Front Drive vs. Rear Drive Ellipticals…What’s The Difference?

Elliptical training machines generally come in two styles, front drive and rear drive. This refers to the placement of the flywheel mechanism that powers the machine. If you’ve ever been to a gym, you’ve likely seen mostly rear drive models, with the wheel at the back. The majority of home models, on the other hand, tend to have the wheel on the front, although that is slowly changing. There are also newer models that have a center drive, a third option which you will learn more about below.

But when it comes to getting an elliptical workout is there really a difference?Proform-720E-elliptical That’s been a subject of vigorous debate ever since the introduction of the first front drive machine, which came about in answer to Precor’s rear drive design. Precor was first on the market with an elliptical machine and they used rear drive, believing that it made the machine more stable and produced a smoother motion. Since Precor laid claim to the patent for the rear drive design, subsequent manufacturers had to come up with another alternative.

This is where the front drive design came into play. Looking more like a traditional exercise bike, the front drive elliptical includes pedals that run on rails in the rear. This can make the overall design of the machine more compact, but it also means that the user may have to put a little more effort into their movement and it can be less comfortable for users with a longer stride.

Stride length is really the key to any elliptical workout, as you need to use a natural size stride in order to work muscles properly. Rear drive models tend to allow for a larger, more natural, stride. They also commonly have an incline feature not available in front wheel drive machines that allows for added resistance and a more challenging workout.

Another key component of an elliptical workout is balance. The better your balance on the machine, the less wasted movement you’ll have and the better your overall workout will be. With front drive ellipticals, users will be centered more toward the front of the machine and may even find themselves leaning forward in order to balance themselves. It is more like you are using a stair climber.
Precor EFX 447 elliptical
Rear drive ellipticals tend to have their balance more toward the center of the machine, allowing for a more even, smoother position for the user. This is more like you are walking or running.

A relatively new option on the market is center drive, like you’ll find on the popular NordicTrack FS7i, which includes a small flywheel on each side of the pedals, naturally solving the entire balance issue. How they stack up to front and rear drive ellipticals is yet to be determined.

Again, many home users opt for front wheel design because these machines tend to be more compact and less expensive, but there are now a range of rear wheel ellipticals designed specifically for home use that actually fold up for easier storage. Also, an important consideration for home users is that the design of front drive ellipticals means they have more working parts, which means there is a greater likelihood of requiring maintenance.

So to sum up everything for you, because it can be a little confusing:

FRONT DRIVE – flywheel located in the front of the machine, you are leaning forward a little, motion kind of like a stair climber, usually less expensive, may be noisier, more parts so may require more maintenance

REAR DRIVE – flywheel located in the back of the machine, you are standing straighter, motion kind of like walking or running, usually more expensive, often quieter/smoother, less parts so less maintenance

CENTER DRIVE – flywheel located centrally on either side of the pedals, same balance benefits of rear drive, usually more expensive than front/rear, often quieter/smoother, tend to have smaller footprint than either of the others, newest technology

(SEE OUR EXPERT’S PICKS FOR BEST FRONT, REAR and MID DRIVE ELLIPTICALS HERE)

So who offers what? Here are the top elliptical brands and what their current offerings are:

FreeMotion – front drive, rear drive
Life Fitness – rear drive only
Matrix – front drive only
NordicTrack – front drive, rear drive, center drive and freestrider (elliptical/treadmill/stepper)
Octane Fitness – front drive, recumbent, lateral
Precor – rear drive only
ProForm – front drive, rear drive and hybrid trainers (elliptical/bike)
Schwinn- front drive only
Sole – front drive only
Smooth – front drive only
TRUE- core drive only (center drive)
Yowza – rear drive only
Xterra- front drive only

Of course, the model you choose is ultimately a matter of what feels best for you. You need to take a variety of factors into consideration including your stride length, the type of workout you want, and the amount of space you have to house the machine. Before buying your elliptical, the best idea is to try out a variety of styles and figure out which one best suits your needs. Then, whether its front, rear, or center, you’ll be sure that you’re getting a smooth ride and a great workout every time!

In the front drive vs. rear drive debate, the winner is the elliptical trainer that feels right for you. No one can tell you one is better than another!