The idea of visiting a gym for the first time is an exciting thought. But new users sometimes find gyms confusing and intimidating places. So before you make a dash for any old machine, read our beginners guide to give you an introduction to the most common gym equipment.


Probably the most recognizable machines, these include treadmills, stationery bikes, rowers, climbers and elliptical trainers (cross trainers). The main purpose of cardio machines is to raise your heart level. They move the largest muscles in your body so you will get the blood pumping quickly.

Elliptical cross trainers

These are fairly recent creations which offer an impact-free cardio workout. Basically, this machine mimics stair climbing, walking and running, but with your legs moving in an oval (elliptical) pattern, and without impact to the joints. They therefore appeal to people with joint problems although they’re a great part of any workout programme. For the best workout, use an elliptical machine with handles and set the resistance fairly high so you are forced to use your arms too.

Stair Climbers

Great for the butt, these mimic the action of walking upstairs with two pedals to press up and down. Perhaps more challenging than elliptical trainers, these burn more fat than most other cardio equipment.

Bikes and treadmills

No gym is complete without these popular pieces of equipment. Both give excellent cardiovascular workouts and burn plenty of calories. The best approach would be to combine both in an interval training regime. Bikes give a great workout to the quadriceps and hamstrings while treadmills give a workout to the upper body too.


There are free weights and there are machine weights. The discussion as to which is better is ongoing. Because they tend to isolate muscles, weight machines are best for purely building muscle, while free weights build overall form. Some people recommend starting with free weights and moving on to machines, but it’s ultimately down to personal preference.

Free weights

These are the most basic type of bodybuilding equipment. They are called ‘free weights’ because they aren’t attached to anything such as pulleys, pins, cables or weight stacks. They are usually bars with a weight on each end.  The long bars are barbells and the short bars are dumbbells.  The great thing about free weights is that you can add as much or as little weight as you like.


Weight plates slide onto the barbells and are secured with a collar, although in some gyms they are welded to the bar. You need two hands to lift a barbell. You can perform a bench press with bar bells, but these aren’t often recommended for complete beginners.  


A must-use piece of gym equipment. Because they usually have fixed plates and can be lifted with one hand they allow you to perform all sorts of moves.  Most decent gyms have a dumbbells ranging up to 40kg each. You can also use strap on hand weights and ankle weights for use while doing aerobic exercises.

Kettle bells

These are cast iron balls with a handle attached to the top. As the weight of a kettle bell isn’t evenly distributed they give a great workout to the core. They are very easy to use, fun, and particularly popular with women, though many men use them too.

Weight machines

These make up the bulk of gym equipment you see when you walk into the gym. You can stand, sit or lie on them. Many use adjustable cables which allow you to perform different motions, and others are selectorized where you adjust the weights with a pin. The most popular are:

Military press. On this machine you sit facing either forward or backwards and press a weighted bar upwards. This builds up your shoulders and upper arms.

Lat machines. These usually have a bar hanging from a rope which you pull down in front of or behind your neck. This gives a good workout to your back (lat) muscles, your arms and chest. It’s a great starting machine for anyone who can’t do lots of pull-ups.

Leg press. These are machines where you sit and push the weight away from you using your legs. Meant to simulate a standing squat, they are excellent for toning the buttocks and leg muscles. By gaining experience on this machine you will develop enough strength to move onto free weight exercises such as the standing squat with weights.

Safety note for weights. Proper form is crucial. Make sure your back is pressed right back into any back pad. And don’t hyperextend your knees or elbows when doing shoulder presses or leg extensions.

While we can help you avoid feeling completely clueless when you walk into the gym, it’s crucial to get a proper introduction from an instructor. They will help you with any queries and safety issues. You will see a huge improvement in your knowledge and confidence in just a few sessions and will soon be able to advise other newbies too.