How To Use Machines At The Gym

I teach a personal training certification course and tonight’s class was focused on developing a muscle conditioning program for a client.  One of the most important aspects of this class is to instruct the students on how to set-up a resistance machine.  This applies to making seat, leg, and height adjustments, as well as determining the proper resistance and machine to use.

It occurred to me as I was teaching, that so many people join a gym, yet have no idea how to properly set-up a machine.

So I thought I would come up with a “how-to” list with some basic guidelines to help you get to know your machines so that you may feel more confident when tackling the world of strength training.

Chest Press Machine

1.  Align your joints

When getting into a machine like a chest press (pictured above), you want to make sure your shoulders, elbows, and wrists are all in a line, and parallel with either the floor or your upper legs (if seated).  In other words, you should be forming a box.  If, however, you get into the machine and your arms are raised too high or too low, you need to adjust the seat accordingly.

2.  Neck and spine are neutral

Notice the woman in the picture is looking straight ahead (not up or down).  She is keeping her back and neck in alignment (sitting tall).

3.  Shoulders are relaxed and slightly back

Shoulders should not be shrugged (unless you are doing shrugs, of course).  They should be down, relaxed, and slightly back.  If you are shrugging, either your seat is too high, or the weight you are lifting is too heavy.

4.  Chest is up

Think of standing at attention (military).  You should not be slouching.  If you are slouching, bring the seat more forward to help you sit upright.

5.  Feet should be touching the ground

Hard for those of us who are a mere 5’4″ and most machines are made for a man’s body, but try to keep your body supported by keeping the seat low enough so that your feet can touch.  Certain machines, this is difficult if you are short like me, and may want to consider a different exercise for the same muscle group.

Sports woman in the gym.

6.  Joints should be supported when support pads are present

In the picture above (this is a pec deck, it works your chest muscles), notice the pads supporting her elbows.  You need to have the seat adjusted so that your elbows can rest on these pads.  If your elbows can’t reach, you need to bring the seat closer, or you may (again) be too short for the machine.  Same applies for the lateral raise machine (for shoulders).

Leg Extension


7.  Support Knees (on leg extension)

Above is a leg extension machine which works the quadriceps, or muscles of the front thigh.  Notice the knees are supported by the seat (they are not too far forward) and the knee joint is inline with the pivot point of the moving “circle”, the axis of the turning weight.  If the back of the knees are not in contact with the seat, you are too far forward.  Also notice the pads are on the front of the lower calf, not the feet.  Adjust the pad so that it rests just above the ankle on exertion (which will be slightly higher when at rest).

Leg Press

8.  Start with angle at joints no less than 90 degrees

If you look at the picture above (leg press, which works quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals), notice the angle underneath her knees.  When most people do this exercise, (or even free standing squats), they start with an angle of less than 90 degrees in hopes of getting a full ROM (range of motion).  However, this puts a lot of weight on your knees when they are at their weakest strength which could cause injury.  For safety purposes, start with knees at a 90 degree angle.  This will be difficult for those used to a smaller angle, but again, for safety (especially if you are new to weight training), stick with 90.  Same rule goes for upper body movements (such as the chest press picture above).  This is the reason some machines have foot pedals; to avoid starting the exercise with too much weight on the joints.

9.  Keep low back in contact with seat

The woman in the picture has a neutral back alignment (and with the natural curvature of the spine), the low back should be in contact with the seat.  This will help support the back when lifting weights.

10.  Slow and steady wins the race

With all machines, don’t use too much weight too fast. Learn to use the machines in proper alignment and with proper format, first.  Then find your correct weight (which should be the weight that brings you fatigue within 8 to 15 repetitions).  And of course, I always encourage getting a qualified personal trainer to assist you.

Final note:  Many people are unaware of this, but machines in a gym are made for a man’s body, not a woman’s, so those of us who are female can not always use every machine in the place.  There are machines specially made for women, but are usually only found in a women-only fitness center.




About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

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