If, like many people, you’ve spent the past year working out from home, returning to the gym can be a little daunting, especially when you’re surrounded by athletic-looking people who seem to know what they are doing. While it can be tempting to stick to dumbbells and continue your home workout routine from an exercise mat in the corner, heading to the gym floor and using some of the gym equipment can help you reach your goals, lose weight, and target particular muscle groups. If you’re looking for a new gym workout routine or just some guidance on which machines to hit, we’ve found the best machines to try if you’re new to the gym.
One thing is for certain — not all gym machines are created equal and some will be easier to get to grips with than others. In fact, in these five exercises that you shouldn’t be doing, using the adductor machine and the leg curl machine in the gym were both found to not be all that effective. Many of the machines below are suited for all skill levels, but we definitely still recommend asking for help if you’re not sure how a machine works, as the last thing you want is to be injured from your first trip back.
If this really isn’t for you, we’ve tried a number of brilliant home workouts to help you work up a sweat from just about anywhere. Read what happened when we tried the Pamela Reif six-pack ab workout, the Lily Sabri 7-day ab challenge, and this 20-minute Caroline Girvan ab workout. If you’re more into cardio, we’ve also tried this viral 12-3-30 TikTok treadmill workout, and hand-picked the best treadmill workouts for all levels of runner here.
The best machines to try if you’re new to the gym:
If you're a beginner in the gym, here's the machines to head to.
Like a squat, a leg press targets your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. However, sitting on the leg press also supports your lower back, so if you suffer from lower back issues, using a leg press can be better for you than squatting with weights. Using a leg press is also a good way to build glute and quad strength before reaching for the heavy barbells. You can target different muscles on the leg press by adjusting the position of your feet on the footpad, and even using the leg press to do calf raises.
How to use a leg press:
Start by adjusting the leg press so that you’re fully supported. When sitting on the leg press, make sure your lower back and head can easily touch the backrest, and that your bottom is flat against the seat rather than raised when your feet are on the footpad. Your legs should form an angle of about 90 degrees at the knees. As you press outward, be sure not to lock your knees as you extend your legs, as this can put them under unnecessary strain, and keep the whole movement slow and controlled. If you have never done leg presses before, start with a lighter weight and do three sets of ten presses. Increase the weight if it feels too easy.
If you hate running, a rowing machine is an easy way to torch calories — in fact, it’s one of the five cardio exercises that burn more calories than running, chewing an average of 662 calories per 60 minutes. If you’ve never sat on a rowing machine before, definitely don’t aim for an hour of rowing; just try 15 minutes. It’s a full body workout, activating the quads and glutes in the lower body, as well as the deltoid and lats in the upper body. It also targets your core, so is great if you’re looking to lose weight, or tone up.
How to use a rowing machine
Start by putting your feet in the straps and making sure you adjust them so that they cannot move while you’re rowing. Keeping your back straight, hold onto the oar. Push back first with your legs, then as you move backwards, use your upper back to pull your arms towards your chest. Release your arms, then bend your legs back to your starting position.
This one kind of looks intimidating, partly because it’s usually surrounded by gym-bros, but don’t let them put you off. The smith machine looks kind of like a squat rack, but the bar is supported by two vertical poles. It’s great for beginners because the weight of the bar is supported, so if it’s too heavy, you’re less likely to hurt yourself. A smith machine is a great way to work on your technique for squats and bench presses, but be aware that when you’re using a smith machine, the poles are doing some of the work for you, so you’ll need to drop your weights when you move onto the bench or a squat rack.
How to use a smith machine
You’ll mainly use the smith machine for barbell squats and bench presses, although once you’ve got the hang of things, you could use it for exercises like calf raises. To do a barbell squat using a smith machine, put the bar on your shoulders, and keeping your feet shoulder-width apart, squat down and back. Don’t let your knees go out over your toes and keep the movement slow and controlled at all times.
This kind of looks like a torture device, but it’s actually a super-handy machine for a number of different exercises and can give you a full-body workout. Don’t worry if someone is already using the machine — there are two pulleys on either side, and for exercises like lateral pull downs, you only need one side.
How to use a cable machine
This totally depends on the kind of exercise you plan on doing. The cable machine can be used for arm exercises, leg exercises, and even use the handles at the top of the machine for pull-ups, chin-up, or hanging leg raises. The opportunities are endless, and you can do pretty much anything you’d usually use a dumbbell for.
Another great cardio machine for anyone who avoids the treadmill, the Stairmaster, or stepper, is kind of like climbing endless flights of stairs. It’s a killer for your thighs, glutes, and calves, and will raise your heart rate in a matter of minutes. As your leg goes through a full range of motion when you step up, the stepper is a great way of toning the legs, as well as torching calories and helping you reach weight loss goals.
How to use a Stairmaster
The Stairmaster is one of the easier machines in the gym to get to grips with. All you’ll need to do is climb onto the machine, and adjust the speed as you climb. If you really want to get a good workout, try kicking your leg back each time you step up or aim for every other step to really burn into the legs. If you’re a beginner, just aim to keep climbing for 5-10 minutes.
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Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.