Elliptical Bike Resistance Types: Which is Best for You?

Elliptical machines are one of the most popular exercise equipment. Many of us use them daily to stay fit and healthy. The resistance that these machines provide allows us to burn calories and tone our muscles. But have you ever wondered how the resistance system of elliptical works? There is actually more than one mechanism used for varying the resistance level. These include:-

  1. Manual Resistance System
  2. Motorized Resistance System
  3. Eddy Current Resistance System

This article contains all three to know about resistance systems. We have also included the answers to some frequently asked questions near the end of this article.

Elliptical machine
Elliptical machine

How does an elliptical’s resistance mechanism work?

All elliptical machines throughout the world utilize magnets in one way or another to provide resistance. As we pedal and swing the handles on an elliptical, a metal flywheel connected by a belt-pulley system starts to rotate. The rotating flywheel is placed in a magnetic field. The stronger the magnetic field the more difficult it is to keep the flywheel spinning and hence, the higher the resistance.

Resistance types and mechanisms

There are primarily 3 types of brake systems, each with a different operating mechanism.

  1. Manual Resistance System

    This is the cheapest braking system which was commonly found in older models. In this system, there is either a U-shaped or a C-shaped bracket lined with permanent magnets. The resistance level is controlled by moving the magnets closer to or further away from the flywheel. This is done using a tension cable attached to a dial or knob. The user spins the dial to vary the resistance.

    Manual resistance

    Manual resistance | Credit: nordictrackfitness.com.au

  2. Motorized Resistance System

    This type of braking system is found on mid-range elliptical machines. The working principle is pretty much identical to that of the manual system. The only difference is that instead of mechanical adjustment by a tension cable, a small motor does the job of varying the distance between the flywheel and the magnets. This motor is controlled by the user using buttons on the console.

    Motorized resistance

    Motorized resistance | Credit: nordictrackfitness.com.au

  3. Eddy Current Resistance System

    Due to the advanced nature and robustness of this system, eddy current resistance is found only on high-end ellipticals. Also known as electromagnetic resistance, there are no permanent magnets in this system. Instead, an electromagnet is used that remains at a fixed distance from the flywheel. When the user dials up the resistance using buttons on the console, more current is passed through the electromagnet and a stronger magnetic field is induced. Since there are no moving parts, this brake system is smoother, quieter, and much more durable. It requires almost no maintenance and is highly durable.

    Eddy current resistance

    Eddy current resistance | Credit: bicycleman.com

Self-powered ellipticals

This is a special type of elliptical that does not need to be connected to an external power outlet. Power for the console and drive system is generated by the motion of the pedals themselves. Therefore, this type of elliptical will only turn on when you start using it. The resistance is usually controlled by a manual system because there are no motors built-in. These machines are ideal for a sustainable future since no additional electricity is consumed by them.

Ways of controlling resistance on an elliptical

We have already talked about two methods commonly used to control the resistance level – a tension dial and console buttons. These are manual ways of varying the resistance, meaning you set the difficulty to whatever you want. However, there are two other ways in which the resistance is varied. One way is with built-in workout programs. Many expensive ellipticals have this feature in which you choose a certain workout on the console, and the resistance is varied automatically according to the workout plan.

Another ingenious way of controlling the resistance is through feedback from your heart rate. To achieve a certain goal, you can set your desired heart rate on the elliptical. Pulse sensors on the machine measure your heart rate and vary the resistance accordingly to maintain it. These automatic controls are useful as you can focus on your workout without having to keep adjusting the difficulty yourself.

➥ If you’re someone who’s been struggling in maintaining your desired weight, then, elliptical bikes can be a very good option. You can adjust the resistance of the elliptical at different levels for optimizing your weight loss programs.



What to look for in an elliptical’s resistance system

Before purchasing, you should look out for some things in the resistance system of an elliptical machine. First of all, the resistance should have a wide range, as the lowest level should be quite easy for you while the highest level feels very difficult. Having a wide range offers room for growth and allows multiple people to use the same machine. Not all machines have the same range of resistances. On one machine, the minimum resistance might be hard while on another machine the highest resistance level feels easy. Ultimately, it depends on your fitness level.

Secondly, the resistance should have small increments. The difference between the two consecutive levels should not be too significant. This allows you to vary the resistance more precisely and you can improve your strength and endurance gradually. Finally, the resistance and drive system should operate smoothly and silently. This is especially important for at-home ellipticals as you don’t want to annoy others around you.

The reason behind elliptical usage

Elliptical machines offer a lot of advantages in terms of health and fitness. This is why you will find ellipticals in just about every gym around the world, and also why many people own one for home use. Other than improving your cardiovascular health and providing a low-impact workout, ellipticals are a great tool for losing weight and improving strength.

1. Weight loss

According to multiple studies, using an elliptical can burn 300-500 calories in an hour. The exact value depends on your body weight and the intensity at which you workout. But as you can see, these machines allow you to burn calories and consequently, lose weight quite effectively. In fact, they are just as effective as treadmills and stationary bikes. The key to shedding fat is to burn more calories throughout the day than you consume. Due to their low impact, ellipticals can be used for longer periods of time, allowing you to lose pounds faster. However, it won’t work unless you remain consistent with your workouts and maintain a healthy diet alongside.

2. Muscle building

You probably won’t ever get huge muscles from using an elliptical alone. But you can build some strength and tone your muscles, especially at high resistance levels. With the pedals you work your glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings, while the moving handles engage your chest, back, and arms. Your core muscles play a part as well by keeping you stable on the machine. Hence, your entire body gets a workout. The best thing is that you can emphasize the upper or lower body separately by driving the motion through the handles or the pedals respectively. Ellipticals are also highly effective when used right after a weight lifting session.


Muscles worked

Muscles worked | credit: https://365moves.com/cross-trainer-muscles

F. A. Q.s

Q1. What resistance should I use on an elliptical?

Ans.: That depends on what sort of workout you are looking for. For a truly effective workout, you should never drop the resistance below 30-40% of your maximum effort. Always try to push yourself and make more of an effort. Avoid reading or watching movies/TV while exercising and instead focus on the workout. If you can follow the plot, then you are not working hard enough. You can also try HIIT workouts which crank up the intensity but are much shorter and save time. The following 20-minute workout might be a good place to start.

Time (minutes)ResistanceSpeed/RPM
2easy recovery
2easy recovery
2cool down

Q2. What do the levels on an elliptical mean?

Ans.: The levels displayed on an elliptical machine’s console are basically the resistance levels. The higher the resistance the harder it is to keep the pedals moving. Having multiple resistance levels is very useful because it allows you to choose whether you want to build strength or go for a purely cardio workout. You are also able to set the difficulty according to your level of fitness.

Q3. How do I adjust the resistance on an elliptical?

Ans.: If you have already bought an elliptical and you feel that the range of resistance is not ideal, e.g. the lowest resistance is too high, then you could try manually adjusting it. A word of caution, do this at your own risk. If you are not too skilled with tools, you might end up permanently damaging something. The following video describes the process by which you can adjust the resistance on an elliptical. This method should work for most commonly found ellipticals. If you’re not sure whether your one has a similar mechanism, then don’t try changing anything and call a mechanic instead.


After reading through this article you should have a complete understanding of resistance systems in elliptical machines. The choice of resistance type will mainly be determined by your budget. Regardless, whichever type you go for, make sure that it performs smoothly and quietly. In the end, all that matters is that you’re making good use of your elliptical and not just leaving it lying around your home.

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Dion Lewis

My name is Dion Lewis. I’ve been cycling since my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions. In my college life, I took a part-time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally. Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or bike gear.

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