Despite the fact that kettlebells and bodyweight workouts might win the gym popularity contest right now, fitness pros agree: Not only are exercise machines totally fine to use, they might be especially helpful if you’re new to working out.
“It’s true that if you’re using free weights you have to recruit so many stabilizing muscles,” says Shannon Fable, certified trainer and programming director for Anytime Fitness. “But when you’re getting started, using selectorized equipment (the machines with weighted plates) and just learning the movement pattern is OK.”
Another bonus: “If you haven’t got full strength, or balance, or full range of motion, machines are much safer,” says Stuart Munro, certified personal trainer for the New York Health and Racquet Club.
For those who have been on a gym hiatus or are gaining back strength post-injury, weight machines are an easy way to get back in the game—without the risk of dropping anything heavy on your foot, Munro says. And, as you’ve likely noticed, weight machines remove the guesswork since they usually have helpful how-to cards right on the machine.
With that in mind, here are the top machines the trainers we spoke with suggested. Each one will help you build strength and train your body to use the right muscles, so you can be on the leg press one day and do weighted squats with perfect form the next.
1. Horizontal Seated Leg Press
What you’re working: quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves
Why it’s worth it: All of the trainers we spoke with agreed this was their go-to lower-body machine. “If people use this with correct technique, it can help you move toward squats off the machine,” Munro says.
2. Lat Pull-Down
What you’re working: latissimus dorsi ("broadest muscle of the back"), shoulder girdle
Why it’s worth it: If you’re interested in ever doing a pull-up, this is a great place to start. You’ll build your back muscles and start activating the entire posterior chain. “Beginners can start with an under grasp (palms facing you), which uses more biceps and tends to be a little easier,” Munro says. You can also bring your hands closer together, or spread them farther apart (so your arms make a "V" shape) to make the move more challenging.
3. Cable Biceps Bar
What you’re working: biceps
Why it’s worth it: “These are great for avoiding the swinging that happens with dumbbells,” says Rachel Mariotti, certified trainer and Precision Running coach for Equinox. As with all of these movements, you’ll get the most out of it when you slowly raise and lower the weight. The cable here helps force you to do that.
4. Cable Triceps Bar (or Triceps Pushdown)
What you’re working: triceps
Why it’s worth it: Like the lat pull-down or the cable biceps bar, you can switch the grip here—using a straight bar, V-bar, or even a rope—to help keep this move varied. Building strong triceps are uber important for push-ups, pull-ups, and for maintaining balanced strength in you arms.
5. Chest Press
What you’re working: chest, biceps, triceps
Why it’s worth it: “The chest press machine is a similar motion to a push-up,” Munro says. If you’re new to working out, building up your chest, biceps, and even your triceps will all be helpful for more compound movements later on.
6. Hanging Leg Raise
What you’re working: core, hip flexors
Why it’s worth it: “This is easy to operate and a great way to work your abs by propping up on your forearms and simply lifting—not swinging—your legs up,” Mariotti says.
7. Cardio: Rowing Machine
What you're working: total body, particularly the posterior chain, and building cardio endurance
Why it's worth it: While there's nothing wrong with a treadmill, the rowing machine can be a great way to change things up, Mariotti says. "It's got the upper body and lower body aspect of resistance training and will help balance the whole hunch-forward-from-sitting-at-computers," Munro adds. Learn more about how to use a rowing machine and get an easy workout here.
Special thanks to our model, certified trainer and Precision Running coach Rachel Mariotti. Rachel wears her own Nike top and RYU pants. Shot on location at Equinox at Brookfield Place in New York City.