A cross trainer is a stationary exercise machine that can be used as an alternative to the more traditional treadmill and stationary bikes, but with design elements and benefits from each. With a cross trainer you get the leg movement that you would associate with a mix of treadmill and stationary bike, in the sense that your legs will move through a range of motion similar to running while still always resting on foot plates like a stationary bike.
The movement of a cross trainer can be similar to stair climbing, walking, or running depending on the stride length and incline level used. With your feet always resting on foot plates there is also the benefit of the exercise being low pressure on the joints. This makes cross trainers a good choice for anyone recovering from injury that still wants to perform some form of low impact cardio.
Although not as easy to increase the incline with a cross trainer when compared with a treadmill, this is still an effective option for increasing the overall workout intensity.
Protection of the joints from strain, shear and compression type injuries is aided by the elliptical type movement, where the feet perform an ellipse roughly parallel to the ground.
Most elliptical trainers work the user upper and lower body. Though elliptical trainers are considered to be minimal-impact, they are an example of a weight-bearing form of exercise the same as a treadmill due to the fact that you are standing up and putting your bodyweight on the foot plates.
Cross trainers can be self-powered by user-generated motion or need to be plugged in to power the resistance system and LCD display.
Types of cross trainer
This also helps to use different muscle groups in your legs more heavily, mainly focussing on the quadriceps and calf muscles.
There are some higher priced commercial cross trainers that allow you to change the incline while still on the machine, similar to how you would on a treadmill, although most require you to remove a pin in the main leg frame and adjust the height of the leg sections manually before you start your workout.
Variable stride length
By adjusting the stride length on a cross trainer you effectively change the intensity of the exercise as well as changing how many calories you are burning.
With a shorter stride length of usually no less than 17 inches, you are mimicking more of a walking or light jogging motion. Many adjustable stride cross trainers will extend to provide you with a stride length of not much more than 23 inches.
Even though this seems a relatively small difference, it is still giving you a greater than 30% increase in stride length, making the movement a lot more like running even for tall users.
How to use the cross trainer
Elliptical trainers are primarily driven via the legs, and most designs also have handle-levers attached to each foot plate so that your arms provide a secondary source of driving power.
Once you have adjusted the stride length and footplate incline, simply grip the handles below shoulder height and push and pull them while using your legs to drive the foot plates forwards or backwards depending on the model of treadmill and range of motion required.
You can often tell a better quality cross trainer from how much energy you need to put in with your arms, and how well this balances with the leg movement. The best designed cross trainers will offer a combination of arm and leg exercise in a movement that doesn’t put too much dependence on one or the other.
For example you don’t want to be driving the foot plates forward with your legs and holding onto the handles, but feeling like your arm motion is struggling to keep up with the leg motion.
Benefits of using a cross trainer
What to consider when buying a cross trainer for use at home
The Braking System
The most common form of braking system is magnetic. This is used together with the built in computer to adjust the resistance according to which level or program you choose.
The maximum user weight limit
The majority of the higher priced cross trainers have a maximum weight limit of 150kg, but this will vary depending on the manufacturer and specific product. Almost all will have a weight limit of over 100kg but you will need to check individual products to be sure.
Lower Body Movement Feel
The aim of cross trainers is to match your natural running or walking style as naturally as possible, compared to matching your running style with the elliptical range of motion.
The number and variety of programmes available on cross trainers is usually limited to different levels of resistance, but there are some designs that let you change the stride length as well as the incline that can help provide you with added levels of intensity and simulate various hill courses.
Some cross trainers also feature heart rate sensors or heart rate monitoring programs similar to those found on treadmills and stationary bikes, where if you wear a heart rate monitor the machine will adjust the resistance to keep you within a pre-set heart rate range.
Depending on where you are likely to use your cross trainer, you may need to think about whether you need to look for a model that can run without a mains connection.
Although many cross trainers use mains electricity for powering the display unit and even resistance, there are a number of excellent cross trainers that you can buy where the display unit is much simpler and can be run off batteries or a similar power source that doesn’t require plugging into the mains.
Upper Body Movement Feel
You will often find that cross trainers come with two pairs of handles, one that is stationary with a handle either side of the main display unit, and one pair that move with the motion of the foot plates.
It’s important that you are comfortable with the lower body elliptical motion when you are using either set of handles, as the set nearest the display will normally be the ones with the heart rate sensors so you may have to hold onto these at regular intervals to monitor your heart rate if you aren’t wearing a heart rate monitor belt.
When using the handles that move along with the foot plate motion, the grip should be comfortable and should be a smooth motion without any sudden jerking motion the same as with the lower body movement.
Ellipse Stride Length Adjustment
Some machines allow you to shorten or lengthen the stride, making it easier to match the machine’s movement to your own natural stride pattern.
This usually ranges between 17 inches and 23 inches and would certainly be worth considering particularly if you are over 6ft tall due to the increased natural stride length.
How easy to use is the console?
The information shown on display consoles for cross trainers can vary greatly between the different designs, and is usually linked to the number of programs available. If you have used a treadmill or cross trainer in the past then you will notice how similar their display units can be, with the main difference usually being the lack of buttons to increase and decrease incline on a cross trainer.
If more than one person will be using the cross trainer then it may be worth looking for a design that allows a number of different users to be programmed into the machine which will make starting your session quicker. The buttons and modes should be easy to navigate and understand, and it often helps if there are intuitive icons as well as text so you can associate each button with what mode it switches to.
Most cross trainers come with variable resistance levels to cater for all users from the beginner to the advanced, with differences between machines including the options available on the display unit and the length of the stride motion. These are all important when considering which cross trainer to buy, and each product’s features is talked about in detail in our cross trainer product articles.