By Katie Rosenbrock
No one should be afraid to admit it: The gym can be an intimidating space, especially if you're new to working out. Even after being a long-time member, you might still feel like a newcomer if you're not sure how to expand your workouts beyond the most common cardio machines.
Before I had the chance to work with a personal trainer, I was terrified to go anywhere near the free weights or cable machines. I had no idea how to use them. I was afraid I might embarrass myself if I did something wrong while trying to figure it out on my own (even though most machines have detailed instructions).
Of course I could see other members using the equipment. It seemed like maybe I could replicate their moves. Sometimes I would at least muster the courage to check out a new machine, but I'd usually back out because I didn't know where a certain lever should be placed, how to adjust the seat for my height, or worst of all, that I’d do an exercise wrongly and get hurt.
So, I continued a repetitive routine of being best friends with the treadmill and shunning every type of strength training, simply because I was scared. That was an inefficient way of working out, though. No wonder I was having trouble achieving my goals.
It wasn’t until I asked for help to learn the ropes that I started to see change. Learning how to use those machines that looked so scary changed the game for me. That's because strength training is an important part of every exercise regimen, especially for those with weight loss goals.
Here’s a hint, once you learn how to use equipment the right way, everything doesn’t look so scary anymore. Oh yeah, and if you’re worried about what other members might think, don’t give it a second thought. Most are probably way too wrapped up in their own workout to worry about what you're doing on the lat pull-down machine.
Although it's primarily used for squats, the Smith Machine is another piece of equipment that can be used to perform multiple exercises. To use it for squatting, you'll first need to set the bar so it sits a little below your neck level. To move it up or down, twist the bar in order to release it from the safety catches and then move it to the desired height. Next, twist it in the other direction to place it in the appropriate catch. Once the bar is set, you’ll need to add plates to each side. (Beginners are advised to first perform the exercise without adding weight.) After adding an even amount of weight to each side you can set yourself up to begin squatting by squatting down slightly and placing your shoulders underneath the bar. Twist the bar again to release it from the catch, then proceed to squat up and down, making sure to keep the motion slow and controlled.
This machine replicates the squat exercise, and while it might look particularly intimidating, it's fairly easy to use. Before seating yourself in the chair, add the desired amount of weight to each rack on either side. (Again, beginners are advised to first perform the exercise without adding weight.) Slide into the seat and place your feet on the platform, about hip width distance apart. Once you're comfortably seated and your feet are planted firmly on the platform, turn the handles at your side to release the safety latches. When you're ready, extend your legs forward, keeping your knees slightly bent at the end of the movement and returning them to the starting position to complete one rep. When you're finished with your set, return your legs to the starting position and then turn the handles at your side to re-lock the safety latches.
Once you know how to perform a lat (short for latissimus dorsi) pull-down, this machine is simple to use. To set it up, start by placing the pin at an appropriate level in the weight stack. Next, attach the long bar handle to the clip on the overhead pulley. If there is a lap bar near the seat, pull the lever to adjust its height so that your thighs fit comfortably underneath. While still standing, reach your hands above your head to grab the handlebar, gripping close to the edge at each side. Use your body weight to pull the bar as you slowly sit down on the chair. With your feet planted firmly on the ground and your knees bent at about 90 degrees, lean back slightly while making sure to keep your core tight before pulling your shoulder blades back and down to draw the bar straight to your chest. Return to the starting position with the bar just above your head and elbows bent to complete one rep. When you’re finished with your set, stand up slowly and continue to hold the bar until the weight plates are safely returned to the base.
The seated cable row looks similar to the lat pull down machine and it might even be placed nearby in your gym. The only difference is that it has a slanted platform at the base where you place your feet and the pulley is placed down low instead of overhead. As with most of the cable machines, the first step in setting it up is to place the pin in the appropriate weight slot. Next, find the row handle attachment and clip it to the pulley. Take a seat at the edge of the bench and place your feet firmly on the slanted block, about hip width distance apart. Reach forward to grab the handle, holding it so that your palms are facing inward. While sitting up tall and keeping your core tight, contract your back muscles (think about squeezing your shoulder blades) to pull the cable back in a rowing like motion. Slowly return to the starting position to complete one rep. When you’re finished with your set, lean forward slowly to release the weight stack back to the base.
OK, so this piece of equipment isn't that scary or intimidating, but many gym-goers either have no idea that it even exists or are completely unsure of what it’s used for. The foam roller’s main purpose is for assisting with self myofacial release, which is really just a fancy term for self-massage. You can use it to relieve tension in almost any muscle by rolling your limbs over it. If while rolling you feel an area with extra tension, hold yourself over the spot for 5-10 seconds. Below you can learn how to do five different foam roller exercises.
It's not easy to tell what this piece of equipment might be used for just by looking at it, but it’s meant to assist a simple exercise. Chances are you’ve seen other members at your gym using it, but maybe you’re hesitant to give it a try because you’re not exactly sure of its purpose. Although you can use the roman chair several different ways, the main exercise you can use it for is the back extension, which strengthens the muscles of your core, lower back, and glutes.
To perform the exercise, first adjust the height of the upper pads so that they stop just at your hips when you position yourself on the machine. Plant your feet firmly at the top of the slanted base and then press your quads onto the padded area. Cross your arms over your shoulders and make sure to keep your spine in a straight line and your core tight as you slowly fold forward at your hips and lower your entire torso towards the floor. Using strength from your lower back and glutes, very slowly raise your torso back to the starting position, making sure not overextend at the top.