exercise machines

Unsure about which equipment to use and when? Virgin Active personal trainer Emily Cole shares advice on making the most of your workout, with how-to guides for the best exercise machines.

With complex-looking equipment (seated hip abductor machine, anyone?) and a constant stream of new workout trends, it’s no wonder that more than half of us don’t know what to do in the gym. A quarter of us are also too shy to ask for help, according to a study by Nuffield Health.

Enter personal trainer, Emily Cole. She shares her guide to the 12 best exercise machines and equipment you need to be using now, so you can feel more confident and transform your training…

At home


1. Resistance band

Resistance bands help your muscles work harder as they provide an extra force for the muscles to work against. They’re great for a leg workout as they add another level of intensity to moves such as squats, plus they can help to improve your form by encouraging correct alignment and position.

Use it for:

  • Squats: place the resistance band just above your knees. Keep resistance on the band throughout the movement to encourage the knees to drive out as you squat. Use a block or chair to sit back onto to help your posture and put your weight into your heels.
  • Leg raisers: place the band around your ankles and lie on your side with your legs in line with your spine. Rest your head onto your the arm and raise your top leg away from the bottom leg a few inches until you feel resistance on the band. Then, lower with control.

2. Swiss ball

Using a Swiss ball during your core workout can help to target those deeper abdominal muscles. The instability of the ball can test your body’s fine motor skills – specifically coordination and balance – and gives you an added challenge when performing core exercises.

Use it for:

  • Crunches: sit on the ball and walk your feet forward until your bum is off the ball but your lower back is supported. Cup your head in your hands, draw your belly button in towards the spine and exhale as you slowly curl up with the head and shoulders. Inhale to return to the start position.
  • Pikes: come into a plank position by rolling your body forward until your hands are underneath your shoulders and your feet are resting on the ball. Slowly draw your knees in towards your body in a tuck. Send your legs back and untuck into the plank position.

3. Kettle bells

Kettle bell swings are a compound movement – a full body exercise that works a number of different muscle groups at the same time, especially down the back of the body (the posterior chain). Swings will particularly target your glutes, hamstrings and back, and raise your heart rate, making it a great cardio workout too.

Use them for:

  • Swings: start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and soft knees. Hold the kettle bell in front of your legs with both hands in an overhand grip with straight arms. Squeeze the shoulder blades together and keep a flat back. Let the kettle bell drop between your legs and follow it with your eyes as you thrust the hips forward and squeeze the glutes to swing the kettle bell up to shoulder height.

4. Bosu ball

Similar to the Swiss ball, Bosu balls can help with your balance as it increases your body awareness. Use it to challenge your abdominal muscles more.

Use it for:

  • Planks: rest your forearms onto the ball and hold the plank position – elbows underneath your shoulders, wrists in line with your elbows and hips in line with your shoulders. Draw your navel in towards the spine, squeeze your shoulder blades together and squeeze your glutes.

5. Medicine ball

These weighted balls help to add resistance by loading your muscle to strengthen and build. They’re great for ab workouts as they can help you target your the obliques (side core muscles).

Use it for:

  • Russian twists: start in a seated position, draw your navel towards your spine and lift both feet off the ground, keeping your knees and feet together. Lengthen your spine and open your chest by pulling your shoulder blades together. Keep your lower body still and twist the upper body to tap the medicine ball onto the floor either side of your hips.

6. Foam roller

Using a roller post-workout will help to flush the lactic acid from your muscles, help circulation and therefore improve your recovery rate. It can also lengthen your fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body), which boosts your mobility and helps your perform better.

Use it for:

  • Recovery: at the end of your workout, roll the muscles in your legs and glutes using your body weight to create as much or as little pressure as feels comfortable. Spend about 60 seconds on each section, or slightly longer on knots or sensitive areas.

In the gym


7. Battle ropes

Battle ropes can give you a full body workout and they’re a great exercise to raise your heart rate and improve your endurance. They’re a versatile piece of equipment so you can make them more or less challenging depending on the effort you put in.

Use it for:

  • Waves: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, in a half squat. Relax the shoulders away from your ears and try to keep your body loose as you move your arms up and down to create a wave motion with the battle ropes. Include it as part of a HIIT circuit or as a finisher at the end of an upper body workout – try 20 seconds on/20 seconds rest for eight rounds.

8. TRX

TRX straps can help to strengthen your upper and lower body, using your own body weight as the resistance. They also help you engage your core and glutes as you work to hold your body in the correct alignment.

Use it for:

  • TRX rows: stand in front of the TRX, hold the handles and walk your feet forward until your body is in a diagonal line underneath the TRX. Your body should follow a straight line from your shoulders to your hips and your ankles. Begin with the arms straight and with control pull your body up towards the straps, opening the chest and squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. Slowly lower the body back to the start position.

9. Pull up bar

Body weight training helps to build, strengthen and maintain lean muscle and it’s easier on the joints than weight training. Pull ups will not only give you a great upper body workout but will target the core and glutes.

Use it for:

  • Pull ups: take an underhand grip on the bar, with your hands shoulder-width apart. Begin the movement with your arms straight, push your shoulder blades back and down and pull your chest up towards the bar. With control, lower the body down until your arms are fully extended. Go at your own pace.

10. Leg press

The leg press exercise machine strengthens the large lower body muscle groups such as the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. The seated position means the machine can isolates these specific muscles, allowing them to be loaded in a safe way. The leg press also acts as a good alternative to squatting.

Use it for:

  • Leg presses: sit with your back flat against the back rest and plant your feet onto the platform with your feet hip-width apart. Begin with your knees bent and brace your core before pushing the platform away until your legs are fully extended.

    11. Lat pulldown

    The lat pulldown isolates and strengthens the large back and shoulder muscles, which help hold our spine and encourage correct posture.

    Use it for:

  • Lat pulldowns: hold the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, sit in an upright position with a long spine. Draw your shoulder blades back and down while you pull the bar in towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the bottom of the movement. With control, fully extend the arms back to the start position.

    12. Rowing machine

    This exercise machine is guaranteed to raise your heart rate, working the heart and lunges. It’s an effective full body workout and is great for building your stamina and endurance.

    Use it for:

  • Cardio: place your feet into the straps and adjust so that the straps sit across the top of your foot and below the toes. Always stick to the ‘leg, arms, arms, legs’ rule when working on your rowing technique. Push back with your legs, pull with your arms, extend your arms then bend your knees. Pull the handle into your body, below your rib cage and above your navel. Keep your gaze looking forward and draw your shoulder blades together at the end of the pull. Think long, powerful strokes.


    Looking to shake up your workout even more? Try these 5 new moves to add to your routine now.

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