The Best Beginner Workout Gym Machines

You'll be a gym buff in no time.

January 3, 2017
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Maybe you've been away for some time, or it's your first time stepping foot in a gym, but mastering a few basic gym machines and a mix of cardio and strength training moves will get you started on your meeting your goals. 

"Machine-based workouts can provide a safe introduction to your new workout routine," says New York Health & Racquet Club personal trainer, Stuart Munro. "Remember that, although building lean muscle in your major muscle groups provides additional benefit for fat burning throughout your day, you still want to start your workout with some light cardio to warm up, followed by some dynamic stretching for mobility before your main workout."

Follow this circut when first starting out, and you'll soon move on to the next level. But remember: With new training, come new muscles, and some definite soreness.

"It’s normal to feel some soreness following your workout as you adjust to changes in your training," Munro adds. "Some gentle movements will help with this."

Get started with these beginner gym moves, put together by Munro, to get you started: 

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The Elliptical Machine

Why: Low impact full body warm up and cardio

How: Stand on the footplates and gently grip the handles to include upper body movement, giving you more workout benefit. Start moving, press quick start your first time, and adjust your workout level and program for variety. Maintain an upright position (your posture and breathing is likely to be better if looking at the TV on the wall rather than the machine screen or your book/device placed on the machine).

Level: As a warm up, do 5 minutes at low intensity, you should be able to hold a conversation. As a main workout, do a warm up then 20-30 minutes of a hill or interval routine.

Trainer tip: Do some occasional reverse movement for additional warm up, muscle activation and range of motion.

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The Rowing Machine

Why: Low impact full body warm up and cardio

How: Sit in the sliding seat. Set your feet into the paddles, adjusting the position so the strap fits across your mid-foot. Lean (not bend) forward and take up the handle. Set your shoulders back and down. Push through the balls of your feet to lead the movement, pulling the handle into the base of your ribs as your legs extend. Your elbows should come in beside your ribs for the basic movement. Use your legs to slide back to start position, allowing your arms to extend forward and leaning forward from the hips. Keep a slight bend in your knees and elbows at the ends of your range.

Level: As a warm up, do 5 minutes at low intensity, you should be able to hold a conversation. As a main workout, do a warm up then 20-30 minutes of an interval routine.

Trainer tip: Ensure your lower back is not leading any movements. Ask a trainer for help with technique, especially if you have any lower back injury history.

4/8 Mitch Mandel
Chest Press

Why: Strengthen chest, shoulders and triceps for pushing movements (push-ups, burpees, dips, etc.)

How: Adjust the seat so the handles are mid chest (level with your underarms). If the handles are adjustable, set them to be level with or in front of your shoulders. Adjust the weight using the pin. Start with a very light weight that will allow you to test your position and establish the range of motion. Sit, grasp the handles with elbows slightly below shoulders. Press the handles out to a fully extended position maintaining a slight bend in the elbow and then lower the handles back to the start position. Your back and shoulders should stay comfortably against the seat at all times. Aim for smooth and controlled movements, breathing out as you push away, and in as you bring the handles back in. 

Level: Starting out, you want a weight that you can do for 3 sets of 12 repetitions, with it slightly hard towards the end of your last set. If you can’t control the weight smoothly in both directions, then the weight is too heavy.

Trainer tip: To improve your push-ups, keep the weight a bit lighter and work to the full range, with slower lowering.

5/8 Beth Bischoff
Lat Pulldown

Why: Strengthen back, shoulders and biceps for pulling and lifting movements (pull-ups, lifting up children, monkey bars, etc).

How: Adjust the seat pad so your legs will feel snug and supported. Adjust the weight using the pin. Start with a very light weight that will allow you to test your position and establish the range of motion. You can grip overhand (palms facing away) or underhand (palms facing towards you), or a combination. Beginners often find that the underhand grip works best. Start by setting your shoulders back and down, then lead with your back muscles to pull the handle down to in front of your shoulders and then straighten your arms to return to start position, maintaining a slight bend in the elbows in the extended position. If you allow the bar to jerk in the raising motion, it can overload the shoulders and elbows, so always aim for smooth and controlled movements, breathing out as you pull down, breathing in as you allow the bar to raise.

Level: Starting out, you want a weight that you can do for 3 sets of 12 repetitions, with it slightly hard towards the end of your last set. If you can't control the weight smoothly in both directions, then the weight is too heavy.

Trainer tip: Vary your grip to change the loading of lead and support muscles.

6/8 Thomas MacDonald
Seated Leg Press

Why: Powerful legs: quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes for lifting, running, jumping and stairs. These will also help with tone for glutes and thighs.

How: If you want to use a cable weight machine, some will have a seat that moves, some will have foot plates that move away. Alternatively, you can use the leg press machine, your start position will be seated, with your hips firmly against the seat. Starting out, you want your knees to have at least a 90-degree bend, with your feet at least hip width apart and your knees over your feet. Adjust the seat and spacing to suit. Turn your toes out to the 11 and 1 positions. Your knees should always track in line with your toes, never dipping in. Press into your feet to extend your legs, maintaining a slight bend in the knee in the extended position. Aim for a smooth and controlled motion, breathing out as you extend and breathing in as you return to start position.

Level: Starting out, you want a weight that you can do for 3 sets of 12 repetitions, with it slightly hard towards the end of your last set. If you can’t control the weight smoothly in both directions, then the weight is too heavy.

Trainer tip: Try a few different foot width positions. Always maintain the knee and toe alignment for whichever foot position you choose.

7/8 Mitch Mandel
Smith Machine

Why: The versatility of the Smith Machine allows you to train your progression for many exercises whether that be improvement in body weight exercises or progression from machines to free weights. The Olympic lifting bar is set on a vertical slide, with hooks to rest the bar on.

How: There are so many ways you can use a Smith Machine! Concentric, eccentric, body weight, plate weight, bench, incline. Traditionally, you can use this machine to perform weighted squats. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, take the bar across your shoulders. Keep your chest elevated and bend at the knees in a squat until thighs are parallel to the floor. Return, slowly, to starting position.

Alternatively, Munro notes, you can work on pushup development, which requires core strength to hold the plank and shoulder stability while lowering and raising. Start your progression with the bar set level with the bottom of your ribs. Take your push up raised start position with hands wider than shoulders. Smoothly lower your chest to the bar, maintaining your body plank and having your elbows bend to a 90-degree angle. Your upper arms stay in line with the bar, not down to your sides. If this is easy with good form, lower the bar one position until the body angle and movement becomes challenging. You will progress over time to full pushups on the floor.

Level: Aim for 3 sets of 12 full range push ups, with it slightly hard towards the end of your last set. 

Trainer tip: Ensure your progressions maintain good form! Only change your body angle when you can hold the position and complete the full range of the move.

8/8 Thomas MacDonald
Dip & Chin Assist

Why: Because pull-ups are awesome! The Dip/Chin assist machine provides a progression from fixed weight to body weight exercises that are more functional. Anyone thinking of an obstacle course race will want to train their upper body functional strength.

How: This machine differs from most in that the weight is providing assistance. The heavier the weight, the more assistance it is providing. Start with an assistance 20-30lb lighter than your current weight. Fold the knee pad down to use the assistance.

Pull-up: Step on to the steps, select the desired handle and grip and then move slowly onto the knee pad one knee at a time. Set your shoulders down and back. Smoothly lower your body to the extended position, breathing in as you lower, and then, leading with your back muscles, pull yourself back up breathing out as you raise. The extended position has a slight bend at the elbow, and shoulders remain set back and down. Avoid going to full extension, locking out the elbows or jerking movements as these can overload the shoulder. If in doubt, take a smaller range until you get comfortable with the motion.

Dip: Step on to the steps, select the desired handle and grip and then move slowly onto the knee pad one knee at a time. Set your shoulders down and back. Smoothly lower your body to the lowered position, breathing in as you lower, and then, leading with the chest muscles, push yourself back up breathing out as you raise. The lowered position has shoulders level with elbows, upper arms close to parallel to the ground and shoulders remain set back and down. Keep your upper body close to vertical and your head raised so your face stays away from the moving parts. Avoid dropping your shoulders below your elbows, locking out the elbows or jerking movements as these can overload the shoulder. If in doubt, take a smaller range until you get comfortable with the motion.

Level: Aim for 3 sets of 8 full range pull-ups and 3 sets of 8 full range dips, with it slightly hard towards the end of your last set.

Trainer tip: Vary your grip to change the loading of lead and support muscles.

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