Elliptical Flywheel – Everything You Need To Know

If you’ve looked into buying an elliptical, chances are you’ve already come across the term flywheel on numerous occasions. You may have read about how it’s a vital component of any cross trainer. You may have even seen advice talking about how, when deciding on which elliptical to buy, the quality of the flywheel is something you’ll want to consider closely. 

So what exactly is the flywheel and why is it so important? Essentially, the flywheel is a large, circular component, usually made out of metal, and connected to the elliptical pedals and handles. It rotates in a circular motion during your workout and is the wheel that controls the momentum and smooth running of the machine.

Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at how the flywheel functions, why it’s so important, and how to decide whether the cross trainer you’re looking at has a decent flywheel or not. We’ll also be thinking about how long you should expect a flywheel to last and under which circumstances you might want to consider having your flywheel replaced. 

What Does The Flywheel Do On An Elliptical?

The flywheel is, in many ways, the centrepiece of any elliptical machine. It is a large, revolving wheel, usually placed at the front or the rear of the cross trainer, but occasionally appearing in the centre. The position of the flywheel is what determines whether your elliptical is referred to as a front-drive or rear-drive model, two terms that you will often see used to describe different machines. 

The flywheel is connected to the moving pedals and handles of your cross trainer by a combination of drive belts and attachments. When you move the pedals and handles during your workout, energy is passed to the flywheel which rotates, affording what should ideally be a smooth and consistent motion throughout your session. 

Elliptical Flywheel

A good elliptical flywheel will also retain a certain amount of momentum once you’ve got it moving, helping to provide a range of movement which isn’t too jarring or sudden. In other words, if you stop pushing the pedals, the machine should gradually come to a halt, rather than juddering to a stop and risking injury. 

The flywheel is also frequently the component upon which resistance is placed. This is the force that means you have to push harder in order to move the pedals, resulting in greater exertion on your part and a tougher workout for your muscles. Resistance is applied to the flywheel in different ways, but most machines do so via magnetic force. 

Any decent elliptical machine will have different levels of resistance that you, the user, can switch between. Usually a magnet will be moved closer or further from the elliptical flywheel, or will have a variable electro-magnetic force passed through it. This will in turn exert a greater or lesser pressure on the rotating wheel, making it harder or easier for you to push.

Some older or cheaper models may use a physical braking system in order to add friction to the elliptical flywheel, though this tends to be seen as an unfavourable mechanism these days. Physical contact involved in this sort of breaking can lead to faster wear and tear on moving parts, and will generally provide a rougher, less streamlined workout experience. 

What is a Good Flywheel Weight For an Elliptical? 

As a general rule of thumb, the larger and heavier a flywheel, the better. 

A heavier, larger flywheel will tend to provide smoother, more stable rotation and overall momentum. Since your elliptical workout revolves around repetitive movements, the smoother, more consistent and more stable the flywheel, the more enjoyable your exercise sessions are going to be. 

Heavier, larger elliptical flywheels also tend to rotate more quietly, with smaller and lighter flywheels being more likely to rattle, judder, or make noise when they’re being worked. Remember, you’re looking for a workout machine that you look forward to using! These variations in smooth functioning can be the difference between a machine you want to leap on every day and a pricey piece of kit that sits gathering dust in the corner! 

So what is a good weight for a flywheel? You’ll see flywheels ranging from anywhere between 10 lbs and 40 lbs. Anything heavier than that is only likely to appear in exceptionally heavy-weight, professional gym-grade equipment. It’s not necessary to go that large or heavy for a home set-up in order to ensure a smooth functioning, high-quality cross trainer. 

As a general guide, if your budget allows, try to go for a machine with a flywheel weighing between 18 and 24 lbs. Anything less than 15 lbs and you may be risking a less-than-silky smooth workout experience. A light flywheel is also less likely to hold up to repeated use and is going to be more liable to wear, tear and premature damage. 

Heavier, more durable machines are likely to have heavier, larger, better functioning elliptical flywheels. They’re also likely to cost more. As with any piece of gym equipment, you will need to balance durability, quality of materials, and long-term functionality with the limitations of your own personal budget. 

It’s certainly possible to get a decent workout with a machine that has a lighter flywheel – it’s just not going to be the same premium experience as a higher-value model with better quality components! 

Is weight everything when it comes to elliptical flywheel quality? Yes and no. On the one hand, weight is the single easiest way for us consumers to get a decent sense of whether a flywheel is more or less likely to give us a smooth ride. On the other hand, two flywheels of the same or very similar weight may not function identically.  

The momentum and functionality of an elliptical flywheel will be improved if its weight is distributed along its peripheral edges, rather than being gathered in the centre. For this reason, you will see some manufacturers advertising their flywheels as being ‘perimeter weighted’. If you see this, it’s a good sign! 

How Long Does a Flywheel Last?

As with any other component on your elliptical, this is going to depend largely on the quality of the build. A larger, heavier, more solidly built flywheel in a premium machine is going to stand the test of time in a way that a cheap, flimsy elliptical flywheel just isn’t as likely to.

To get a rough idea of life-spans, it’s worth having a glance at the various warranties offered by different manufacturers for different models. A good flywheel should, as long as your machine is relatively well maintained, last 10 to 15 years, if not more. 

Reputable manufacturers will often offer 5 years or more warranty on the parts of their elliptical machine, including the flywheel. They do this because it isn’t much of a financial risk on their part to do so! 

Generally speaking, although it’s a component that gets consistent use, it’s also a component that shouldn’t be prone to early breaking if of a decent weight and build. Although it is hooked up to a number of moving parts, drive belts, and attachments, the movement of the flywheel itself is relatively straight forward. With magnetic braking systems, no direct frictional contact should be placed on the wheel as it rotates, meaning less wear and tear over time. 

In terms of the mechanisms surrounding the elliptical flywheel, front-drive machines tend to have a greater number of moving parts and independent components. They can also be of a lower quality build than rear-drive models, with lower price tags that reflect this. For this reason, you may find that the overall flywheel structure, including the drive belt and connectors, is less durable on front-drive models than on their rear-drive cousins.

When Does a Flywheel Need to be Replaced?

If a flywheel cracks, is damaged, or becomes warped in some way, this can seriously affect the overall functionality of your machine. In many cases, a damaged or broken flywheel can spell the end of your elliptical, resulting in the need for a full repair or replacement.

However, the good news is that the flywheel itself is usually a comparatively robust and hard-wearing part of the model, particularly on higher quality cross trainers. A heavy-duty, steel wheel should be able to weather many years of use without there being any issues, in many cases outlasting the drive belts, pedals, nuts and bolts, LCD displays, and other components that may be surrounding it. 

Replacing a flywheel is only really going to be financially viable on more expensive, higher-end machines. Professional grade gyms may wish to replace their flywheels due to excessive, constant use over many years, and only because the cost of replacing the entire machine is likely to extend into multiple thousands of dollars. 

Replacement flywheels for high-quality machines can, on their own, cost anywhere from $400 upwards, before you factor in labour. There’s also a high chance that other components of your elliptical, including the drive belts, the pedals, the handles, or the electrics, will start to malfunction long before the flywheel itself becomes unusable. For this reason, an elliptical flywheel replacement for many elliptical users isn’t necessarily something they need to trouble themselves with.

If you do believe that your flywheel is broken, damaged, or warped in a way that could mean it needs replacing, check your warranty to see whether you are still covered. Try to ensure you get a professional technician to dismantle and check each individual component to see whether or not the fault lies elsewhere before investing in a new wheel entirely. 

If you do decide to go with a new wheel, consult your manufacturers’ handbook or contact your manufacturer directly to ensure that you get a suitable replacement. 

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An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!