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Make the Most of the Weight Machines at Your Gym

  • Jay Sullivan

    Lean Machines

    If you're not a big fan of heavy metal, our guide will make you one. We asked top sculpting pros to design a circuit that maximizes the use of weight machines commonly found at the gym so you finally get the firm-all-over look you've been repping for. Hit the weights in the order indicated — upper body first, focusing on large muscles before small, and ending with abs — as a rule of thumb. Or to boost calorie burn, try alternating upper-body and lower-body moves.

    Start with two sets of 12 reps for each exercise, picking a weight that makes the last two reps feel tough. Rest about a minute between sets, just long enough to admire your new va-va-voom in the mirror.

    Let's Get Personal

    Have this workout tailored to your individual fitness level. Choose the Lean Machines program on our Fitness Personal Trainer tool and the virtual trainer will progress the weights and reps as you get fitter; plus you'll get a free companion diet plan with a calorie-counting food diary.

  • Jay Sullivan

    Incline Chest Press

    Targets: Chest, shoulders (front), and triceps

    Why it's key: It beats the on-your-back version for cleavage. "Using an incline bench positioned at 45 degrees engages more of your upper-chest muscles, because they're working against gravity," says FITNESS advisory board member John Porcari, PhD, professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

    How to use it: "Place your hands on the bars six to 12 inches wider than your shoulders to work the most chest fibers," says trainer Brad Schoenfeld, author of Women's Home Workout Bible, "and keep your elbows in line with your hands, not pointing down." To target triceps, "grip with hands slightly narrower than shoulders," says Christopher Berger, PhD, an exercise physiologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

  • Jay Sullivan

    Assisted Chin-Up Machine

    Targets: Upper back, shoulders (rear), and biceps

    Why it's key: "Lifting your body weight is preferable to the lat pull-down machine, because it requires accessory muscles for balance and body control," Porcari says. In addition, rowing machines, which also target these muscles, can be tougher on your lower back, and not in a good way.

    How to use it: The wider the grip, the more you'll work the top portion of your upper-back muscles (lats); a close grip will hit more of the lower fibers, near the bra band.

  • Jay Sullivan

    Lateral Raise Machine

    Target: Shoulders (middle)

    Why it's key: Unlike the shoulder press, a lateral raise — one in which arms are lifted out to the sides — really targets the round part of your shoulder, which gives your upper arm a sculpted look.

    How to use it: Raise your arms to shoulder level, parallel to the floor — no higher, so you don't impinge on the shoulder joint — then lower them to where elbows don't quite touch the body. "This keeps tension directly on the shoulder muscles throughout the rep," says Michael Esco, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. "If elbows touch the body, you're taking the tension off."

  • Jay Sullivan

    Cable Machine Overhead Triceps Extension

    Target: Triceps

    Why it's key: You'll work the two shorter strips, or heads, of the triceps as you use the incline chest press, Esco says. Meanwhile, the third, longer strip is better targeted by doing an overhead triceps extension rather than using the triceps push-down machine.

    How to use it: Set the pulley at the top. With your back to the machine and feet staggered, start with elbows bent 90 degrees by your ears, holding the bar behind your head. Pull to extend arms over head, "keeping elbows close to ears throughout so you feel it in your triceps more," Esco says.

  • Jay Sullivan

    Cable Machine Biceps Curl

    Target: Biceps

    Why it's key: While the biceps curl machine, which has rigid arms, works your upper arms in a fixed path of motion, "a cable machine allows for multiple planes of motion and therefore uses more of those muscle fibers, which is better for developing strength," says Keith Spennewyn, owner of FitU Studio in Minneapolis. Also, standing up to do curls requires you to keep your balance, helping you tone your core.

    How to use it: Set the adjustable pulley on the machine so it's as close to the floor as possible and curl the bar up toward your chest. Do a full extension (lowering the bar all the way down to your thighs), then a half extension (lowering it to waist level, so your elbows are bent 90 degrees), and count it as one rep, Esco suggests. "This will fatigue biceps quicker and ensure that the only thing moving is your elbow."

  • Jay Sullivan

    Leg Press

    Targets: Butt, quads, and hamstrings

    Why it's key: The leg press involves more muscle fibers than the other leg-isolating machines — the seated leg extension machine (on which you extend your legs until they are parallel to the floor) and the donkey-kick-like machine dubbed the butt blaster. It also requires a powerful multijoint movement that carries over into everyday activities, like climbing stairs and riding a bike, Porcari says.

    How to use it: "To target your butt, position your feet higher on the plate and adjust the seat so that you can bring your knees very close to your chest," Schoenfeld says. To target your quads, put your feet lower on the plate. And avoid rising onto your tiptoes unless you want to tone your calves at the expense of eking out more reps: "You'll end up fatiguing your calves, reducing results to the target muscles," Schoenfeld says.

  • Jay Sullivan

    Prone Hamstring Curl Machine

    Target: Hamstrings

    Why it's key: The belly-down version of the hamstring curl is preferable to the seated one because "it allows you to fully contract the muscles," Berger says. "You can't sit on thick muscles that are contracting and expect the same benefit." Since women's hamstrings are typically only about 50 percent as strong as their quads, this machine is a must.

    How to use it: Set the weights at 75 percent of what you could use on a seated leg extension machine and work your way up. "The closer you can get the weights to match what your quads can do on the leg extension, the better," Esco says.

  • Jay Sullivan

    Cable Machine Standing Leg Lifts

    Targets: Butt, hips, inner thighs, and outer thighs

    Why it's key: The seated adductor and abductor machines (aka the inner and outer thigh machines, respectively) may be favorites with women, but your legs can do better. "Standing to do leg exercises with the cable machine forces you to work the thigh muscles more, and the cable lets you hit all the angles," Esco says. "Plus, the seated machines don't really target the butt muscles as well."

    How to use it: To work your outer thighs, set the pulley at the lowest level, then stand with your left side facing the machine and put the cuff around your right ankle. Hold on to the machine with your left hand and, keeping your right leg straight, bring your right foot directly out to the side as high as you can. (To hit extra muscle fibers in your hips, start with your right foot pigeon-toed and turn it outward as you lift.) Do all your reps, then work your inner left thigh (as shown in second photo):

  • Jay Sullivan

    Stability Ball

    Targets: Abs and obliques

    Why it's key: Bypass ab machines, like the trunk twist and weighted crunch, because the ball does it all. Studies have shown that doing your crunches or sit-ups on a stability ball works more muscle fibers than doing those same reps on the floor. "Your ab muscles are constantly contracting as you curl forward on an unsteady surface, as you use more muscles to help stabilize the body," Porcari says.

    How to use it: Sit on the center of the ball and lie back so that only your lower back is touching it. "Beginners may need to start with their upper back on the ball, but that limits the ab muscle activity," Schoenfeld says. Raise your torso no more than 30 degrees. "Above 30 degrees, you'll start to engage hip flexors instead of your abs," Schoenfeld notes. To make your rectus abdominus, aka six-pack muscle, feel the burn with fewer reps, hold a five-pound weight plate. To target love handles, move your feet closer together so your obliques work harder.

  • How to Choose the Right Weight for You

    If you have nothing to show for your sets, chances are you're picking wimpy weights. The optimal weight setting is a percentage of your one-repetition maximum — the most you can lift just once on each machine. (Quickie gauge: Try to bench press 60 to 80 percent of your body weight for one rep and leg press one and a half times to two times your body weight for one rep.) Doing 12 reps using at least 50 percent of your one-rep max — the classic higher-reps-lighter-weight formula — will help you get more muscle endurance and a leaner look, Porcari says. But whether it's six or 15 reps (the ends of the range most experts suggest), if the last two are strenuous, "you're going to get lean," Esco says. "So don't be afraid to add weight." Newbie lifters should use a weight that is 60 to 70 percent of their max and do sets of 10 to 15 reps; gym pros can go 70 to 80 percent. Get pumped!

  • How to Use Cardio Machines at the Gym

    Get the most out of each drop of sweat with these simple pointers from gym guru Mary Ann Browning, owner of Brownings Fitness in New York City.

    Stationary bike: Set the seat so that it is at hip height when you're standing next to the bike and cycle with a tall posture "as if you're balancing a book on your head," Browning says. Aim to maintain a minimum speed of 85 revolutions per minute for a solid workout, and don't point your toes when pedaling. "It works more of the quads instead of the butt and hamstrings."

    Elliptical trainer: "Pretend you're running," Browning says, using mostly leg power and grasping the handles occasionally. Warm up to a pace that feels brisk (a 5 or 6 on an intensity scale of 1 to 10), and add resistance when you're cruising along.

    Stairclimber: To really work your lower body, only lightly touch or let go of the handles and press through your heels. "Stretch your quads and calves afterward," Browning says.

    Treadmill: Run in the middle of the tread. "Being too close to the dashboard doesn't allow you to run in your normal gait," Browning says. Set the incline to 1 percent to replicate the feel of running outdoors.

    Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2011.

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