Selecting And Effectively Using An Elliptical Trainer Or Stair Climber

Elliptical trainers and stair climbers offer many similar features for individuals considering a fitness machine for their home. Both machines provide the ability to exercise and target the thigh and gluteus muscles. Quality machines of both types provide an excellent alternative workout to running without the high impact on joints and muscles.


The elliptical trainer combines the motion of stair-stepping with cross-country skiing, providing a low-impact aerobic workout. Many elliptical trainers use alternating push/pull resistance bars to add an upper- body workout as you stride. The pedals can also be reversed (backward stride), which not only works the muscles in a slightly different manner but allows some variation in your workout.

There are two main types of elliptical machines available: rear-drive and front- drive. Rear-drive units enable a true elliptical movement of the pedals and include an adjustable incline ramp at the front of the machine. A front-drive elliptical machine, on the other hand, needs to use articulating pedals in order to match a natural stride and lacks the adjustable ramp of a rear-drive unit. Most users tend to prefer rear-drive elliptical machines.

The primary advantage of a front-drive unit is the cost; no matter how much of a bargain it seems, front-drive units without articulating pedals will result in motion that is unnatural and uncomfortable for most consumers. Make sure that stride length is comfortable – some units accommodate a stride length of only 14 inches, which is too small for a tall person, while others are as long as 21 inches. A stride that is too short will make for an awkward, jerky elliptical ride.


Similar to elliptical machines, many stair climbers offer levels of manual resistance. Others have programming for intervals, hills and endurance training. There are two types of stair steppers: electronic and manual. Electronic stair steppers have a motor that regulates the movement of the steps. Manual stair steppers are less expensive than their electronic counterparts and range from mini-steppers to full-size models; air pressure pistons (rather than a motor) regulate the stepping motion. Some stair- steppers feature revolving steps that rotate like a treadmill track and require you to keep pace. Most steppers, however, have independent pedals; you push down on one pedal as the other lifts up. Independent, self-leveling pedals will allow the user to keep the step flat throughout the workout. Check that the pedal motion is smooth, natural and comfortable; although mini-steppers come at a mini- price, the mini-construct results in an unnatural restriction in motion that few consumers can tolerate.


Ask lots of questions. Take a ten-minute “test drive” on several different machines. You will quickly develop a preference for console options, set-up and frame construction. Basic consoles should display time, distance, rate of speed and intensity level. Intensity may be controlled manually or pre-set from a menu of programmed workout choices when you start exercise. If your ten-minute “test drive” is even remotely uncomfortable, do not buy the machine.


It is essential that your machine have solid construction and a stable frame, in order to give you a safe and effective workout. The handrails should be positioned so that your workout posture is upright with the knees behind the toes. Bending forward places a great amount of stress on the back and wrists. Using the handrails to support part of your body weight reduces the effectiveness of your workout and puts you at risk for injury. Handrails should be used for balance and/or resistance training. Read all of the manufacturer’s instructions to get the most out of your machine!


  • Do you have appropriate floor support for the weight of the machine?
  • What is the maximum weight allowance of the machine? Most will have a maximum user weight of 350 lbs.
  • Determine your space considerations.
  • Is the manufacturing company reliable and reputable? Is the machine durable,
  • easily assembled and easily maintained?
  • Does the machine come with a warranty? Are local technicians available for service?
  • Check the control panel features.Is it accessible and easy to read? Is it user-friendly?
  • Does it offer the information important for your needs (time, distance,resistance, calories, etc.)?
  • Is the noise level acceptable?


When exercising, maintain the correct posture by keeping your shoulders back, head up, chin straight, abdominals tight, and arms relaxed.Your hands should rest lightly on the hand rails to assist with balance (or use the workout bars if available). Do not lean forward or grip the bars tightly. Posture should be upright. If you have a tendency to lean on the hand rails on a stair stepper, adjust the step rate. Increasing the pedal resistance will cause you to slow the stepping rate. This should allow you to take your weight off the hand rails.


  • Wear supportive athletic shoes.
  • Avoid restrictive clothing.
  • Relax and maintain a steady stride, going through a comfortable range of motion.
  • A good machine should allow you to move comfortably and smoothly, without the chance of your knees bumping into the console.
  • Avoid machines with pedals that limit your range of motion.
  • Any fitness machine is only as good for your health as the frequency with which you use it. ACSM recommends exercising for at least 150 minutes per week, consistent with the federal physical activity guidelines.

Republished with permission of the American College of Sports Medicine. Copyright © 2015 American College of Sports Medicine.

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