How to Use Weight-Lifting Machines

Using weight-lifting machines are a great way to start weight training; learn how to use them properly and get a sample weight-lifting routine sure to give you great results.

Ben Greenfield,
May 20, 2010
Episode #004

In today’s article I’ll explain how to use weight-lifting machines and I’ll give you a sample machine workout.

As you read this article, please remember that before lifting weights you should be warming up and stretching first.  Pay attention to the recommended sets and repetitions, and don’t plan any other big workouts, such as running up the side of a mountain, on the same day that you’re trying the workout I recommend. You’ll thank me later.

Finally, if you have no clue what I’m referring to when I say “sets and repetitions” you should read my earlier article, “How to Start Weight Trainingnow.

The Best Way to Start Weight Lifting: Use Machines

When you first walk into the gym and there are dumbbell rows, barbell racks, complex machines, big balls, little balls, and even half balls, it can make weight lifting seem like a pretty intimidating and confusing affair. In this article, you’re going to learn the best place to start--with weight lifting machines!

When you first begin weight lifting, your muscles and your joints will need to lift manageable loads. At least, that’s if you want to be able to get out of bed the next morning. You also will need to use simple-to-perform, introductory movements. As a personal trainer, I’ve found that if I hand people dumbbells, barbells, and medicine balls when they first begin a weight-lifting program, it’s a bit like Bambi on ice--awkward, uncomfortable, and even a bit risky.

Breathe out while you’re pushing or pulling something, and breathe in while you’re returning that something back to it’s original position.

For these reasons, the best place to begin, for the first 6-8 weeks of your program, will be with machines. Comprised of a series of adjustable weights, pulleys, and levers, a weight machine will guide your body through a basic movement, while still making you do enough work to get good results. Because a machine has those pulleys and levers, all you have to do is move your joints through a guided movement, with very little guesswork about what all your different body parts should be doing. In other words, you can focus on fitness, and not on having to balance, jump, duck, lunge, twist, or do any other potentially brain-confusing movements.

Most gyms have enough machines to target each of those pulling and pushing muscles that were discussed in my earlier article. Here are my five quick and dirty tips for utilizing these machines:

How Should You Adjust the Machine’s Seat?

Tip 1: Adjust the seat. Before getting started, make sure each machine’s seat is at the right setting for you. That will vastly improve the comfort and effectiveness of your exercises. If you’re a short person, choose a high seat setting. If you’re tall, choose a low seat setting. And if you’re medium…well, you get the idea, Goldilocks.

Which Weight-Lifting Machines Should You Use?

Tip 2: Work all of your muscle groups. When you lift weights, you should use a number of different machines to target all your muscle groups in one single workout. Do this same routine 2-3 days per week. A good place to start will be with 3 sets of 12 repetitions for every machine exercise. I’ll tell you which exercises you need to be sure to include and a sample weight-lifting routine at the end.

What Should You Do in Between Machine Exercises?

Tip 3: Don’t rest in between machines. In between exercises, don’t sit and rest for 60 seconds while chatting with your friend or nosing around a magazine. Instead, move directly to the next exercise, so that one muscle group is working while another is resting. You’ll get way more bang for your buck and will maximize the effectiveness of your time at the gym. Just make sure you wipe up after yourself as you go.

How Many Reps Should You Do on Each Machine?

Tip 4: Follow the rule of 3. If after doing 12 reps you feel like you could keep going for more than 3 above that, such as 15,  then you should probably increase the weight a little. (You can easily change the weights by moving a pin up and down the stack on a weight machine.) If you can’t get within 3 reps of 12 without having to stop and rest, then you should probably decrease the weight, or find a really good massage therapist to work on you the next day!

How Should You Breathe When Lifting Weights?

Tip 5: Remember to breathe! If you don’t breathe while lifting weights, you can build up potentially dangerous internal pressures. So follow this simple rule: breathe out while you’re pushing something away from you or pulling something towards you, and breathe in while you’re returning that something back to it’s original position. That is actually a pretty good rule to follow whether you’re picking up a box in your garage, or using a weight-lifting machine. An easy way to remember it is: EXhale when you EXert!

A Sample Weight-Lifting Routine

Now that I’ve given you my top 5 tips for using weight-lifting machines, here’s a sample routine to get you started:

Exercise 1: Machine Chest Press. On this upper body pushing machine, you’ll sit down, grip a pair of handles, and then push your arms out and away from your body.

Exercise 2: Machine Pull-Downs. For this upper body pulling machine, you sit down, lean back, and then pull a bar down towards your torso, until the bar touches your chest.

Exercise 3: Machine Shoulder Press. This is very similar to the chest press, except you press up instead of out!

Exercise 4: Machine Seated Rows. On this upper body pulling machine, you’ll be doing the exact opposite motion of the chest press: pulling the weight towards your body.

Exercise 5: Machine Leg Press. Consider this your lower body pushing exercise. Lie down, bend your knees, plant your feet on a platform and simply press your legs away from your body.

Exercise 6: Machine Leg Curls. There are two variations of this low-body pulling machine. On one variation of the machine, you’re lying on your stomach with a pad against the back of your ankles, and contracting your leg muscles to bring your heels towards your butt. On the other variation of the machine, you’re doing the same movement, but you’re sitting down, rather than lying on your stomach.

Exercise 7: Machine Abdominal Crunches. Here’s your core exercise! On this machine, a pad is placed against your chest, and you contract your abdominals to move the pad forward, and then let the pad move slowly back to it’s original location.

For a good video for each of these exercises just go to bodybuilding.com, where there’s a handy little search function that lets you search for machine based exercises only. I’ll put a link in the show notes that brings you directly to the machines. And don’t let the weird pictures of incredibly ripped freaks scare you away. The instructions are really good.

Best of luck as you get started with weight lifting. In future episodes, I’m going to tell you all about the different styles of weight lifting that can be used for everything from muscle building, to firming and toning, to fat burning, and in no time flat, you’ll be ready to run for the Governor of California. OK, maybe not, but at least you’ll vastly enhance the effectiveness of your workouts, and that’s what I’m here to teach you!

Weight Training Machine image courtesy of Shutterstock