[The following information is recreated and updated from a web page I created by back in December, 2003, cataloging my thoughts and adventures when I decided to buy an exercise machine while attending graduate school at Rice University, Houston, TX. I am posting it here because I have killed off the web page and this one page generated a lot of traffic and e-mail, so I figure it must be useful. Enjoy!]
After reading up on the dizzying array of products available for home use, I thought it would be helpful to share my insights, what I learned, and the final decision.
Do You Have the Space?
Exercise machines fit nicely in gigantic fitness showrooms, but they may not seem so compact when you start wrestling them into your home fitness room, garage, etc. Figure out where you want to put the machine and measure out how big of a footprint you can accommodate. Make note of it and keep that information handy as you shop.
Many machines are designed around providing a small footprint. There are models that fold in some way or another to decrease the footprint when not in use; others are simply designed so as to use less space. This limits the available models and can also fundamentally change the exercise, e.g. some elliptical trainers placed the flywheel between the pedals to cut down on foot print, but this forced a wider stance, which may or may not be a concern for you.
What Kind of Machine Do You Want?
There are a few common choices:
- Climber/stairs - pumping legs up and down
- Cross-country skier - pumping legs back and forth on a fixed track, pumping arms back and forth
- Elliptical - all of them involve pumping your legs up and down as well as back and forth along an elliptical path; the better ones include pumping arms back and forth in concert with your legs
- Rowing machine - pushing your torso/abdomen back and forth with your legs, pulling with arms/back
- Treadmill - walking and/or running on a moving belt
I wanted to get both an elliptical trainer and a rowing machine, because the combination would compliment each other well, but I did not have the money nor space for both. Ultimately, I settled on the elliptical because it gives the most complete workout and biggest bang for the buck/footprint.
So, the rest of this page concerns elliptical trainers exclusively. If you are interested in other options, I recommend getting an online subscription to consumerreports.org. They usually give a good background on every category of product they investigate. It's a great resource with a searchable archive of every test they have performed. A great tool for empowering the consumer.
Elliptical Trainers - Commercial or Home Models?
With treadmills, there are lots of decent home models. However, it appears that when it comes to elliptical trainers, you really want to get a commercial or near-commercial model. Even the best pick of Consumer Reports' review of Elliptical Home Models was lackluster at best:
Reebok Elliptical Crosstrainer 6808. Very good; the best pick here.Not exactly a ringing endorsement, huh? Also, they were generally not very enthusiastic about home models of elliptical trainers.
Pedals hold foot securely. Easy to mount/dismount. But resistance not indexed for easy setting. No heart-rate monitor. Monitor framework sways and creaks during exercise. Vigorous movement of arms can make machine twist and jam momentarily. Monitor needs batteries. Fixed incline. 90-day warranty. [CR March 2002]
Unfortunately, the concept has worked best in health-club models, which are bigger, smoother, more solid, and far more expensive than home-use machines. We tested early home ellipticals in 1998 and 1999, and they were a sorry lot. One of the seven broke before our tests were done; three had durability problems. Home machines still don't match health-club models, but at least the four machines we tested this time, costing between $500 and $1,000, emerged from the equivalent of a year's use with only one or two minor glitches.
They also proved quite capable of providing a good workout to someone who's already moderately fit. However, beginning exercisers may have to pedal slowly to avoid overexertion. And very fit users may find even the maximum resistance on some machines too easy to provide an aerobic benefit. [CR March 2002]Ie wanted to try out the machines first, of course. Actually, it's recommended that you throw on workout clothes and try the machines for 10-20 minutes before buying one, just to be sure that it works for you. I stopped by a few local merchants.
First, I hit a general superstore, Academy Sports & Outdoors. There was nothing there worth considering; the motions of the machines there were uncomfortable and the quality of construction did not fill me with confidence.
I stopped by Sears, where they sold Proform and Nordic Track. Every model I tried was poorly assembled, e.g., arms falling off, frame bolts less than finger tight, etc. So, I had little good data to go on. However, the Nordic Track treadmills that I did try functioned poorly, which spoke ill of their durability and/or assembly quality of the store.
At Oshman's I tried a Proform 800 ($499; Icon Fitness) and Reebok 525 ($799; Reebok). Both saved space by placing the fly wheel in between the pedals, something that appears common among space saving ellipticals that do not fold. The gap between my feet was about 7.5" to 8". The Proform had a Reflex Step™ Technology, which I found to be unpleasant; it caused an undesirable bounce in the motion. The Reebok was OK, but still felt a little rickety. I was not a big fan of the wider stance.
Time to step up a little in price. Winston Fitness, Fitness Unlimited, and Busy Body; all owned by the same company. I tried out various models, but because of my desire to have a small footprint, a few obvious choices emerged
- Octane Fitness's Octane 35 or 35e (small footprint)
- Vision Fitness's X6200HRT (folding), X6100 (folding), and X6000 (folding)
- $1999 (Octane 35)
- $2299 (Octane 35e)
- $1799 (X6200HRT)
- $1299 (X6100)
- $799 (X6000)
I went to Hest Fitness, which said they had three brands, and they did; they had exactly three machines, all of a different brand (sheesh) - Nautilus, Schwinn, and Vision Fitness 6600 (their top of the line commercial model). None of the models folded, nor did they have small footprints, although the Schwinn did have a good feel for its price ($1399). They had the stereotypical "let me talk to the manager" reply when asked for a quote and did not offer any reduction in price, so I will probably not be going back there.
Finally, I decided to try the Vision Fitness models. Unfortunately, the manager of the store we had visited had sold the floor model of the X6200HRT, which was one of my favorite contenders. So I headed out to the location on FM 1960. I tried the various models out:
- X6000 - The cheapest by far; decided against it because of the lack of programs, the cable system (in lieu of a motor) for tension control, slightly less smooth motion due to fewer magnets.
- X6100 - This system was a marked improvement over the X6000, possessing the full complement of magnets and motorized tension adjustment.
- X6200HRT - This system had the features of the X6100 plus the heart rate monitoring, which I came to really like. It also was the lowest price model that featured the "variable durometer footpads" (read: squishy in some spots for more comfort). This was also the step at which visual program monitoring was part of the console display, allowing you to see where you were in the workout and what was coming up. Finally, there was even a limited commercial warranty, which meant I was covered, and then some.
- X6600HRT - This is the full blown commercial system and it just seemed unnecessary to spend so much money on it; also, it did not fold, which was a big hit against it.
Note: if you are *really* concerned about cost, call the warehouse where the machines are delivered. When I picked up my machine, I discovered that the warehouse in Houston ("Fitness Unlimited Warehouse", 10516 Old Katy Rd, Suite J, 832.358.1702) had a used/"scratch & dent" area with a horde of good exercise equipment at reduced prices. Live and learn...
Factors to Consider When Shopping for Elliptical Trainers
- Will it kill you? Seriously, if you are very unfit, an elliptical trainer can be too much; at the very least, this could make it a very expensive paperweight; at the worst, you keel over dead. I saw someone get on the machine I bought, set it to the lowest intensity, and stop after 6 minutes from exhaustion (but he was really out of shape). Consult your doctor and try it out first.
- Weight - Does your machine actually have you enter your weight so it can provide the proper resistance? The machine I bought does, and I consider it a requirement now.
- Stride - Some machines provide a short stride length, which can impact the effectiveness of the exercise and possibly cause discomfort. Again, be sure you try before you buy.
- Lean - Some machines force you to lean forward slightly; make sure it's not too much for you. Try before you buy.
- Noise - Simply put, is it too noisy for where you plan to put it and how you plan to use it, e.g. while watching TV. Some stores have lots of background noise that may make it hard to tell; feel free to ask them to turn down a nearby TV or radio so you can better assess this.
- Motion - Try the machine out for at least ten minutes in workout clothes to make sure you like the motion; the longer you try it out, the better.
- Heart rate monitoring - Some machines have a wireless strap on HR monitor, some have a grip/pad that you have to grab/touch, some have no HR monitoring. HR monitoring is a personal choice; one possible feature is if there is a program that adjusts resistance to maintain a target HR. Buy the one that has what you want and make sure it works as advertised; try before you buy.
- Incline - Do you want one? Most ellipticals are fixed incline; since an elliptical can vary resistance, this is a feature more common/important for treadmills.
- Warranty - There will be separate warranty lifetimes for Frame, Motor/Parts, and Labor. Know what they are.
- Return policy - Be aware of this; how long do you have to try it out and return it with a full refund? What delivery/pickup charge, if any, would there be if you returned it?
- Delivery/assembly charge - If you are not taking it home and/or assembling it, you will be paying someone else to do this. If you are going to have to move your home, you might want to assemble it yourself so that you know how to take it apart.
- Console - does it have the programs you want? Does it provide the feedback you want? Again, try before you buy.
- Can it handle your body weight? I am not being facetious. The machine we bought is only rated up to 300 lbs. If you weigh less than 300 lbs. you are probably fine, but if you weigh near that or more, you should double check.
I chose to pick it up and assemble it myself. The main reason was that I knew I would move at least two more times in the next few years, so I had to know what, if anything, could come apart, and I needed to know the guts of the machine to maintain it properly. It did not hurt that I was saving the $89 delivery and assembly fee (remember, I was in grad school).
To be honest, it's pretty straightforward. The bags of parts were color-coded for the various assembly steps. It would have been silly for me to pay someone to put this together.
- Spare parts? There will be a bag full of small screws and two long black plastic guards that are not detailed in the parts manifest. These are the childproof guards that are to protect against little fingers and toes getting caught under the rear roller wheels. Note: if you put these on, you cannot fold the machine (so, I didn't).
- Grease - it's a mechanical device, the grease is a good thing. There will be at least one part with a thick grease on it, do not wipe it off. There may be other spots that look greasy. Resist the urge to clean the machine until you are done assembling it. Once it's all put together, you are more than welcome to clean the exposed areas with vigor. By then, the important spots that need grease should be safely covered/concealed.
- In step one, when it tells you to "slide" the axle through...yeah right. Slide is not the word. Friction will shut you down pretty quickly. I called the store manager and he confirmed that it's nigh impossible and that he used a tiny amount of lubricant to complete the step when he made the floor models. I used a tiny amount of glycerol/glycerine (water soluble and relatively harmless), just enough to get the bar through, then I cleaned off what remained.
- In step four (?), when you are assembling the console/mast, you need to pass wires through the mass. There is a round metal cuff attached to the wires. You are supposed to use the long twist tie in the mast to pull it through. Tie the twist tie to the cuff, and pull the wires up through the mast. Simple enough, but in my case, the frame of the mast was too tight of a fit. I used a long flathead screwdriver to tap the cuff through the tight spot, being very careful not to hit the wires. Then I was able to pull it through normally the rest of the way.
It's still working perfectly. It has been moved at least four times since the review, two of those moves were across the USA. It has seen long periods in which it was not used, but it has also seen some very heavy use. It has held up well. I have made heavy use of the folding ability of the machine and it has worked great. As for disassembly, it was never necessary, I just folded it up, worked it onto a furniture dolly, then strapped it down in the moving truck, as is. That worked well, even with a couple of moves across the country (Texas to Ohio, and back).
The only maintenance I have done is spray some silicon lubricant on the tracks/wheels once to resolve some squeaking. I should probably do that again soon. I would estimate that with regular use you might need to spray more often, say every 6-12 months, but that is pure speculation.
If I had it all over to do again, I would probably have bought this machine.