Weight Training Machines In the Gym and What They Do

How to recognize and use each weight machine

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Weight training equipment is varied and diverse in type and function. You can use your own bodyweight for exercises like push-ups and squats. Or you can use free weights like dumbbells and barbells, or resistance bands and tubes, for strength training.

Weight training machines, frames, and workstations are another option. Gym machines are a safe place for beginners to start, as the machine removes the instability inherent with free weights and barbells. But weightlifting machines can look complex and intimidating. This overview of exercises you can do on a machine will help.

Cable Lat Pulldown

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The lat pulldown is a classic "pull" exercise, usually with a cable machine in which you pull a weighted cable to face level. This movement works primarily the latissimus dorsi (lats), the large muscles below the shoulder blade on either side of the back.

Seated Cable Row

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For the seated cable row, you sit on a platform and grasp a handle that you pull toward you, maintaining a straight back while squeezing the shoulder blades. Like the pulldown, weight can be adjusted with pins or other mechanisms, depending on the type of machine. This exercise targets the latissimus dorsi muscles of the back as well.

Smith Machine Squat

Woman doing Smith Machine Squats
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This rack with an adjustable bar of (usually) 10 kilograms, is a versatile frame that allows you to do bench presses and squats. The frame allows you to lock the fixed bar in place on hooks on either side of the front uprights.

Although the Smith machine is useful for amateurs and beginners, using too much weight on the machine can be dangerous unless a spotter is used—especially in a bench press.

Machine Back Extension

Sports young woman doing exercises on trainer back machine in the gym
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This positioning machine is sometimes called a hyperextension bench. It allows you to hook your feet under a pad or pads, lower your torso across another pad, and lift again to return to the starting position. The forward movement flexes the back and the return extends the back. If you go past the natural line of the back on the return, this is called hyperextension.

The machine back extension works the abdominals and the lower back. Removing support for the torso creates a similar exercise called the glute-ham raise (gluteus-hamstring raise), which is a highly recommended exercise for the hamstring muscles.

Machine Hack Squat

Young man exercising on leg press machine at gym
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Like the Smith machine, the hack squat machine takes away the instability of the free-standing squat by providing a fixed path. This has benefits and disadvantages. Fixed path machines don't invoke extra muscles such as stabilizers and synergists. However, they do provide a little more control for beginners (also like the Smith machine, beginners should avoid very heavy weights).

Cable Push-Pull

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The cable push-pull is one of several exercises possible with a cable pulley station, a large frame with extensible cable handles with pulleys at each end. The position of the grips can be moved up or down to suit various exercises.

Some systems incorporate a pull-up/chin-up bar at the top. Even without that bar, the station allows for many different upper and lower-body resistance exercises. It also has many uses in rehabilitation exercises.

Unilateral Low Pull

A woman uses a rowing machine at a gym in the morning.
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This paddle-type machine has independent grips on either side and a chest pad for support, allowing you to pull with either or both arms in a downward path similar to a swimming stroke. This station works triceps, shoulders, and lats.

Seated Overhead Press

Side view of African man in early 30s working out to strengthen and tone with seated shoulder press at gym.
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The overhead press seated workstation is another piece of equipment that replaces dumbbells or barbells. You can use it to do overhead lifts like the military press or push press from a seated position.

Pull-Up or Chin-Up

Men doing pull-up's at gym gym
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Most gyms have a pull-up/chin-up bar either as a stand-alone piece or incorporated into another frame. Pull-ups are very good compound exercises for back and arms, especially when the grip is varied from facing away to facing in. You can also choose a neutral grip on many machines.

Assisted Dip

Low angle view of athlete exercising on dip machine in gym
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This workstation has a sliding knee pad plus grips at the dip position and also above at the pull-up position. You can do assisted dips for triceps or pull-ups for arms and back—this is helpful for beginners who are still developing the upper body strength to do unassisted dips and pull-ups.

A Word From Verywell

If you're just getting started with this weight training equipment, it's helpful to get a lesson from a personal trainer. Many gyms offer an orientation session or an introductory training session to help introduce you to the equipment.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.