When you can grab free weights and work a wide range of muscle groups, plus your smaller stabiliser muscles, plus your core, all at the same time, why would you want to spend time with a weights machine that only lets you move along one path? Glad you asked.
That restricted range of movement allows beginners to learn good form, experienced lifters to stack more weight on and people returning from an injury to safely reintroduce their bodies to the demands of lifting.
Each machine requires a different set-up, and you should take the time to adjust the seat, handles and anything else before adding weight – it’s no safer if you’re using it wrong. It’s a good idea to do a light set or two just to fine-tune the settings – this can also help to warm up the muscles that you’re about to focus on.
And despite everything we’ve said about it being safer and a way to lift heavier than you could with free weights, it’s still possible to do yourself a mischief on a weights machine. Focus on form, and keep your movements controlled throughout.
Chest press machine
Just like the bench press, a chest press machine works your pectorals and increases the strength of your triceps. Ensure that the weight is set the same on both sides, and once you’re in the machine and gripping the handles make sure your elbows aren’t behind your torso. If that’s the case you’re overextending and you need to make an adjustment. The final tip is to make sure you’re not arching your back – keep it pressed flat against the seat back throughout.
Press the handles away from your chest until your arms are fully extended, then reverse the movement under control.
Pec deck or chest flye machine
This contraption offers a more focused means of working your pecs. Sit with your back flat on the back rest, feet planted on the floor for stability and gripping the handles out to the sides, and bring your hands together. For greater muscle development, squeeze your pecs once your hands meet.
Lat pull-down machine
If a pull-up proves too difficult, turn to this machine to start building the main muscle in your upper back, the latissimus dorsi. First things first, make sure the wide-grip handle is attached – a trainer at the gym can help if it’s not.
Sit facing the machine with your back straight, legs tucked under the two circular support arms and feet firmly planted. Slowly pull the bar down towards your chest, and once it is below your chin or on your chest, let it rise again under control. Because a lat pull-down is imitating a pull-up, aim to work up to shifting your own bodyweight.
Low-pulley cable bench
This cable machine is used to perform the seated row, a movement that primarily works your back but also delivers a biceps-building bonus. Sit on the bench with your back straight and feet on the platform, and a slight bend in your legs. Grab the rower handles with your arms extended and lift your chest to promote good posture. Pull the handles towards your stomach, keeping your elbows tucked in, until the handles reach your abs. Slowly lower the weights to the starting position.
Leg press machine
As well as being a great machine to work your quads, calves and hamstrings, this has a seat set at an angle that means it feels a little like sitting in a space shuttle that’s about to take off. We’re not saying we start every set with a countdown, but we’re not saying we don’t do that either.
Once you’ve selected your weight, sit in the machine and plant your feet flat on the platform and ready yourself to take the weight before you pull the release lever. Keep your hand near the lever so you can make the machine take the weight again at a moment’s notice. Bend slowly at the knee to lower the weight towards you, then push the weight back up, stopping before you lock out your knees.
Leg extension machine
This machine allows you to isolate your quads, although other parts of your body – particularly your knees – will be at risk if you overdo the weight. Sit in the machine with your shins pressing against the padded bar and your feet facing forwards. Pull the lever to engage the weight and, focusing on using your quads to power the movement, raise your lower legs so your legs are extended. Lower slowly under control.
Seated leg curl machine
Often found next to the leg extension machine, this machine focuses on the other major thigh muscles – the hamstrings. Lie on the bench and make sure your calves are resting on the padded bar. Release the weight with the lever and bend at the knees to bring the padded bar towards the seat, then let the weight return to the start under control.
Calf raise machine
The calves aren’t the easiest muscle to train in the gym, with calf raises being the obvious go-to. But once you’ve progressed enough to need to add weight to increase the challenge, you may find you’re hampered by your ability to keep your balance. Enter the calf raise machine, which allows you to do seated raises with weight. Slide into the machine and adjust the pads resting on your quads so you feel secure. Your toes and the balls of your feet should rest on the platform with your heels pointing towards the ground. Press down through your toes to raise both heels, lifting the weight. Lower again so that your heels are pointing towards the ground.
This rack keeps a barbell on a fixed path and includes hooks on the supporting column so you can easily rack it at pretty much any point if you’re struggling.
To take control of the weight you’ll need to lift the barbell slightly, then rotate it so that it’s unhooked. Rotate in the opposite direction and lower into the hook.
The up-down path of the Smith machine makes it suitable for any overhead press exercise, as well as bench presses and barbell squats. Because you can lock the barbell in, you also find people using it for inverted rows.