A woman using the lat pull down machine while exercising in the gym.

Strength training: 5 best weight machines to use in the gym

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Mix up your free-weight strength training with these weight machine exercises in the gym. 

If you were training with a single dumbbell and your bodyweight during lockdown, now’s your time to get creative. With now gyms re-open, you have full reign of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, rowing machines or even just a different environment to complete bodyweight HIIT

But where do weight machines come into your training? From the leg extension to the chest fly, there’s a machine for almost every body part in most commercial gyms. They can be a useful tool for people to include in their training, but there’s a time and a place for using them. 

Can you build muscle using weight machines?

Weight machines add resistance to your training, which is how you build and strengthen muscles. “They’re particularly good for beginners as they make adding load simple,” says personal trainer Veowna Charles, founder of Vital Conditioning. “You move from A to B – for example, you push your legs out, then bend them in, then push them out again. I think that it can help to build confidence for those who would otherwise gravitate towards cardio machines.” 

Weight machines can also “help to even out imbalances” by building up strength in smaller muscles that are harder to target with free weights. However, this does mean that weight machines don’t give you as much bang for your buck as using a barbell or dumbbell, the latter of which often focus on compound exercises to build “functional strength and balance”, says Veowna.

Here, Veowna and Kasumi Miyake, personal trainer at PureGym, have shared their go-to machines so that you can get the most from your session. Bear in mind that every machine is slightly different, so you may need to ask a personal trainer how to use your gym’s specific equipment. “It’s also important to tailor your machine work to your goals – there’s no point jumping on a pull up machine if you want to build leg muscle,” says Veowna. 

A women using the chest press machine in the gym.
Best weight machines in the gym for strength training: machines can even out imbalances.

What weight machines should I use at the gym?

Lat pull down machine

“This machine targets your lats, the muscles on the side of your back. Strong lats can help build strength to finally nail your pull ups and improve overall upper body strength. I’d add this machine in to your upper body training days. To build muscle try doing eight-10 reps for four sets,” says Kai. 

  1. Adjust the pin to select the weight that suits you. 
  2. Sit on the seat and adjust the knee pad so that your quads are gently tucked in.
  3. Reach up to grab the bar and place your hands wide with an overhand grip. 
  4. Roll your shoulders back and down as you pull the bar down to your chin.
  5. Slowly extend your arms back to the starting point – don’t let it fly back. 

Smith machine

“I like to use a smith machine for clients who may lack confidence using a barbell for certain exercises, such as squats,” says Veowna. “It’s a good way to teach them to move through full range of motion without worrying about dropping any weights. It’s good to remember that when you do transition to free weights, the exercises won’t feel exactly the same, but it’s a good way to get familiar with the movements.” 

  1. Adjust the bar so it is at the right height for you – you should be able to rest the bar on your shoulders with a slight bend in your knees and feet at hip-width apart. 
  2. Place your hands on the bar with your elbows bent and slightly extend your knees so that the bar comes up out of the holder. 
  3. Twist the bar backwards using your hands so you are now able to extend the legs fully.
  4. Bend your knees to lower down into a squat position. 
  5. Press through your heels to come back to the standing. 
  6. When you’ve completed your reps, twist the bar back then lower it down onto the holder.

Seated leg press

“This machine targets your quads, hamstrings and glutes to build stronger legs. As this machine recruits big muscle groups, I’d suggest using it at the beginning of your workout while your body still has energy and strength,” says Kai. 

  1. Sit on the seat with your feet placed on the foot pad hip-width apart and your legs bent at 90 degrees. You may need to adjust the position of the seat so it is comfortable for you. 
  2. Adjust the pin to select the weight that suits you.
  3. Press through your heels to extend your legs. Depending on which type of machine you’re using, the seat or the pad may be the one that moves away. 
  4. Slowly bend your legs to come back to starting position. 

Seated rows

“This will target your rear delts (the back of your shoulders) and your lats to achieve a  stronger back and improve posture. I suggest using a variety of pull/push movements targeting your upper body in your workout, so perform is alongside press-ups and dumbbell press to target all aspects of your upper body. As posture is a common issue with modern day office workers and is something that has been amplified with a year of working from home, this machine is well worth incorporating in your trips to the gym,” says Kai. 

Move the seat so that your feet can touch the floor and the chest pad sits comfortably against your breast bone. 

  1. Adjust the pin to select the weight that suits you.
  2. Sit on the seat and hold the handles. 
  3. Row your arms backwards, keeping the elbows close to your ribs and squeezing the shoulder blades together. 
  4. Slowly extend your arms back to the starting position. 

Hip abductor

The hip abductor machine uses your glute med and smaller hip stabilising muscles. “This is a really good exercise because we don’t often do lateral movements with our hips, but so many of us have weak and tight muscles there because of our sedentary lifestyles,” says Veowna. 

  1. Sit on the seat with your knees against the pads and feet on the foot holders. 
  2. Adjust the pads so that they are in the right position for you, and move the pin to select your weight. 
  3. Press your knees against the pads to bring your knees out wide. 
  4. When they are as wide as you can go hold for one second and slowly return to the starting position. 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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