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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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