink plenty of water before, during and after your workout. If you're new to the elliptical, try just 10 to 15 minutes of exercise at a low resistance and incline to start out.

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