Elliptical Drives

Learn which one is best suited to help you achieve your fitness goals.

The Different Types of Elliptical Drives

Rear-drive, back-drive and center-drive . . . what do these mean when you are looking at elliptical trainers? Don’t worry, it is not similar to driving a car and has nothing to do with changing gears. The drive type of an elliptical machine is only referring to the placement of the flywheel or drive system that controls how smooth the machine feels and gives the trainer its resistance. An elliptical with the flywheel in the back is known as a “rear-drive”, one with the flywheel in the front is called a “front-drive”, and if the drive system is on both sides it is, amazingly, a “center-drive”. The rule of thumb is that the heavier the flywheel, the smoother the motion of the machine will be. That part is fairly simple, but which drive type is best for you? Let’s have a look at the benefits of each type in order to find out.

Front Drive

The very first elliptical trainers for home use had the flywheels located in the front and were front drive trainers. They are still popular because they are usually more compact and cheaper than ellipticals with other drive types. This design tends to encourage you to lend forward just a bit when you are working out; this makes front drive ellipticals more favorable among people who like the climbing motion, as they will feel more like they are using a stair climber. Front drive ellipticals are also usually very close to the ground and they don’t have many parts sticking out like hurdles for you to jump over when getting on or off the machine. This makes them somewhat safer to mount than rear drive machines. Some of these ellipticals will allow you to manually adjust the incline of the ramp, but more often than not the incline is fixed.

The main drawback of using a front drive elliptical trainer is the higher maintenance costs that usually incur because they use roller tracks with urethane wheels. The tracks and wheels both need to be cleaned regularly for the machine to keep functioning optimally. The thought of having to go the extra mile to clean the roller track every so often, just to be sure you don’t run into any performance issues, is by no means attractive. This regular maintenance is why some people prefer not to go with front drive ellipticals.

Rear Drive

Yes, you guessed it! Rear drive ellipticals have the flywheel at the back of the machine. This type of elliptical is more commonly found in gyms and they are popular in the commercial elliptical market. They also tend to be more expensive than front drive machines because they let you adjust the incline manually or automatically. Also, they don’t have as many moving parts, which translates into lower maintenance costs. Rear drive ellipticals generally have more of a flat elliptical pathway and so they are more suited for persons who typically want a realistic walking or running motion.

In some cases you will be able to fold up your rear drive elliptical to make it more compact for storage, but you will not be able to fold a front drive machine. The rear drive design also encourages you to be more upright when you are exercising, which reduces the stress on your lower back.

Center Drive

The newest drive type to be used on elliptical machines is the center drive. On center drive elliptical trainers the drive system or flywheel is located on both the left and right sides of the machine instead of at the back or front. You will normally see this design on ellipticals that are more compact for home use, such as the Best Fitness E1 Elliptical Trainer by Body Solid. Ellipticals with a center drive design tend to be more expensive, but they are known to be very quiet, provide a smooth natural movement, and are easy on the joints. These types of ellipticals typically have the foot pedals closer together than on traditional machines; this pedal placement is what helps to give the elliptical a more natural feel and the ability to reduce stress on your back or hips. As the weight of the machine is evenly distributed on both sides, these machines will also feel more stable.

The one drawback of having an elliptical with a center drive is that they do not come with an incline option. Incline on an elliptical allows you to work more of your muscle groups but, alas, those with a center drive design do not have this ability. This is because their physical design does not use a ramp, and ramps are needed to change the angle of the incline. Incline is an optional feature on ellipticals; your machine will still be able to give you a good, total body workout without it, but if you absolutely must have the incline feature then you should look at machines with a front or back drive.

So which drive type is better? I would say it all comes down to your personal preferences. If you like the climbing motion, go for a front drive elliptical. If you prefer a machine that you can potentially fold up, you should look at back drive models. If you want a machine that is firm and stable, then a center drive will likely be your best option. Now that you know the benefits of each type, you can choose the one that will best suit your needs.

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