The Strength-Training Machines You Should Learn To Use In Your Gym

Look around in the weight room at your gym, and it might seem like you're just staring at a junkyard scattered with random metal items and sweaty bodies. Everything about the machines can look intimidating, all the way down to the people using them. But once you walk through exactly how you're supposed to work out in this kind of setting, the props aren't so scary at all.

While some trainers prefer the versatility of free weights for strength-training, machines can actually be beneficial for beginners. Because they are more limited, they help you focus on your form in a safe, controlled setting, says Nicholas Routson, an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness manager at 24-Hour Fitness in Yorba Linda, CA.

But say you're at the gym staring down a machine you've never come face-to-face with before: Consider flagging down someone more experienced for a quick how-to. "You’ll find that there are plenty of gym members and fitness professionals in a gym environment who are willing to help and encourage you as a newcomer so that you can enjoy the amazing experience of fitness," Routson says. And, as an added tip for the introverts out there, most machines come with an illustration of the muscles they're meant to target, and how they are supposed to be used.

Ahead, certified personal trainers explain the benefits — and uses — of a few popular machines, and we found YouTube tutorials t0 demonstrate each exercise. After this, you'll be a lost newbie no more.

Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Back Extension Machine

Why it's great: The back extension machine is often overlooked, but it can help you increase core strength, stretch your hamstrings, and work your posterior chain, says Shay Alexander, personal training manager for Blink Fitness in Brooklyn. "This machine trains your lower back, particularly your erector spinae, which is responsible for extending your spine," Alexander says. Having a strong lower back and core can aid in healing back pain, and it can improve your posture, she says. The back extension machine stabilizes your lower body, so your abdominals and glutes can do the work, she says.

What it works: abs, glutes, hamstrings, lower back.
Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Assisted Pull-Up Machine

Why it's great: Assisted pull-ups require your entire body to be stabilized, so you end up working more muscles than you would for a traditional lat pulldown, Routson says. A comprehensive exercise like the pull-up allows you to get the most out of your workout, he says.

What's unique about the assisted pull-up machine is that it's a "counter-weight" machine, meaning the weight you select is working against your body weight — it's not the amount you're going to be "lifting." So, choose something higher than your weight. Then consider how many reps you can pull off without compromising your form, he says. "It's not about how much you lift, but how well you lift it."

What it works: lats, back, shoulders.
Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Cable Machine

Why it's great: Like free weights, cables require you to stabilize your joints throughout the movement, Routson says. "However, it offers the benefit of continuous tension throughout the entire range of motion," he says. "Challenging your muscle in every part of the range allows for more control, flexibility, and reduces imbalances."

Most cable machines include a few interchangeable handles that allow you to perform myriad exercises. Routson's favorites are the chest fly, seated row, and standing trunk rotations.

What it works: This machine can be used to work your entire body.
Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Chest Press

Why it's great: You can build a great deal of upper-body strength with the chest press, and it also provides a challenge for your triceps, Routson says. And if you're working toward doing a pushup, this is a great machine to start with. Added bonus: The chest press can also help your posture.

Often when there's an imbalance between the muscles of your back and your chest, it can cause the shoulders to roll toward whichever side is stronger, which can weaken your posture, he says. "The strength gained here will help balance out the strength in your back, because they operate on different sides of the same joint," he says.

What it works: chest, shoulders, triceps.
Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Lat Pulldown

Why it's great: This machine targets your latissimus dorsi (aka lats), which is one of the largest muscles on your back, plus it helps your biceps. "This exercise is fundamental and has so many benefits," Routson says. Strengthening your lats will help improve your posture, and will be crucial in protecting your spine during other exercises, he adds.

What it works: lats, biceps, shoulders.
Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Leg Press Machine

Why it's great: When it comes to building or maintaining strength, our bodies require exposure to more intensity or a heavier weight, Routson says. This machine mimics a squat, but also allows you to use a heavier weight and still "provide the safety of a fix-joint machine," he says. In other words, you can challenge yourself without sacrificing your form.

It's important not to let your knees collapse inward or bow too far outside, he says. And keep your hips on the seat, otherwise the force of the weight can shift onto your tailbone and lower back, he says.

What it works: quads, glutes, hamstrings.
Photo: Courtesy of Life Fitness.
Smith Machine

Why it's great: The Smith machine is a great compromise between free weights and a fix-joint machine. "Using this as a stepping stone between machines and free weights provides an even greater advantage," he says. On the Smith machine, the barbells have a fixed pathway (meaning they can't fall), so it's almost like having a built-in spotter.

You can use the Smith machine to do a number of movements, like squats or bench presses, he says. "Form can be tricky because of how fixed the pathway is," he says. It's best to think in terms of orientating your body around the bar instead of the bar around your body.

What it works: this machine can be used to work your entire body.
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