Is the drive system of your elliptical trainer its most important feature? Some trainers say yes. Your elliptical’s drive system determines the feel of the machine and the overall experience of your workout. That said, you want a long and positive relationship with your machine, so it’s important to understand the different drives available. Here’s a primer.
Elliptical machines offer front, center and rear drives. Drives are important for elliptical stability, and the thinking behind them has changed dramatically over the years. Early elliptical machines had rear drives, with the axle behind the user, since that’s the easiest way to create elliptical foot pedal motion. However, a rear-drive system put users higher off the ground—creating a higher center of gravity, more stress on the machine frame, and overall instability.
With the discovery of the elliptical cantilever mechanism in the early-mid 2000’s, most ellipticals moved to a center- or front-drive system, thereby creating a more stable platform. Plus, since the advent of adjustable stride length, almost all newer elliptical designs have their drives in the center or front, as this adjusts the upper body motion with lower body motion harmoniously. (Rear drives with adjustable stride lengths result in the upper and lower body adjusting in opposition—meaning that with a longer stride length, arm throw is reduced, and vice versa.)
In a center-drive system, a pair of drive axles sits on the either side of the machine. This creates an extremely stable platform because the user is placed in the middle of the machine frame. What’s more, center-drive ellipticals are much smaller than front- and rear-drive machines when not in use—since when not in use, the pedals rest inside the machine. That said, center-drive ellipticals give you the smallest footprint of any drive system, and are typically no longer than 50” (as opposed to rear-drive machines, which can be 85-95” long).
Almost all new elliptical designs today use a front-drive system, where the axle and flywheel are in front. Most of the time, a front-drive machine is far lower to the ground than center- or rear-drive machines. This helps when placing machines in a low-ceiling space like a basement. In addition, it’s easier to create an adjustable strident length machine with a front-drive as well. In the early days of elliptical machines the incline motor mechanism was in the front, so it made sense to put the drive in the rear. However with the eventual understanding of the added knee stress of an elliptical incline system (and the subsequent development of adjustable stride length), front-drive and center-drive systems have become the dominant paradigm.
Finally, the elliptical category has now expanded to include alternate motions such as the Cybex Arc Trainer and lateral-motion machines, such as the Octane LateralX. Choosing the right elliptical for you requires expert advice from someone with an understanding of what these different mechanisms do. Don’t rely on what your gym is using—your favorite machine could be ten years old with outdated technology. The fitness equipment industry is constantly changing, so consult your trainer or another fitness expert when choosing what’s best for you.