Confused by gym machines? This handy picture guide will help

Are you flummoxed by the names of the machines at the gym? Not sure what they all do? We have the answers.

Joining a gym is a great way to get fit and enjoy strength training – something that is important as we age. The benefits of strength training include keeping our bones strong, helping protect against osteoporosis, and preserving or even helping build lean muscle mass, keeping us mobile. In fact, strength training can even help us live longer.  

A gym can be a little overwhelming, though, especially if you’re new to them and you’re not sure what’s what. Although you should be given an induction when you sign up, it can be hard to remember the names and functions of all the machines.  

Below, Dean Zeck, product development manager at Total Fitness, walks us through the main machines you’ll find inside the gym, with tips on how to use them and the muscles they work.  

For workout ideas using some of the machines listed, take a look at our 15-minute gym workouts for beginners.  

Ladies in gymCredit: Shutterstock / Dragon Images

If you have any injuries or pre-existing medical conditions, consult your GP before starting a new workout regime.  

Lower body gym machines

Always remember to complete a warm-up before starting to exercise. Good warm-up exercises for the lower body include walking on a treadmill, bodyweight squats, leg swings, and static lunges (stepping backwards and bending the knee).  

leg press gym machineCredit: Matrix

Leg press

Zweck says: The leg press is a great piece of equipment to train almost all the muscles in your lower legs. It offers a similar workout to a squat but has the advantage of not needing to use a barbell or dumbbell. It also requires less balance because your body is supported. 

How to use a leg press gym machine

Pick a weight that is challenging, but that enables you to complete all the repetitions (reps). Make sure you’re able to complete the full range of motion, and if you can’t, lessen the weight.  

Zweck says: Place your feet on the plate, about shoulder-width apart. Adjust your start position using the lever to a comfortable depth. Then push your feet into the plate to move your body away, as you exhale and avoid locking your knees. Slowly control your movement back to the starting position as you breathe in.” 

Why not try: 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, resting for 2 minutes between sets 

Leg extension gym machineCredit: Matrix

Leg extension

Don’t be alarmed if the front of your legs (the quad muscles) ache the first few times you use this. It’s a great machine for increasing strength, and your muscles are being worked in a way they’re not used to, that’s all.  

Zweck says: The leg extension trains all the muscles in the thighs. Stronger quad muscles are shown to help sports involving running and jumping. It can also reduce knee pain.” 

How to use a leg extension gym machine

Pick a weight that allows you to complete all the repetitions and extend your legs fully, then follow Zweck’s instructions:  

Position the adjustments so the pad rests just above your ankles, your knees are lined up to the pivot point and your back is against the seat. Move your feet forward and up until your legs are straight, as you exhale. Lower with control back to the start as you inhale.” 

Why not try: 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, increasing the weight for the last 3 reps each round. 

Seated hamstring curl gym machineCredit: Matrix

Hamstring curl

As we age, knee issues can become more prevalent. Strength training can make the joints stronger, and the hamstring curl machine is great for this, as Zweck explains:  

This machine works the muscles in the back of the thigh. Stronger hamstrings have been shown to increase speed and power, reduce back pain, improve balance, and prevent injury – especially in the knees.” 

How to use a hamstring curl gym machine

Pick a weight that you’re able to lower under control – it shouldn’t be so heavy that it slams back.  

Zweck says: Position the adjustments so the pad rests just above your heels, your knees are lined up to the pivot point and your back is against the seat. Move your feet down and back until your legs are bent to 90 degrees or slightly more, as you exhale. Control the movement back to the start as you inhale.” 

Why not try: 1 set of 12-15 reps using both legs, then 1 set of 8-10 reps using one leg (lighter weights), then the other.  

The machines pictured in this article are all manufactured by Matrix, a leading supplier of gym equipment across the UK. Your gym may have these exact machines or have equipment from another provider. Although they may look slightly different, they will still work the same way and use the same muscles.  

Upper body gym machines

As above, make sure youre properly warmed up before starting to exercise. Good upper body exercises include shoulder rolls, bicep curls with light weights, shoulder press (pushing dumbbells up overhead) with light weights.  

chest press gym machineCredit: Matrix

Chest press

Personally, this is one of my favourite exercises. Having stronger chest muscles benefits you in many ways, including improving your posture – it helps you to open up the chest and stand straighter, with the shoulders pulled back. 

Zweck says: This machine trains the chest muscles and triceps. Stronger chest muscles are required for pushing and throwing movements and daily activities, like carrying and getting off the floor.” 

How to use a chest press gym machine

Pick a weight that allows you to complete all the reps, but not much more. Make sure you can return the weight to the starting position under control. 

Zweck says: Set up the machine so the handles are in line with the chest. Grasp the handles with elbows slightly lower than your hands. Push forward until your arms are almost straight as you exhale. Inhale and return to the start under control.” 

Why not try: Once you’re comfortable with the chest press machine, you can try a single-arm chest press. Aim for 3 rounds of 6 reps on each side (so 12 total each round).

Seated row gym machineCredit: Matrix

Seated row

This machine trains the muscles in the upper back and biceps. Stronger back muscles are required for pulling and grabbing movements and daily activities like carrying and pulling open doors.” 

As Zweck points out, this is a good exercise for the back and biceps, but the core also gets a good workout, helping you maintain good posture as you pull the weight back.  

How to use the seated row gym machine

Set up the machine so the handles are in line with the chest, and your arms are almost straight, chest resting on the pad. Grasp the handles and pull them towards you as you exhale. Inhale and return to the start under control.” 

Why not try: 3 sets of 8-12 reps, pausing for 2-3 seconds at the top of the rep (when you’ve got the handles pulled in towards you).  

Lat pulldown gym machineCredit: Matrix

Lat pull down

Zweck says: Another machine which trains the back muscles. This machine can help improve posture, back strength, and build strength for pulling and climbing activities.” 

The lat pull down primarily works the latissimus dorsi – the large muscles in the back. It’s a good idea to strengthen these to ensure we keep proper posture as we age.  

How to use a lat pull down machine in the gym

Use a moderately heavy weight but be careful that it doesn’t pull you up out of the seat when you extend the arms.  

Sit down and ensure the thigh pad is resting on your legs. Stand up and grab the bar or handles with hands a little wider than shoulder distance. Sit back down and lean slightly back. Pull the bar down to your chest as you exhale, making sure to keep the elbows lower and in line with your hands. Inhale as you control the bar back to the start position.” 

Why not try: once comfortable with the movement, you can experiment with different hand positions, such as an underhand grip.  

Shoulder press gym machineCredit: Matrix

Shoulder press

Another joint that can stiffen or encounter issues as we age is the shoulder. Rotator cuff injuries can take a long time to heal, and the best way to prevent getting them is to keep the muscles in and around the joint strong. Zweck recommends the shoulder press machine to help with this:  

This exercise trains the muscles in the shoulder – the deltoids. Strengthening these muscles can help reduce shoulder pain, as well as provide strength for lifting objects up overhead or throwing.” 

How to use a shoulder press machine in the gym

Pick a moderate weight for this exercise – you’ll be extending the weight away from you, so you don’t want it to be too heavy. Remember the fulcrum and lever lesson from science in school – a weight feels heavier the further away it is from the centre, or fulcrum – which in this case is your body. 

Zweck says: Adjust the machine so the handles are just above your shoulders, and you can sit with your back on the pad. Grasp the handles with your palms facing forward. Press them up as you exhale until your arms are straight, and inhale as you control back to the start position.” 

Why not try: 3 sets of 6-8 reps, resting between each set.  

Cable gym machineCredit: Matrix

Cable machine

Like the pick and mix of exercise machines, a cable machine can be used for a wide variety of exercises, especially working the core, as Zweck explains:  

A cable machine is a highly versatile piece of equipment that allows you to perform many exercises. Most of the exercises on a cable machine have the added benefit of strengthening the core muscles, especially those that help you control or rotate. Rotation is fundamental in almost all movements humans do, including running, kicking, punching, throwing, and carrying.”

How to use a cable machine in the gym

A great exercise to do on a cable is a standing twist. To do this, adjust the cable handle to chest height. Grasp the handle and move slightly away from the machine so there is some tension on the cable. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder distance, knees a little bent. Keep your arms straight out at chest height, rotate away from the machine, moving your shoulders and hips as one, keeping your back straight. Slowly control the rotation back to the start using your core muscles.” 

Why not try: The standing twist Zeck mentions above, for 12 reps each side, followed by tricep push downs for 12 reps – see our best arm exercises for details on how to do this move.   

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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