“Start with 20 minutes on a cardio machine and five to six strength machines,” advises Stephanie Thomas, an ACE-certified personal trainer and creator of Bride Group: Sculpting the 90 Day Wedding.
Here, he breaks down the best machines to use in the gym for beginners, both for cardio and strength, and how they should be used. Although most are fairly intuitive, he says you should always ask an instructor or staff member for guidance if you have any questions: “They’ll be happy to show you how to use it and make sure you’re safe! “
And remember: Always wipe every machine after you use it.
The best beginner-friendly cardio machine
Thomas says the treadmill is an easy way to start a low-impact cardio workout — we already know how to walk, so no specific training is needed.
“Stand on the side rails of the machine and hold the side handles before turning it on. The display will be different on different models, but just turn the machine on and select a low speed,” says Thomas. “Also, note where the stop button is so you’re ready to stop the machine when you want to complete the workout. Once your pace is set, start walking on the treadmill belt. I recommend starting at a normal walking pace and working your way up to get the heart rate up.”
Thomas recommends that beginners start with a 20-minute workout. Warm up with brisk walking for 5 minutes and then gradually increase your speed and incline as you feel comfortable based on your fitness level. After 15 minutes or so, slow down and finish with a minute or two of easy walking to cool down.
“This machine is great for beginners because it’s low-impact, easy to use, and works your whole body. You can use it for a long, full-body cardio session or as your warm-up before a strength workout,” says Thomas. “Perhaps the elliptical will have step-by-step instructions on the front console. Step on the machine, turn on the monitor, push the pedals forward and start pedaling.”
He suggests setting the resistance at whatever level feels best for you — manageable and not too difficult at first, or you can choose a program to start with.
“Stay upright and don’t lean too far forward or back when pedaling,” she says “When you’re ready to complete a workout, make sure the machine is completely turned off before turning it off.”
A good beginner-friendly 20-minute elliptical workout Thomas suggests is starting with a low-resistance warm-up of about 5 minutes. Then, try increasing the resistance to a hard intensity for two minutes and then back to a moderate resistance for two minutes. Repeat this until you reach 20 minutes. Finish with a one or two minute cooldown.
When you walk through the selection of cardio equipment at most gyms, you’ll likely see a few types of exercise bikes. There may be traditional upright stationary bikes, indoor cycling bikes (commonly referred to as spin bikes), airdyne or fan-resistant bikes, and recumbent bikes. Either of these can be a great cardio machine for beginners.
“The hardest part is adjusting the seat,” says Thomas. But once you do, “all you have to do is run, set the resistance, and spin!” (If you are unsure of adjusting the bike correctly, ask a staff member to show you.)
For a 20-minute bike workout for beginners, Thomas recommends warming up at a low intensity for five minutes. Then, increase the intensity for two minutes and return to a moderate resistance for three minutes. Repeat this pattern until you reach about 20 minutes. Finish with a one or two minute cooldown.
The best beginner-friendly strength machine
Whenever you’re trying a new strength machine, Thomas recommends reading the instructions and information on which muscles you should target first. Start with only a small amount of resistance, then adjust it to what feels comfortably challenging to you. “You’ll know you’ve chosen the right weight when you can complete the full range of motion of the exercise but still feel somewhat challenged,” she says. “The last one to three repetitions should feel particularly challenging, but you should still be able to complete them with proper form,”
Also: Make sure you’re breathing deeply throughout the exercise, she says. “A good rule of thumb is to exhale as you lift the weight and exhale as you lower the weight.”
Chest press machine
Thomas recommends that beginners try using this weight machine instead of free weights because it makes it easier to get good form. This machine primarily targets your chest muscles, but also biceps and triceps.
“When you’re just starting out, it’s a safer option than the bench press (which works the same muscles). Plus, it encourages full range of motion so you can get the most out of the exercise,” explains Thomas. “Complete 10 to 15 repetitions, resting for 60 to 90 seconds. Repeat three times.”
Seated leg extension machine
It targets the quadriceps at the front of the thigh. “It’s low impact and great for strengthening leg muscles,” says Thomas. He recommends doing 10 to 15 repetitions and then resting for 60 to 90 seconds before attempting another set or two.
Shoulder press machine
“This machine allows you to experience the benefits of a shoulder press but without the core stability and balance you need with a dumbbell or barbell shoulder press,” says Thomas. “It focuses on working the shoulder muscles and, like all strength machines, it helps you learn the proper form of the exercise.”
For beginners, he recommends 10 to 15 repetitions, resting for 60 to 90 seconds and completing two or three sets.
Seated leg curl machine
“It’s a similar machine to the seated leg extension, but it targets the hamstrings (back of your thighs),” says Thomas. “For a balanced leg workout, beginners will want to incorporate both leg extension and leg curl machines into their workouts.” He recommends doing 10 to 15 repetitions and then resting for 60 to 90 seconds before attempting another set or two.