A Beginner's Guide To The Unsung Heroes Of Gym Equipment

Spice up your workout routine.

Originally Published: 
Experts explain how to use gym equipment for beginners, from rowing machines to battle ropes.

Be honest: Do you dash towards your fave treadmill every time you go to the gym? Or do you wander around, look at the equipment, and try new things? While it’s totally fine — and even beneficial — to stick with a solid and predictable workout routine, there’s something to be said for shaking things up on occasion, too.

Trainer Daniel Sullivan, CPT says using a new piece of gym equipment every couple of weeks can “shock the system,” in a good way. Different machines and workout tools call for different exercises, which can hit muscles that might be ignored in your regular routine. The end result? Newfound strength. On top of that, it’ll potentially make your workout more fun. You’ll just have to learn how to use gym equipment that you're not used to.

Enter: the battle ropes, rowing machines, kettlebells, and other fitness contraptions you may have side-eyed in the past. “There’s a difference between using the same equipment because you understand the benefits and using the same equipment because you don’t know what else to do,” says NASM-certified personal trainer David Sautter. If fear of the unknown is holding you back, figuring out how to use gym equipment simple: “You should seek out a personal trainer or try a group fitness class that utilizes that equipment to become familiar and expand your fitness horizons,” says Caley Crawford, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer.

Another option? Keep scrolling for a rundown on how to use gym equipment for beginners, straight from fitness pros. Consider these the underdogs that just might become staples in your workout routine.

1. Rowing Machine

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Also known as a rower or ergometer, rowing machines may look a bit tricky, but are well worth a second glance. “Rowing recruits over 85% of your body’s muscles, primarily your legs, core, and arms,” says Crawford. “It’s great for building your cardiovascular and muscular endurance, too. And since it is low impact, it’s easy on your joints.”

How To Use A Rowing Machine

Sit down and place your feet in the footholds, then tighten the straps around your shoes. Grab the handles with an overhand grip. Start with your knees bent, your butt near your heels, and your arms straight.

To row, Crawford says it’s important to drive your heels into the footholds and push your body away from the flywheel. “This part of the stroke is called ‘the catch,’” she explains. Lean back slightly at the end of the catch, engage your abs, and squeeze your arms and the muscles between your shoulder blades as you pull the handles to your ribcage.

Reverse those steps by pushing the handles back out, leaning in, and sliding toward the flywheel as you bend your knees. “For the whole stroke, think legs, core, arms; arms, core, legs,” Crawford says.

Need a workout idea? Crawford recommends rowing 1,250 meters at about 25 SPM (strokes per minute), then moving up to 1,000 meters at 27 SPM, then 750 meters at 28 SPM, then 500 meters at 30 SPM, followed by 100 meters at full effort — or as hard as you can go. Take one minute of rest between rounds.

2. Battle Ropes

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Ever see those thick, heavy-looking ropes lying off to the side in the gym? Those are called battle ropes. Sautter notes they’re usually 30 to 50 feet long and coated with a protective covering to protect your hands. Personal trainer Erin McGill Mahoney says people tend to avoid battle ropes because they look “tough” or they assume they’re for advanced exercisers only — but that’s not the case.

The ropes come with a slew of benefits: Using them targets the muscles in your upper back, core, glutes, quads, and arms, says McGill Mahoney. (So they basically give you a full-body workout.) Shaking them also gets your heart rate up for a great cardio workout.

How To Use Battle Ropes

Firmly plant your feet in front of the rope ends with your knees slightly bent and your lower body engaged. Grab a rope in each hand and being to shake them up and down and side to side, sort of like you’re trying to unkink a garden hose.

Engage the core while you create different arm motions. McGill Mahony says you can use the ropes by standing, sitting, or kneeling. As you shake them, aim to move the entire length of each, all the way down to their anchor point. You can shake the ropes up and down, slam them against the ground, or wave them in outwards circles. Either way, you’ll definitely feel it.

3. Pull-Up Bar

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There’s a lot more to a simple pull-up bar than meets the eye. Karisa Karmali, an ISSA-certified personal trainer, says using the piece of fitness equipment will engage your core, arms, and back muscles at once. And you don’t have to have the upper body strength to pull yourself up to use it. “You can start with dead hangs, where you just hang there and see how long you can hold yourself in place,” says Karmali. “It’s fantastic resistance training that only uses your body weight.”

Beginners can also use a band underneath their foot and around the knees to assist with the pull-up motion until you build up enough strength to lift yourself above the bar. “Assisted pull-ups using various resistance bands to wrap around the knees is a great way for anyone who’s just starting out to practice correct form and to get comfortable with an otherwise intimidating movement,” says Karmali.

How To Do A Pull-Up

Start by ensuring you have a strong grip by applying chalk to your hands or wearing lifting gloves. Stand below the pull-up bar and place your foot in the band, or jump or reach up to grab it if you’re not using assistance. Play around with your hand placement to see if you prefer keeping yours closer together or further apart, or if you like having your fingers pointing inward or away.

Next, bend your elbows and raise your upper body up while engaging your core, arms, and back. “Beginners should do one to three pull-ups to start in perfect form,” Karmali says, noting to focus on quality over quantity. Increase your reps from there.

4. Ab Rollers

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Spot an ab roller at your gym? Simply grab one and start gliding. According to John Gardner, a NASM-certified personal trainer, it’s one of the most underrated tools for engaging your core — and it works your lower body muscles at the same time. It’s also great for improving your balance since it forces you to stabilize as you roll in and out.

How To Use An Ab Roller

Start on your hands and knees. Hold the ab roller in your hands and lift your feet off the floor. Make sure you’re engaging your core, arms, and glutes as you straighten your back and push the ab roller forward. Roll it away until your arms are straight and your face is almost touching the floor. Keep your back straight the entire time, says Gardner.

Return to the starting position by pulling the ab roller back towards you and pushing your glutes backward. Try to begin with three sets of 10 reps.

5. Bosu Ball

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A dome-shaped balance ball, aka a Bosu ball, is another oft-overlooked piece of gym equipment. “I see people stare at it all the time super confused,” certified personal trainer Toi Sharae, CPT tells Bustle, who notes it’s a great fitness tool for full-body workouts. It creates an unstable surface, she explains, which forces you to maintain your balance when doing different exercises — thus improving your balance, stability, and agility. Oh, and your strength.

How To Use A Bosu Ball

Incorporate a Bosu ball into your workout simply by placing it beneath you and holding the sides as you move through your usual floor workouts. Sharae recommends doing mountain climbers with your hands on the ball. You can also try single leg glute raises, low squats with one or both feet on the ball, tricep dips, and even side-lying oblique crunches. Do 3 sets of 12 reps for each move, and your muscles will be on fire.

6. Smith Machine

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The Smith machine is a squat rack that you’ll often find barbells hooked onto, and it’s a multifunctional piece of equipment trainers recommend trying. “It can be used for squats, deadlifts, rows, and bench presses in addition to many other movements,” Sullivan says. “Consider it as close to an all-in-one you can get.”

How To Use A Smith Machine

Adjust the bar of the Smith machine to shoulder height. Start with 10-pound weights on each side or just use the bar, depending on how much weight you’re able to lift. Position your hands shoulder-width apart and rest the bar on your trapezius muscles, which are the ones closest to your neck/upper back.

Then, with your feet hip-width apart, Sullivans says to unlock the bar by lifting it forward. You'll then shift your weight back into your heels and brace your abs as you lower into a squat. “Keep your head and spine in a neutral position with your knees as close to 90-degrees as possible,” he says. With your core strong, drive up through your heels to stand, squeezing your glutes at the top. Do three sets of 12 reps. From there, play around with other strength training moves — just start with light weights.

7. Kettlebells

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The next time you’re breezing past the kettlebell rack, slow down and give them a try. According to certified personal trainer Jane Simmons, N.A.S.M., kettlebells are fantastic because you can hit multiple muscle groups at one time. They’re similar to dumbbells, but condensed into one rounder weight with a top handle, which makes for slightly different — but just as beneficial — maneuvering.

How To Use Kettlebells

Start by holding the kettlebell by the horns and hugging it close to your chest to do a goblet squat, Simmons says. Stand with your legs a little wider than shoulder-width apart and your feet slightly turned out. From there, sit into your heels and slowly send your hips to the floor while keeping your chest up.

Once you hit your lowest point, drive through the heels to stand up tall. “Be careful not to push the hips forward to ‘finish off’ the movement,” Simmons says. “Instead, think of this top position like a standing plank.” She stresses that the exercise, when done properly, should work your core as much as your legs. Work your way through other staple strength training moves and then increase your weight from there.


Caley Crawford, NASM-CPT, certified personal trainer

David Sautter, NASM-CPT, certified personal trainer

Erin McGill Mahoney, certified personal trainer

Karisa Karmali, ISSA-certified personal trainer

John Gardner, NASM personal trainer

Toi Sharae, CPT, certified personal trainer

Daniel Sullivan, CPT, certified personal trainer

Jane Simmons, N.A.S.M., certified personal trainer

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