Ever since the concept of an elliptical trainer was introduced in the mid-1990s, the equipment's popularity has grown exponentially. And no wonder: They are non-impact and the movement feels quite natural (like running or walking). Add upper body arms and your customer could have a non-impact, full-body workout that can satisfy everyone from total beginners to very advanced exercisers. Although they still haven't dethroned the treadmill as the equipment king, elliptical trainers are edging closer and may be worth showing and explaining to customers who either don't know about ellipticals or have come in asking about treadmills – just because it is yet another option for their consideration.
Why is it called an elliptical?
With a curious customer, this could explain it all: an "ellipse" pattern sort of looks like a squashed circle or a bit like anegg. If you look at the movement of the feet from the side of someone on an elliptical, they are following that flatter circular pattern. The flatter the circle, the less the "bounce" or height in mid-stride someone will achieve; the higher the circle is, the more bouncy the movement will feel (more like a stepper almost). Some people will like the flatter and more even stride, while some will actually enjoy the fun of the bounciness.
How does it feel?
Someone may ask you which one is "best," but that is impossible to say really. Although certain models will be very adaptable to everybody and may feel good to more people, the smoothness, length of the stride, amount of bounce, distance of the arms from the exerciser, positioning of the console, and programs available, among other features could sway someone's comfort and opinion.
Typically, the shorter the machine in physical length from stem to stern, the bouncier the stride will be (since the egg shape has to shorten too), while the longer the machine is, the flatter the movement will be – but not always. More and more companies are coming out with mechanics that allow shorter ellipticals to still have flatter patterns.
Key: Get a customer on various machines and let them ride each one for a few minutes so they can experience the difference and decide what feels good to their body. Remember, if there is more than one user in the household – especially if the users are of varied height and build – is important for them both to try the machines to agree on the feel that is best for them both.
Will it fit in the house?
Some ellipticals can be nearly as much of a space-hog as a treadmill, requiring as much as 7 feet or so in length, so be sure a customer is aware of measurements. The height of the ceiling in the room the elliptical will be used in may be even more important. Because of the up-and-down movement provided by the rounder elliptical pattern, a user can be thrust higher mid-stride – perhaps too high for low-ceiling rooms, attics or basement areas. Newer models and some brands have worked on this issue, introducing machines that are "low-profile" because of foot platforms that remain lower and therefore don't push a user so high upward.
Key: Ask customers what room they are thinking of for their elliptical and how high the ceiling. We know of a woman who actually ordered an elliptical and had it delivered, only to find it was too big for her small, low-ceiling basement. Save yourself and the customer time, energy and disappointment.
Does a user want or need a full-body workout?
Many models these days have upper-body arms that attach to the sides of the front shroud and allow an exerciser to hold onto them and pull back and forth for additional upper-body exercise. This can be great for someone who normally doesn't get an upper-body workout and it may not be so great if someone regularly lifts weights. Some brands even have cues built in to some programs telling a user to pull or push to vary the upper-body workout, and at least one allows a user to stop the arm motion (a back-and-forth swinging that can be annoying if unused) if they don't want to use the arms.
Make sure the arms are easily held by the user without unnecessary reaching or straining. And if a customer may not always use the arms, make sure there are stationary bars for them to hold onto.
Rear drive vs. front drive – does it matter?
It's still all about feel, no matter where the drive is. What does matter is the overall size and the consumer's room space constraints since many rear-drive ellipticals (the ones with the mechanism in the back covered by a large shroud) can be quite demanding of space. Ellipticals with a front drive – the foot platforms seem to just hang out from the shroud under the console – can take less space, but it's also important that customers are aware of the moving platforms can endanger small kids or animals if they get too close when someone is on the elliptical working out. That risk can be minimized simply by telling the consumer to place the elliptical appropriately in the room so a pet or child cannot slip behind a user without his or her knowledge.
Other fit issues to check during a sale:
- Console -- The console, its controls and buttons should be within easy reach without straining.
- Foot platforms – They should be large enough to move the feet forward or backward or in or out as needed for comfort; however, they should not be so wide apart that a user is forced to stand with feet farther apart than hips, putting a constant strain on glutes, hips, low back and knees. (Note: This can be especially problematic for women who normally have narrower hips, as well as legs that "angle in" slightly at the knee. Foot placement that is too wide adds extra torque in the wrong places to the lower body.)
- Stride length - Ranges offered vary from about 14 to 22 inches. If a customer has longer legs or is tall, they'll want one with a longer stride length. Some runners may also prefer a longer stride length. A few brands allow a user to vary the length.
- Body lean – Exercisers should feel as if they are walking or running naturally and very fluidly, and should not feel as if they are being forced to lean forward or backward -- or to unnaturally tense any lower-body or foot muscles to keep balanced.
- Step-up height – With the height of foot platforms on some, users may have to step up pretty high to get on -- perhaps intimidating or awkward, especially if a user is short or if the elliptical is for someone who is older or less stable. Some foot platforms are low enough for more comfortable access.
Other variables worth pointing out:
- Resistance settings – Variable enough to accommodate the user, from very easy to quite hard, and setting variability should be wide enough to accommodate needs as someone gets more fit or for others who may use the machine in the same household.
- Heart-rate monitoring – As with most machines, there are two types, grip or telemetry. "Grip" means a user holds onto a specific place on handles with each hand and the pulse transmits to the console for readout. Sometimes movement can make these less accurate, just as can cold hands or poor circulation. "Telemetry" means a user wears a chest strap that reads a heart beat and the heart rate is displayed on the console. This feature can be quite motivating and educational for many users.
- Motivation -- Computerized controls, visual feedback and programs –Does a user need motivation, such as a machine that will update progress and "cheer" on a user to different goals? Some brands have an array of pre-set programs that simulate hill climbing and different types of workouts, including use of upper-body arms, so a user doesn't have to think about it him- or herself – a bit like a built-in personal trainer. Some also allow a user to input customized programs.
- Affordability – Price can be a huge factor. Someone may be willing to trade up several hundred dollars if they are getting better fit and features. Above all else, don't sell on price, but on fit, feel and features.
- Console amenities – It may seem like a minor detail, but someplace to put a water bottle, cell phone or pager, book or other necessities is pretty important.
- Power - Is it self-generating (no plug in required) or electrical? Make sure you know there is a plug nearby where the consumer is planning on putting the elliptical, if that's what they choose.
Because the feel and fit are so important with an elliptical, encourage your customer to wear comfortable shoes and get on the machine(s) he or she is considering for at least 5 minutes. Then and only then will they know if it feels right.