What do I do with those fancy gym machines?
June 16, 2008 11:33 AM   Subscribe

What are all those machines at the gym and how can I make them work for me?

I am female, 19, and moderately in-shape, although I just finished my freshman year of college and am looking to lose the freshman 10/15 and get back into good shape. I've been running (only about a mile or so on the treadmill, as of now -- I've never been a runner so this is a big step for me) and doing the elliptical daily at the gym, but I'd like to throw in a bit of weight training a few times a week. Problem is, I have no idea what I should be doing with that huge mass of machines. Reps? Sets? Seriously, I have no clue.

Googling has given me 0 results, although maybe my Google-fu is busted. What machines target what areas? How many sets should I do? I'd like to focus on my thighs, abs, and upper arms if that makes any difference. If there's a website with simple, clearly-explained workouts that tell me what to do at the gym to focus on [insert area here], that would be greatly appreciated.
posted by elisabethjw to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Stumptuous has a great set of articles about weightlifting, and it's very much aimed at women. Short version - skip the machines, pick up some dumbbells and a barbell. They're really not as scary as they look - promise!
posted by restless_nomad at 11:37 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

There's someone at your gym who can answer all of your questions. They'll go around to each machine with you, show you how to use them, and most importantly, make sure you're doing it right for maximum benefit and minimal risk of injury. Find that person and you'll be good to go. You'll most likely have to schedule an appointment with them, but it's well worth it.
posted by boomchicka at 11:41 AM on June 16, 2008

exrx.net has a lot of information.
posted by stavrogin at 11:43 AM on June 16, 2008

how about asking for a session with one of the trainers at your gym?
posted by violetk at 11:58 AM on June 16, 2008

You could make an appointment with the gym's trainer to show you how to use the machines. Most of the time this initial session is free. They should have a worksheet you can fill out to record your machine settings. If not, bring a small notebook.

Most Nautilus, Cybex, etc. machines have directions on how to use and diagrams on what muscles are targeted. It is good to have an experienced person show you the ropes a few times, or at least once.

Here is a page with Nautilus Training advice and instructions. Here is how to do squats on a Smith machine. This is a great exercise for thighs.

Here is a decent Wikipedia article.

I am currently working with a trainer. I work to fatigue. Fatigue means you cannot possibly do one more rep. This method should be used on every muscle group, except the lower back. You don't want to push it too hard when working the lower back. 90 percent of the time my trainer will set a stopwatch to a minute and a half, or one minute, depending on the machine. Perform each rep slowly, both ways. Never use momentum and make sure the weight is challenging but not too heavy.
posted by LoriFLA at 11:59 AM on June 16, 2008

Some gyms offer 'inductions' where a member of staff tells you how to use the machines safely. Many gyms also sell personal training, for a price.

Reps? Sets? Seriously, I have no clue.

'Reps' is short for 'repetitions'; if someone says they do three sets of ten reps they mean they sit on the machine, work it ten times, then take a break, then work it ten times, then take a break, then work it ten times, then they're done.

Depending on training objectives some people do substantially larger or smaller numbers of repetitions with substantially different amounts of weight, so don't take ten as a guide number!
posted by Mike1024 at 12:27 PM on June 16, 2008

Ditto everyone about seeking a trainer. It's very easy to do strength training wrong, and it's very hard to understand the difference between wrong and right from any amount of books or websites. Even very experienced exercisers (who haven't done strength training) benefit from someone observing their form and offering feedback.

Also, be sure to get in the habit of warming up first, and stretching afterwards.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:36 PM on June 16, 2008

Go to the gym at some time it's dead (you could ask the employees when that is) and just test the machines out with low or no weight on them. They usually have diagrams on them. I got Strength Training Anatomy from the library after reading that AskMe, and that helped too, to see what exercises work which muscles. And it looks like there's a Women's Strength Training Anatomy book too (put in your zip code and it'll tell you the closest library you can get it from).
posted by cashman at 12:40 PM on June 16, 2008

Of course, you don't *have* to get a trainer - indeed most of my gym instruction was from the friend with whom I was going to the gym, instructions on machines, and books. So personal training is far from compulsory!

That said, at my gym personal training costs £20 per session, which is pretty affordable, and if you don't have a gymgoing friend it's a good way to get decent quality advice.

As Cashman says, Strength Training Anatomy is good if you want to know what machines/exercises work what muscles. However, there isn't much coverage of broader training issues like how many repetitions you should be doing, how often a week to train, nutrition etc. but there's other sources of information on those topics.

Good luck!
posted by Mike1024 at 12:51 PM on June 16, 2008

Opinions vary widely on the value of the Smith machine. Krista at Stumptuous is one of those who argues against using the Smith.

I have used both machines and free weights, and prefer free weights:

1) Lots of machines don't fit small people well, even with adjustments.
2) You improve not just the strength of the large target muscles, but the small stabilizer muscles as well when you go through a natural range of motion with free weights. In real life, you don't have a Smith machine to help you squat down and pick up something heavy: you need to be able to squat fluidly, correctly and with proper balance. You develop that complete set of skills with bodyweight exercises and free weights, not machines.

Whatever you do, get some expert advice in person before starting free weights or machines. Gym trainers vary in quality, of course, but even a trusted friend or associate who can walk you through the basics could be a great help. Proper form is paramount.

One more thing: if you're focusing on your thighs, abs and upper arms, I hope that's because you want to make those areas stronger and firmer, not because you want to spot reduce. Cardio, proper weight training, proper eating, and enough sleep will help you lose fat all over your body, but sometimes you won't lose it where you want to lose it right away. In addition, women can get significantly stronger without seeing much increase in muscle mass -- in fact, it's quite hard for most women to gain muscle mass -- but if you continue to train, you will see some small gains in mass. This is good!! Your upper arms, if a bit flabby now, will lose some fat as you lose fat all over your body, and they'll get a little larger and curvier (ideally at the same time that the rest of your workout is helping you lose fat there and elsewhere) giving that area a nicer shape.
posted by maudlin at 12:57 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Asking someone to teach you how to use the machines is different than learning how to do strength training for the long term.

Using machines ain't rocket science, but it's certainly helpful to have someone point you in the right direction, correct your form, and essentially tailor your workout to fit your overall goals. I would recommend a personal trainer if you can afford it. My guy at Good Life Fitness taught me how to use the "circuit" machines, which target all the muscle groups. Honestly, that only took one session. Why bother going for 11 more? Because he is now focused on stuff that is unique to me, like making me work harder to strengthen muscles that are weaker than others (for me, that's biceps and abs) or using exercise balls so that I can better my stabilization/balance.

You noted that you wanted to focus specific body parts. Working out all of your muscle groups is essential. Otherwise, you may create muscle imbalances, and that can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, I do more biceps stuff in order to balance out my stronger triceps. This is not something I would have known without a trainer.

I'm sure reading up on this stuff will also be useful in the long run, especially so that you can customize workouts that still challenge you. But I was a beginner, also clueless about "reps" and "sets", and was always the last person to finish races or be picked for teams in gym class. My trainer--let's call him"Mickey" (yes, I'm a jackass)--helped me get over my insecurities and just fuckin' do it.
posted by Menomena at 1:26 PM on June 16, 2008

Opinions vary widely on the value of the Smith machine. Krista at Stumptuous is one of those who argues against using the Smith.

Do they vary widely? I've never met someone that knew what they were talking about that advocated using a smith machine for squats, because it is a Bad Idea.
Let me be another person putting in a plug to do some work with free weights, even if it seems intimidating. Yes, the learning curve is slightly higher, but the thing is, the notion that you are less likely to hurt yourself doing machines is wrong. You are less likely to hurt yourself if you move through your body's natural path of motion and pay attention to bad pain (as opposed to muscle soreness). You might be ok with the path of motion on machines (the cable-based machines are almost always fine for this), but machines with a fixed path of motion aren't doing you any favors. Your workout is now less efficient (you probably take longer to work out all the muscles you need to work out and potentially burn fewer calories if you do more seated work) and uses much less of your body (all those stabilizers free weights bring in).
Pick up a copy of Shape, or Self, or Women's Fitness. These magazines all feature lots of simple free weight/bodyweight exercises you can easily learn without a trainer, and would probably be better than using fixed-path machines. Read stumptuous, lift weights, and prosper.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:20 PM on June 16, 2008

Nthing getting help from a trainer to get started. It's possible to injure yourself if you try to lift too heavy of weights, use poor form, or attempt exercises you're not ready for yet.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:31 PM on June 16, 2008

strong women stay slim

This book has everything a novice young female weight lifter needs.
posted by bananafish at 12:26 PM on June 17, 2008

The gym I go to doesn't have hired trainers, instead they allow freelance trainers to work out of the gym. When I first started, I was a 28 year old gay guy who had just as little of a clue what to do with all those fancy machines as you. And I was on a tight budget. I talked to a friend who went to the same gym and asked him for names and phone numbers of trainers he'd seen there who he thought seemed to know what they were doing.

I got seriously lucky with the first name he gave me. She was this little French woman who'd been a weight trainer for something like 30 years. Some of her clients were big bodybuilder dudes. And she was a riot to chat with. (Within five minutes of looking at me she could tell I'd once broken my left collarbone as a child!) Anyway - I was very up front with her that I could not afford ongoing training sessions - that what I wanted was a couple of sessions during which she could teach me a basic overall program that I could follow on my own. She was totally cool with that, and she did it very well. She wrote out instructions with little diagrams to help me remember. And she offered that if she was around in the gym when I was there, she'd be happy to answer any further questions and give tips now and then. (She really followed up on that, too. If she saw me doing something wrong from across the room, she'd come over and say so. When we'd see each other there, she was very encouraging about my progress. Later on, I bought a couple more sessions to learn more things to do, so I now have more options in my workouts.) After the first sessions with her, I felt SO much more comfortable going in there, knowing what I was doing, that I wouldn't make an ass of myself using some machine wrong or doing a lift movement some wrong way. That made a TON of difference for me.

Anyway, all I'm saying is that looking around for a trainer is a great idea. Even if you can't afford, or don't want to pay for, a long series of sessions, talk to several if you have to and you may find one who's willing to give you enough teaching sessions so you can find out what a solid weight training program looks like and work on your own. If you ask me, I'd say the best method involves some free weights (dumbbells, barbells, etc.) and some machines.
posted by dnash at 8:41 PM on June 17, 2008

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