The Don't-Look-Like-a-Fool Guide to Gym Equipment

How to Use Common Weight Machines

Navigating your way through aisles of heavy gym equipment marked with knobs, handles, pulleys, and cables can feel more than a little intimidating. Those "in the know" make strength training on these machines look effortless, but if you're new to the gym, how are you supposed to know where to sit, how to move, or what adjustments you're supposed to make? 

Compounding the challenge is that every gym manufacturer and brand makes their equipment slightly different. All chest press machines will work more or less the same way, but the knobs, handles, and adjustments won't be identical when using a Life Fitness model or a Cybex model. This can put new gym-goers at a slight disadvantage. Chest press machines will work more or less the same way, but the knobs, handles, and adjustments won't be identical when using a Life Fitness model or a Cybex model. This can put new gym-goers at a slight disadvantage. 

Basic Guidelines for Setting Up Gym Equipment

The good news is, strength training on machines isn't rocket science. Machines are designed to make strength training comparatively easy by guiding your body through controlled ranges of motion, rather than forcing you to control your own movements with free weights. And fitness manufacturers want to make the process as simple for you to follow as possible, so keep these broad tips in mind: 

  • Machines come with instructions. Look for the panel of instructions on every selectorized weight machine you come to. These instructions typically tell you which muscle groups the machine is designed to target, how the machine works, and where the adjustment points are on the machine. When in doubt, seek these instructions out and take the time to read through them. If you feel uncomfortable reading the instructions at the machine, snap a picture of the instructions with your phone, walk away to read through them, then return to the machine when you're ready. 
  • Adjustment points are usually a bright color. No one's body is exactly the same—some people are taller, others are shorter, some have long arms and legs, others have short torsos. The result is that everyone's range of motion and mechanics for a particular exercise shouldn't be exactly the same—they should be adjusted based on personal needs. Machine manufacturers try to accommodate people of all shapes and sizes by providing adjustment points on the equipment. Typically, these adjustment points can be found on the seats, chair backs, or depending on whether the machine is for the upper or lower body, the location of the moveable parts. To make these adjustment points as obvious as possible, they're typically marked with bright-colored handles for quick identification. 
  • Start with a light weight to test the range of motion. For selectorized equipment, all you do to select a weight is pull out the pin on the weight stack and insert it into the stack at the weight amount you want to lift. If you're unfamiliar with a machine, or you're unsure whether you've made the appropriate adjustments to the machine for your height, select a light weight and test the range of motion. 
  • Your position should feel comfortable. If you feel like your joints are hyperextending while performing a lift, or if you feel like you have to strain your back awkwardly to push against the seat, or if you feel like the weights are clanging onto the weight stack before you've gone through a full range of motion, or if you feel like the pads of the machine are hitting your joints at an uncomfortable location, chances are something on the machine needs to be adjusted to accommodate your body. Your body should feel steady and comfortable while performing each exercise, so check the adjustment points and try a different position to see if it helps. And, when in doubt, ask a trainer or gym employee for assistance. 

How to Use Equipment Correctly

Once you've set the machine correctly, choose a weight that feels challenging. You should be able to perform roughly 10 to 12 repetitions in a row, where the last one or two reps push you to your limits. If you're able to churn through 12 reps without a problem, it's time to increase the amount of weight you're lifting. If you have a hard time getting through four or five repetitions, you might want to consider going a little lighter. Otherwise, keep these lifting tips in mind: 

  • Keep your movements controlled and steady. You shouldn't swing your body or use momentum to power the movement. Also, control the lifting and lowering phases equally—aim for each phase to take roughly two seconds to complete. 
  • Exhale as you lift, inhale as you lower. Breathing is important during strength training—you want to keep your breathing deep and steady. Exhale as you lift the weights, and inhale as you lower them.  
  • Don't clang the weights. If the weights are hitting the weight stack with a loud "bang" at the end of each repetition, then one of three things is likely to blame. First, the adjustment points might not be set correctly on your machine, and you may not be getting a full range of motion with each lift, causing you to hit the weight stack too soon. If this is the case, stop, and make adjustments to the machine before continuing. If the machine is adjusted correctly, then the next possibility is that you're lifting too quickly or using too much weight, either of which could cause you to lose control of the movement as you lower the weight. Try slowing down your movement or selecting a lighter weight. 
  • Start with compound exercises before doing isolation exercises. Compound exercises are those that target multiple muscle groups at the same time. Examples include leg press, chest press, assisted pull-up machine, and lat pull-down machine. Start with these types of compound machines before moving on to those that isolate specific muscle groups, like the leg extension, leg curl, biceps, or triceps machines. 

1
Seated Selectorized Leg Press Machine

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The seated leg press machine is a great way to target your quads, glutes, and hamstrings in a more controlled manner than doing squats or lunges. The trick is setting the machine up correctly.

  • Sit on the leg press and position your feet against the foot plate so they're slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, your toes angled slightly outward.
  • At the starting position, your knees should be bent at 90-degrees, or slightly lower, and your knees shouldn't protrude over your toes. You should feel comfortable pressing through your heels to initiate your knee extension. If you have to push through the balls of your feet, try moving your feet higher on the footplate. 
  • When performing the exercise, you should be able to extend your knees fully, using your heels to press yourself to full extension. 

You can typically make adjustments to the location of the footrest or seat to accommodate different heights. You may also be able to adjust the seat back to allow a more comfortable body angle. 

2
Leg Press Machine Using Free Weights

Plate-weight loaded leg presses are another popular and accessible option for new gym-goers, but there are a couple important things to keep in mind: 

  • Start with a light weight to make sure you're comfortable with the movement. 
  • You're responsible for taking the "safety" off and putting it back on again at the beginning and end of each set. Most leg press machines have a manual safety handle that you have to move out of the way to start the exercise. When you complete a set, it's important that you move the safety handle back into place to prevent the weights from crashing down on you. 
  • You're responsible for unracking your weights after you're done with the equipment. Don't assume someone else will do it for you. 

Plate-loaded leg press machines aren't hard to use, and most don't have many adjustments to think about.

  • Lie back on the back pad with your glutes on the seat pad and place your feet on the footplate.
  • Adjust your feet so they're slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart, with your feet positioned so you're able to press through your heels to move the footplate away as you extend your knees. 
  • Press through your heels and extend your legs fully as you manually move the safety out of the way. 
  • Steadily bend your knees, keeping them aligned with your toes, as you lower the weight downward, drawing your knees toward your chest. 
  • When you've lowered the weight as far as you can, press through your heels and fully extend your legs. 

3
Leg Extension Machine

The leg extension machine isolates your quadriceps muscles. The movement itself is fairly straightforward, but the machine can be more challenging to adjust.

The goal is for the backrest to be positioned at a location that allows your knee to bend just past the front of the seat—you don't want your thighs extending too far past the edge of the seat, and you don't want the seat to be pressing into the back of your calves.

  • Adjust the seat back as needed to comfortably lean against the backrest. 
  • Once you've adjusted the seat back appropriately, make sure the location of the shin pad allows you to move your legs through a full range of motion. Test it with a light weight—if the weights clang against the weight stack before you feel like you've moved through a full range of motion, adjust the shin pad backward.
  • Some machines also allow you to use a knob to pull the shin pad upward so it's positioned comfortably across the front of your shins instead of across your ankles. This adjustment may not lock in place. Rather, you may have to press your shins against the pad to get it to stay where you want it. 

After the appropriate adjustments are made simply sit on the machine, select a weight, and perform the exercise by extending your knees fully, then bending them again to lower the weights. Control the movement through the extension and lowering phases. 

4
Lying Leg Curl Machine

The lying leg curl machine isolates the hamstrings. Like the leg extension machine, the exercise is fairly straightforward, but adjusting the machine can be a bit of a challenge. 

The goal is for you to lie on your stomach on the machine's pads with the calf pad positioned just above your ankles at a height that doesn't make your knees feel like they're hyperextending. In the starting position, your legs should be straight from your hips to your heels. 

Typically there are two adjustment points on the leg curl machine—one where the calf pad is, that allows you to move it closer to your body or farther away, depending on your height, and the other at the knee's hinge point that enables you to move the calf pad up or down as needed. 

When you've made the appropriate adjustments, the exercise is simple: 

  • Lie on the machine with the calf pad positioned just above your ankles. 
  • Bend your knees, drawing your heels as close to your glutes as possible. 
  • Carefully lower the weights back to the starting position. 

5
Assisted Pull-Up and Dip Machine

The assisted pull-up and dip machine is typically a combination machine, where depending on which handles you hold during the exercise, you change the muscle groups you're targeting. If you hold the handles high above your head, you're targeting your upper back, shoulders, biceps, and core, as you perform an assisted pull-up. If you hold the handles positioned just to the outside of your hips, you're targeting your triceps, shoulders, and core, as you perform an assisted dip. 

The main thing to remember about this machine is that selecting a weight is opposite of how you typically select a weight. On most selectorized machines, the weight you choose from the stack is the amount of weight you're lifting. On the assisted pull-up and dip machine, you're responsible for lifting your own bodyweight, so the weight you choose from the stack is the amount of weight you're getting assisted with.

For example, if you weight 150-pounds, and you selected 20-pounds from the weight stack, that means you're only getting assisted with 20-pounds of weight, so you're responsible for lifting 130-pounds. This means if you're new to the exercise, you want to choose a heavier weight from the weight stack—possibly one close to your own body weight—before trying the exercise. 

Regardless of which exercise you perform, the basic parameters are the same: 

  • Select an appropriate weight from the weight stack. 
  • Place your knees or feet on the provided rest (depending on the brand of equipment) 
  • Grip the handles securely. 
  • When performing a pull-up, engage your core, bend your elbows, and pull your upper body up toward the handles until your chin clears the bar. Slowly lower yourself back down until your elbows are fully extended.
  • When performing a dip, engage your core, bend your elbows straight backward, and lower your torso between the handles until your elbows are bent at 90-degrees. Press through your palms and extend your elbows to return to the starting position. 

6
Lat Pull-Down Machine

The lat pull-down machine targets your upper back, especially the expansive latissimus dorsi muscles. Most machines don't have many adjustment points, but you may need to adjust the seat height or the thigh pad for comfort. Test this before you start the exercise. You should be able to plant your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent comfortably; your lower thighs, just above your knees, should press firmly into the thigh pad. 

  • Stand facing the machine and select a weight from the stack. Grasp the handles of the lat pull-down machine, and position your hands so they're wider than shoulder-distance apart. 
  • Sit down on the seat and position your feet so your thighs are secure under the thigh pad. Your elbows should be extended over your head. 
  • Engage your core and lean back slightly. You'll maintain this position throughout the exercise. 
  • Using your upper back, rather than your arms, pull the handle toward your chest, drawing your shoulder blades toward your spine as you bend your elbows. 
  • Slowly extend your elbows to return to the starting position. 

7
Chest Press Machine

The chest press machine targets your pecs, shoulders, and triceps. The key is to make adjustments to the seat, backrest, and the position of the handles to ensure you're enjoying a full range of motion. 

  • Sit on the seat and grip the chest press handles. The handles should be positioned at each shoulder, with your elbows angled back slightly. Make adjustments to the seat height, backrest or handles, as needed. The necessary adjustments will differ from machine to machine. 
  • When the machine is properly adjusted, simply press the handles away from you, extending your elbows in front of your chest. 
  • Slowly reverse the movement, bending your elbows as you return the handles to the starting position. If the weights clang down into the weight stack before you feel you've worked through a full range of motion, you may need to adjust the seat back forward or the handle position backward. 

8
Seated Selectorized Row Machine

The seated selectorized row machine targets the large muscles of your mid- to upper-back, especially your trapezius, rhomboids, and lats, as well as your biceps. The key is to make sure the chest rest is adjusted appropriately so you don't have to roll your shoulders forward or hunch your upper back to reach the handles. You should be able to sit tall, your feet flat on the ground, your chest pressed comfortably into the chest pad with your shoulders rolled back when you grip the handles. When the appropriate adjustments have been made, the movement is simple: 

  • Sit tall, your core engaged, and use the muscles of your back to pull the handles toward you as you bend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together. 
  • When your elbows are pulled just past your torso, reverse the movement and slowly extend your arms, making sure not to allow your shoulders to roll forward or your back to hunch.  

9
Seated Cable Row

The seated cable row is similar in function and intention as the selectorized row machine, you just have a little more control over your body's positioning and the handle attachment you use, which can alter the targeted muscle groups slightly.

  • To get started, simply select a straight bar or a V-shaped handle to clip to the cable row's carabiner.
  • Choose a weight from the weight stack and sit down on the seat.
  • Position your butt close to the front of the seat so you can easily grasp the attachment handles with both hands.
  • Place your feet on the footrests, your weight in your heels. 
  • Roll your shoulders back, engage your core, and draw your shoulder blades toward your spine. Press through your heels and extend your knees slightly, sliding your glutes a little farther back on the seat. 
  • Lean back slightly, and using your mid- to upper-back, pull the handles toward your torso as you bend your elbows, drawing them just past your body. 
  • Reverse the movement and slowly extend your arms. 

10
Shoulder Press

The shoulder press machine looks a lot like the chest press machine, but instead of pressing the handles straight out in front of you, you'll press the handles straight over your head to target the muscles of your deltoids. Like the chest press machine, though, the main adjustment point is the seat height. You want to position the seat so the machine's handles are aligned with your shoulders. When you've made the appropriate adjustments, simply: 

  • Select a weight from the weight stack.
  • Sit on the seat and hold a handle in each hand at your shoulders. 
  • Press your shoulders straight over your head, extending your elbows fully. 
  • Slowly reverse the movement and return the handles to shoulder-height in a controlled and steady fashion. 

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