Arc Trainer Vs Elliptical – Which One Is Better For a Bad Knee?

Arc trainers and ellipticals are like siblings who look alike but are very different. You will be forgiven for assuming that they are exactly the same and that working out on one gives you the exact same results as the other.

I have always assumed that the arc trainer and elliptical are the same thing? The two look quite similar and the hand and foot motions involved are more or less the same. When I mentioned my knee pain to the gym instructor, he recommended that I stop using the elliptical and only use the arc trainer until my knee is fully recovered.

What is the difference between the two and how does it affect me and others users recovering from knee injuries?

In this arc trainer vs elliptical comparison, we look at the similarities and differences between the two machines and why you would opt for one over the other.

What Are The Differences Between Arc Trainers And Ellipticals?

Arc trainer
Footplate motion
Arc shape
Ellipse shape
Calorie burn
Higher ( due to optimized muscle activity)
Perceived exertion
Joints and muscles involved
Knee and hip

Arc Trainer Vs Elliptical – How Do They Compare?

Pedal Motion

On an elliptical machine the foot plate’s motion forms the shape of an ellipse. As you push down on one foot plate, the other foot moves around in an ellipse shape until the apex of the pattern created.

The notable movement here is that the foot must push forward far enough for the plate to move down again. This forward-pushing motion places significant stress on the knee which could result in pain and other complications associated with joint overuse.

The arc trainer on the other hand, has pedals whose motion forms the shape of an arc. Here you push the pedal down and back. When it gets to the bottom, the other pedal has already moved forward and is ready for you to shift your weight in order to push it down.

There is no forward pushing, therefore drastically reducing stress on the knee. This effectively eliminates the chances of the painful muscle overuse syndrome.

An arc trainer is best because it eliminates the chance of joint overuse and makes sure you suffer no pain if you are recovering from a knee injury.

Joints and Muscles Involved

On an arc trainer, the handlebars move in the same motion as your feet. It mimics cross country skiing in that whenthe left handlebar moves forward, the left foot pedal also moves forward. This allows for a vertical position with reduced forward lean. The effect is reduced load on the back and an upright position.

The advantage of an upright position is that the hip and knees share the work, unlike in an elliptical where the bulk of the work is placed on the knee.Your exercise becomes more biomechanically efficient.

This is why the arc trainer is preferred by people recovering from knee injuries. The seemingly light strain placed on the knee has been known to cause knee pain after a couple of workout sessions.

The arc trainer ensures that the work is shared between the knee and hip joints. This is preferred because it involves more joints and muscles for a more wholesome workout.

Calorie Burn and Perceived Exertion

Do you burn more calories on an arc trainer or an elliptical? The answer is that you burn more on an arc trainer. One study showed that participants burned 16% more calories on an arc trainer compared to the elliptical.

The interesting fact is that you achieve greater calorie loss but don’t exert yourself as much. Another study demonstrated that the level of perceived exertion and heart rate of a person on an arc trainer is lower than that of another person on an elliptical exercising at the same level of energy expenditure. The difference in perceived effort is attributed to greater biomechanical efficiency.

In order to raise your heart rate into a fat burning zone on an arc trainer, you would have to increase your workload and oxygen consumption compared to workload and oxygen consumption on an elliptical. This translates to increased caloric expenditure.

Most people adjust workout intensity based on their heart rate and perception of effort exerted. You are more likely to increase intensity on an arc trainer because you don’t feel like you are pushing yourself to your limit yet. You end up burning more calories and consuming more oxygen on an arc trainer. It also means that you are likely to reach your fitness goals sooner than anticipated.

The general rule, that the more you exert yourself the more calories you burn doesn’t apply here. The arc trainer is a better option because it enables you to burn more calories with less exertion.

Arc Trainer Vs Elliptical – A Comparison Overview

Arc Trainer Overview

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The arc trainer is pretty much a combination of a treadmill, an elliptical and stair climber rolled into one. It is a non-impact machine and is a registered trademark of Cybex International, Inc.

It has been named as one of the most versatile and innovative machines in the fitness industry. This is thanks to its superior cardio, speed and strength developing ability which can be achieved without feeling like you are exerting yourself much.

Arc trainers are available in two different styles: lower body and total body. The former has stationary arms which allow you to work your legs and rest your hands on the rails. Alternatively swing your arms at your side as you exercise.

The total body arc trainer is like cross country skiing. It gives you a full body workout thanks to moving arms and multi-grip handles.

When it comes to space the average arc trainer has a footprint of about 30 by 77 inches. It must be placed in a position where it doesn’t have to be moved often as it weighs about 400 pounds.


  • No strain on knee joints
  • Involves both knee and hip
  • Burns more calories
  • Less perceived exertion


  • Pricey
  • Very heavy

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 Elliptical Overview

Arc Trainer Overview

Ellipticals came into the market in the 1990s and have since become staples of commercial and home gyms.

They are popular because they offer a full body workout with little impact on joints. This makes them appealing to an aging population.

Another appealing aspect is that unlike other exercise machines like treadmills and bicycles, ellipticals offer weight-bearing exercise. These are exercises which make you work against gravity and have proved to be effective in preventing early onset of bone-related diseases like osteoporosis.

Space is a major factor to think about if you are thinking of getting an elliptical machine for home use. The average elliptical machine has a footprint of about 72 by 30 inches. Height must be taken into consideration because you stand on an elliptical and move up and down on the machine. Height considerations are crucial especially if you have a low ceiling or are taller than average.


  • Low-impact exercise
  • Offers weight bearing exercise
  • Full body workout


  • Unsuitable for low ceiling basements or garages
  • Fairly large footprint


Arc trainers and elliptical machines are actually quite similar. Both are good cardio-vascular machines and both effectively eliminate the joint shock associated with running.

The most significant difference between the two is foot motions – which are responsible for their names. The arc trainer makes your foot motions form an arc shape while elliptical machines take your feet into an ellipse shaped motion. Although ellipticals are typically smaller and lighter than arc trainers, both require dedicated space as they are relatively large and heavy.

Verdict: So Which Is Better? Arc Trainer or Elliptical?

An arc trainer would be a better option for users who work out regularly or anyone recovering from a knee injury.Although ellipticals promise low-impact exercise, the ellipse shaped motion created can cause joint overuse and eventuallyknee injury. Arc trainers effectively reduce strain on knee joints and also activate hip joints. This not only eases pressure on knee joints but also helps burn more calories.


Is using an arc trainer considered aerobic exercise?

Yes. The arc trainer does count as aerobic exercise. Your lungs get just as taxed as your heart due to increased need for oxygen.

Which specific areas do ellipticals target?

Ellipticals work both lower and upper body muscles but mostly target lower body ones like hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps and calves. Your glutes and hamstrings are worked when your thigh moves backwards during the gliding motion. Forward motion works your quadriceps.