If you’re new to working out in a commercial gym, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the vast array of machines set out on the floor.
Although some of the equipment has an obvious purpose (dumbbells are for curls, right?!) the leg workout machines can feel a little confusing, totally inaccessible or downright scary, depending on where you’re at in your fitness journey.
If you’re too chicken or too proud to ask the resident gym bro next to you how to operate one of the leg workout machines, we’ve crafted a little guide to set you on the right path.
First, we’ll explore the benefits of working out your legs. Next, we’ll walk you through the leg workout machine names, diving into the mechanics of 8 popular fitness machines and how to use them.
Why Work Out Your Legs?
Answer. To get an aesthetic body, obviously.
That being said, lower body exercise has a whole host of benefits you’ll quickly start to see once you stop skipping leg day. These include:
First up, if you have hip or ankle mobility issues, getting some leg action in on these machines is a great way to strengthen your joints.
Although more research is needed in this domain, increasing evidence shows that can improve painful, dysfunctional or weak joints in leg joints like the knees. This was found in populations with osteoarthritis.
But if you suffer from general joint pain, strengthening the muscles around the knees, hips, or ankles can be one of the best ways to relieve pain, provided you’re not working to the point of injury.
Next, evidence indicates that working out your legs can improve some degree of pain in your lower back.
A Sports Medicine Journal meta-analysis found that those who focused specifically on posterior chain training vs. general exercise for a 12-16 week period had more improvement in their chronic low back pain.
Working out the back of your body from head to toe, including leg training with workout machines, may be beneficial in helping you alleviate the “ouch” factor.
Moving along, research shows that tight or poorly developed muscles in the legs can have an impact on your back.
Postural issues like lumbar lordosis (where your spine curves inward excessively) can be affected by weak hamstrings.
Strengthening the muscles in your legs and regulating abnormalities and weakness can make a big difference in your posture.
If you’re looking to grow your glutes, you’re in luck. Working out on leg machines is a great way to build muscle in the legs and even get a better booty.
Many leg-targeted moves also work your glutes. Not only this, but some even encompass your whole posterior chain.
Reduce Injury Risk
The American College of Sports Medicine found that resistance training is suggested to reduce the rate or severity of musculoskeletal injuries.
The physical adaptations your body makes when you train seem to imply positive benefits for your bones, connective tissue and muscles. All these factors make it likely that resistance training supports injury prevention and recovery.
Now, let’s look at the best leg workout machines you can use for a stronger lower body.
Leg Workout Machines— How to Use
Leg Press Machine
The leg press machine is one of the best ways to get some heavy lifting in if you’re new to the gym.
Thought it may not have the same impact on your stabilizers and core compared to the barbell back squat, this is still an excellent way to hit your quads, for novices and experienced lifters alike.
To use the leg press machine:
- Set-Up: Adjust the seat on the machine to your height and leg length. Sit down and grab the side handles on the leg press machine. Load up the weight you want to lift.
- Action: Brace your core and drive through your feet to extend and straighten your legs. Don’t lock out your knees, but aim to get a full range of motion. You can keep a slight bend in the knees if you experience knee pain.
- Reverse: Hold for a moment, then let your knees bend back back towards you, slowly releasing the weight of your lift. Actively push against the resistance so you control the movement.
- Reps: Aim for 3 sets of 8-12 reps depending on how heavy you’re lifting.
Pro-Tip: Since the leg press is relatively easy to operate and much more stable compared to a back squat for most people, it can be a quicker process to up your weight.
If you’re a newbie and you find yourself making progress fast, focus on really being in control of your movements and working through your full range of motion. This helps you get a safer technique and avoid knee injury.
Keep your knees tracking in line with your toes, no matter which leg press foot placement you choose.
Leg Curl Machine
- Set-Up: Adjust the pads on the curl machine to your desired position to accommodate your height and leg length. This can be a tedious process when you’re new and may require some trial and error. Add the amount of weight to the weight stack that you want to lift.
- Body position: Slide yourself in between the two pads, laying on your stomach. Hook your knees around the bottom leg pad. Hold on to the grip handles for support.
- Action: Flex your knees to curl the bottom leg pad up towards your butt.
- Reverse: Hold for a moment, then slowly lower your weight, engaging your hamstrings to reverse your curl.
- Reps: Repeat as needed. Aim for 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Pro-Tips: Most of us are the victims of tight hamstrings! This move is a hamstring strengthener, but on top of strong hamstrings, it’s important to make sure they’re limber too.
Once you’re done on this machine, sit on the floor and extend your legs directly in front of you. Sit up and, with a neutral spine, extend your body and fold forward until your trunk meets your legs to stretch the hamstrings.
You may only make it part of the way at first, but see if you can continue to improve your hamstring flexibility for better muscle health.
Hip Abductor Machine
- Set-Up: Adjust the seat for your height and the level of your hips. Make sure you can comfortably put your feet on the ground. Add a weight from the stack that feels comfortable yet challenging for you.
- Body position: Sit on the machine, bracing your back against the backrest and your feet on the footrests. Adjust the leg pads, to sit just outside your knees. Grab the side handles to keep your body stable.
- Action: Keep your core muscles tight as you press your thighs out against the leg pads. Keep opening your legs to a comfortable position. Try not to “throw” your weight into the legs or use momentum. Keep your range of motion controlled.
- Reverse: Slowly close your thighs together, resisting the weight as you come back to your starting position.
- Reps: Repeat as needed. For beginners, we recommend 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Keep upping your weight as you improve in the exercise.
Hip Adductor Machine
- Set-Up: Adjust the seat for your height and the range of motion of your hips (so they’re not pushed open too far). Make sure you can comfortably put your feet on the ground. Add a weight from the stack that feels comfortable yet challenging for you.
- Body position: Sit on the machine, bracing your back against the backrest and your feet on the footrests. Adjust the leg pads, to sit just inside your knees. Grab the side handles to keep your body stable.
- Action: Keep your core muscles tight as you press your thighs in against the leg pads. Try to work toward closing your legs all the way. Keep this movement controlled. You don’t want your knees to slam together (this can be loud and embarrassing!).
- Reverse: Slowly resist the weight as your thighs draw apart. Don’t let the machine force your thighs too far outward. Come back to your starting position.
- Reps: Repeat as needed. For beginners, we recommend 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Keep upping your weight as you improve in the exercise.
The Smith machine is a versatile beast where you can work on moves like squat and deadlift variations and weighted lunges. Smith machine workouts are a great option for those who want more stability or isolation from their leg workout machines.
Although Smith naysayers will tell you it doesn’t mimic a natural human range of motion and therefore isn’t the best training too to use, other people are proudly on team Smith.
The key to using a Smith machine for progress in your leg day exercises is understanding how the work you do on a Smith machine translates into other exercises.
For instance, you can do a Smith machine squat in the same way as a barbell back squat, you’ll just need to understand that once you want to switch to a non-machine-assisted back squat, you’re gonna have to work a lot harder with your core to stabilize the move.
How Does a Smith Machine Work?
For Smith machines, your use will depend on the exercise you do. That being said, consider:
- Safety Hooks: The Smith machine comes ready-made with a set of catches or hooks, laid out along its weight track. These are meant to lock your barbell in place when you’re not using it, so be aware that you’ll need to twist your wrists against the bar to unlock the catch.
- Straight Line: The Smith machine works along a completely straight movement path. This isn’t a natural path of movement for most people and it can be confusing to adapt it to a more uneven path like we’d get with free weights if you’re making the jump. If you only train Smith machine, it’s a good idea to switch to free weights once in a while. This keeps you more mentally alert and locked into what your body is doing and feeling in a movement.
Pro-Tip: The “Smith machine bad” stereotype isn’t necessarily true, however, you should take all the factors above into consideration when you’re thinking about a Smith machine workout.
Smith machines can be great for:
- Hypertrophy training: If you’re just going for muscular hypertrophy and trying to grow, maybe a more stable movement direction is what you’re looking for. People have all kinds of gym goals and strength or athletic performance aren’t the only valid ones. Hypertrophy is great too.
- Injury recovery: As a muscle recovery or rehabilitation program, some lifters are advised not to work with free weights. A Smith machine can be a great intermediate step in your leg workouts if you’re getting back into it.
Calf Raise Machine
If leg day skipping is the cake, not hitting calves is the cherry on top.
Calves are one of the most-neglected muscle groups and it’s a shame since you notice when people DON’T train their calf muscles.
To give your lower legs a workout on the calf raise machine:
- Set-Up: Adjust the machine to your height, placing your shoulders under the pads. Hold onto the side handles to keep yourself stable and secure. Add a comfortable amount of weight to your machine.
- Body position: Stand on the platform, keeping the balls of your feet on the edge and your heels hanging off.
- Action: Roll through your feet to lift your heels, pushing through the balls of your feet. Get up on your tiptoes as high as you can go. Don’t lock out your knees but contract your calf muscles. Make sure your ankles are not rolling one way or the other.
- Reverse: From the top, lower your heels beneath the height of the platform to get a stretch in your calves.
- Reps: Aim for 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps.
Treadmills work your legs while giving you a cardio burn. If you’re looking to burn some calories, treadmills are a great way to shred those pounds.
To operate the treadmill:
- Set-Up: Step onto the treadmill, adjusting the speed and incline to your preferred settings. If there is a security strap, clip it to yourself so you can disable the machine if need be.
- Action: As the treadmill starts up, walk or run according to your selected speed and workout length.
- End: Press “stop” or “pause” to finish up your workout.
- Time: How long you use the treadmill depends on the rest of your workout. You can train at a fast pace if you’re working up your speed training for a running event or simply do a five-minute incline walk if you’re planning to train other muscles and want to throw some cardio in.
- Set-Up: Make sure the chair is adjusted to a comfortable height for you.
- Body position: Grab the oar attachment handle. Bend your knees and straighten your back, engaging the core. Make sure not to hunch your back.
- Row: Drive and roll through your feet to push through the legs and row your body back. Keep your core engaged and the arms straight and out during your row.
- Reps: Rowing can be harder than you think on the legs and the lungs! Aim to start with a 15-minute session, then work your way up as your cardio capacity improves.
Leg workouts are an essential part of building strength.
Strong legs will help you get an aesthetic physique from head to toe. Women and men alike can benefit from improving their leg strength.
Not only can it potentially help with lower back pain and poor posture, building up your legs generally helps target the glutes too.
Although some tend to be quad-dominant like the leg press, hip abduction, for example, is one of the best ways to build up your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles.
Make sure you work out safely and remember to stretch! Getting plenty of rest and recovery will help you get the strong and sculpted leg muscles you’re looking for.
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Tataryn, N., Simas, V., Catterall, T., Furness, J., & Keogh, J. W. L. (2021). Posterior-Chain Resistance Training Compared to General Exercise and Walking Programmes for the Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain in the General Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine – open, 7(1), 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-021-00306-w
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