Elliptical trainers are well-known gym staples, but what if you prefer to be outdoors? Enter elliptical bikes! Once a fitness fad, these contraptions seem to be gaining enduring fans. Are there advantages to choosing them over a regular bicycle?
I am a big fan of cycling because it's fun, a quick way to get around town, and a great workout. But I also know that when I cycle, I spend a lot of time in a seated position. This can shorten my hip flexors, and create pain and stiffness in my neck, shoulders, and back. If only there was a way to solve these issues without taking me off the road.
Maybe there is.
About 10 years ago, a friend of mine told me about this funky bike-like device he had purchased called an ElliptiGO. He described it as “the love child of a bicycle and an elliptical trainer.” A few weeks later, he showed up to meet me riding it and, yep, that's exactly what it looks like. It has handlebars and wheels like a bike but instead of pedals, it has those big foot pads like an elliptical machine at the gym.
And the real differentiator is that it doesn’t have a seat.
Outdoor elliptical bikes seem to be gaining popularity. I've started to see these contraptions on the streets around my neighborhood and I have even seen 4x Obstacle Racing World Champion and Ultrarunner Amelia Boone posting about hers on Twitter.
So, I thought it is about time I took a closer look.
Are outdoor elliptical machines effective?
In one of my previous articles called “The Benefits of Using an Elliptical Trainer,” I mentioned a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This study compared the use of a plain old bike with an elliptical trainer during what is called a Wingate test. This test is a 30-second, all-out, maximum effort that measures the power output from an athlete. In this version of the test, the researchers had volunteers ride both a bike and then an elliptical while they measured energy outputs from the three major energy systems of the body: oxidative, phosphorolytic, and glycolytic energy systems. They then compared the oxygen consumption and peak blood lactate levels.
The researchers concluded that due to the increased arm use, core activation, the use of more leg musculature, and the standing position the user is put in (remember, there is no seat), the elliptical trainer was able to get the volunteers to reach an exhausted state much more quickly than a regular bike.
Why is this important? Well, what I take away from this study is that if you're looking for a cardiovascular exercise that will maximize your effort, choosing a machine that gets your arms, core, and legs moving is important. Outdoor elliptical bikes do exactly that.
3 reasons to choose ellipticals
Aside from elliptical trainers being more difficult than bikes (and more effective at exhausting volunteer test subjects), there are a few other reasons why you might want to take this fad seriously, despite the fact that they do look a little odd.
The elliptical trainer was originally designed to replicate the running motion but with less strain put on the joints. And, if you have ever used one, you will know first hand that they succeeded. The smooth oval-shaped movements that your feet make are undoubtedly placing a lower impact on your ankles, knees, hips, and lower back.
A study at the University of Missouri compared an elliptical machine to a treadmill and found that the elliptical exercise was nearly identical to the treadmill exercise in every aspect except that the elliptical trainer created far less joint impact.
So if you are worried about your joints but want to keep your cardiovascular fitness high, this could be a good choice.
Builds more muscle
A Canadian study that looked at how elliptical machines differ from walking and found greater muscle activation during the elliptical training from the glutes and the hips than during walking.
If you want to build a stronger butt or increase the power of your hip muscles, you can do it on an elliptical trainer.
A study at Willamette University found that when you pedal backward on an elliptical, you can really target your quadriceps and challenge your coordination at the same time.
So, if you want to build a stronger butt or increase the power of your hip muscles, you can do it on an elliptical trainer.
Includes the upper body
Because these outdoor ellipticals don’t have a seat and some of them also use the power of your arms, shoulders, and chest, you get a good upper body workout while you toodle around town. Again, because there's no seat, you also use more of your core muscles to stay upright.
This means that you can save time by working your upper body, lower body, cardiovascular fitness, and core all at the same time on an elliptical trainer.
The best elliptical bikes
While there are many more of them on the market now than there were when my friend rolled up on his ten years ago, the choices are still pretty limited. Due to the variety of designs, features, and functions, it's pretty hard for me to say which is the best. But here are a few stand-out options.
The StreetStrider is definitely the one I think encapsulates more of the elliptical experience than many of the others. While most of them have handlebars (like a bike), the StreetStrider has two handles that move forward and back. I would definitely choose it if you are interested in the upper body benefits I mentioned earlier. The StreetStrider can also be set up on an indoor stand to become an in-home elliptical trainer when the weather outside gets frightful.
The ElliptiGO Arc 8 is probably the coolest looking one. It also has 8 gears, which is probably why I've been seeing them around my quite hilly neighborhood. It's also one of the more affordable choices considering what you get. Another point in their favor is that ElliptiGO, to my knowledge, has been doing this the longest, so they have the best track record and the most variety.
The Halfbike is probably the silliest looking ... yet also somehow the most stylish. To me, it looks like what would happen if a kids’ tricycle was designed by a Danish architect. It's also the smallest and the most foldable, so if you're planning on riding it to work or packing it in the trunk of your car, this is a good choice.
The Wingflyer, which is billed as a “scooter for adults,” is the most fun looking, but they're harder to find. Wingflyer also warns riders to steer clear of rough terrain. I wouldn't necessarily suggest using any of these bikes for off-roading, but if being able to cruise on off-road terrain matters to you, you might want to look elsewhere.
Get-Fit Guy recommends ...
So, which do I recommend? I prefer the StreetStrider’s design because it involves the upper body more than the others and it's also a little whackier looking (which, in this realm, is saying something). In tests, it also offers better stability at the higher speeds you can apparently reach on these bikes (up to 20 mph or 32 kph). But I don't advise trying to hit those speeds until you're very confident in your elliptical abilities.
In the end, when it comes to outdoor elliptical bikes, you could be a runner looking to build endurance while avoiding impact injuries or a general fitness enthusiast who doesn’t want to stare at a wall while they exercise. Or you could be like me, someone who loves fitness gear and also the great outdoors. Either way, what I thought 10 years ago was going to be a hilarious flash in the fitness pan seems to be sticking around and winning the hearts of even this die-hard cycle fanatic.