The Different Workout Equipment and the Muscle Groups They Target

male and female using cross fit ropes

It’s the time of year when you see a million articles and social media posts bearing the “new year, new you” mantra – or even “new decade, new you.” While dumping bad habits and setting fitness goals is a great way to get motivated, it can become hard to stay motivated and continue working toward your new goals as the weeks go by. 

Unfortunately, nearly 30% of Americans are considered inactive when it comes to exercise, according to a report by the Physical Activity Council. The key to staying active and sticking to your fitness goals is building a foundation of knowledge to help you understand which workouts and workout equipment are the most sustainable for your lifestyle. 

Walking into a gym as a beginner on Jan. 1 (or any day of the year) can feel overwhelming: With rows and rows of cardio machines, racks of free weights, and tons of muscle-toning equipment, where do you even begin? In this article, we’ll teach you about the most common workout equipment found in gyms and the different muscle groups they target. You’ll be able to walk into any gym armed with a wealth of information and, hopefully, the motivation to tackle your health goals head-on. 

Cardiovascular (cardio) equipment

For the purposes of this article, we’re dividing workout equipment into two main categories: cardiovascular equipment and strength training/resistance equipment. Cardio equipment, often referred to as aerobic equipment, is any machine that assists your body in raising your heart rate, breathing rate, and metabolic rate (the number of calories you’re burning). Engaging various muscle groups requires an increased flow of oxygen to the blood, which is what increases your heartbeat and the pace of your breathing. 

Why include cardio in your workout routine? One study released by scientists at the UT Southwestern Medical Center found that completing a single workout may boost your metabolism for days after, and that consistently training over time can cause the effects to last even longer. What’s more, a workout can make you feel less hungry for up to six hours after training. “This research is not just for improving fitness,” said Dr. Kevin Williams, a neuroscientist at UT Southwestern, in a press release. “A better understanding of neural links to exercise can potentially help a number of conditions affected by glucose regulation.”

How’s that for motivation? Check out our list of some of the most common cardio machines to get your sweat on. No matter your equipment of choice, you’re in for a great workout. 


Treadmills are perhaps the most well-known cardio machine on the market. Patented in 1913, treadmills allow users to run, walk, and jog, no matter the weather conditions outside. This machine provides a lower-impact alternative to running on concrete sidewalks. 

Most modern treadmills come with features to control your speed and incline, allowing you to customize your workout. Treadmills administer a full-body workout, with the lower body receiving the most impact. Here are a few workout ideas to get you started: 

  • Incline walking: The idea here is to mimic walking up a hill by choosing a lower speed and a higher incline. Begin with 10 minutes of walking and see if you can increase the incline over time. This is a great option for targeting your quads! 
  • Steady-pace jogging: When you jog, you should be able to lift your feet completely off the treadmill belt without losing your breath. Alternate between jogging for three minutes and walking for one minute until you can jog at a steady pace. 
  • Sprints: When you’re starting to feel comfortable on the treadmill, you might be ready to try sprints. Start by sprinting for 30 seconds and resting for one minute, then work your way up to longer sprints and shorter rest periods. 

Stair climber 

A stair climber is exactly what it sounds like: a machine that mimics walking up a staircase. The machine rotates a set of stairs over and over as you step your way to a killer workout. Stair climbers provide a lower-body workout and should be avoided by those with back problems. 

Many machines will count how many “floors” you climb and offer interactive workouts like “climbing” the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. For your first workout, attempt to climb 10 floors. You can mix up the stepping movement by skipping steps, stepping sideways, or kicking your leg out behind you every few steps. 


Think of ellipticals as a hybrid between stair climbers and treadmills: This machine combines the upward movement of the stair climber with the continual gliding movement of the treadmill. To use the elliptical, place your feet on its two gliding platform ramps, which move up and down. Since your feet remain stationary on the platform ramps, it is a much lower-impact workout compared to stair climbers and treadmills. 

While they mainly provide a lower-body workout, many ellipticals come with handrails to push and pull so you can work your arms as well. To get started on an elliptical, experiment with the available pre-programmed workouts. Staggered hill workouts will get your heart rate pumping as the intensity of the climbing goes up and down. 

Rowing machine 

male and female on indoor rowing machine

Indoor rowing machines, also referred to as rowers, simulate the action of rowing a boat. Rowing machines work the upper back muscles the most, but still require a full-body motion. Tracking your stroke rate, or “strokes per minute,” as displayed on the rower’s screen, is a great way to ensure you’re getting a quality workout. Aim for a rate between 25 and 30 strokes per minute. 

Exercise bike 

Indoor exercise bikes come in several varieties, but they all mimic the same movement of riding an outdoor bike (you just won’t be going anywhere). Stationary bikes provide a leg workout, but some varieties come with handles that can be pushed and pulled for a full-body aerobic effect. Exercise bikes are a fabulous option for warming up before or cooling down after a strenuous workout.  

Strength training equipment

Strength training, also known as resistance or weight training, is a crucial component of reaching any fitness goal. Strength training helps you manage weight, increase lean muscle mass, and promote strong bones. Strength training applies weight to a specific muscle group; gently overloading that muscle group over time allows the muscles to acclimate and become stronger. 

Strength training can be accomplished by using singular equipment like free weights, kettlebells, resistance bands, and resistance machines, or a combination of your choosing. 

How often should you be strength training? According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), adults should complete at least two strength training workouts per week that target all major muscle groups.  

Singular equipment

fitness group using kettle bells

There are several different pieces of equipment that can help you achieve a full-body strength training workout when you don’t have access to resistance machines. 

  • Free weights: Free weights include dumbbells (single handheld weights) and barbells (single weights held together by a bar). Free weights can be used to target all major muscle groups using slow, controlled movements. Common upper-body movements include bicep curls, presses, flys, rows, and raises. Popular lower-body movements include squats and deadlifts. 
  • Kettlebells: Kettlebells look like a cannonball with an attached handle. Made of cast steel or cast iron, kettlebells are available in weights ranging from 5 pounds to 100 pounds or more and are perfect for performing a variety of full-body movements. Compared to free weights, kettlebell movements emphasize momentum and stabilization. The most popular exercise using a kettlebell is the two-handed kettlebell swing – a full-body movement that uses your hips to hinge like a door to swing the bell from between your legs up to neck-level. 
  • Resistance bands: Typically made of rubber, resistance bands are made to be wrapped around an area of the body, such as your thighs, calves, wrists, or ankles, to create resistance when performing movements. “Booty bands” are a popular, thicker version used for adding resistance when performing butt-targeting movements like squats. 

Resistance machines: lower body 

Resistance machines are a stellar option for strength training newbies, as they allow for more control and typically have images of how to use the machine posted nearby. At most gyms, you’ll find the resistance machine area is divided into sections by muscle group – lower body, upper body, and abdominals. This division makes it easy to complete a circuit of exercises targeting each specific muscle group. 

You can also set a specific weight on each machine, making it easy to progress as you get stronger. Try adding 5 pounds every time a set feels easy to accomplish. You’ll know you’re at the right weight when you can complete a set of 10 to 12 repetitions, but the last two reps are a struggle. 

Let’s break down the machines you’ll find in the lower-body section.

  • Sitting leg curl: The leg curl machine focuses on your posterior thigh muscles, also known as hamstrings. By strengthening your hamstrings, you are protecting your knees from injury and supporting hip extension. To use this machine, you will sit against a backrest, placing your thighs underneath a padded roll and your ankles above another padded roll. Curling the lower padded roll downward creates a full movement.  
  • Sitting leg extension: The sitting leg extension machine targets the upper section of your thighs, called the quadriceps. The setup is similar to a sitting leg curl, except your ankles go beneath the padded roll and push upward to complete a full movement.
  • Leg abduction: The leg abduction machine targets the butt and hip muscles in charge of lifting your thigh to the side. This machine is key for helping stabilize hip muscles. Leg abductions work by sitting against a backrest and placing your thighs against two pieces of padding and pushing outward to work the lateral butt muscles. Your upper body should always be stabilized during the movement.  
  • Leg adduction: You’ll always find the leg adduction machine next to the abduction machine. This machine targets your inner hip and thigh muscles. The motion is similar to leg abduction, except your knees begin pointed outward as you squeeze your thighs to bring the padding toward the middle. 
  • Leg press: The leg press is considered a powerhouse machine for lower-body training, as it targets every muscle used to extend your legs, including quadriceps, calves, glutes, and hamstrings. The machine works by placing your back against a backrest and putting your feet squarely against the footplate, ensuring your knees are in line with your feet. The movement is completed by pushing the footplate forward and back. 
  • Hack squat: The hack squat machine enables a variation of a squat movement by standing on a slanted footboard, placing your shoulders against two padding pieces, holding two handrails, and pushing upward through the heels. 

Resistance machines: upper body 

male working his upper body on resistance machine

  • Lat pulldown: The lat pulldown machine targets your back muscles, particularly the latissimus dorsi (known as lats), which are located just under your armpits. To use the machine, sit with your thighs under a pad while pulling a hanging bar down to chin level then slowly releasing it back up for a full movement. If your elbows go backward during the movement, you’re pulling the bar down too far. 
  • Cable machine: Cable machines come with several cables and pulleys, allowing for an endless number of exercises and movements. Common exercises include flies, rows, and raises.
  • Chest press: The chest press is a seated machine that works by gripping two handles in a palm-down grip, pushing forward until your arms are extended and your pectoral muscles are flexed, then moving back to the starting position. This machine allows you to move a significant amount of weight in a controlled manner. 
  • Fly machine: The fly is also a seated machine that targets your chest and inner chest muscles. Begin by placing your back against the backrest, grabbing the two outer handles, and squeezing your pectorals to bring the handles toward the middle. Do your best to avoid using your biceps or shoulders to move the handles. 

Resistance machines: abdominals 

  • Ab crunch: One of the best motions your body can do to sculpt the almighty six-pack is bringing the lower body toward the upper body. The ab crunch machine mimics this action by pulling your elbows toward your knees in a “crunch” motion. 
  • Ab rotator: An ab rotator machine is crucial for targeting your obliques, or the sides of your abdominals. Rotating your torso from side to side with weights allows your sides to become more sculpted over time. 

This article is just a sampling of the workout equipment available to you, and the muscle groups targeted by each one. Experiment with cardio, free weights, and resistance machines to find a workout that not only leaves you sweating but also makes you excited to get back to the gym the next day. 

The key to reaching any fitness goal is consistency, so take your time in finding out which workouts you truly love. Some people love the treadmill, some people enjoy using kettlebells, and some stick to resistance machines. Just remember, working out is for every body size and type, and everyone you see in the gym started from square one.