5 Gym Machines Every Woman Needs To Start With

5 Gym Machines Every Woman Needs To Start With

I’ve been going to the gym to lift weights since I was 12. Granted, for about 15 years I was doing the same old thing, lifting the same old weights, but I was still lifting. And, I wasn’t intimidated by other people there. So fast forward 30+ years later, I have zero qualms about entering a gym, filled with buffed Arnie type guys, and lifting weights. Because I know what I’m doing. And that my friend, is the key to confidence. 

A lot of women feel intimidated by the men in the gym. You know the ones. The ones who look like they know what they’re doing. The men grunting and sweating away lifting the really Big Weights. Or, the women who are doing their squats in skin revealing lycra showing off amazingly defined bodies. 

I meet many women who tell me that they know they should lift weights, but two things stop them. 


One - They don’t know what to do because the gym is full of machines that look too complicated to operate.


Two - They are intimidated and embarrassed to start lifting the free weights (aka Dumbbells, Kettlebells and Barbells).


I’m going to help you with both. In this 2 part blog series, I’ll get you first confident enough to use the cardio and weight machines correctly and confidently. 


The second blog will focus on how to get the confidence to step into the weight room with tips on etiquette and how to feel comfortable with free weights. 


So let’s get started.   

Gym Layout


A typical gym has the following general areas :

Reception area, shower rooms. 

Cardio area - bikes, treadmills, rowers, elliptical etc

Machines - like leg presses, shoulder press, lat pull down. 

Group Classes - rooms/studios where group classes are held such as spin, body pump, yoga, pilates etc. 

Free weights - rows of dumbbells, squat racks, bench presses. 

Others - areas for equipment such as TRX, tyres, sleds, ball slams etc. 

I’m going to address the cardio and machine areas, what the benefits are, and what the general rules are. 

Cardio Area

Most women feel comfortable in the cardio section. This is their safe space, where they are familiar with the act of walking, climbing, running and cycling. There are hardly any skills required to do this, because everyone knows the basics. Here are some tips to get the most out of the most popular cardio machines. 


You need to set up the bikes to the correct settings for your frame. Best way to do this - get a staff member to help you figure it out. But the general rule of thumb is, if you sit on the saddle, you should be able to straighten your leg that’s pressing down, by about 90%. You don’t want to lock it out, but you certainly don’t want to have it too bent at the knee. Reason is - you’ll just get more pushing power! It’s also better for your posture. 

The handle bars need to be about the length of your forearm away from the saddle, and the height -this is open to debate. Some feel more comfortable sitting up, some hunched over. Try a few settings to see which works best for you. 


Everyone knows how to operate a treadmill right? But how to get more out of it? 

  • Don’t hold onto the handles when you walk (unless you have a balancing issue - and even then, it’s better to start slow but know that the handles are there for you to grab should you need them).

  • Vary the incline. You can set it at a 2% incline throughout or use one of the programs. I like the hills, as it varies the incline throughout, mimicking ‘real hills’. 

  • Speed - vary the speed! An interval style of walking or running would be to walk at your comfortable pace for 60 seconds, then sprint (increase the speed to the point where you’re running aka sprinting, very fast) for 20 seconds. You can play around with these intervals. But this is more effective at weight loss than just running at steady state - meaning, you don’t change the speed throughout. 


This is an awesome cardio machine because it works the upper body as well as the lower body. Like the treadmill, to get the most fat burning bang for your buck in the shortest time possible, do an interval style row. When you’re in the ‘slow’ interval, just move the seat in and out, slowly, while you get your breath back. The initial power should come from your legs. Then, think of pulling with your back muscles, not your arms. 

Strength Training Machines

Machines are the most popular form of strength training because there are normally clear instructions on what to do, and you can change the weight very quickly. Your body is normally put into a ‘fixed’ position, which helps newbies as it leaves less room for error. 

While this is not my preferred mode of weight training (I only use two machines in the gym, the Lat Pull Down and the Cable Pull), there are benefits to using them for the beginner. Here are some tips to get the most out of them. 

Which to choose?

It can be exciting, and yet intimidating, to see such variety in equipment. But, if I had to choose a few to work with, these would be it. 

Note : With all the machines, the set up rule is :

“Read the instructions on the machine, or ask a trainer for help”. Seriously. You think you will look like a beginner if you ask for help, but trust me, all the experienced gym people will look at your bad form, cringe and think “should I offer to help them???”. 

Ask. For. Help. 

Lower body - Leg Press

This works your leg muscles, mainly your quadriceps (thigh muscles). Which is a good enough start. Try not to flatten your lower back, and think push from the butt. It’s simple enough to do this movement but just don’t curl your tailbone under as it can cause strain on your lower back. 

Upper Body - Lat Pull Down

This works your back muscles, and arms too (biceps). But I do see this bastardised all too often in the gym. Momentum, and arching of the back. 

I like to have my knees under the rollers, with a 90 degree angle between hip and  knee. While there are many versions this is the standard one I’d start with. 

Grab the bar, typically the long bar, wider than your shoulders. When you pull, pull it to the FRONT of your face. Think “bend the bar in half when I pull it down”, and “keep my armpits to my hips”. 

When the bar is let go to go back up, allow it to happen slowly, don’t let the momentum jerk it upwards. Control it as it heads upwards. 

You should feel this in your lats - which is the back of the armpits towards your lower back. 

Upper body - Seated Chest Press

This works your chest muscles (the pecs) and your arms too (triceps). Think of a push up - it’s the same sort of movement, but here, you don’t have to push your body weight, just the plate. 

Set up - See above about asking for help! 

Some tips - when the going gets tough, really press your feet into the floor, grip your hands harder, and also clench your butt muscles. This is known as irradiating grip strength which will make the last few reps doable. 

Upper Body  - Seated Rows

This works your back muscles in a horizontal way. Think of the muscles in the back of your shoulders, between your shoulder blades. 

Your gym will either have one of these seated row machines or you’ll have to use the cable pulley. The latter is slightly more advanced, as there is more room for minute adjustments which will come with experience. 

With the seated row, adjust the seat to your height (read instructions!), and pull back. The machine is set up so that the angle and the line of pull are fixed, leaving little room for error. Keep your chest on the chest pad and think of “squeezing your shoulder blades” together. 

Upper Body - Shoulder Press

The final machine I’d recommend is the seated shoulder press. This is normally seated, and you push upwards, thus working your shoulder muscles. 

Shoulder muscles in women are typically weak, and women struggle with this. But strong shoulders are essential and in my opinion, non negotiable. So don’t skip this one. 

Keep your back on the back of the seat, (adjust - seek assistance!) and press upwards. Don’t arch your back to perform the press, you’ll start with the lighter plates, but keep going.

Overall tips for machines 

Keep a note in your phone of all the weights (plates) you’ve used. Keeping track of your progress is important. You’ll never remember which plate you used, and also, you can see if you are just lifting the same old weight over months.

Your aim should be to increase your volume over time. Volume is Weight x Repetitions x Sets. 

You may start with lighter weight, many reps. By increasing either one of these variables you’ll end up with more volume. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather reduce my time IN the gym. So the best way to increase volume while NOT spending more time doing more reps or more sets - Increase the weight. Makes sense right? (note to my kids - see, I’m using Maths in a real life situation!)


What you should do next

Go to your gym. Start by looking around and observing people. Now you know what to look for you’ll quickly see that some people look like they have no idea what they’re doing. Do you want to be one of those? 

I figured not. So, just keep these general pointers in mind. And I can’t stress enough the importance of asking someone for help! The best ones to ask are the trainers who work there. That’s their job, to help the clients. I know if someone asked me for help, I’d be very glad to help them out. 

You can do it! 


I’ll address the free weights and gym etiquette. And by the end of that blog you’ll feel so confident when you go to the gym, no one will know that you’re a newbie!

Now - head to the gym, do some cardio or weight machines, and remember - Ask For Help if you need to understand how to operate the machines!

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