Southern Oregon University basketball coach Brian McDermott works up a sweat on an exercise bike at the school's fitness center. - Photo by Bob Pennell

Sweat Shop

Are they implements of torture or vehicles geared for a fitness joy-ride?

Ranged in orderly ranks across entire walls of most gyms, exercise machines can intimidate even the most enthusiastic novices. Yet these machines maintain their relevance amid most fitness clubs' complement of classes and even back-to-basics programs that use little equipment.

"They really do have their place for speed and efficiency — safety," says Bryan Turner-Gerlach, exercise specialist at Medford's Superior Athletic Club.

"Start on machines if you have little to no experience," Turner-Gerlach says. "They're going to keep you in relatively the right body position."

Limiting the body's range of motion, exercise machines help gym newcomers — or longtime absentees — reacquaint their bodies with movement, whether that's cardiovascular activity or targeted muscle exertion. And because cardio conditioning, experts agree, is the foundation of effective workouts, a large number of machines in any gym are designed for just that: moving the body to elevate its heart rate.

"If you have a half-hour to spend — cardio," Turner-Gerlach says.

Most local gyms house five basic types of cardio machines: ellipticals, stair-climbers, treadmills, stationary bicycles and rowing machines. Gym-goers typically have a favorite, but "there's no magic machine," says Jeni Beck, fitness coordinator for the Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford.

"Pick the one that feels best for your body," she says, adding that she encourages new members to try a few minutes on each one, building up to 20 nonstop minutes on one of the following machines:

The most popular machine at local gyms, the elliptical machine is an improved version of the stair-climber, a machine that mimics climbing stairs and attained its popularity more than a decade ago. Like the stair-climber, the elliptical machine is powered by the two platforms for users' feet. Standing upright, users push in a striding motion against the platforms' resistance.

Used correctly, elliptical machines burn the most calories, Beck says, but users can "cheat" by bouncing on the platforms or adopting a jogging motion. The exercise is most effective when users keep their upper bodies stationary and posture erect, Beck adds. Another version of this machine, called the "cross-trainer," incorporates arm movements.

The Y and other local gyms keep a few stair-climbers in service as a nod to some members' preference for them. Lower-body motion is more limited on a stair-climber, which features two platforms for the feet that move only up and down rather than forward and back like the elliptical machine's. Like the elliptical, the stair-climber is most effective when users maintain an upright posture, Beck says.

These are the "gold standard" in exercise machines, Beck says. With its 3-foot-wide conveyor belt, a treadmill allows users to walk or run, varying the speed, resistance and incline. A treadmill is just as effective as road running but gentler on the joints, says Beck, who competes in marathons.

Over time, users should increase their incline, making the exercise harder, Beck says. The machine's maximum 15-percent grade challenges even seasoned users to hold the front-mounted bar.

"By adding the incline, you're going to be working your heart and your lungs," Beck says.

Likely most recognizable to gym newbies, stationary bicycles usually come in two versions: upright and recumbent. The motion (it's just like riding a bike) is self-explanatory to most first-time users. The recumbent models, with their elevated pedals and reclined seats tend to be easier on users' joints.

Fewer of these are found in gyms compared with other machines. Although the technology behind rowing machines — a seat that slides along a central bar with handles attached to a pulley-wound cable — is far from sophisticated, the motion is unfamiliar to most people. Users can choose to match a pace boat or just set their own. Beck favors the machine for cross-training, while Turner-Gerlach cops to a bias based on years of competing with rowing teams.

"The benefits are outstanding," he says, calling rowing a "full-body cardio workout.

"The rowing machines are really underutilized."

Compared with a mere half-dozen cardio machines, the diversity of a gym's weight machines can be daunting. Combat the confusion and save time, experts say, by focusing first on the body's largest muscles.

Legs, chest and back are "the big three," says Turner-Gerlach, adding that he encourages exercisers to work from the ground up.

Most exercises should be performed 10 to 15 times and repeated for an additional one or two sets. The weight should be difficult to lift on the 10th time; if not it's too light. Resist the urge to compare weight or reps with other gym members, particularly if years have elapsed since your last workout.

"People go too hard in the beginning," says Turner-Gerlach. "Don't feel like you have to push the same weight you did when you were in high school or college."

This machine works the four muscles, called quadrupeds, that compose the thigh and also make up one of the body's largest muscle groups. Sitting, knees parallel to the edge of the seat, feet under a padded bar, users raise the bar until their legs are fully straightened. Use counter-resistance to lower the bar, Beck cautions. Letting it bang back to the starting position stresses the knee.

After working the front of a body part, remember to work the back of it, too, Beck says. The leg-curl machine reverses the motion of the leg extension, strengthening the hamstrings. Older machines may require users to lie flat on their stomachs, heels under a padded bar, and lift the bar past perpendicular toward the bench. Newer machines, like the Y's, allow users to sit, feet resting on the bar straight out in front. Pushing the bar toward the floor exercises the hamstrings.

Seated, users grasp handles and use their arms to push the weight away from their chest. The exercise works the chest, shoulders and triceps. Resting the head against the seat back and relaxing the shoulders prevents injury, Beck says. Newer machines that require each arm to work independently, instead of just doubling up on a central bar, encourage muscle development in the weaker limb.

"If you're right-arm dominant, you can do most of the work with one arm," Beck says.

This machine works the upper back and biceps. Users grasp a bar above their heads while seated and pull it down toward the hips. Although exercisers can lean back slightly, it's important to keep the back straight, Beck says. Experts also warn against pulling the bar down behind the head, which can damage the neck, she adds.

Because the core muscles tend toward endurance rather than short bursts of strength, counting repetitions and sets is unnecessary on this machine, Beck says. Most users err by loading on too much weight and jerking back and forth as fast as they can, she adds. An effective exercise involves contracting the muscles, pulling the belly button into the spine and bending forward in a slow, smooth and controlled motion. Without pausing, ease the upper body back to the starting position. Repeat until ab muscles are exhausted.

"It's so much more than just the crunch," says Turner-Gerlach, who favors other means of working the core over ab machines, which can distract users with six-pack aspirations from other, more worthwhile exercises.

Used correctly and frequently, a few exercise machines can initiate a new exercise program or reinvigorate an established one. Pairing the right ones with realistic fitness goals puts you in the drivers' seat on the highway to health.

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