woman on arc trainer

It’s that time of year where you have to start thinking about off-season training. Which, in many cases, means indoor training. And that raises a few questions…

Do you finally plunk down the money for an indoor trainer? Or get a gym membership and take Spinning classes? Or is it best to take more time off the bike in favor of running and resistance training?

But that brings up its own set of questions, such as… Is the treadmill the most boring machine ever invented? Is an elliptical easier on my joints? Is that Arc Trainer just another elliptical machine?

Lots of questions… But you’re in luck because I’ve got answers!

First of all, if you’re a competitive racing cyclist, it’s critical to have some way to ride indoors, whether it be a stationary trainer, rollers, or a Spinning bike.

But for most endurance athletes, this is the time to get away from your regular routine. Which means, along with a hefty dose of resistance training, you should try a different type of cardio exercise.

I’ve used ellipticals and even recommended them to certain athletes. But in an ideal world, you could find something better.

The Arc Trainer might be better.

What is an Arc Trainer?

The Arc Trainer is a cardio machine similar to an elliptical, but the motion is slightly different – the foot pedals travel along an arc (hence the name).

These are made by Cybex, and they’ve actually been around since 2003, but I never really payed attention until years later.

They come in two styles – lower body and total body. The original is a lower body machine that works your legs while you simply rest your hands on the rails (or swing your arms at your sides). The total body machines give you a full body workout, sort of like XC skiing.

You can adjust the incline, resistance, and stride rate. This provides weight bearing, but non-impact, exercise.

Arc Trainer vs Elliptical

This is a promotional video from the manufacturer, so it’s biased (just look at all the people smiling while using the machine), but still gives you a good idea of what the machine is like.

The footplate on the arc trainer pushes down and back. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s the motion you use when walking, hiking, pedaling a bicycle, etc. The opposite footplate subsequently travels in an arc, preparing your other foot to put the power down in a totally natural way.

On an elliptical machine, you have to contort your body into moving along an ellipse. It’s only a slight difference, but slight differences can turn into large problems over time. (Think about how many rotations your legs would make in just one 30 minute workout!)

If you want to get down to the kinematic and biomechanical details, this PDF explaining the analysis could be very interesting for you.

It essentially says that the arc trainer is a better reproduction of your natural gait than an elliptical is.

Why Use the Arc Trainer?

I’ve found a few good reasons. In no particular order:

It’s a better workout.

“Better” is totally subjective, but I think it’s overall just a better workout than you’d get on an elliptical or treadmill. Treadmills are not fun, not quite the same as running, and not too friendly on your joints. And a lot of athletes complain they can’t get their heart rate high enough on an elliptical for a serious workout.

On the Arc Trainer, it’s sort of like using a stair stepper – you can actually feel your quads, hamstrings, and glutes getting worked.

It’s a real-life, functional workout.

The arc is a more functional motion than the ellipse. Not only is it similar to hill climbing (as in hiking), the motion is a lot like the idea of driving your knee to the handlebar from the bottom of the pedal stroke.

You will burn more calories.

What’s really interesting about the Arc Trainer is that you can burn more calories without realizing it. There’s a study which found that subjects burnt 16% more total calories on the Arc Trainer compared to the elliptical at the same intensity and perceived exertion (RPE).

If you are trying to lose some fat this winter, then calories burned during your workouts matter.

A 150lb male, doing a 30 minute workout, can expect to burn 300-475 calories, depending on incline, resistance, and stride rate. (I’d say that’s a realistic estimate, but it’s still an estimate and hard to gauge, so don’t get too caught up in the numbers.)

It’s a better and more effective workout.

It’s easier on your joints.

Thanks to a “balanced loading design,” the Arc Trainer is easier on your hips and knees than other machines. There is less impact than on a treadmill, and the arc motion is better for your joints than the elliptical motion. The body positioning may be better for your back, too.

This recent study suggests that “individuals with, or at risk for, lower-extremity joint pathology may benefit from exercise with modalities other than the elliptical trainer.”

As far as knee pain, if that’s an existing problem, it’s an individual thing. It seems most people do prefer the Arc Trainer motion over an elliptical, but it’s not a guarantee.

You can avoid the cold and snow.

If you’re not a fan of winter, this machine offers one benefit over XC skiing. It allows you to get that really intense full-body workout without worrying about slipping and falling, maintaining form, sliding off the trail, or getting cold. (Sort of like how riding a stationary bike doesn’t put you at risk of being run over by a distracted driver.)


How do you get one?

cybex total body arc trainer

They’re not hard to find. But man, these things are pricey. While you can get a stationary trainer or even a half-decent indoor bicycle for $249, Arc Trainers cost many thousands of dollars!

They’re really aimed at gyms rather than individuals.

Take the new Cybex 525 AT Total Body for example. It can be found at a supplier like GymSource, which we have here on the East Coast. As the name implies, it’s mainly a source for gyms to get their equipment.

You could buy one for your home, sure… or you could buy a top of the line racing bike for the same price. Your choice!

In my humble opinion, it’s probably best to look for one in a gym and opt for a winter gym membership. Fortunately, even low-priced gyms like Planet Fitness have these machines! So it doesn’t have to be one of those $150/month gyms to find one.

(Yes, Planet Fitness has Cybex arc trainers! They’re gray and purple and say “ARC Trainer” on the sides.)

Choosing an Arc Trainer Workout Plan

Found the machine? Great, let’s get you started with a workout plan.

What’s cool is that you can select from a wide variety of pre-programmed workouts, or you can program your own workout routine into the machine thanks to the advanced interface. This video gives you a walkthrough:

You can set the incline and resistance to your liking, and to ensure a comfortable cadence (or “stride rate” as they refer to it). Interval training is no problem!

Pro tip: If you don’t have a total body machine, try doing it without holding on for balance. Rather, swing your arms at your sides like you’re running. It’s a killer core workout!

It’s not sport-specific, and it’s not as fun as going outside, but as far as exercise machines go, I think the Arc Trainer has earned the hype. If you have one nearby, there’s no reason not to try it!

(And if you have used one, please share your experience in the comments!)

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This post was originally published on October 8, 2014. It was revised, updated, and re-published on November 24, 2018.

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Levi Bloom is an experienced endurance athlete who has been training and competing for over 17 years. A former Cat 1 road and mountain bike racer (professional class on the regional circuit), he is now a cycling coach (USA Cycling Level 3 Certified) and sports nutrition coach (Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified).

9 Comments
  1. I quit Planet Fitness in favor of a CrossFit gym, but when I used to go there to workout, I did all my cardio on the Arc Trainers. They weren’t any more fun but the workout felt good.

    • @Stephen

      Yeah, you can only have so much fun with a stationary workout like that. I’d rather be out cross-country skiing, but that’s not always an option!

  2. I have 2 knee replacements and because of that I am not supposed to run. I’ve lost a significant amount of weight and now wish I could run! The arc trainers are the closest thing to running I’ve found. Great movement & workout.

    • @Pegarita

      Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s definitely a tough feeling to go through when you’re not able to get out for a run. I’m glad you found something!

  3. I LOVE the arc trainer. I was using an elliptical trainer at the gym I used to go to, because I could never get on a fully functional Cybex there. I switched gyms to the less expensive Planet Fitness, and am glad to say I am back at it on a Cybex. It feels much, much better. I was having trouble getting my heart rate up on the elliptical, and used to dial up the resistance to the point where I was pulling and pushing hard and leaving with sore feet. The movement of the elliptical foot pads seemed to cause my shoes, no matter the type, to bend and pinch across the ball of the foot, and then with the added pressure from pushing against the resistance, my feet always took too much stress. By comparison, I get off the Cybex in a better mood, feeling lighter and invigorated. No part of my body feels stressed. I am a little surprised that the Cybex burns more calories, because it feels so much better it seems it must be easier!

  4. I like the intensity of the workout you get on the arc trainer as well as the calorie burn. I do seem to have a problem with my lower back when I use it. I suspect it has to do with the stride length being too long or something. I’m just over 5 feet tall. I still use it but not everyday like I used to.

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