When you buy an elliptical, you have two main options: front drive or rear drive ellipticals. Well, there’s also center drive, but we’ll get into that later.
The point is, which one do you pick? How do you know which one is best for you, and… does it even matter? Let’s figure that out together.
We’re about to go over all the little differences between both types of ellipticals, find out if there is a difference, and explore both model types for the fun of it. Let’s get going.
Front Drive Elliptical
A front-drive elliptical, as you might have guessed, has the drive system towards the front of the machine. Your flywheel builds resistance and pushes against you as you pedal, which can help with sculpting your leg muscles in a way that rear ellipticals don’t do.
This is what you need to know.
- Doesn’t Cost as Much: Typically speaking, front drive ellipticals are just cheaper. Everyone likes saving money, and since front-drive ellipticals have other benefits, it’s like getting twice the benefits for half the cost.
- Incline Builds Muscle: Because the drive is in the front, it has a bit of resistance to it when you push off. You’ll feel it in your shins and thighs, which is fantastic for building core muscles. It may not quite be the same as leg day in the gym, but it’s beneficial and helps keep you toned. Engaging those muscles is important, and now you don’t even have to think about it.
- Less Floor Space: Because you have all the room behind your front drive elliptical to move your feet, and there’s no drive back there, it doesn’t need to be as big. You can save some floor space with one of these. While it’s still difficult to fit an elliptical into a small space, you’ll have an easier time with a front drive than you will with a rear-drive.
- Loud: The front drive, for some reason, is just really loud. Compared to a rear-drive elliptical, it sends more vibrations through the floor and can fill a room with a dull noise. It’s loud enough to wake people up, and if you use it too early in the morning, you might tick off your neighbors. This is because of the way the front of the elliptical rattles and moves without the counterweight of the drive being on the back. Mats help.
- More Maintenance Costs: There are more moving parts, so you end up paying more for maintenance when something breaks.
A rear-drive elliptical has the flywheel in the back. The resistance is entirely different, and you can feel a difference when you hop between this and a front-drive elliptical, although the differences are minimal. Here’s what you need to know:
- Stable: The balance of your elliptical is much easier to control. When you’re in the throes of an extensive, heart-pounding workout, your elliptical is likely to give off a lot of vibrations and rattle a bit. With a rear-drive, your machine is much more balanced and able to disperse vibrations differently. You’ll feel less shaky on it, and besides that, the flywheel feels different, too.
- Smoother Operation: The rear flywheel helps to mimic a more natural movement (even though ellipticals feel a bit odd no matter what), which lowers the barrier to entry. It’s not as disorienting after a few minutes, so you can scale your workout quickly and build up a sweat.
- Cheaper to Maintain: Even though they’re more expensive, rear-drive ellipticals have different parts. In fact, they have fewer parts than a front-drive elliptical. This means maintenance is less expensive and overall easier to do on your own. Either way, if an elliptical breaks, you’re going to have an expensive fix on your hands.
- Low Impact: Even though you won’t be building up crazy leg muscles on this elliptical, you can still get a great workout. The motion of a rear-drive elliptical means you can focus on burning calories with a lower impact on your knees and joints than you would have with a front-drive elliptical.
- Requires More Room: Since the drive is in the back, the body has to be longer to accommodate for leg room. The mechanism has to move, and it needs adequate room. It’s not a lot of floor space, but definitely something you should plan for in advance.
- Lesser Incline: This is the flip side of the coin to being low impact. It also means that it’s nowhere near as good at building muscle, so you’ll definitely feel the difference on a rear-drive versus a front drive.
Is There Really a Difference?
There is, but it’s negligible. Let’s go over the differences really quickly, and you’ll see that it just comes down to your preferences more than anything else.
- Incline: Front drive ellipticals have more incline. Since you’re battling against the front drive, you’re going to feel more resistance as you move, which is a good thing. It helps build slightly more muscle than a rear-drive elliptical. You’re moving against the force of the front drive, so you’ll feel a completely different shift in balance and movement when you use a rear drive elliptical.
- Smoothness: Rear-drive ellipticals are actually smoother to operate than front-drive ellipticals. It’s not by much, but if you hop from one to the other, you can notice the difference in the way that it feels. There’s simply not as much resistance, yet you can still work up a sweat. Depending on how stable your joints are, it’s a win-win!
- Price: It’s true—rear drive ellipticals are actually more expensive than front drive. While it’s not clear what the reason is, it could come down to manufacturing differences and costs, or the public perception that rear drive ellipticals offer better results than front drive. If you don’t mind, either way, the front drive will cost you less money.
What About Center Drive Ellipticals?
Center drive ellipticals actually equalize the differences between front drive and rear drive. The awkward feeling of momentum shifting beneath your feet doesn’t happen quite as much with center drive ellipticals.
It’s akin to riding a bike and feeling the center of the frame like your center of gravity.
They’re not something you need to specifically seek out, though. Even though they feel like something between a front-drive and a rear-drive, the difference isn’t stark enough that it should influence your decision in one direction over the other.
Drive Your Cardio Results Your Way
So does it matter? In terms of price and noise, yes, it turns out it does matter. The incline is different from front-drive ellipticals and gives you more resistance, while rear-drive ellipticals have a smoother experience (like gliding on butter), and it feels more natural.
But does it matter enough? Not really. You’ll be able to get a great workout with either machine and since an elliptical is an unnatural feeling for your equilibrium anyway, it really doesn’t matter.
It all comes down to you and what you like, so if you have the opportunity, see if there’s a local gym with a one-day pass program where you can test each machine type out for yourself before you buy one.