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Begin by doing one set on each machine, using a weight you can lift between 8 and 15 times. If you can breeze through all the repetitions, go slightly heavier; if you're shaking after the first few reps, lower the amount of weight. Take a 30-second break (no more!) between each exercise to give your body adequate time to recover. Aim to do the workout two or three times a week. After two weeks, do two sets on each machine; after one month, challenge yourself. Promise: no bulky muscles.The Payoff
Basic move: Biceps Curl
If you had to choose just one machine to use at the gym, this is it. That's because the cable tower -- which features several weight stacks, adjustable cables, and a whole bunch of attachments -- offers dozens of exercises to target all of your major muscles. With a mere flick of a clip, you can easily go from doing curls to kickbacks to rows. To work your arms, stand facing one of the low weight stacks and clip a short, mustache-shaped bar onto the end. Grip the bar, placing hands near ends, palms up, arms extended, with hands in front of thighs. Curl bar toward shoulders, keeping elbows close to sides. Lower slowly back to starting position and repeat.
Challenge yourself: Doing a single-handed curl means each arm works harder. Do the move as above, but use a handle attachment, holding the handle in one hand with your opposite hand on your hip or by your side. Complete an equal number of reps on both sides.
Basic move: Close-Grip Mid-Back Pull-Down
Targets: biceps, latissimus dorsi (aka lats)
A strong back will help you stand taller, reduce injury risk, and look seriously sexy in a strapless dress. Clip the long bar onto the cable attachment and grip the bar with your hands 1 or 2 inches from the center on either side, palms facing forward. Lean back slightly, keeping your arms straight, abs engaged and chest lifted, then pull bar to chest. Hold for 1 count; slowly return to starting position.
Challenge yourself: Do the move as above, but use a wider grip (shoulder-width or farther apart). The wider the grip, the more you'll work your lats and the less you'll work your arms.
Basic Move: Leg Press
Targets: quads, glutes
Because it keeps your body in a stable position while targeting your butt and thighs, you get an amazing workout. Adjust the seat so thighs are parallel to the foot plate when you recline; keep feet hip-width apart. Pressing feet into plate, straighten legs; don't lock knees at the top. Bend knees and lower until weight hovers just above stack; repeat.
Challenge yourself: A pliť leg press targets your inner thighs along with your glutes. Place feet several inches wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed outward. When you press up, make sure knees are aligned over toes.
Basic move: Chest Press
Targets: pectorals, triceps
The chest press is an incredibly effective way to work several muscles at once. It looks a little scary at first, but the Smith has a safety net -- if the weight should suddenly feel too heavy, you can plant the bar in the nearest set of holes on the frame. You can also use the Smith for standing moves like squats or lunges with weights.
Place 5-pound weight plates on both ends of bar. Lie on the bench with chest directly beneath bar, feet flat on floor. Grip bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms forward, and unhook bar; straighten arms. Bend elbows until they're just below shoulder height, then press back up. On last rep, bend wrists to set bar back on hooks.
Challenge yourself: You can work more of your upper-chest muscles by doing the exercise on an incline bench positioned at 45 degrees.
Basic Move: Shoulder Press
Targets anterior and medial deltoids
This machine is ideal for working the top, sides, and fronts of your shoulders. To make sure you're hitting the muscles without hurting your joints, it's important to set the seat correctly: When you sit and grasp the handles, your elbows should be at the level of your shoulders or above, and your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Grip the outside handles, and engage your abs, keeping back straight. Straighten arms, pressing upward to lift weight; don't lock your elbows at the top of the movement. Lower weight back toward starting position, but don't allow it to touch the stack. Repeat.
Challenge yourself: Use the inside handles. From this position, smaller "helper" muscles aren't able to assist the movement, so there's more of an emphasis on the shoulders.
Looking for a home gym? Check out these female-friendly options.
Save: ToneTrainer Workout Bench from Reebok ($159.95; hsn.com) features an easily adjustable bench and comes with five sets of dumbbells (2 to 10 pounds), which tuck away underneath.
Spend: Tuff Stuff's AXT2 Home Gym ($1,599; gym source.com) offers more than 30 different strength exercises. Its ergonomic design is engineered to fit women of almost every height and weight.
Splurge: The Hoist V5 ($2,699; gym source.com, above) allows you to do more than 50 exercises. And it's small (four by six feet); you can tuck it into a corner so your living room doesn't look like a gym.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November 2006.