Weight machines tend to be safer and easier to use than free weights, and many help you get the most out of your workout by ensuring you follow a proper motion path without relying on other muscles. Despite the benefits, walking into a gym full of equipment can be baffling and can often lead to confusion and discouragement. Once you understand how to use the best pieces of equipment, you can begin toning and strengthening your muscles with confidence.
Squats and the bench press are arguably two of the most popular gym exercises, and for good reason. Both exercises are compound, meaning they involve multiple joints and work multiple muscle groups at once. They also can both be dangerous, especially for new exercisers, as performing them with improper form can lead to shoulder, knee or lower-back injuries. The Smith machine consists of a barbell running up and down a vertical track. When you perform exercises such as squats or the bench press with a Smith machine, you'll have increased stability due to the single plane of motion, and the series of catch points along the track will catch the barbell at a twist of your wrist, should it become too heavy. In addition to squats and the bench press, you can try the shoulder press, lunges and deadlifts.
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The leg press machine mimics the motion of a squat, working your hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes, but with added support for your back and knees. The adjustable sliding bench allows you to limit your knee position to a 90-degree bend to prevent stress and injury on the joint. When you've finished working your upper legs, you can perform calf raises with one or both legs from the same machine.
If you had to select a single piece of equipment to tone your muscles with, the cable tower might be your best choice. The two adjustable pulleys attached to weight stacks give you a nearly free range of motion, so you'll enjoy many of the benefits of free weights. By moving the cable up and down the track and switching out the handles, you can work almost every muscle in your body with this one machine. With the cable at its highest point, perform lateral pulldowns with a pulldown bar, triceps pushdowns with a rope attachment or kneeling cable crunches with the traditional handles. Move the pulley to the bottom of the track and do bicep curls or seated cable rows with the straight bar handle. Setting both pulleys somewhere in the middle lets you perform chest flies.
Choosing Correct Weight
The proper equipment will do nothing to tone your muscles without the correct weight. To determine the proper weight, have a trainer or workout buddy spot you to determine the maximum weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise. Aim to lift at least 50 percent of your maximum for 12 repetitions. If you can perform 12 repetitions with proper form, you're probably not lifting with enough weight. You can add more weight and sets over time as your fitness level improves.
When you first walk into a gym, the range of machines can be overwhelming. However, it's unnecessary to use all of them. Women should focus on using a selection of cardio machines and weight machines -- with the aim of moving to free weights as you become more comfortable with strength training.
In the cardio section of your gym, you'll find a wide variety of machines. These include treadmills, ellipticals -- also known as cross-trainers -- rowing machines, steppers and stationary bikes. To target your lower body, use the steppers, bikes and treadmills set to a fast pace at an incline. Rowing machines are useful for targeting your upper body, while the elliptical will provide a full-body cardio workout. High intensity interval training, HIIT, is one of the most effective ways to do cardio on any of these machines, reducing body fat and improving overall muscle tone. Work hard for a set period, 20 to 30 seconds, then rest for a short period, 10 to 15 seconds, and repeat eight to 10 times.
Stack machines provide an easy entry point to weight training for women who have never lifted weights before. These machines feature a stack of weight plates bisected by a pin bar that allows you to select how much weight to use. There are a variety of machines that use this system, which can be used for bicep curls, tricep pushdown, cable crossovers, leg curls and leg press, lat pulldowns and assisted pull-ups. These machines should be used if you are not yet confident using free weights -- once you are more comfortable, aim to move over to dumbbell and barbell work.
Plate-loaded machines are a halfway-point between stack machines and free weights. You load them with barbell plates to the weight you are comfortable with and perform a range of exercises. The Smith machine -- best used for squats and calf raises, incline leg press and incline chest press -- are the most common plate-loaded machines you'll see. These machines can be useful if you are injured and need to be careful about carrying a load, and if you're still not confident moving to free weights. However, they tend to restrict your range of movement, which can lead to poor form when you move to free weights.
Training with free weights will give you the most "bang for your buck." You'll use the full range of motion for each muscle group, improve your balance and posture, build lean muscle mass more effectively, and increase your strength and endurance without relying on the machine to do some of the work for you. One of the most popular free weight options is the barbell, commonly used for: deadlifts, squats, lunges, bench press, bent over row and overhead press. Dumbbells are also very popular, and can be used for all the same exercises as well as single-arm and single-leg work.