A Beginner's Guide To Gym Equipment

Joining or training in a gym for the first time can be a daunting process for many of us… But with our beginner’s guide to Fitness First’s gym equipment, you can strut into your new club with confidence, a plan of attack, and the knowledge of how to use each piece of equipment safely and efficiently, helping you feel secure and empowered to perform your chosen exercises.

All our Fitness First clubs offer a range of top-quality equipment to cater to all different training goals and preferences, so let’s dive into some commonly used pieces of kit, so you can understand how to use them in your sessions to maximise your enjoyment and your results from your workouts.

Ready to put our top-quality equipment to the test for yourself? Try your nearest Fitness First for free with a 5-day free trial today!



One of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment in our Fitness First clubs, the treadmill is a machine used for full body cardio and conditioning. You can walk, jog, run or sprint on a flat surface or on an incline, depending on your workout goals. Simply increase the speed to work on your cardiovascular health, or adjust the incline to challenge your endurance.

When you’re running on a treadmill, you want to aim to stay in the middle of the belt. Don’t get too close to the handlebars, or too far back towards the edge of the treadmill, for your safety. It’s also best to attach the red safety chord to your clothing, to bring the treadmill to an immediate stop should anything go wrong.

Focus on maintaining a tall posture, using your arms to help propel you forwards, and staying light on your feet as you run (or walk). Start slow while you get used to the machine, and gradually work your way up to higher speeds or inclines. You can either opt for steady state, constant running or jogging speeds for the duration of your workout (ideally anything up to 45 minutes) to improve endurance, or you can opt for alternating intervals of 30 second sprints, followed by a 30 second recovery period (or 20:40) to challenge your heart health and improve your fitness, depending on your preference and objectives.

Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is an excellent method of cardio training, as it’s low impact and gentle on your joints, but a real challenge for your fitness and cardiovascular health. The rower uses power from your full body, but 60% of the effort should come from your legs, with 30% from your core and only 10% from your upper body. You can adjust the resistance of the rowing machine to make each stroke feel more challenging or slightly easier, with increased resistance taking you further with each stroke.

When rowing, you want to bring your body forwards towards the console, before pulling back forcefully all the way to the end of your leg range, using your legs, core and arms to bring the handles back towards your chest in line with your top ribs. You should aim to pull back quickly and with strength each time, and then return forwards towards the console slightly more slowly, giving you time to catch your breath. To optimise your form, make sure you’re always completing each stroke to the end of your range of motion, and keeping the handles to rib-height, never above or below.

Similarly to the treadmill, you can aim for a consistent rowing pace for a certain amount of time if you’re working on endurance, measuring your stroke-per-minute rate, or metres travelled per minute to ensure consistency. Or, you can challenge yourself to intervals of maximum effort for 30-40 seconds, followed by 20-30 seconds at a slower recovery pace to increase your cardiovascular fitness.

Ski Erg

The ski erg is another full body machine, placing a particular emphasis on the arms, core and upper body. With both feet planted flat, firmly on the platform of the erg shoulder-width apart, grasp both handles and reach up to lengthen your body and arms above your head, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Forcefully drive the handles down past your knees until your arms are extended down beside your legs, while engaging your core and hinging at your hips. Make sure you’re reaching your arms all the way upwards to the end of their range of motion at the top of each stroke, and keeping a slight bend as you pull downwards, to maximise the output every time you pull down on the handles.

Again, you can adjust the resistance on the ski erg to make it easier or harder to pull the handles down. Reducing resistance will make your strokes lighter, easier and faster, while increasing the resistance will slow your pace but challenge your strength.

 Set yourself a distance (in metres) to aim for on the ski machine, and gradually you can increase this distance as you build fitness and endurance. 500 metres - 1 km is a great place to start. Alternatively, you can try intervals on the ski erg, skiing as flat out as you can for 30 seconds, then resting for 30 seconds, and repeating. The ski is a demanding machine, so start small with the amount of time you’re spending on it, ideally around 5-15 mins, and work your way up over time.

Bike Machine

The bike machine is another popular piece of cardio equipment which can be fun and effective if you know how to use it effectively. Focusing on the lower body, the bike challenges your leg and core strength and improves cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Simply adjust the seat of the bike to hip height and climb aboard, being sure to keep your shoulders back and your back upright as you lean slightly over the handlebars. Pedal as you would on a regular bicycle, increasing the resistance on the base of the machine if you want to challenge your leg strength and cardiovascular capacity. Reduce the resistance if you’re aiming for a steady-state cardio session.  

This will give one muscle group a rest while the other works. Repeat thisand you can cut your workout time in half.  

The bike is challenging, yet sustainable for a longer length of time than machines like the ski or rower - largely thanks to the fact you’re sitting down! You can spend anywhere from 1-45 minutes on the bike, depending on how much of your session you want to dedicate to it, opting for interval-based bursts of high intensity, followed by complete rest or low intensity bursts, or maintaining a steady and consistent pace for any length of time. If you decide to go for intense bursts of effort, try standing out of the seat and using your full body to propel you forwards against the resistance at an increased output, before sitting back into the seat for the lower intensity intervals.

Whatever machines you opt for in your cardio training, be sure to ask our expert trainers on hand any questions you have about how to use each piece of equipment before you jump on, and don’t hesitate to request suggestions or improvements to your form or technique to prevent injury and maximise your results. Start slow when introducing any new piece of kit to your routine, and approach every piece of equipment with a plan of attack, so you’re confident in your expectations of yourself and your session. And of course, be sure to clean your equipment once you’re done, so the next person can use it safely!

Want to get more out of your cycling or want to bring a friend? Try one of our Ride Classes.


We have endless machines and equipment to choose from when it comes to strength training, but let’s dive into four of our most commonly-used pieces of kit which work both your upper and lower body.

Seated Chest Press Machine

This works your pecs (or pectorals) in your chest, as well as your triceps and shoulders, for an upper body burn. Sitting straight and tall on the seat, press both handles away from your body to extend your arms until almost straight (keeping a very small bend in your elbows), then slowly release the handles back toward your body, bending your elbows and controlling the speed at which you allow them to return to the starting position. Be sure to engage your back and core muscles throughout the movement, and don’t forget to breathe!

Lat Pulldown

This machine works your mid-back muscles, as well as your core. Again, start sitting straight and tall on the seat, and reach up to grab the bar or handles which hang above your head, keeping your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Slowly, pull the bar down to your upper chest, then control its release, slowly returning it back to the starting position. Be sure to keep your posture strong and straight, and your hips and bum firmly planted on the seat. If you feel yourself lifting off the seat, this is a sign you’ve gone too heavy - so ease off the weight until you’re no longer rising up off your seat!

Leg Press Machine

The leg press is your best friend if you’re looking to strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, quads and lower body muscles. Start sitting in the seat once again, placing your feet hip-width apart on the wide platform, with your ankles and knees in alignment with your hips, facing forwards. Move the platform towards you, bending your knees towards your chest, before pressing the platform away again until your legs straighten, engaging your legs, glutes and core muscles throughout. Control the return of the platform towards you each time, using your leg strength to resist gravity and slow the movement right down.

As you advance, you can try working one leg at a time on the leg press, to even out the work on each leg and avoid one doing all the heavy lifting! Or, you can simply add more weight to the machine to make it harder, or slow down the reps so you’re spending more time under tension and challenging those leg muscles even more!

Smith Machine

If you’re a fan of squats, meet your new best friend. The Smith machine helps you [perform weighted squats safely, by locking your barbell into a rack and limiting your range of motion. It works your lower body, glutes and quads in a similar way to a barbell squat.

To use this piece of kit, rack the bar so you’re not holding any weight with your body. Get into position so you’ve got the bar resting on the meaty part of your upper back, and place your hands on the bar using an overhand grip - just like you would a regular barbell squat.

Remove the bar from the rack, transferring the weight to your body instead, and position your feet to hip-width, toes slightly turned out. Lower slowly into a deep squat, keeping your knees tracking over your toes, again pointing slightly outwards. Don’t rush back up to the top, but instead slowly rise from the bottom position, engaging your glutes and quads to squeeze your muscles back to standing, and repeat. Be sure to re-rack the bar once you’ve completed a set.

When you’re first starting out, try squatting with the bar without any added weight. Repeat until you’re comfortable with racking and re-racking the machine, then go ahead and add weight to challenge your muscles and build lower body strength.

Again, you can increase the level of difficulty by increasing the weight, or by slowing down each repetition. You can even resist coming to a complete standing position between reps, keeping your knees slightly bent before lowering straight back down into your deep squat to increase your time under tension and the load on your muscles. You can also change this move up by taking your feet further apart to wider than hip-distance, and lowering into a sumo squat, again keeping your knees tracking outwards over your toes.

Looking to kickstart your fitness journey? Find your perfect personal trainer now.

Tricks for using machines for the first time

Remember, the weight and positioning of each machine can be adjusted to suit your height and body. If a machine feels uncomfortable, don’t continue using it - seek help and guidance from one of our expert trainers, who will be very happy to help you adjust and understand your chosen piece of kit.

Always start lifting light weights, and increase from there slowly. It’s always better to lift less and avoid injury! You should also devise a plan for your workout before hitting the gym, so you know what equipment you’ll be using and can feel confident ahead of each session. You might choose to schedule separate upper and lower body days, or perhaps you prefer full-body sessions where you use a variety of our strength machines.

Your chosen rep range and number of sets will also depend on your personal goals. If you’re aiming to increase your strength and fitness, aim for higher reps and more sets, with lower weights on your machines. You could start off with 4 rounds of 10 reps on each machine, for example. Or, if you’re looking to build muscle, try lower rep ranges with more weight, for example 4 sets of 6 reps at a higher weight.

And remember, it’s important to rest briefly between sets when you’re strength training, to allow your muscles to recover and continue performing optimally - but don’t rest for too long! Aim to keep each rest period between 60-90 seconds between sets.


Free weights & weighted equipment

Our free weights and weighted equipment is a fantastic way to add resistance and challenge to your workouts, allowing you to build or maintain lean muscle and see the results you want.

All Fitness First clubs are decked out in terms of weighted kit for you to use in your sessions. We’ve got a huge range of dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and plenty more. Squats, lunges, lighter deadlifts, bicep curls, kettlebell swings, push press, squat to press, snatches, ball slams, wall balls and shoulder press are some of the exercises most commonly performed with these pieces of kit, but the world is your oyster! Not only do free weights allow you to build stability and core strength, particularly when you’re doing isolated or single-sided movements, by challenging your stabilising muscles, they also add variety and difficulty to the movements you perform throughout your workouts. So start experimenting! Begin with lighter weights and work your way up over time as you build strength and become familiar with your chosen movement patterns and exercises.

You’ll find our weighted equipment in the designated free weights area, for use as you like.

Stretching Spaces and Equipment

Our clubs also offer dedicated stretching spaces, equipped with a range of props and accessories to help you lengthen, strengthen and release any tightness or tension in your muscles following a workout. You can expect to find therabands, yoga mats and blocks, foam rollers and more, each of which can help make your stretching session more comfortable and effective, and help you lengthen your muscles and extend their range of motion. The pieces of kit can intensify your stretching session, and therefore promote recovery and reduce injury risk after your session.

Remember, stick to dynamic stretching before your workouts, and saving the static (unmoving) stretches for post-workout, when your muscles are warm, lubricated, and not at risk of harm if you hold deep stretches for lengthy periods of time!

If you’re looking for a way to combine your freestyle training with a more structured, instructor-guided group environment, check out our freestyle group training classes here!

Other Bits & Bobs

Of course, you’ll also find a bunch of uncommon tools, equipment and accessories in our clubs which, as a beginner, you might not come across or be game to try your first time in the gym. Some of these include:

Battle ropes: these come in a range of weights depending on the level of challenge and strength you’re aiming for. You can choose single arm or double slams, using your upper body and core strength to slam them into the ground continuously as hard as you can!

Ab rollers: Engaging your core and tucking your pelvis under, grasp the handle on either side of the wheel and slowly roll your body out to the longest point you can manage before your back and hips begin to drop. Then, use your core muscles to bring your torso back to your starting position, and repeat. This is a real core and abs burner!

Bosu Balls: these can be used in so many different ways! The half-spherical shape can be placed flat on the ground and used to make movements like squats or squat pulses more challenging by recruiting your stabilising muscles as it becomes harder to balance. Or, you can flip the Bosu upside down (so the squishy ball side is on the floor) for an added level of difficulty in movements like mountain climbers, squat jumps or burpees. The Bosu Ball is fantastic for challenging that core and building strength and stability in your movements.

Skipping ropes: Need we say more? Excellent for cardiovascular fitness!

Resistance bands: These can be used to work so many different body parts, sculpting and shaping your muscles and challenging your strength at the same time. You can find these bands in a variety of levels and lengths depending on what body part you want to work. For example, the longer, thinner bands are great for using in bent-over rows, push ups, push press, and more upper/full body movements. While the stronger, thicker bands are great for lying down or lower body movements, like donkey kicks, fire hydrants, lying side leg raises or squat pulses. The bands are a great way of increasing the difficulty of movements without adding weights.

Dip bars: these are two small handles which you plant on the floor in parallel. They can be used to elevate your body in movements like push ups or tricep dips, allowing you to increase your range of motion by making the bottom of your rep lower than the ground. Again, a great way to increase difficulty and improve your strength without adding weights.

Best equipment for Beginners

At the end of the day, the best equipment for beginners entering the gym for the first time is that which you’re comfortable and confident using. It’s always better to start slow, using lighter weights, fewer reps and less challenging pieces of kit, and work your way up from there as you build strength, fitness and confidence in your workouts. This way, you can prevent injury and create a sustainable workout routine, benefiting from the feeling of progressing and gaining confidence in your sessions as you challenge yourself over time.

If you’re really stuck, try programming half a session using free weights, focusing on compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and chest press with dumbbells and kettlebells, followed by some time on your favourite cardio machine, aiming for 10-15 minutes of intervals. Then, you can finish up by spending some time in our dedicated stretching zones, stretching it out and recovering ahead of your next session!

If you’re feeling nervous or uncomfortable starting out, remember it’s never as scary as you think - and no one is looking at you! Trust us, they’re all far too focused on their own form and results to notice anyone around them! But our expert trainers are always on hand to help you with technique or safe form whenever you need. Additionally, coming to the gym with a pre-prepared plan of attack for your workout, and a basic understanding of how to use the equipment you’ve programmed will do wonders for your confidence as you sweat it out in one of our clubs for the first time.

To learn more about our facilities, equipment and studios, head here! There’s something for everyone, and every style of training.