Getting Comfortable In The Gym: Equipment Edition

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If you feel a little out of place or uncomfortable at the gym, you’re not alone! Gym jitters are normal; even just going to a new gym can be nerve wracking!

It can feel like everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing and you’re sure that they can tell that you don’t.

Gym-timidation is real but it doesn’t have to last forever. This article & the others in the series will help you walk into any gym with confidence. We’ll cover: 

Getting familiar with the equipment

Knowing what to do

Gym etiquette so that you don’t call undue attention to yourself

The Equipment

There are several distinct areas of the gym & you may already be familiar with some of them.

Locker Rooms

I’ll assume you know how to use the toilets and bathe so I won’t go in depth here. I will mention that whether or not you’ll need to bring your own lock can vary by gym. If you’re not sure, leave valuables in your locked car or take them with you. (As long as you’re not schlepping around a ton of stuff that will be in everyone’s way.)

Cardio Equipment

My personal fave – the Step Mill

You’re probably pretty familiar with the rows of machines you’ll find in this section: treadmills, bikes, ellipticals, step mills (the ones that look like escalators), stair masters, and rowers.

Doing cardio and using these machines can absolutely play a role in your fitness journey. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice, though, if you just go in & plod away on these machines for an hour and call it a day.

Enter strength training.

Strength Equipment

Machines/Nautilus circuit

These big machines typically isolate one body part at a time. They’re usually set up in a circuit so you just move from one machine to the next and by the end, have targeted most of your major muscle groups.

The seats are adjustable for different heights and you can use the pin & holes in the weight stacks to find an appropriate weight for each station.

These are pretty user friendly because they usually have instructions to help you figure out which body parts go where and what muscle you should be working. 

A similar option is plate-loaded machines that also isolate single muscle groups but rather than adjusting the weight stack with a pin, you add your own weight plates. Beware that these moving pieces are pretty heavy on their own so try doing the exercise without any additional weight first.

If you’re new to strength training, these can be a good place to start building some strength and confidence but ultimately most people would benefit from learning to use free weights and using machines like these to supplement.

Free Weights

This section of the gym probably seems the most intimidating & unfamiliar. It’s also likely to be the most beneficial for your weight loss & toning/strengthening goals. So let’s get you over those fears of not knowing what you’re doing!


These monstrosities are super versatile & are one of the most popular areas in the gym. 

Your gym may have a large structure with 2 universal cables in the middle and a variety of specialized stations on the ends.

These work using a system of pulleys to provide resistance that is anchored at varying heights depending on the exercise.

You can swap out various handles and attachments based on the movements/muscles you’re wanting to work.


These are the handheld free weight option. Each can be held with one hand and they’re typically used in pairs but you can use one at a time or hold a single DB in both hands for certain exercises.

Progressing from body weight to dumbbell to barbell is a great way to increase the technicality of your workouts as you get stronger and more comfortable with the movements.

You can find these in all sizes from 1lb up to 100+.


These look like cannonballs with handles and provide an additional challenge due to the fact that they are asymmetrical and you’ll have to fight the centrifugal force to stop the bell from continuing to move in its original direction.

BarbellsThese are the long, skinny bars that you put the big round plates on either side of to increase the weight. There are several types you might encounter at your gym.

Preloaded barbells have set weights on either end and usually come in 5-10lb increments, similar to dumbbells.

These might be on straight bars or bent bars and they’re usually stored on a rack with about 10 different weight options.


Olympic barbells come empty but you can add plates on either side to increase the weight, as necessary. The ones are your gym most likely weigh 45lbs (20kg) but some gyms also have shorter & thinner ones that weigh 33lbs (15kg)

There are 2 types of plates you might come across:

Bumper plates – same diameter (but different thicknesses) regardless of weight
Olympic plates – vary in diameter, heavier = larger, lighter = smaller







Other Equipment

Squat/Power Rack

Typically where the a barbell is housed. You can set the bar at an appropriate height for your stature and walk yourself under to do a variety of exercises like overhead presses and squats.

They can be as simple as 2 parallel uprights on which the bar sits, and as fancy as including storage for plates and a pull-up bar.

You can do a variety of exercises in a squat rack but it’s frowned upon to take up a rack for an exercise that doesn’t need one.

Smith machine

This looks similar to a squat rack except that the bar is fixed on along a track so it only allows vertical or near-vertical movement, rather than free motion like a barbell.

The weight is also counterbalanced so the barbell in the Smith machine weighs a fraction of a normal one.

You’ll do a lot less stabilizing of the bar on the Smith machine which can be good or bad.

Since the range of motion of the bar is fixed within the machine, it can force your body into an unnatural range of motion.

The Smith machine can be very useful for exercises like incline push-ups, inverted rows, and calf raises, but may not be the best option for squatting.


Some of these are connected to racks and others will just be lined up in an otherwise open area. These are used to lay or sit on for various upper body exercises. They are versatile and can be used for lower body and core work, as well.

Some benches can only lay flat and may attached to other equipment.

Other benches are adjustable for laying or sitting.


Jump Boxes

You’ll probably see them stacked in a corner, these can be used to jump or step onto.


Depending on your gym, you might find a variety of types:

Medicine Balls – These can be small and rubber or big and kinda plush. Either way, they can vary in size from 2-30ish pounds and can be used for core work and throwing.


Slam Balls – very similar to medicine balls except designed not to bounce back up when you slam them into the ground. Your chin will appreciate this.

Physio balls – big, inflated ones that you can sit on and do crunches or light upper body work.

TRX Suspension Trainer

Suspension trainers leverage gravity and your bodyweight to develop strength, balance, flexibility and core stability simultaneously.

Bands & Tubes

Any sort of elastic band, whether closed loop or not, that stretches enough to provide resistance. They provide ascending resistance, meaning the larger the range of motion, the higher the work output.

They’re normally color-coded to indicate level of resistance but the colors differ by brand.

These are low impact and can help lessen tension on the joints. They’re commonly used for rehabilitation but can also be a great way to increase the difficulty of bodyweight exercises.


Future articles in this series will cover gym terminology, types of training, exercise form, and putting together your own workouts.

In the meantime, head to my Facebook group, Live Diet-Free to ask your gym-related questions!

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