Elliptical vs Arc Trainer – Which Is Better?

If you’ve been considering whether to introduce an elliptical trainer into your fitness routine, or are already a cross trainer enthusiast with an eye on the rest of the exercise market, you may have come across arc trainers as a possible alternative.

Perhaps you’re looking to add a new piece of equipment to your home gym and are wondering whether an elliptical or an arc trainer is best for you? You may even be wondering what the difference is between the two?

The primary difference between an arc trainer and elliptical machine is in their range of movement. Elliptical machines have your legs and feet moving round and round in an ellipsis, whereas arc trainers involve you raising and lowering your feet in an arc movement that goes back and forth. 

There is some evidence to suggest that arc trainers burn more calories at the same rate of perceived intensity when compared to ellipticals. There are also marketing and anecdotal claims that arc trainers are better for preventing overuse injuries, particularly in the knees. 

Today, we’re going to be looking in a bit more detail at some of the other differences or similarities between the two machines, so that you can make an informed decision as to which one to opt for next.

We’ll also be doing a comparison of price, size, and other practical features that could prove to be a deciding factor if you’re debating whether to introduce an elliptical or arc trainer into your home gym set up. 

What Is The Difference Between An Elliptical and an Arc Trainer?

As is often the case, the clue in this instance is in the name. Elliptical machines involve foot pedals that rotate in an ellipsis shape repeatedly (an ellipsis is effectively a squashed circle). With an arc trainer, your feet move up and then down along an arc shape, rather than going in a full rotation.

This is the primary difference between the machines and is what distinguished the arc trainer from its elliptical cousin when it first hit the market. 

Arc trainers are comparatively new kids on the block vs elliptical machine. They first appeared in commercial gym settings in 2003, after having been developed and marketed by Cybex International as a healthier, more effective alternative to the elliptical. 

Elliptical vs Arc Trainer

Nevertheless, elliptical trainers are still by far the most widely used of the two styles of machine, having been established fixtures on the gym circuit for roughly three decades by now. There are also a far greater range of manufacturers developing elliptical machines for a range of budget, home gym, and commercial markets. 

It is worth noting at this point, before we delve into the potential differences between these two pieces of kit, that both the elliptical and arc trainer offer similar style workouts aimed at people looking for similar features from their exercise session. 

In brief, both are designed to give you an aerobic workout that burns calories, boosts circulation, improves cardiovascular fitness, and tones muscle. Crucially, both machines offer comparatively low impact workouts when compared to other forms of gym exercise such as treadmill running, particularly on the lower joints and muscles. 

Here is my personal recommendation on my favourite elliptical at an affordable price:

Schwinn Fitness 470 Elliptical
  • With enhanced Bluetooth connectivity, users can set, track and monitor progress with popular app-based tracking tools
  • Travel through 200+ stunning virtual courses at your own speed (Explore the World subscription required)
  • 10° motorized adjustable ramp enables incline control for fun and challenging workouts

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

What Are The Differences In Workout Between An Elliptical and Arc Trainer? 

So, how does this difference in the range of motion actually affect the user between the elliptical vs arc trainer? 

Arc trainers were developed in tandem with the claim that elliptical machines, whilst certainly placing lower stress on the limbs than running, could still lead to overuse injuries or exacerbate existing joint pain.  

Attention has been drawn to the fact that, when operating a cross trainer, the user needs to extend their lower leg forward slightly before being able to push it back down and around for a full rotation. This results in an extension of the knee joint which is not necessarily a ‘natural’ movement, particularly when done repeatedly across many workout sessions.

As a result, some people, including the original manufacturer of arc trainers, Cybex, claimed that ellipticals were more likely to lead to overuse injuries of the knee as well as potentially exacerbating any pre-existing knee conditions. 

Conversely, arc trainers more closely mimic the natural human motion of walking, running, or hill climbing. Their ‘up and down’ range of motion, rather than elliptical rotation, means there is no extension of the knee joint. It is therefore claimed that they offer an even ‘lower impact’ workout than the already low impact elliptical machine. 

Arc trainer developers also posit that, by maintaining a level footplate rather than one which tilts, the machine more effectively controls and directs force across the lower body.

Schwinn Fitness 430 Elliptical

This means that the arc trainer is sometimes seen as being more effective at targeting the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and other muscle groups below the waistline. It is also tipped as offering a more balanced workout and one which users can sustain for longer. 

How much of this is worth taking seriously? Well, although scientific evidence for arc trainers reducing injury compared to ellipticals is limited, there is certainly a fair amount of anecdotal reports from gym users claiming that they find the arc trainer preferable.

One study carried out by the Wisconsin University’s Department of Physical Therapy did indicate that the arc trainer results in less repetitive force being exerted on the knee joint when comparing elliptical vs arc trainer.

Many gym users have also shared personal experiences outlining why they prefer the arc trainer over the elliptical. Some of their reasons include the arc trainer providing a more natural and satisfying workout, being more enjoyable and easier to endure, and feeling as if it is working the muscles more effectively than the cross trainer.

Who Can Benefit From Arc Trainers?

If you suffer from knee problems, or have found that using an elliptical feels awkward or even painful, it could be worth giving the arc trainer at your local gym a go.

There is certainly a good deal of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the arc trainer is better suited to those suffering from pain in the knee joint and that, even more so than the cross trainer, it can be an effective way of keeping up cardio vascular fitness during bouts of injury recovery.

Of course, both machines offer viable ways of keeping fit from the comfort of an indoor space, with plenty of potential for effective aerobic workouts and fat burning sessions. Different people have made different claims for which machine feels ‘better’ for them when it comes to their favourite workout style.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough scientific evidence at this stage to say with any certainty which is ‘better’ overall in terms of providing a cardiovascular boost.

As with many forms of gym equipment like the glider, the best way to determine whether one or the other suits you more is to try them yourself. If you have specific health or injury needs that require caution, always check with a medical professional before experimenting with a new or unfamiliar piece of kit. 

Here is my favourite Arc Trainer:

CYBEX 750AT Total Body Arc Trainer
  • Fitness machine that combines best elements of skier, elliptical trainer, and climber
  • Reverse Arc motion technology engages the quads and glutes to burn more calories
  • Reduces stress on joints while offering complete range of motion for knee and hip

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Arc Trainers vs Elliptical Trainer Calories

It has been claimed by trainers and by marketers that the arc trainer is more effective at burning calories than the traditional elliptical machine. 

Such claims are usually based off of a widely quoted study carried out by the University of Wisconsin, in which arc trainers were calculated as burning roughly 16% more calories than a traditional cross trainer during workouts that had the same perceived level of exertion amongst participants.

This is a study that Cybex themselves, the original inventor and primary manufacturer of arc trainers, are understandably keen to promote. 

Anecdotally, you can find a number of gym users who report feelings of having pushed themselves harder but also more sustainably when using an arc trainer vs elliptical machine. Though more scientific study is needed to establish the exact differences in calorie burn, reports from users are certainly encouraging. 

Are Ellipticals or Arc Trainers Bigger?

If you’re thinking about introducing one of these machines into your home, you’ll want to think about practicalities in terms of size and weight. This is where the elliptical machine is a clear favourite, as well as one of the reasons why it’s still relatively unusual to find arc trainers incorporated into home gym set-ups.

In terms of physical footprint, arc trainers on the market tend to be larger than a number of elliptical machines. A typical arc trainer comes in at roughly 69-77 inches long and 28-37 inches wide, which is comparable to higher-end or commercial-grade cross trainers.

Cybex 750AT Total Body Arc Trainer

However, cross trainers can be much smaller than this, with budget-friendly models sometimes being as small as 38 by 27 inches. 

There is an even bigger discrepancy when it comes to weight. To give just one example, the Cybex 750A, a popular arc trainer on the market, comes in at more than 400 lbs. This is extremely heavy when compared to even heavy duty elliptical machines, which rarely top 250 lbs. 

A lot of this discrepancy also comes down to variety of choice, or lack of it. Arc trainers are nowhere near as widely manufactured as their elliptical cousins. With elliptical machines, you can find a wealth of companies building different grades and sizes, many of which are specifically designed for home use. 

Arc trainers, on the other hand, are still primarily developed by one company (Cybex) and for a more limited market (commercial gyms). This is also reflected in the price!

Which is More Expensive – Arc Trainer vs Elliptical? 

As with many established pieces of exercise equipment, the sky can be the limit when it comes to how much you want to spend on an elliptical vs arc trainer.

Higher end models can cost you thousands of dollars. However, there are budget-friendly and mid-range options aplenty. Many of these can give you access to a smooth, reliable, and enjoyable workout for less than $1000. 

Arc trainers, on the other hand, are still primarily geared towards the commercial gym market, which means they are often prohibitively expensive for people interested in having one in their own home.

They can certainly be purchased for private use, but the machine is likely to set you back more than $8000 new. There are even used, refurbished models going for more than $3000. 

For this reason alone, it’s likely that the sheer cost of an arc trainer discounts it as an option for many people when considering it as a personal purchase. 

Are Arc Trainers Better Than Ellipticals?

So which is it going to be – the arc trainer or elliptical? Given the significant financial investment involved in arc trainers, and the limited home market for them, ellipticals continue to be a far more practical option for many home gym enthusiasts.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging reports from a number of gym users who say that they both enjoy and benefit from arc trainer workouts more than sessions on traditional ellipticals. 

When comparing the arc trainer vs elliptical machine, we would certainly recommend trying an arc trainer out at your local commercial gym if you’re interested in introducing something new into your exercise routine.

Whether you are choosing the arc trainer or elliptical; although scientific evidence is still limited, there are encouraging signs that the arc trainer can offer an even lower impact, more sustainable, and more calorie efficient workout than the elliptical which it was designed to replace. 

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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!

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