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Photo Illustration by Leo Mao; Illustrations by Kveta

The first time Chrissy King walked into a health club, she made a beeline for the cardio machines. “I felt very self-conscious with so many fit people who all looked like they knew what they were doing,” she recalls. “I didn’t quite feel like I deserved or belonged to be there, and I assumed everyone was judging my body.”

The treadmill and elliptical were easy to use, and King stuck with them for years. But the awareness that she could better round out her fitness routine eventually overrode her feelings of intimidation. So King hired a trainer, who led her into the weight room for the first time.

She hasn’t looked back. Knowledge bred the confidence she needed to step out of her comfort zone, which opened a world of fitness beyond just one area or tool. Today, King’s a powerlifter, certified personal trainer, and fitness writer specializing in personal empowerment.

“Once I started doing things in the gym that I never thought possible, I gained mental strength as well as physical strength,” she recalls.

Many of us have been in King’s shoes — and maybe still are. Lack of knowledge, experts agree, is a key reason why we fixate on one aspect of fitness.

“The most common barrier is the fear of looking foolish alongside veteran lifters and exercisers,” explains Life Time personal trainer and onboarding manager Jennifer Blake, RKC-II, who talks to members daily about the obstacles they face.

“A good deal of apprehension comes from not having any idea what to do,” adds personal trainer and strength coach Noah Gabriel-Landis, CSCS. “Finding your way through trial and error alone can be intimidating and exhausting.”

As a result, it’s common for people to narrow their health-club horizons. And this tendency may be standing between them and fitness gains.

In the following pages, we break down four areas in a typical health club and describe the tools and techniques to try in each space. We also offer ­expert guidance on finding your foot­ing as you venture into the unknown.

Not all health clubs are identical, of course, but you can expect to find the following on most fitness floors:

  • Stretching and Body-Weight-Workout Area with mats, foam rollers, ab wheels, stability balls, sliders, and more. This space may also be a catchall for other implements — such as kettlebells, medicine balls, and battle ropes — that don’t fit elsewhere.
  • Cardio Area with treadmills, elliptical trainers, ski ergs, and stepmills.
  • Free-Weight Area with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, squat racks, bench-es, and lifting platforms.
  • Strength-Machine Area with guided weight-training tools, such as fixed and cable-pulley machines.

Additionally, look for the personal-training (PT) desk. At most clubs, personal trainers are available to help all members, not just their PT clients. So, if you’re looking for a piece of equipment or need guidance figuring something out, don’t hesitate to ask.

Note that some places keep prone-to-theft equipment behind the PT desk. If you can’t find a jump rope, superband, or sliders, check in here to borrow what you need.

Before you begin, remember this caveat: Novelty for its own sake is not the goal. “Just because a routine or exercise is new doesn’t mean it’s right,” says Gabriel-Landis. “That said, it’s important not to be afraid of something just because it’s new.”

With this guide in hand, may you gain the knowledge and confidence to step into something new, achieve untapped gains, and maybe even discover a new favorite way to move and train.

Stretching and Body-Weight-Workout Area

The stretching area is an ideal first — and last — stop for any workout; it’s where you can do dynamic warm-up and mobility drills.

The open space here makes this a great place to practice body-weight exercises as well as routines that require room to move (think carries, crawls, and walking lunges).

In many clubs and gyms, the general stretching area offers many helpful tools.

stretching and body weight area health club

Yoga Mats: Great for mobility work and cushioning on a hard floor during body-weight moves.

Power Plate: This machine vibrates to increase the intensity of almost any exercise. Try performing body-weight squats, planks, and pushups.

Body Bars: Typically lighter and easier to grip than barbells. Use them to add weight to squats, lunges, and biceps curls.

Sliders: Use one or two sliders to create an unstable training surface. A favorite move: reverse lunges with the rear foot on a slider.

Gymnast Rings: Use rings (not pictured) for inverted rows, pushups, pull-ups, and hanging. Learn more at “How Do I Exercise With Gymnastic Rings?”.

Ab Dollies & Wheels: These core strengtheners call for slow, controlled movement. Don’t be afraid to do the exercises on your knees. For a primer on safe and effective ab-rolling, visit “BREAK IT DOWN: The Ab Rollout”.

Jump Rope
Ideal as part of a dynamic warm-up or a metabolic conditioning session. For workout ideas, visit “The Jump-Rope HIIT Workout”.

Stability Ball: Perform traditional core moves or do planks with either your feet or your forearms on the ball. Or try dead bugs, holding the ball in place with your stationary arm and knee.

ViPR Tubes: This thick rubber tube is designed for training in all planes of motion.

Tools to Try

Foam Roller: A favorite recovery tool, this cylindrical piece of foam can aid self-myofascial release (SMR) when it is leveraged against your body weight. SMR irons out your fascia — the body’s web of connective tissue — improving circulation and neurological responses in your soft tissues.

Foam rolling can also be a makeshift massage to work out trigger points in overworked muscles, relieving soreness.

But this tool isn’t limited to just postworkout recovery: You can also use it to elevate common strength exercises. With a foam roller positioned along your spine, try lying on your back while doing dumbbell floor presses to increase the range of motion through the shoulder and engage the core for balance. For a lower-body move, place your feet on a foam roller while performing glute bridges or hip thrusts; you will have to work hard and continuously throughout the movement to keep the foam roller from sliding away. For more see “Rachel Cosgrove’s “One Month to Muscles”: Foam Rolling (Video)”.|

Cardio Area

For those who are new to the gym, the cardio area is often a safe and easy stop. The machines mimic familiar and comfortable movements — walking, running, biking, stepping, skiing — and provide clear instructions and built-in workouts.

But many exercisers who enjoy the cardio floor find it hard to step away.

“I love the cardio-machine area because heart health is so important,” says Blake, a powerlifter with a penchant for climbing the stepmill. “But I do think there are more opportunities for variation here than most people initially consider. Lower intensity, steady-state cardio is one option, but adding intervals, hill climbs, and sprints on the treadmill, bike, or rower can improve your overall work capacity while also helping you avoid boredom.”

cardio area health club

Stepmill: This low-impact machine is made for high-intensity intervals. Find a workout at “The Stepmill Workout”.

Recumbent Bike: The positioning of this bike makes it easier to maintain an upright posture and reduces pressure on your lower back.

Assault Bike: The harder you pedal, the harder the pedaling becomes. Try it for high-intensity intervals and conditioning.

Treadmill: It’s a misconception that you can’t build strength or power on the treadmill. For a game-changing routine, visit “The Workout: New Twists on Old Faves”.

Stationary Bike: Well-suited for high-intensity intervals and low-intensity steady-state rides.

Elliptical: A low-impact option that mimics natural movements like running and snow-shoeing.

Rower: The erg (ergometer) is a great conditioning tool — when used properly. Fine-tune your form with the tutorial at “BREAK IT DOWN: The Row”.

Tools to Try

Ski Erg: For first timers, pacing and form can be tricky on this machine, which mimics the full-body, low-impact workout of Nordic skiing. Here’s how it’s done:

  • Begin with your hands and feet shoulder width apart and hands slightly above your head. Your arms should be bent.
  • Drive the handles downward by engaging your core abdominal muscles and bending your knees. Maintain the bend in your arms to keep the handles fairly close to your face.
  • Finish the drive with knees slightly bent and arms extended downward alongside your thighs.
  • Extend your arms upward and straighten your body to return to the start position.
  • Mix up this move by alternating your arms instead of pulling down with both at once. Try performing this exercise while seated or kneeling, particularly if you are rehabbing a lower-body injury.

Free-Weight Area

Free weights — barbells, dumbbells, plates, and kettlebells — feature no attached pulleys, cables, pins, or weight stacks. You can conceivably pick up any one of these items and move it freely.

The free-weight area is a good place to spend most of your time, advises Gabriel-Landis. “It’s the best return on investment for the hours that you log at the gym — and also offers the most room for variety, which makes for a well-rounded program.”

free weight area health club

Resistance Bands: Find a superband routine at “Superband Strong”.

Medicine Balls: These are great functional-conditioning tools. Try slamming and throwing the balls.

EZ Bar: The bends in the EZ bar, which is primarily used for biceps curls, keep the wrists in a neutral position.

Dumbbells: Find a dumbbell routine at “The Dumbbell-Complex Workout”.

Battle Ropes: With the ropes, focus on undulating up-and-down and side-to-side sweeps.

Lifting Platform: Use the platform for performing deadlifts off the floor as well as Olympic lifts, the barbell snatch, and the clean-and-jerk.

Pull-Up Bar & Dip Station: Build upper-body pulling and pushing strength with pull-ups and dips. Use looped superbands or foot assistance to pregress the moves.

Squat Rack, Barbell & Plates: Back squat, front squat, Anderson squat, Hatfield squat, zombie squat, zercher squat — the options go on. The rack is also great for deadlifting off pins to elevate the barbell.

Box: Step up on the box to build unilateral leg strength, and jump up to boost power. Use one to elevate your hands to make push-ups and planks easier — or raise your feet to make them harder.

Landmine: An anchored barbell shakes up presses, twists, squats, rows, and other strength moves. Find a landmine workout at “6 Unconventional Barbell Exercises”.

TRX Suspension Trainer: For a TRX workout, visit “TRX: Strength Hangs in the Balance”.

Tools to Try

Trap Bar: This lifting apparatus with handles allows you to stand in the middle to perform deadlifts, which shifts some of the work away from the lower back and into the legs; trap-bar deadlifts are a back- and shoulder-friendly pull variation. Also known as a hex bar, it can be open or diamond- or hexagon-shaped.|

Strength-Machine Area

Strength machines, including fixed-weight and cable-pulley systems, allow you to safely move the load in a limited number of directions. This is an advantage for beginners as they develop movement patterns and body awareness. The tradeoff is less muscle stimulation and adaptation than with free weights.

“Weight machines can be a great entry point for new exercisers because they’re hard to mess up,” explains Blake. “They can help a person get comfortable with strength training before moving on to the free weights.”

Gabriel-Landis notes that strength machines and cable stations are a potentially useful method for “filling in holes” in most programs, so even experienced lifters don’t need to shy away. (For a combo plan with strength machines and free weights, visit “Mix It Up With Resistance Machines”.)

strength machine area health club

Lat Pulldown: Useful for building strong lats and pulling power. Pro tip: Keep an upright posture and avoid leaning back to make it easier.

Leg Press: Works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Take care to maintain a neutral spine as you press through your feet.

Pec Deck: Designed to build strength and muscle mass in the chest and shoulders.

Glutes & Hamstrings Developer: The GHD is ideal for advanced exercisers aiming to build posterior-chain and core strength. Beginners beware.

Calf Machine: There are seated and standing versions of this machine, which targets the lower legs.

Abductor & Adductor Machines: These tools isolate the inner and outer thighs. But don’t be fooled: If you want to burn fat, these aren’t useful for spot-training the lower body.

Leg Curl & Extension: The leg-curl machine targets the hamstrings and posterior of the leg; the extension machine focuses on the front of the leg, primarily the quad. Useful for people who are working around an injury that prohibits squatting and lunging.

Rope-Pull Machine: Great for folks with lower-body injuries. Use it for conditioning and upper-body training.

Tools to Try

Glute Drive: This plate-loaded hip-thrust machine is designed to build strength, speed, and power in the glutes and hamstrings. It replaces the traditional hip-thrust method, which requires positioning your upper back on a bench and supporting a loaded barbell in your lap. The glute drive provides spinal support and features easier, more comfortable loading to increase weight as you get stronger.

Power Plate

One of the most intimidating machines on the fitness floor, the Power Plate vibrates to increase how quickly your muscles contract. This is designed to increase the intensity of almost any exercise, while cutting down the duration of your workout. Try standing on the Power Plate while performing a squat, or positioning your forearms on the plate with your feet on the floor while doing a plank. Start slow to get a feel for how your body responds to the vibrations, and if you feel faint or dizzy, stop immediately.

This originally appeared as “Welcome to the Club: Your Guide to the Fitness Floor” in the January/February 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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