10 of the Most Common Gym Machines and How to Use Them

10 of the Most Common Gym Machines and How to Use Them
Photo: Slatan, Shutterstock

Machines are one of the easiest ways to get started with exercising. They don’t require much in the way of technique, nor are there many fiddly details to worry about. You certainly don’t have to assemble your equipment from bits lying around the gym like you do for a barbell workout.

There are two things to know about every gym machine. The first is that there’s almost always a little placard on the machine that explains how to use it, in both words and pictures. The second is that there’s usually something to adjust — those words might explain it — and if you don’t adjust the thing, you could end up being really uncomfortable. So here’s a tour of common machines you’ll see in the gym, with pointers on how to use them. Each manufacturer is different, though, so you can’t quite figure something out, google the machine’s name and brand — or ask gym staff or regulars for help.

Leg extension

What it works: Your quads, the muscles on the front of your thighs

How to use it: Sit on the seat, with the pad on your shins, and lift the shin pad up by straightening (“extending”) your knees. That’s it, that’s all this does.

Important adjustments: Adjust the seat so that the hinge is lined up with your knee.

Pec deck

What it works: In the forward setting, it works the muscles of your chest, in an exercise also known as a chest flye. Some versions of this machine have a setting where you can pull the handles backwards to work your rear delts (back of your shoulders) and muscles of your upper back.

How to use it: For chest flyes, sit with your back resting on the seat, and bring your arms together. For the reverse option, you’ll face the other way, with your belly against the back of the seat.

Important adjustments: Make sure to adjust the machine’s starting position before you begin. For example, when you’re using it in the forward direction (bringing your arms together), you shouldn’t have to strain to reach backward to get the motion started. There’s a setting that will allow you to start from a comfortable position.

Lat pulldown

What it works: Your latissimus dorsi, or lats, are the muscles that attach your arms to your lower back. Think of them as bringing your elbows close to your hips. In addition, this also uses your biceps and grip.

How to use it: Simply take your preferred grip on the bar, and pull it down toward your chest. The standard way to use this machine is to lean back ever-so-slightly and bring the bar down to touch the top of your chest. (Behind-the-neck pulls aren’t inherently dangerous, but they aren’t the most beginner friendly.)

Important adjustments: Not too much to adjust here, besides sometimes the pad that goes above your thighs to hold you in your seat when the pulldown starts getting heavy. If you’re short, it’s ok to start your pulldown standing up, and then move into the seat to finish the exercise. You can also use different handles on the cable: if you don’t like the wide grip bar, look for a clip that will let you swap it out for a different type of handle.

Leg press

What it works: Your legs, especially your quads. It works more muscle groups than a leg extension, but fewer than a barbell squat.

How to use it: Here’s where it gets tricky: there are many different types of leg press. Some use a selectorized stack with a pin, while others use the same plates that the barbells use. In some machines, the footplate moves, while in others, your seat slides on a track, or both. Hack squat machines are similar in function, but you’re standing up while supporting the weight via pads on your shoulders.

Important adjustments: Make sure the starting position allows your legs to be slightly bent. On the kind where there’s a weight sled above you, you’ll straighten your legs to lift the sled, then release a lever, and then the machine will be able to slide enough to let you fully bend your knees. If a tall person used the machine before you, don’t try to get in there and release it by getting onto your tiptoes; either empty the machine and reset it, or ask that tall person if they wouldn’t mind helping you set it to a shorter height.

Assisted pullup/dip machine

What it works: Assisted pullups mainly work your lats and biceps; assisted dips mainly work your triceps and chest.

How to use it: Stand on the foot platforms, and place one knee and then the other onto the pad. The pad supports your knees as you do pullups or dips.

Important adjustments: When you’re setting the weight, remember that using less weight makes this exercise harder — the opposite of every other machine. Think of the plates as subtracting from your body weight.

Also, be aware that the knee pad can flip out of the way so that you can do unassisted pullups or dips. That makes this machine a convenient place to do regular pullups, especially if you can only do a few reps on your own and plan to switch to the assisted version to finish out your sets.

Chest press

What it works: Your chest, of course (and your triceps).

How to use it: Sit in the seat, and push the handles away from you. It’s the same motion as a bench press, more or less.

Important adjustments: Adjust the height of the seat so that the handles are right at chest level, not higher or lower. And make sure that the handles are in a starting position that is comfortable for your shoulders: elbows roughly even with your back, not way behind you.

Seated cable machine

What it works: Mainly your lats and biceps.

How to use it: Sit on the bench with your feet pushing against the footplates. Pull the handles toward your belly. Unlike a rowing machine, a seated cable row is all arms. Don’t use your legs to slide back on the bench, and try not to lean your torso backwards and forwards with each rep.

Important adjustments: As with the lat pulldown, you can swap out the handle here for any attachment you like. (Some machines even have two separate cables, in case you like having two separate handles.)

Adductor/abductor machines

What they work: The adductor machine works the muscles of your inner thighs; the abductor machine works the muscles on the outside of your hips. Think of the latter as the muscles that “abduct” your leg away from your body, just like an alien “abduction” means taking earthlings away from their home planet.

How to use them: This one is pretty obvious: sit in the seat, put your legs in the leg things, and move them inward (adductor machine) or outward (abductor machine). The adductor and abductor are usually two separate machines.

Important adjustments: As with the pec deck, you can adjust the starting position of each of these so it’s comfortable for you. This machine is basically a pec deck for legs, if you really think about it.

Cable machine

What it works: Everything, depending on how you use it.

How to use it: There are a variety of exercises you can do with a cable machine, not just one motion, so find an exercise you’d like to do and look up how it works. Want a few to start with? Try tricep pushdowns, pallof presses, and cable curls.

Important adjustments: First, figure out if you need one pulley or two, and make sure you’ve got a machine that has two if you need a pair. Next, there should be a pin that lets you slide the pulley up and down to the place you want it (up high for tricep pushdowns, down low for bicep curls, chest level for pallof presses). Finally, there are a million attachments, so swap out whatever is in there for whatever you need: a plain ol handle, a pushdown rope, a curl bar, or anything else.

Smith machine

What it works: This is another versatile one. Smith machines are often used in place of a barbell for squats, good mornings, and overhead or bench presses. They’re definitely not a drop-in replacement for barbells, but they do have their place.

How to use it: Make sure to look up the specific exercise you want to do, since the barbell version of an exercise and the Smith machine version are not always the same. For squats, for example, you’ll want to position your feet a few steps in front of the bar, instead of right underneath. Plates load onto the ends of the bar the same as with a barbell. There’s no need for collars.

Important adjustments: There’s a safety setting toward the bottom of the machine, which you should set to an appropriate height to make sure you won’t get pinned under the bar if you can’t complete a rep. And no, I don’t know how much the bar weighs. Some machines will have a sticker saying how much it is; if you can’t find one, just assume it weighs zero pounds and only record the amount of weight you actually put on the ends.

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