One of the main attractions of a gym or fitness center for many people is the wide variety of exercise machines available to build muscle, improve heart health or burn calories. Most exercise machines are aimed at improving cardiovascular fitness or increasing muscle size. These machines can also be used for other purposes, including lower-intensity fat-burning exercise, improving muscular endurance or building anaerobic fitness in athletes.
You can use weight machines for more than just bodybuilding, so don’t pass them by because you’re not interested in bulking up. Unlike free weights, weight machines let you lift heavy weights without a partner to spot you. They are safer than free weights because they keep weights stable while you raise and lower them. Some weight machines let you perform a variety of exercises on one machine. Other machines let you perform one exercise only, or variations of that exercise. For example, a leg press machine has you seated, pushing yourself away from the weight, then coming back, to work your quadriceps muscles. This machine is limited to working your legs, rather than your upper body.
When you join a gym, ask a trainer to show you how to use weight machines for muscle-building and circuit-training workouts. Circuit-training helps you improve muscular endurance while you burn calories.
Most people join a gym to lose weight or keep it off, making cardio machines the most popular exercise choice. These options include treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bikes, rowing machines and stair steppers.
Exercise bikes come in two primary styles, upright and recumbent. The upright style has you seated holding handlebars as you would if riding a bike. A recumbent bike has you reclining slightly backward, with your hands grasping handles under your hips. An upright bike allows you to stand on the pedals while exercising, while a recumbent bike takes strain off your lower back if you have trouble exercising in a sitting position for an extended period. Both machines are made to provide an aerobic workout, although you can sprint-train on them to create an aerobic workout.
Many gyms offer spin classes, which consist of high-intensity intervals of pedaling followed by slower recovery periods. You perform this pattern over and over during your workout.
Treadmills simulate walking, jogging or running, based on the speed at which you work. You can change the speed or incline to raise or lower your heart rate and use different muscles. Some treadmills have arm levers or handles to help you add an upper-body workout. Electronic treadmills let you create different workouts by automatically changing the incline and speed throughout your workout. As you go faster on a treadmill, your feet begin to leave the ground, creating a high-impact workout.
Ellipticals are the darlings of the fitness center/gym crowd. They are non-impact alternatives to treadmills, keeping both feet on a surface (two foot pedals) during your workout. Your feet remain on pedals, the stride length of which you can increase or decrease. Some ellipticals offer an upper-body workout via hand levers. More expensive ellipticals come with electronics that report your heart rate and calories burned, and provide video-watching or iPod plug-in options. You can work aerobically or anaerobically on both machines.
Also known as ergometers, rowing machines create a full-body workout with resistance. You improve flexibility during muscle-building, cardio or muscular endurance workouts.
One of the latest entries to the cardio machine family is the stair-stepper or stair climber. They simulate the motion of walking up stairs, providing more resistance and lower-body muscle use than an elliptical machine or treadmill.