Common Gym Exercise Machines and What They Do

people using exercise machines at gym

The inside of a gym can seem intimidating to those who aren't accustomed to the variety of machines and equipment but luckily, most gyms have similar inventories of exercise machines. Once you're familiar with the basic machines featured at most gyms, you can confidently stride into any gym and get started with your workout.

Cardio Machines

Though some gyms offer cardio machines that appear strange, five mainstays are the most common: treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, stair steppers, and rowers.


Treadmills offer the opportunity to walk, jog, run, or hike without setting foot outdoors. With more give to them than pavement, they're generally easier on joints than running outdoors.

People working out on treadmills

Elliptical Machines

Offering a smoother ride than treadmills, elliptical machines allow users to walk, jog, or run with no impact. Some ellipticals offer moving arm handles while some have stationary rails.

Woman using elliptical machine in gym

Stationary Bike

Stationary bikes at the gym provide a cycling experience indoors. Most gyms have both upright and recumbent bikes, and many gyms have indoor cycling group fitness classes.

Women riding stationary bikes at gym

Stair Stepper

These "stairs to nowhere" deliver a tough cardio workout that helps strengthen the lower body. While some gyms have stair steppers that look similar to ellipticals, others look closer to partial down escalators.

Woman on stair stepper machine


The rowers mimic the movements of rowing a boat, providing good cardio while concurrently strengthening the legs, chest, and back.

Woman using rowing machine at gym

Strength Machines

In addition to machines, most gyms offer additional strength equipment including (but not limited to) free weights, benches, and resistance bands.

Cable and Pulley

A versatile machine, this large unit features cables and pulleys for strength work and may have other equipment anchored to it, such as a lat pulldown bar or bars for pullups.

Women using cable and pulley machine

Lat Pulldown

Designed to strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscle, this machine features a seat and an interchangeable bar or handles to pull down. Adjust the weight to achieve a challenging movement.

Woman using lat pull down machine

Leg Extension Machine

Primarily for quadricep and hamstring strengthening, this machine features a seat with a bar that meets the user's legs around mid-shin level. Adjust the weight and extend the leg, lifting the bar.

Man doing leg extension exercise

Leg Curl Machine

This machine works to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes. After adjusting the weight, lie on your stomach and anchor the lower legs under the bar. Lift the bar by curling the legs.

Woman doing leg curl at gym

Smith Machine

One of the most misunderstood machines at the gym, the Smith machine assists squats or bench presses by anchoring in the barbell and guiding its movements.

Man working out using Smith Machine

Leg Press Machine

Depending on the model of the machine, the weight might be adjusted by switching out plates or by moving a pin into a different slot. After the weight is adjusted, sit in the declined chair and place the feet on the platform above. Release the weight and bend the knees, drawing feet closer to you, then extend, pushing the feet away. This machine strengthens the lower body and can be compared to a squat.

Woman doing leg press exercise

Leg Adductor/Abductor

This machine requires the user to sit with legs open and anchored. Adjust the weight and then open and close the legs while in the seated position. The leg adductor/abductor is supposed to strengthen and tone the inner and outer thighs, but many fitness professionals consider it a waste of valuable training time.

Woman using leg abductor machine

Bicep Curl Machine

After adjusting the weight, sit on the seat and extend your arms, palms up, over the padded bar but under the moveable bar. Grasping the handles, draw the hands up toward your shoulders by bending your elbows. This machine strengthens the bicep muscles in the arms.

Woman using bicep curl machine

Machines as Good Alternatives

Gym machines can help guide movements for exercisers with stability issues or for those who want to get all of their workout completed in one location. For a more challenging workout, take your cardio outdoors and consider free weights or functional body weight movements for strengthening.

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Common Gym Exercise Machines and What They Do