How To Use Gym Equipment

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August 16, 2019 - Updated January 11, 2024

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So, you've just started training in a gym. Good for you! Maybe you’ve changed your Sweat strength training program to one that uses more equipment and machines, or perhaps you find yourself stepping into the weights section for the first time. Epic! If you're new to the gym environment or certain pieces of equipment, getting your head around it all might feel a little daunting. 

It’s normal to feel out of your comfort zone when trying something new, or even a bit overwhelmed or intimidated when it seems like everyone else knows what they're doing, but remember, everyone has a day one. 

When your workout calls for a piece of equipment you’ve never used before, resist the temptation to substitute it, head straight for the cardio section or stick to the equipment you know - you’ll quickly discover gym equipment is far more straightforward to use than you think! 

We’ve got you covered with tips on how to use machines to perform a lat pull-down, seated row, bench press, leg press, assisted pull-up, or use a barbell, squat rack, Smith machine or cable machine.

To help you complete your workouts with confidence as you embark on your strength training journey, here’s our guide to some essential pieces of gym equipment you’ll find in Sweat programs.

1. Lat pull-down

The lat pull-down machine targets your ‘latissimus dorsi’ (or ‘lats’), one of the largest muscles in your back, while also engaging your biceps and shoulders. Working your lats can help to improve posture and protect your spine during other exercises while also sculpting and strengthening the muscles in your back. 

The machine will have a seat, a pulley with an attachment clip, and adjustable resistance, usually in the form of a weight stack with a pin. A traditional lat pull-down would use a wide hanging bar attachment as pictured, but you can also use medium or narrow grip attachments, or single-arm attachments, too!

Start by placing the pin to a weight you’re comfortable with, then sit on the seat facing the machine with your legs on either side of the seat and your feet flat on the floor. If you can’t reach the bar while seated, you may need to adjust it or ask a gym staff member for assistance. 

With your hands in a wide position holding the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), slowly pull the bar down towards your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades, until it’s roughly level with your chin. Then, slowly return the bar to the starting position with control, making sure you don’t let the weight plates crash together. Repeat.

Performing lat pull-downs can help build your upper-body strength, particularly if your goal is to progress to a pull-up. As your pulling strength increases, you’ll be able to move on to the assisted pull-up machine or use resistance bands, and eventually progress to an unassisted pull-up.

2. Seated row

The seated cable row also works on your lats, focussing on the mid-back to engage the back of the shoulders, biceps and rhomboids. If you sit at a desk all day, this exercise can help to build your back strength and improve your posture.

A seated row can be performed on the same machine as a lat pull-down, except rather than using the hanging bar attached at the top, you’ll be pulling the handles from the attachment in front of you. If the lat pull-down machine isn’t available, you can perform a seated row on a cable machine by using the lower attachment.

Choose a weight you are comfortable with by adjusting the pin in the weight stack, then sit comfortably on the seat with your feet on the pedals or flat on the floor and your back straight. If using a cable machine, you might be sitting on the floor with your legs outstretched and your feet resting on foot pats or a bosu ball. 

Holding the handles with your arms outstretched, pull the handles towards your abdomen, keeping your torso steady and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat.

3. Bench press

The barbell bench press is a compound exercise that works several muscles at once, including the pectorals (chest muscles) and the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulders). Unlike push-ups, the bench press engages these muscles without placing as much strain on your wrists and shoulders. 

Lie on your back on a bench positioned under a weights rack, looking up at the barbell resting in the rack. You should be able to hold the bar when you reach your arms up and it should be roughly in line with your eyes to avoid making contact with the rack during your reps. Hold the bar with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and push the bar out of the rack. Lower the bar to your chest with control, then push it back to the starting position. Repeat.

If it’s your first time performing a bench press and a barbell feels too heavy, you can begin with a dumbbell bench press or the chest press machine — you can even do a chest press on a cable machine. 

If you’re using a barbell, the width of your grip will determine which muscles you load more. A close-grip barbell bench press will primarily engage the triceps, as well as the chest and front of the shoulders. A wider grip will focus on the chest, also using the front of the shoulders and triceps. You can start with just the bar and add weight as your strength and confidence increase.

4. Leg press

The leg press allows you to lift heavy weights with your legs without your spine needing to support the movement like you would in a heavy squat, which can result in poor form or increased risk of injury.   

A leg press machine will have an adjustable seat and a large weighted platform, usually with an adjustable weight stack and pin. Some leg press machines will have you seated on an incline like in the video above, while others are level.

Sit with your hips in contact with the back of the seat to protect your tailbone and lower back, and your feet flat on the plate. Your knees should be bent to allow you to push the plate away, so adjust the seat if you need to. Select your weight by adjusting the pin, then press the foot plate away from your torso and extend your legs with control, keeping a slight bend in your knee the entire time. Bend your knees and lower the foot plate towards your torso until your knees almost touch your chest. Your knees should track straight during the movement, rather than collapsing inward or bowing out to the side. Repeat, only letting the weight stack come fully together once you’ve completed your set.

5. Assisted pull-up

Pull-ups are one of the hardest exercises due to the amount of core and upper-body strength they require. You can build towards your first unassisted pull-up by using a long resistance band or an assisted pull-up machine, which will allow you to build strength gradually. 

Assisted pull-ups require you to stabilise your entire body, so you work more muscles than you do with a lat pull-down.

Set the machine to a level of assistance that is comfortable but challenging. Hold onto the pull-up bar of the machine with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Safely place your knees onto the horizontal knee pad, and extend your arms so that you are hanging from the chin-up bar. 

Using the muscles in your arms and back, bend your elbows and pull your body upwards to bring your chin up and over the chin-up bar. Avoid ‘shrugging’ your shoulders by drawing your shoulder blades down and back. Extend your elbows and lower your body to return to the starting position. Repeat.

As you get stronger, you’ll be able to decrease the offset. Take it slowly and only do as many reps as you can complete while maintaining the correct good form. 

If you’re using a resistance band for your assisted pull-ups, loop the band around the bar and insert one of your feet into the loop, with the other foot on top to stabilise yourself. Choose a band that allows you to complete 5-10 pull-ups — as you get stronger, you can use a thinner band with less resistance.

6. Smith machine

The Smith machine is a bar that moves within fixed steel rails. It’s an alternative to using free weights or barbells and can feel safer for those who are new to lifting due to the support of the rails, which prevent you from swaying forward or back. The Smith machine can be used for exercises such as squats, a bench press, shoulder press, deadlifts and split squats. 

When using the Smith machine, make sure you set the bar at the right position on the rack for your chosen exercise, at a weight you can complete all of your reps with good form (or feel free to use just the barbell!). 

You can also substitute the Smith machine when other equipment in the gym is being used.

7. Cable machine

The free-motion dual-cable machine can be used to work out almost any part of your body with a variety of resistance exercises thanks to multiple attachments and clips. It uses a pulley system and stacked weights which you can adjust by placing the pin in the weight stack.

The cable machine is a great piece of equipment as it allows you to work at all angles (as opposed to a vertical lat pull-down) and provides continuous tension on your muscles throughout the entire movement. You can’t always achieve this with free weights!

The pull of the cable forces you to stabilise your core, activating more muscle groups in your body to burn energy and build functional strength. 

You can use this machine while standing, seated or kneeling — it’s worth getting comfortable when using this versatile piece of equipment! Like a lat-pull machine, you would find the right clip for your exercise, clip your chosen attachment on, set the weight using the adjustable pin, and perform your set of exercises. You can check out our full guide to using a cable machine here.

Try the cable machine for exercises such as chest fly, upright row, tricep extension, bicep curls, kickbacks, and standing trunk rotations like the ‘woodchop’.

8. Barbell

While a barbell is a free weight as opposed to a gym machine, it’s a common piece of gym equipment to feel intimidated by if you’ve never used one before. Most gyms have 15kg and 20kg barbells to choose from on a rack, which you can grab and use.

With a barbell, you have a couple of options to set up:

  • Use the barbell on its own in a free space for movements such as front squats, back squats, shoulder press or deadlifts.

  • Position the ends of the barbell on two foam pads or an area of the gym with rubber flooring, before adding weight plates. You simply bring a plate to the bar and push the bar through the hole of the plate, then lock it into place with a barbell clip for safety. This set-up could work for deadlifts, glute bridges, or if you can perform cleans to lift the weight to your shoulders without a squat rack.

  • Find a squat rack and position the hooks in the right place for your chosen exercise (such as at shoulder height for back squats), before resting the bar on both hooks and adding any weight plates to each side with barbell clips for safety. This is how you might set up for heavy back squats, front squats, bench press, or lunges with a barbell.

When you’re finished using your barbell, it’s always best etiquette to remove any weight plates and clips, and return all your equipment where it belongs - unless someone would like to use it immediately after you.

9. Squat rack 

A squat rack can look confusing with all its holes and hooks, but don’t be put off! It’s incredibly simple and is an amazing piece of equipment to help you get into position for many powerful barbell exercises. To move a hook (aka J-Cup) to a new height, rotate it upwards away from the rack, slide the peg out of the hole, insert it into the correct hole on the squat rack, then rotate it downwards towards the rack again to lock it in before repeating for the second hook. Easy!

How to use gym equipment correctly

Now you know what each piece of equipment is used for, here are a few tips to help you get the best results with the correct form while staying injury-free in the gym, no matter what machine you’re using! 

Adjust the machine to your body

Always make sure the equipment is adjusted to suit your body. This could mean adjusting the seat position, the pin in the weight stack, or which attachment is on the cable machine. If you’re not sure how to adjust the machine or if it’s set up correctly for you, don’t hesitate to ask a staff member for help.

Start light and build up slowly

The first time you use a new piece of gym equipment, we recommend starting with a lighter weight to get used to the machine, the movement and to ensure your form is correct. 

Once you’re comfortable with the machine and get a feel for different weights, you’ll be able to start choosing a weight heavy enough for the last two reps of a set to really challenge you.

Don’t just focus on one muscle group

One mistake beginners often make is focusing on one area of their body. To improve your overall strength and reduce your risk of muscle imbalance and injury, it’s best to follow a full-body training program, whether you’re performing full-body workouts or training different muscle groups on alternate days.

Check your form

If you’re following a gym-based Sweat program, you’ll find videos with each exercise demonstrating the correct form and a diagram showing which muscle groups it should be working in your workouts. Many Sweat programs also offer beginner weeks to help you ease in and build your confidence.

If you’re still confused by a machine in the gym, machines often have a diagram showing how to use it and which muscles you’ll be targeting.

Always leave it how you found it

While it’s ok to leave a pin anywhere in a weight stack or a seat positioned for your body, you should always return gym equipment to its original home if you’ve moved it, wipe everything clean for the next person, and put away your plates and barbell.

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Use gym equipment with confidence!

See, gym machines aren’t as complicated as you think! Once you get started, you’ll realise they’re the opposite of scary - they can actually be fun. If you're new to working out in the gym or are looking for support, we encourage you to join the Sweat Community, which is full of like-minded women sharing their workout tips and encouraging each other to achieve their fitness goals

Remember, the more you do something, the more comfortable and confident you’ll start to feel. If you’ve been thinking about trying gym machines, instead of thinking “one day…”, make today day one. You’ve got this!

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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