Types of Standing Desks

If you have been searching for a standing desk, you will have discovered by now that there are quite a few options. From electric desks to pneumatic to counterbalance desks to fixed-height desks, the options are extensive.

Learning about the various types of standing desks available and the pros and cons of each will help you make an informed decision.

In this article we will be looking at the following types of standing desks:

  1. Sit-stand desks
  2. Desk converters
  3. Fixed-height adjustable desks
  4. Standing-height desks


Sit-stand desks

When talking about standing desks, most of the time we are actually referring to height-adjustable sit-stand (a.k.a sit-to-stand) desks that can be raised or lowered, giving the user the option to switch from sitting to standing or vice versa — usually in a matter of seconds. If your goal is to change between sitting and standing frequently throughout the day, these desks should offer the ideal solution because they are designed for that exact purpose.


The four most common types of sit-stand desks are

  1. Electric
  2. Pneumatic
  3. Hand-crank/mechanical
  4. Counterbalance

These types differ in the type of lift mechanism they employ to raise and lower the desk.


Electric desks, the most popular option, are raised and lowered with the press of a button. They have programmable positions that can be set by the user to specific heights. For example, you may have one set height for standing, another set height for sitting, yet another set height for writing or drawing on the desk while sitting, etc. After those positions have been set, it only takes a single press of the corresponding button to place the desk at the desired height—the positions will be remembered the next time you use the desk and until the set positions are reprogrammed. Moreover, you can be assured that the desk will move to the exact position every time, since the position is computer-controlled.

The Shift electric desk by ergonofis
Photo by ergonofis on Unsplash

Pneumatic desks have pressurized gas cylinders that extend when a lever is pulled. These gas cylinders work just like the gas cylinders in office chairs: Pull the lever to raise the desk; pull the lever while pushing down the tabletop to lower the desk. These desks can be found with a lower price tag than electric desks while fulfilling essentially the same function.

Pneumatic desks come with one major compromise: The greater the weight capacity, the stronger the gas cylinder; the stronger the gas cylinder, the harder it is to push the tabletop down. To ensure that the desk can be easily lowered by the majority of people, pneumatic desks are designed to have much lower weight capacities than electric desks and should only be used if you don’t plan to load your desk up with lots of heavy items.

Also, raising and lowering the desk to a specific height is more awkward and unnatural because you have to be positioning the desk to the desired height while simultaneously resisting the gas spring which is pushing the desk upward. The speed at which the desk goes up and down is determined by how much weight is on the desk, so if the desk is hardly loaded, it may fly up when the lever is pulled because so little weight is there to resist the force of the gas cylinders.


Hand-crank desks, like the Jarvis Crank-Powered Standing Desk, have a crank that you turn to raise and lower the desk. They usually have a weight capacity falling in between an electric and pneumatic. The obvious drawback of the hand-crank desk is the tedium of having to spin the crank over and over. On paper, spending 30 or so seconds to crank a desk up and down several times a day doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in reality many users of standing desks report being more likely to get in the habit of changing positions regularly when doing so takes no effort (or as little effort as possible).

Counterbalance desks don’t really fit into a separate category, as they can be pneumatic or hand-crank, but they contain an important feature that improves usability: They have a mechanism that applies a force to the tabletop counteracting the forces from the lift mechanism and from gravity. What does this mean? To the user, it feels as if the tabletop is “floating” because very little effort is required to move it up or down, regardless of the desk's weight capacity.

Klöud counterbalance pneumatic standing desk
Photo by TheStandingDesk on Unsplash

The counterbalance force ensures that the user never has to fight the force of the gas cylinder to lower it, so the gas cylinder can be made more heavy duty, thereby allowing the desk to support much more weight. For comparison, the pneumatic sit-stand standing desk from the Stand Up Desk Store has a maximum table load of just 35 pounds, whereas the Humanscale Float counterbalance desk has a maximum weight capacity of 165 pounds. Not only is the weight capacity of a counterbalance desk much greater but also the adjustment of the height feels more precise and controlled.

A drawback of counterbalance desks is that the counterbalance force has to be tuned to the weight of the objects on the desk. If objects are added (removed), the desk will want to sink (rise) because the counterbalance force no longer perfectly balances the force of gravity. The issue is that to maintain “float”, the counterbalance force will have to be re-tuned, using some tool (e.g. wrench), every time a significant amount of weight is added to or removed from the tabletop. If you aren’t frequently adding and removing weight from your desk, then this issue may not be a problem. When compared with electric desks, counterbalance desks are often more expensive due to their complexity, but they can be raised and lowered much more quickly and are not tethered to a wall outlet.


In summary, height-adjustable desks come in many forms. Electric desks are very popular due to their overall practicality but must be plugged into a wall outlet. Pneumatic desks are inexpensive but cannot support much weight. Hand-crank desks are simple and reliable but take work to raise and lower. Counterbalance desks are fast and smooth but can get quite expensive.


Some additional considerations for sit-stand desks


Regardless of which height-adjustable desk you choose, assembly will almost certainly be required, and the process can take an hour or more without prior experience.


Due to the nature of height-adjustable desks, they nearly always have some amount of wobble. Design of the extendable table legs plays a large part in the rigidity (sometimes called “stability”) of the desk and varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. All else being equal, desks with more legs are more rigid than desks with fewer. Two legs is most common, but you can also find desks with 1 leg or 4 legs. While 1-leg desks should in theory be more wobbly than 2-leg desks, if the leg itself is thicker, its rigidity may be comparable to or even exceed that of a 2-leg desk. One example is the Steelcase Airtouch, which only has 1 leg but is, in fact, quite rigid.


Desk-height range

An often overlooked aspect of height-adjustable desks is how high or low they can go--their desk height range. To follow common ergonomic guidelines, the keyboard should be low enough that the elbow angle is at least 90° and close enough to the body to avoid overreaching [1]. When standing, the keyboard should go high enough to keep the wrist neutral (not in flexion or extension). To find the correct seated and standing height for you, check the height chart [2]. Information about the height range of standing desks should but may not always be provided by the manufacturer and retailer.

Desk converters

While desk converters won’t win any interior design awards, the quickest and easiest way to go from a sitting-only to a sit-stand setup is to purchase a desk converter. Usable with your existing desk and often requiring no assembly, desk converters work right out of the box. They adjust from sit to stand position (or vice versa) as quickly or even more so than counterbalance desks.

Buying a desk converter can save money, but they can also be surprisingly expensive. One reason for this is that they must be heavy enough to remain in place without sliding around.

Besides the weight and cost, desk converters have other drawbacks. For one, they take up a lot of space on an otherwise usable desk. While the entire surface of a dedicated height-adjustable desk is usable whether the desk is up or down, the desk converter renders some of the area on the desk unusable—Try reaching around the desk converter for a pencil, stapler, or paper document and you will quickly see why.

Also, with a dedicated height-adjustable desk, you can clear the area to make temporary space for non-computer-related work, but you can't do the same with a desk converter.

A third drawback is the inability to use a footrest with a desk converter while standing. Using a footrest allows you to periodically shift weight from one leg to the other, giving short breaks to each. With a desk converter, however, there isn’t enough space underneath the desk converter when standing to place a leg. A dedicated height-adjustable desk does not have this problem because the leg clearance extends upward when the desk is raised, providing enough space for the forward leg.

A fourth and often overlooked drawback is that desk converters often don’t go low enough for a good ergonomic position. The lowest keyboard position for a desk converter is often higher than the underlying desk, so unless you are relatively tall, there is a good chance that the desk converter will not go low enough when you are sitting in a standard chair.

Space underneath the desk, as shown in this photo, would not be available using a desk converter.

Fixed-height adjustable standing desks

If you do not require instant height adjustability, (for example if you have a separate desk for sitting), then fixed-height standing desks may satisfy your needs at a lower price than sit-stand desks. While you can adjust the height of these desks, doing so is not quick and easy, so adjustment is usually only done once: when first setting up the desk to the user’s height and preference.


A common example of a fixed-height standing desk is a standard cubicle like this Herman Miller AO2.

While they remain at standing height all the time, one way you are able to take a seat at these desks is to use a high drafting chair, stool, or standing chair. Some examples of these chairs are the Herman Miller Aeron Stool, the Safco Mobis II, and the Buttress Sidesaddle. None of these chairs will be quite as comfortable as your typical feet-on-the-floor chair, but they do encourage movement.

Overall, fixed-height adjustable standing desks encourage being upright more so than sit-stand desks or desk converters because the option to sit all day is simply not available. This can be a double-edged sword, as on the one hand you will find yourself standing more but on the other hand you will not be easing into the habit at a comfortable pace. For this reason, chairs and stools that support you at a standing height (a.k.a. standing-desk chairs) make standing much more bearable.

Sidesaddle by Buttress Furniture allows for sitting, standing, and other positions without the need for a height-adjustable desk

Standing-height desks

Last but not least are standing-height desks. These are simply high desks whose height is built-in and cannot be adjusted except with some sort of external riser. One example is the 4-leg Standing Height Side Table by UPLIFT DESK. While it is unlikely you will find a desk like this that perfectly fits your height, you may find something that comes close. If simplicity, aesthetics, rigidity, and ruggedness are what you are after, the lack of adjustability may be worth the compromise. However, if you will be using a computer for long periods of time, an adjustable keyboard tray, although somewhat out-of-fashion, would be essential for turning a standing-height desk into an ergonomically sound option.


Final thoughts

Expected vs. Actual Usage

Old habits die hard. Purchasing a sit-stand desk alone is not going to make you stand or move more. It is not uncommon to hear from people who have purchased a sit-stand desk and end up spending almost all of their time sitting. Making reminders to change positions, say every 30 minutes or so, just adds one more thing to keep track of and pay attention to. To lessen the resistance to change as much as possible, you should choose the desk that is easiest to use, which is most certainly not a hand-crank desk. Habits are more powerful than tasks because they happen naturally, without effort. Unless you are proactive and intentional about standing more, you may find yourself never building that habit into your work life.

One way to prevent going back to old habits would be to avoid a sit-stand desk altogether and opt for a pure standing desk (either adjustable or standing-height). While standing all day can be uncomfortable and not even recommended [3] —the strain can be minimized with standing chairs, such as the Safeco Mobis II, ErgoImpact Leanrite, or Buttress Sidesaddle. While minor discomfort will inevitably arise on some part of your body with these standing chairs, minor discomfort is actually a good queue to change positions, unlike in a typical office chair which is designed to be comfortable enough to stay affixed to all day.