Weight-lifting can seem like a pretty intimidating affair when you first walk into the gym and see dumbbell rows, barbell racks, complex machines, big balls, little balls, and even half balls.
While these various exercise contraptions can eventually provide you with a fitness benefit, the best place to begin weight-lifting is with simple-to-perform, introductory movements -- and this is why weight-lifting machines are a perfect way to get your body and joints accustomed to the demands of resistance training.
A weight-lifting machine is comprised of a series of adjustable weights, pulleys and levers, which are attached to handles that can guide your body through a basic muscle-stimulating movement, while still making your muscles do enough work to get results. When using a machine, there is very little guesswork about what all your different body parts should be doing, so you can focus on fitness, and not on having to balance, jump, duck, lunge, twist or do any other confusing movements.
Just like anything else at the gym, you can hurt yourself if you don't use a weight-lifting machine properly. Sometimes, you may not even know you're doing damage until a few weeks into a routine, at which point a body part or joint simply calls it quits because you don't have the machine adjusted properly to your body.
Here is how to use weight-lifting machines properly:
1: Adjust the seat. For most upper body machines, the seat height should be set so that the handles line up with your shoulder joint. For most lower body machines, any rotating part of the machine should line up with your knee joint. If you're a short person, you should choose a high seat setting, and if you're tall, choose a low seat setting.
2: Choose multiple machines. For ideal muscle and cardiovascular stimulus, you should use a number of different machines to target all your muscle groups in one single workout. Don't just limit yourself to one or two machines, but instead, choose a variety of both upper and lower body machines, like chest press, shoulder press, row, leg extension, leg curl and leg press. In most cases, you should do three to four sets of 10-15 repetitions on each machine.
3: Do a circuit. Rather than resting, reading or staring into space between exercises, simply move to the next machine immediately after you complete a set. Since you're using a different muscle group on each machine, the muscle groups you aren't working will get their rest, and you'll also keep your heart rate high enough to count your weight-lifting machine workout as a form of cardio exercise.
4: Use the rule of 3. This is a good way to determine whether your chosen weight resistance is too heavy or too light. If after doing 12 reps you feel like you could keep going for more than three above that, then you should increase the weight (done by moving a pin up and down a stack on the machine). If you can't even get within three reps of 12 without having to stop and rest (or grit your teeth and push until your eyes are bulging out of your head) then you should decrease the weight.
5: Breathe. If you hold your breath while lifting weights, you can build up dangerous internal pressure. So simply breathe out when exerting any force (either pushing or pulling), and breathe in when returning back to your original position. Use this pneumonic: EXhale when you EXert!
If you need a weight-lifting machine workout to get you started, try the circuit below. Complete
10-15 repetitions of each exercise, then move on to the next exercise with minimal rest. After you finished the entire circuit, you can repeat, with the goal of completing three or four circuits.
Exercise 1: Machine Chest Press
Exercise 2: Machine Pull-Downs
Exercise 3: Machine Shoulder Press
Exercise 4: Machine Seated Rows
Exercise 5: Machine Leg Press
Exercise 6: Machine Leg Curls
Exercise 7: Machine Abdominal Crunches
Most machines at the gym have a handy diagram that not only shows which muscles are targeted, but also demonstrates how to perform the movement for that particular machine. If you can't find a machine, then show a gym staffer the list of the exercises in this article, and they'll easily be able to direct you to each of these machines.
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. His book, "Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Dream Body: A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape," will be published by St. Martin's Press in May 2012.