How to Use Gym Equipment Correctly

The stationary bike is great for a quick pre-training warmup.

The stationary bike is great for a quick pre-training warmup.

Gyms provide a variety of equipment from cardio machines to resistance machines to free weights and much more. This allows you to change your workout routine, making it more effective than repeating the same moves over and over. It also provides for continuous progression, if that's your goal, from beginner to advanced and even bodybuilder. The style and mechanisms of available equipment will vary from gym to gym, but some principles apply across the board for getting an effective and safe workout.

Cardio Equipment

Start with a warmup. Whether you prefer doing your entire cardio workout as soon as you arrive at the gym, after your strength- training or a little before and a little after, you should always warm up for at least five minutes prior to doing any resistance training. Treadmills and stationary bikes work great for a quick warmup as you don't need to seriously increase your heart rate at this point.

Jump on and get started. With the exception of the treadmill, most cardio machines require you to start peddling or stepping before a readout comes up telling you the steps to getting started. If you're just starting on a new machine, use the manual setting for the most control. Start the treadmill while you have your feet on the runners on either side. Start it at a slow speed and hold the handle when you first start walking, even if you are experienced. Increase the speed and incline as you progress.

Always maintain proper form. That means standing upright with your abdominal muscles contracted. Keep your shoulders neutral and don't let them round. Don't allow your head to jut forward. Your neck, back and pelvis should be aligned. Use hand rails for support if necessary, but don't lean your weight on them. Warm up and cool down for about five minutes each. Many machines will go into these modes automatically.

Resistance Machines

Read the labels. Gym machines usually include a label illustrating what muscles are targeted. A common mistake is to duplicate or overlap training within the same session. For example, if you use the leg press machine, working the gluteus maximus, the quadriceps and hamstrings of your thighs, and the gastrocnemius and soleus of your calves, you don't need to use the leg curl machine that targets the hamstrings -- and sometimes the calf muscles -- or the leg extension machine that targets the quads in the same session.

Adjust the machine properly. Some machines allow you to adjust the back or the seat height. Some have a pad that goes across the top of the knees. Machines that involve joint flexion may have a pivot point to match with the moving joint. Proper adjustment is essential to avoiding injury. If you aren't sure what to do, ask a trainer or gym employee to explain.

Choose a weight at which you can do at least eight repetitions but no more than 12 without difficulty. Try to do at least two sets on each machine and when 12 repetitions become too easy, up the weight or try another exercise. Don't work out on the same machine for more than two weeks, or six consecutive sessions. Your muscles will become accustomed to the same moves, and it will lose its effect.

Use a slow and controlled motion when working on machines and go through the full range of motion unless advised otherwise by your physician or trainer. Control your return and maintain tension by stopping when the weights just barely touch. Don't let them clank together.

Free Weights

Train with barbells or dumbbells to work biceps, triceps and deltoids. Add resistance to squats and lunges with dumbbells down at your sides or a barbell across your shoulders.

Choose weight as you would with machines and do similar reps. Challenge yourself using inclined and declined benches for curls and presses or by working out on stability balls.

Observe proper safety. Use clips on plates. Remove plates from barbells and other equipment. Remember, the plates you can easily lift may be too heavy for someone else to remove. Rack dumbbells. Never leave equipment where someone could trip over it.


  • When starting out at a new gym, ask a staff member or trainer for an orientation.
  • When using an elliptical with moveable arms, go through the full range of motion, extending your arms fully and pulling them all the way back.
  • Always wipe down equipment after use. Most gyms provide paper towels and a special cleaner.


  • Never place your face directly on a mat. For face-down exercises, use a towel.
  • Stop exercising immediately if you feel a sudden pain, even if it goes away.
  • You can cardio train every day, but never work the same muscles on consecutive days.

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About the Author

Nancy Cross is a certified paralegal who has worked as an employee benefits specialist and counseled employees on retirement preparation, including financial and estate planning. In addition to writing and editing, she runs a small business with her husband and is a certified personal trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).

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