So you've resolved to get more exercise and tone those muscles, but you're daunted by gyms (and gym fees). Having a cross trainer (AKA an elliptical trainer) at home could be a good alternative: an all-round workout with no gym fees, no queues, available when it suits you.

Why a cross trainer instead of a treadmill or exercise bike?

Cross trainers, also called elliptical trainers, have a smooth, flowing movement like a mix of cross-country skiing and slow running. The advantage is that it uses both your upper and lower body, unlike exercise bikes and treadmills. While treadmills are also very popular, many people just don't like to run: they find it jarring or difficult. A cross trainer is the closest action you can get to running, without the jarring.

If the cross trainer sounds interesting but you've never used one before, it could be worth signing up for a one-time gym visit to try the various types of exercise machines and see which one suits you best. A good sports equipment store will also have various machines to try, but you might not be able to spend as long on each one, and you might cop some pressure from the salesperson, too. 

Are there any disadvantages to a cross trainer?

They are large, so you need plenty of space, and they can be expensive. You should take some time to research so you get a model that suits your needs. 

Shopping for a cross trainer

  • Try out several models in shops to see which work for your body and exercise style, and to assess their size.
  • Many sports shops carry only a few brands or models and may not have many on display for you to try, so it's worth visiting a few stores to try out a variety of styles.
  • If there'll be several users at home, make sure the intended purchase will suit them all. Different models tend to suit different body shapes.
  • Having worked out your short-list of models to buy, look online for good deals; second hand models could be available too.
  • Think about including the cost of delivery in your budget, as these are bulky machines and having one home-delivered could be much easier than transporting it yourself. 

Features to look for

Resistance levels

Check that the resistance levels cover a wide range; the higher levels should be very difficult or at least make you struggle. As your fitness increases, it's important the cross trainer can grow with you.

Programs

Make sure it has a number of different programs so you can add some variety to your exercise regimen. Variety can keep your training interesting and help keep you motivated.

Controls

These should be easy to understand and use. 

Comfort

It should be comfortable to use, and your body should be well clear of any parts such as the bottle holder. The moving arms shouldn’t bump into you and the display should be clear and easy to adjust.

Maximum weight

If you're on the heavy side, check the recommended user weight — some have a limit of only 90–100kg.

Construction and design

  • It should be sturdy with well-fitting parts. If it's heavy, it's probably an indication of more metal than plastic parts.
  • Look for smooth motion and a smooth change between resistance levels.
  • A wider footprint (i.e. bigger at the base) means it's more likely to be stable when you exercise at a higher intensity (which means there's more sideways movement of your body).
  • Check the stride length when you test the machine. More expensive cross trainers tend to have a longer stride, which may give you a more effective workout.

Pulse sensor

A pulse sensor on the moving handles – or even better, pulse sensors on both the moving and fixed handles – is good for monitoring your heart rate (though a good-quality chest-strap monitor will be more reliable than most pulse sensors).

Warranty and service

Check the warranty and service agreement. Cross trainers are bulky and although they're usually not that difficult to put together, you wouldn't want to have to take one apart and transport it for a service. Check whether the supplier or manufacturer provides an at-home service. Some models can have a very short warranty period of as little as 90 days. Look for a model that has at least a year. For expensive purchases such as these, your statutory warranty rights should cover you for at least that long anyway.

Cost

They range in price from $400 to $6000.

Tips for using your cross trainer

  • Don't be over ambitious – trying to work out for an hour every day is a surefire way to overtire and get bored fast.
  • Try short intervals every second day or so, and build up slowly.
  • Mix it up – include other elements in your exercise regimen, such as walking or cycling outdoors or taking a yoga class.
  • If you want the best results, you'll need a good diet plan too.