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Choosing Elliptical Trainers by Drive Systems

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Updated November 13, 2008

The drive system of your elliptical trainer is the most important item you should consider. If you don’t make the right selection on this point, you will lament your choice for eons. Seriously, it will be a worse mistake than your first marriage. Really seriously, it will create a great number of problems for you.

The strength of any elliptical trainer or its Achilles' heel is its drive system. By drive system, we are speaking of the drive axle, axle bearings, drive belt, generator or alternator, and power PCB. If these are well-engineered it will hide a multitude of sins. Components are important but engineering is more important in this area. For instance, one manufacturer uses cheaper quality components but gets away with it (sometimes) because their engineering is so good. We have also seen others who have fantastic components but poor reliability due to poor engineering.

Ultimately, here is how to determine the good from the bad.

SMOOTHNESS

The motion of the elliptical trainer should feel smooth. You should not hear loud squeaks, rubs, or other noises as the machine motion is in progress. You should not have great changes in the elliptical intensity between each level of intensity of the machine.

Right now, there are multiple types of ellipticals that are vying for the title “best elliptical design”. These types can be broken down into three broad categories: Front Drive, Rear Drive, and Center Drive. Each of these elliptical categories will affect the smoothness of the machine. This is one area where it takes someone who really knows what they are doing to help you figure it out.

FRONT DRIVE ELLIPTICALS

Front Drive Ellipticals are called this because the drive axle is located in front of the user and the weight of the user is centered in front of the user on the machine. When you are using the machine you will see the drive wheel turning. These machines have been around for a long time and have a good track record for maintenance.

REAR DRIVE ELLIPTICALS

Rear Drive Ellipticals are called this because the drive axle is located behind the user and the weight of the user is centered behind the user on the machine. When you are using the machine you cannot see the drive wheel turning. These machines have been around for a long time and have a good track record for maintenance.

CENTER DRIVE ELLIPTICALS

Center Drive Ellipticals are called this because the drive axle can be located in front of the user, behind the user, or the machine can have two drive axles! The defining feature of the center drive concept is that the weight of the user is centered on the middle of the machine. These machines are a relatively new design and still don’t have a track record for maintenance.

DIFFERENT ELLIPTICAL TYPES AND SMOOTHNESS

Frankly, the difference in elliptical trainer smoothness has three main considerations: Design type, quality of build, and weight of the flywheel. To decide which type of elliptical will feel smoother to you – you will have to try the different models. When doing this make sure that you try them in the same price range. Otherwise you will get a skewed view of the type. The smoothness will depend a lot on your physiology.

The quality of construction will make a difference in smoothness. You will easily be able to tell the difference in the same type of machines. Make sure that you decide on which type of elliptical design you want before you attempt to determine the quality of construction. Otherwise the differences in type smoothness will skew the results. The flywheel weight will determine to a great extent the smoothness of the machine. The heavier the flywheel the more inertia is available to keep the drive system turning. The only drawback to the heavy flywheel is that the drive axle bearings will wear more quickly.

DRIVE SYSTEM COMPONENTS

The different drive system components that make up the elliptical drive system are the drive axle, axle bearings, drive belt, generator or alternator, and power PCB. Unfortunately you will not be able to determine the quality level of these components by looking at the machine. You can consult our elliptical review section and “Best Buy” picks on our website TreadmillDoctor.com to see what we consider to be the better quality units. Price is also a decent way to determine the quality of the drive system.

Some questions that you can ask the sales person will help you get some general notions of the machine.

  • Sealed bearings are generally better in these units than shielded bearings. This is because the sealed bearings are better at keeping dirt out of the ball track.
  • Alternator or generator powered units will typically have more expensive repairs than plug in machines. This is because the alternator generates the power and has trouble maintaining consistent voltage and wattage. This has to be controlled by the power board and it can cause problems.

NOISE

An overly noisy elliptical trainer points to poor engineering, poor components, or poor assembly. All ellipticals make noise but a reasonably quiet machine generally means less friction and wear on the elliptical. On the flip side, a dead silent elliptical does not necessarily mean that it is perfect.

Some manufacturers have used foam to absorb noise, so make sure you know the construction before you judge an elliptical by its noise but generally, the noise an elliptical generates is a good indicator of the machine’s quality. Plus, when you don’t wake up the neighborhood with your morning workouts, it makes for friendlier neighbors.

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