Starting a gym routine can be intimidating, especially if you can’t afford personal training or have little experience working out. Everyone else might seem to know what they’re doing, which machines to go to, how to use them, and how much time to spend on them. But when you’re a newbie, where do you begin?
“Start with 20 minutes on a cardio machine and five to six strength machines,” suggests Stephanie Thomas, an ACE-certified personal trainer and the creator of Bride Groups: 90 Day Wedding Sculpt.
Here, she breaks down the best machines to use at the gym for beginners to start with for both cardio and strength, and how you should go about using them. Although most are fairly intuitive, she says that you should always ask a trainer or staff member for guidance if you have any questions: “They will be happy to show you how to use it and this will ensure you are staying safe!”
And remember: Always wipe down each machine after you’ve used it.
The best beginner-friendly cardio machines
Thomas says that the treadmill is a straightforward 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 onto the side handles before turning it on. The display will be different on various models, but simply start the machine and select a low speed,” says Thomas. “Also, note where the stop button is so you are prepared to stop the machine when you want to complete the workout. Once your speed is set, start walking on the treadmill belt. I suggest starting at a normal walking pace and increasing the incline to increase the heart rate.”
Thomas suggests that beginners start with a 20-minute workout. Warm up with a brisk walk for 5 minutes and then gradually increase your speed and incline as feels comfortable based on your fitness level. After 15 minutes or so, decrease the speed and incline and finish with one or two minutes of easy walking to cool down.
“This machine is great for beginners because it’s low impact, easy-to-use, and works your entire body. You can use it for a longer, full-body cardio session, or simply as your warm-up before a strength workout,” says Thomas. “It’s likely that the elliptical will have step-by-step instructions on the front console. Step onto the machine, turn on the monitor, start pedaling by pushing the pedals in a forward motion.”
She suggests setting the resistance to whatever level feels best for you—manageable and not too hard at first, or you can select a program to begin.
“Stay upright and don’t lean too far forward or backward while pedaling,” she says. “When you are ready to complete the workout, make sure the machine has come to a complete stop before stepping off.”
A good beginner-friendly 20-minute elliptical workout Thomas suggests is to start with a low resistance warmup for about 5 minutes. Then, try increasing the resistance to a difficult intensity for two minutes, and then go back down to a moderate resistance for two minutes. Repeat this until you’ve reached 20 minutes. End with a one- or two-minute cooldown.
When you walk through the selection of cardio equipment at most gyms, you are likely to see a handful of different types of exercise bikes. There might be traditional upright stationary bikes, indoor cycling bikes (commonly referred to as spin bikes), Airdyne or fan-resistance bikes, and recumbent bikes. Any of these can be a great cardio machine for beginners.
“The hardest part is adjusting the seat,” says Thomas. But once you’ve done that, “all you have to do is hop on, set the resistance, and spin!” (If you are unsure of how to properly adjust the bike, 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 go back to a moderate resistance for three minutes. Repeat this pattern until you’ve reached about 20 minutes. End with a one- or two-minute cooldown.
The best beginner-friendly strength machines
Whenever you’re trying a new strength machine, Thomas suggests reading the instructions and info on what muscles you will be targeting first. Start with only a small amount of resistance, then adjust it to what feels comfortably challenging to you. “You will know you’ve selected 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 reps should feel especially 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 when you lift the weights and inhale as you lower the weights.”
Chest press machine
Thomas recommends beginners try using this weight machine rather than free weights because it makes it easy to have good form. This machine primarily targets the muscles of your chest, but also the biceps and triceps.
“When you’re just getting started, this is a safer option than the bench press (which works the same muscles). Plus, it encourages a full range of motion so you can get the most out of the exercise,” explains Thomas. “Complete 10 to 15 reps, rest for 60 to 90 seconds. Repeat three times.”
Seated leg extension machine
This one targets the quadriceps in the front of the thighs. “It’s low-impact and great for strengthening the muscles in the legs,” says Thomas. She suggests doing 10 to 15 reps, and then resting 60 to 90 seconds before trying one or two more sets.
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, just like all strength machines, it helps you learn the correct form of the exercise.”
For beginners, she recommends completing 10 to 15 reps, resting for 60 to 90 seconds, and completing two or three sets.
Seated leg curl machine
“This is a similar machine to the seated leg extension, but it targets the hamstrings (on the backs of your thighs),” says Thomas. “For a balanced leg workout, beginners will want to include both the leg extension and the leg curl machines in their workouts.” She suggests doing 10 to 15 reps, and then resting 60 to 90 seconds before trying one or two more sets.