An Introduction to Gym Equipment April 13, 2007
Topics: Fitness

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Fitness club memberships are up 23% since 2001. That means many of us are new to the gym or haven't been to one in ten years. You may be surprised when you walk through the front door and take a look around. Typical in a Central Texas gym, you'd see people lifting dumbbells, using exercise machines, spinning on stationary bikes or running on treadmills. You may ask yourself where you should start. Should you do the running machine first, that dumbbell second or how much of that contraption over there in the corner with a long waiting line? It's not an easy answer but one that can be determined by a fitness assessment, matched with your goals.

Before you perform one rep of the first set, consider talking to a fitness trainer who can sit down with you and do an assessment. The correct assessment, matched with your personal goals, almost guarantees that you won't be one of the 20-to-30 percent of beginners who eventually drop out.

Assessment Considerations

A trainer can help you assess your personal characteristics that will impact the program you choose, including:

  • Physical condition
  • Medical condition
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Previous experience with gym equipment
  • Amount of free time per week for exercise
  • Variety of activities
  • Whether you consider exercise a social event

A trainer will also walk you through briefly how to use each piece of equipment. This can vary from where the cardio equipment is located to actually demonstrating how the equipment works, as well as programming specific settings to help you meet your goals. You can hire trainers to work with you individually for about $1 per minute as a rough estimate. You also can arrange discounts if you are part of a group or when you schedule multiple sessions.

Pat La Penna, CPT, Crenshaw Athletic Club, advises everyone new to the gym to get with the trainer first. "I'm able to familiarize the individual with the equipment and make them feel more comfortable with the environment. I know when it's crowded and when a good time to squeeze in an hour here and there." Most clubs have trainers on staff that work the floor providing help when necessary. If it's not apparent who the trainer is, stop by the front desk and have them introduce you to them. If the club's trainers work by appointment only, it would be worth the cost to schedule a couple sessions until you're comfortable with the routine.

Most experts agree on three major categories of fitness: aerobic, muscular and flexibility. The program you and your trainer establish should incorporate all three categories. Most gym equipment falls into the aerobic or muscular categories. Advice from a trainer is particularly useful in using it correctly to get the most benefit from their exercise. "Not only do I make sure the person is performing the movement with proper form, I'm also making sure their breathing is correct," says Pat. "They should exhale on the exertion, inhale when returning to the original position."

Flexibility training usually is led by individuals in a classroom setting, although many components of a flexibility routine are incorporated into aerobic and muscular training.

Aerobic Machines

Aerobic machines work your cardiovascular system. Aerobic exercise is continuous exercise performed for longer periods (20 minutes or more) at low to moderate levels of intensity. Gym equipment normally available for aerobic exercise includes stair climbers, elliptical trainers, treadmills, rowers and stationary bicycles. Most also contain software that includes pre-programmed routines so that you don't have to calculate mathematical problems in your head to gauge calories burned or effort. Enter your weight, program option, time to exercise and the equipment's software does the rest. From its display you'll see statistics appear with everything from heart rate to power output in watts. Which equipment you should choose depends on your personal assessment and your goals. Here's a brief overview of each.

Stair Climber - the stair climber recreates the act of climbing a series of stairs using two block-like pedals attached to a frame. Using the computer, you're able to adjust the resistance. Predominately the lower body muscles are worked, including quadriceps (front of thighs), hamstrings (back of thighs), gluteal muscles (buttocks), hip flexors, and calves. The stair climber provides a low impact, safe form of aerobic exercise for the heart and legs.

Elliptical Trainer - The elliptical trainer may have apparatus for an upper body workout in addition to the lower body workout. The part of the elliptical trainer that works the lower body uses two foot pads that move along a short elliptical path, back and forth. The motion feels like cross country skiing. Using the computer's program, you can adjust the amount of incline as well as the amount of resistance. The elliptical trainer has a very low impact on the knees and joints. If you're deciding whether to use this trainer or the treadmill, the elliptical is a better choice for older individuals or those with injuries. The lower body muscles worked include all of the leg muscles as well as the gluteal muscles. Elliptical devices that work the upper body as well provide a total body workout.

Treadmill - The treadmill hasn't changed from it's original design allowing a person to walk, jog or run continuously on a moving belt. Over the years more software and durability have been built into the treadmill making it a standard piece of exercise equipment found in a gym. Like the elliptical trainer, the treamill's resistance and incline can be adjusted. Running on a treadmill offers a cushioned surface and provides less impact than running on concrete or asphalt. However, the treadmill is more stressful to the knees and joints than the other aerobic equipment mentioned here.

Rower - There are a few different designs of rowing machines on the market. Each machine utilizes a motion similar to rowing a boat but varies when it comes to how the resistance is applied and how much software is included. Rowing is extremely low impact and if the person using it works the legs with a push, then both the upper and lower body get a good workout.

Stationary Bicycle - if you haven't ever exercised or it's been a long time since you have, then the stationary bike is where you need to start. This very low impact machine provides all types of feedback, including heart rate monitors on the newer models. There are two types of stationary bikes --upright and recumbent. The upright style will feel like a traditional bicycle and place the body in an upright posture. The recumbent bike will place the body in more of a sitting position. If you're a multi-tasker and want to read while you're exercising, then the stationary bike is the way to go. Body movement is kept to a minimum and the eyes can focus on book's pages.

Exercise Weight Machines Versus Free Weights

Among athletes, there's a never-ending discussion over whether machines are better than free weights or if the opposite is true. One thing we know for sure, there are benefits to each training method and pros and cons of each. The following are points made about each:

Exercise Machine Pros
Exercise machines are safe as they move along a constant plane of motion.
Exercise machines are easy to use and don't require a spotter.
Exercise machines ensure correct movement when muscles become fatigued.
Exercise machines can change the amount of resistance easily.
If you have an injury, exercise machines help stabilize the body.

Exercise Machine Cons
Exercise machines don't fit all body sizes.

Free Weight Pros
Free weights do a better job of isolating muscles.
Free weights incorporate supporting muscles into the lift.
Free weights allow a wide variety of exercises to be performed with the dumbbells and bars.
Free weights are inexpensive.
Free weights are very portable and take up very little room.

Free Weight Cons
There's a greater chance of injury with free weights.
Heavy lifting requires another individual to act as a "spotter".

There are a few machines that fall into a gray area between the two groups. The Smith machine is one example. The Smith machine uses a barbell with hooks attached to a frame that removes the need for a spotter, as horizontal movement is prevented by the frame. This allows the person to concentrate on vertical movement of the squat exercise. Free weights are loaded onto the barbell for increased resistance. Thus, the Smith machine is a machine that uses free weights. The leg press is another example of the hybrid.


When you enter the gym you are ultimately responsible for yourself. In most cases you have signed a waiver absolving the fitness club of responsibility. Watch for faulty equipment and get second opinions on your exercise program. While the cardio machines and exercise machines pose less risk of injury, each piece of equipment can do harm if used improperly.

"You're not going to drop a machine on your foot but you can drop a dumbbell on your foot," says Pat. If you are unsure how to use a piece of equipment, be sure to ask a trainer. It's better to swallow a little pride than be sidelined from your fitness program for a few weeks because of an injury. Pat recommends to learn to use equipment properly to avoid getting hurt, thus maximizing your time.

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