An arc trainer is like the estranged cousin of the elliptical. They’re similar, but even though they have a lot of visual similarities, they operate differently and provide you with different benefits.
So just what are arc trainers, and do they make a difference compared to ellipticals? We’re going to find out.
Before we continue, you should know that arc trainers and ellipticals are wildly different in price and application. Ellipticals have been popularized, but that doesn’t instantly mean they’re better.
Arc trainers look similar to ellipticals, except they swoop down in an arc instead.
The motion is different, and even though it doesn’t sound like much is happening, you get a completely different exercise and experience. Your results will be different. Let’s talk about that.
- Less Impact on Your Joints: Ellipticals are already amazing at reducing strain on your joints, but arc trainers come in on another level. They do apply some impact to your joints, but as long as you continue to move, that impact doesn’t crush down on your shins, calves, and knees. Instead, it pushes down to apply a small level of resistance, and then back up again to pull off your joints during the backswing. This actually helps build up the muscles surrounding your joints over time to prevent instability and lower your chance of impact-related injury in the future as well.
- Dynamic Movement: Thanks to the arc swing pattern, you engage your quads, glutes, and hamstrings with a fair deal of intensity. That means you can actually see muscle sculpting and some moderate gains by using an arc trainer even though it isn’t direct resistance training like you would find with lifting weights. When the foot pedals come back down in that arc-style swing, you endure light resistance that quickly pulls off when your leg goes into the next swing of the arc. Minimal joint damage.
- Less Moving Parts: Even though they look similar, arc trainers actually have less moving parts than ellipticals do. This means that maintenance costs are down. Arc trainers grant you the ability to do one fantastic swooping “arc” motion and don’t need to move in such a complicated way to help you get there.
- Infrequent Maintenance: Arc trainers are simply built differently. They take a lot more time to degrade and maintenance isn’t required nearly as often as you would find with an elliptical. They’re just simply made to last..
- Exhausting: Even though it’s a machine and not a full-body exercise on normal terrain, it’s still exhausting. Once you realize just how much goes into using an arc trainer and how it pushes your body, you’ll wake up feeling it in your muscles. That’s good and it deserves praise, but it also means that compared to an elliptical, you’re going to have far less energy. If it’s worth it for the strength gain and caloric loss in the long-run and you can manage the fatigue in the meantime, it should be a no-brainer, but it’s too much for some people to get started with.
- More Expensive: Arc trainer costs are no joke. Because they’re not in high demand, they’re more expensive. Sounds a little backwards from what we think we know about economics, but it just means it’s exclusive. Is it worth it to get an arc trainer? Yes, but it’s not feasible for everyone, so there is a huge paywall around using one of these.
Ellipticals don’t work in an arc-style motion. Instead, they work in an ellipse, which is where it gets the name from (turns out the marketers for exercise equipment aren’t that creative).
These different motions seem pretty simple, but it has a major impact on how ellipticals work versus arc trainers. This is what you need to know about ellipticals to know if they’re right for you or not.
- Slight Upper Body Workout: It’s not a lot, but you do build up a little bit of your upper body. You mostly see it in your arms, but you can also feel it in your chest as well. This all depends on how much you engage your muscle groups while you run. If you’re just kind of standing there and letting the machine’s momentum do the work for you, you won’t have a lot of gains to show for it. It comes down to how you engage with the machine.
- Low Impact Exercise: Apart from the gravity of you standing up, ellipticals don’t require high impact. In fact, they’re not even labeled as medium impact—you won’t curse your joints when you’re done with this exercise, and you won’t regret it the next day. That’s the great thing about ellipticals; they’re a scalable entry point for anyone that’s just starting a new exercise regimen. Nothing prevents you from exercising on day two quite like being completely wrecked from day one.
- Avoids Immense Exhaustion: Ellipticals optimize your energy levels. You don’t have to exert yourself like you just came back from a 30-minute run outside; you still bump up your heart rate and burn through a lot of calories, but you won’t feel completely drained afterward. Ellipticals are great for weight loss goals when you also live a busy life and need all of your energy throughout the day. While it does mean you don’t get much muscle engagement, it’s worth it for what you do get.
- Tracking Progress is Difficult: It’s hard to figure out exactly how many calories you’re burning and what kind of progress you’re making. We know that you can burn a lot of calories in a single 30-minute run, but beyond that, there’s no real measure of what it does for your arms and legs (depending on which drive you have in your elliptical). While these machines aren’t used to get the strongest legs on the planet, it would be nice to know how to measure the added benefits beyond cardiovascular health.
- Doesn’t Mimic Natural Movement: You know what an elliptical feels like? An elliptical. It doesn’t mimic any natural movement that you can use as a reference point, so it’s jarring to hop on one of these in the beginning. After a while you will get used to it, but you’ll always feel off-balance when you stop using your elliptical for the day.
We know the pros, the cons, and the major differences between arc trainers and ellipticals. Now it’s time to see how they compare against one another, and what results you can expect depending on which machine you choose.
This is perhaps the most commonly asked question: does an arc trainer burn more calories than an elliptical? Yes, it does—arc trainers are actually better at burning calories than ellipticals (and most other cardio machines).
The thing is, ellipticals usually win when it comes to the calorie-burning competition between other machines, but arc trainers blow them out of the water. On an average 30-minute run on an elliptical, you could burn around 350 calories. That’s no small feat.
But interestingly, arc trainers burn more than that in the range of 475 calories for a 30-minute run. Same output, but with more calories burned.
This comes down to the afterburn effect as well as the initial and immediate caloric loss. When you engage your muscles for long enough, they heat up and need hours to cool down, and arc trainers help you start this afterburn effect/state in a way that ellipticals don’t.
So you can burn additional calories even after you step off of the machine, for hours beyond the end of your workout. This is why arc trainers tend to sap more energy, but if you’re trying to nail your weight loss goals as soon as possible, this is how you do it.
Arc trainers give you more resistance, so you may encounter some joint pain at first until you build up muscles surrounding those joints. In fact, the whole point of arc trainers is to engage your muscles while also getting your heart rate moving for cardio.
That’s where the elliptical wins. For joint health, the elliptical barely inflicts any damage at all. The smooth motions don’t cause you pain, and can actually strengthen your joints fairly well.
Arc trainers will take some extra time to strengthen your joints since you’re more likely to be sore when using one in the beginning. There’s no doubt that the arc trainer is a better machine in the long run, but it just depends on what your tolerance and joint health are right now.
Your starting health will be a huge defining factor in your choice of an arc trainer or an elliptical.
Ellipticals don’t offer much in the realm of muscle growth, which is a shame since they’re so easy to use and scalable.
However, the path of least resistance usually leads to fewer results. Muscle growth is very slow, and primarily only affects your arms and a little bit of your chest if you use an elliptical.
Arc trainers are much more engaging and simply do a better job at working your muscles. Over the course of 6 to 12 weeks, you can expect to see muscle sculpting with either machine. However, the arc trainer will let you get to the plateau faster so you can begin resistance training outside of your arc trainer.
Let’s break it down: arc trainers can give you more muscle growth than ellipticals, but both have their limits. A plateau. Arc trainers will get your endurance up just like an elliptical will, but it will get you there faster while shedding more calories than an elliptical will.
How Hard Can You Train?
It all depends on how hard you’re willing to train. Arc trainers are even less impactful on your joints, but they offer a more dynamic set of movements. Ellipticals can burn through a ton of calories, but so can arc trainers.
It all depends on how hard you’re willing to train. If you want a powerful exercise with amazing results, you can achieve it on either machine. You’re the variable in this case.
Understand each machine, how to leverage the pros and outweigh the cons, and master one machine at a time. There’s nothing wrong with eventually getting both, but there’s no major benefit, either. Just for variation.