Working Out with Resistance Machines

Resistance machines come in many shapes, styles, and sizes. In some cases, several machines work the same muscle groups and perform the same basic exercises, but they put you in different positions (sitting, lying, or standing), so the machines may look different. Some equipment uses a series of cables to pull up different amounts of weight bars stacked on top of each other. Other equipment uses hydraulic resistance — air pressure — to provide the resistance that your muscles will move against. A few machines, such as the Pilates Reformer, use springs for resistance. Whatever the physics of the machine you use, they all operate on the same principle: They make your muscles produce extra force to overcome the resistance.

Weight machines are the best type to allow you to monitor your progression — you can be very specific when determining the amount of weight and the increases in overload that you choose.

Lat pulldown

Since most free weight exercises with dumbbells have you raise the weight up, this machine is useful because the resistance is in the opposite direction. You pull away from the resistance instead of bringing it toward you.

Muscles worked: Latissimus dorsi.

1. Choose your desired weight, and then grasp the handles of the pulldown bar and sit on the seat of the machine. Extend your arms fully in a V position. Face your palms forward, not up, and curl your thumbs around the bar.

2. Sit and lean back slightly, and then exhale and pull the bar down, lowering it to the front of your chest with your elbows pressed to your sides. You may need to lean your torso slightly back, but keep the spine straight and abdominals contracted. Keep your wrists straight, in line with your forearms.

3. Hold, and then inhale as you allow the bar to raise up slowly. Repeat.

Focus & Connect: Rather than concentrating on your hands pulling on the bar, think of squeezing your back and shoulder muscles first to move the bar.

Safety Tip: Although you'll still see people in the gym using this machine incorrectly, avoid pulling the bar behind your neck as the position puts extreme stress on the shoulder joint.

Cable row

This is another pulling exercise that is great for the entire back. Make sure to hold good posture throughout: Keep your ribs lifted and spine straight.

Muscles worked: Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids.

1. Choose your desired weight, and then attach the appropriate bar. The cable machine has several differently shaped handles that allow you to move in different directions, and with one or two hands.

2. Hold onto one bar with each hand and stand facing the weight stack. Your legs are in a split stance, right leg in front of the left. Your arms should extend in front of you at thigh level with your palms facing in.

3. As you exhale, pull your elbows toward your rib cage, and then behind your back. Hold, and then return to the extended position and repeat.

Focus & Connect: Feel your shoulder blades come together as your arms pull back.

Safety Tip: Avoid slouching, hold your ribs lifted, and keep your spine straight.

Cable press

This pulling exercise targets your chest muscles.

Muscles worked: Pectorals, deltoids, and serratus anterior.

1. Select your desired weight and stand sideways, left side next to a cable machine. Hold onto the cable handle with your inside (left) hand. Walk away from the machine until your left arm is outstretched; keep your elbow soft. Let your palm face down. Soften your knees, and with a straight back, lean slightly forward.

2. As you exhale, pull on the cable to move your arm across the front of your body, stopping when your left hand reaches the right side of your body. Hold, and then move the arm to the left side again and repeat.

3. Switch sides.

Focus & Connect: Feel the chest area near the inner upper arm contract as you move the weight.

Safety Tip: Avoid rounding your upper back. Keep the spine straight and abs tight throughout.

Pull-up bar

At its simplest, a pull-up bar is just a stable horizontal bar above your head that you reach up and grab onto to pull your head above the bar (similar to the bars you'll find on the jungle gym at the playground). This is a very difficult exercise because you essentially have to raise all of your body weight up, which can be a lot if you haven't worked up to it. Some new assisted pull-up machines in the gym allow you to lift up a portion of your weight. This enables you to work up gradually to doing full unassisted pull-ups. You can also make the standard pull-up easier by placing a chair underneath so that you pull yourself up from a higher level to begin with.

Muscles worked: Trapezius, latissimus dorsi, biceps, and deltoids.

1. Stand just underneath, but slightly behind an overhead bar. Hold onto the bar with your hands spaced shoulder-width apart. Your palms should face forward, and your thumbs should curl under.

2. As you exhale, pull your body up so that your chin rises above the bar by bending your elbows and using your back muscles to draw the elbows close to your ribs. Hold, and then slowly lower and repeat.

Options: To target different areas of the muscle groups, switch grips. Try a wider grip, hands spaced about three inches away from each shoulder. Or try a reverse grip with the palms rotated inward so that they face your body when grasping the bar.

Focus & Connect: Tighten your abs and entire torso to keep your body stable throughout the lift.

Safety Tip: If this is too difficult at first, start from the top and work your way down. Step up onto a bench, hold yourself in a lifted position, and then lower down slowly. When you can successfully lower with control, remove the bench and go through both the lifting and lowering phases of the move. You can also try the assisted pull-up machines in the gym that allow you to adjust how much of your own body weight you lift during the exercise.

Triceps cable extension

You can work your triceps in a multitude of positions using free weights. Here's a variation on the cable machine.

Muscles worked: Triceps brachii and posterior deltoids.

1. Choose your desired weight, and stand in front of the cable machine. Grasp onto the bar with both hands (palms down) and lower it so that it is in front of your waist. Your elbows should be bent at 90 degrees, and fists should be in front of your elbows.

2. As you exhale, push your hands down so that your elbows straighten. Keep your elbows by your sides and upper arm stable throughout the move. Hold, and then slowly raise the weight to starting position and repeat.

Focus & Connect: Tighten your abs and stand up tall (ribs lifted, thighs straight) during the move.

Safety Tip: If your elbows feel strained, make sure your hands are spaced elbow-width apart on the bar and/or lighten your weight.

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