At the gym, we're often creatures of habit. We walk through the doors and directly to our treadmill -- as if it has our name on it -- without giving another thought to what exercise equipment we're overlooking. But while treadmills and elliptical fitness machines are great, experts say, some of the best exercise equipment and machines in the gym may be some you've never tried.
And as much as it's comfortable to hop on the same familiar piece of fitness equipment every time we enter the gym, our bodies benefit from variety. Here are 12 of the best unsung exercise machines and equipment at the gym, according to fitness instructors, personal trainers, and exercise physiologists who spoke to WebMD.
Strength Training Fitness Equipment
The Smith Machine. Invented by fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne in the 1950s, the Smith machine is a weight-training machine with a sliding barbell that moves up and down on steel runners.
"This may look daunting," but it's really a great tool, even for a beginner, says exercise physiologist Jim Stoppani, PhD, senior science editor at Muscle & Fitness Magazine. "Because of all the safety latches, you can rack it anywhere, and it provides balance because the bar is on a fixed path of movement," he says.
The benefits? It allows you to perform multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. Squatting with the Smith machine works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, while the weighted bar works the muscles of the shoulders, upper back, and core.
"When you utilize more muscle groups, you burn more calories and you're training several muscle groups at a time," says Stoppani.
Cable-based resistance machines. You can get some multi-muscle strength work done in as little as five minutes, if you use one of the cable resistance machines like the FreeMotion Cable Cross, says Patricia Moreno, a fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York.
"You can train every muscle group," says Stoppani, and "you get the benefit of the continuous tension the cable provides."
A cable machine has two long arms with adjustments that allow you to work in any range, from above, the sides, below, or anywhere in between. You can work different muscle groups simply by moving a lever or turning around, Stoppani explains.
Get creative, suggests Stoppani: "It's really limitless the exercises you can do using a cable machine -- shoulder presses, biceps, triceps, step-ups, lateral raises, even ab crunches."
Low back extension machine. Strengthening the muscles of the back is critical, says Wayne Westcott, PhD, CSCS, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass.
"Eighty percent of Americans have back pain at some point in their lives," he says. Though the muscles of the lower back may not be "showy" muscles like the biceps or the pectorals, he says, they are critical for trunk stability and for absorbing the stress the back often absorbs.
Look for a low back extension machine like the Nautilus or the MedEx, in which you work sitting and strapped in so that your form stays intact. Westcott says this type of machine enables you to stay off of your hip flexors and instead use the muscles of your back to do the exercise.
Neck extension machine. "The neck has to hold up a 10-14 pound head all day," says Westcott. Though neck extension exercises are somewhat controversial, Westcott says that -- done properly -- strengthening the muscles of the neck and upper trapezius will help improve posture and avert injury.
"These have been around for decades, and all the football teams use them to strengthen their necks to avoid injury," he says. "People in sports realize how important it is to have a strong support for the head, but the average person doesn't."
Just make sure you get instruction on using this machine, and always take care to use proper form to avoid injury.
Shoulder rotator machine. The shoulder rotator muscles are often ignored, and this is a good way to work them, Westcott says.
"Because so many people injure the rotator cuff," he says, "we need to work the external rotators of the shoulder."
Generally, he says, "we are not doing enough to strengthen the rotator cuff that holds that loose joint in place. Most everyone ignores the rotator cuff and builds the chest and biceps, but those aren't the ones that hold the joint together."
Wrist and forearm machine. Particularly for women, wrists can be very weak joints. Yet few exercisers work on this area.
With a wrist/forearm machine, you can work the wrist in all directions -- up and down and side to side -- while holding the forearms parallel to the floor, elbows bent at 90 degrees, says Westcott.
If you don't have the machine, Westcott says, there's another way. Simply attach a light weight or sandbag to a dowel with a strong piece of string about 3 feet long. Then practice holding the forearms level while you roll the weight toward the dowel and back toward the floor.
Elastic bands. "People don't realize these bands have benefits that machines can't provide," says Stoppani. "They provide linear variable resistance," he says, which means that as you continue through your range of motion, the resistance increases.
"Bands cause you to recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones with the greatest potential for increasing strength and are the ones we tend to lose as we age," says Stoppani. "They also can provide resistance in any direction and are great for mimicking sports activities like a golf swing."
Ankle/wrist weights. "Just doing some traditional, old-school calisthenics with weights on your ankles or wrists can give you a great added benefit," says Moreno. "There's something really nice about feeling the whole body having to work to isolate that one area you're working."
Cardiovascular Fitness Equipment
Step mill (a stair-stepping machine with actual steps). Choosing this machine over the treadmill will likely give you a better workout, says Moreno.
"It's like a really nice cross between not having to do too much and getting a lot," she says. "If you walked at the same pace, you wouldn't get the same benefit."
Because it closely simulates climbing steps, and you have to pick up your feet to get to the next step, it burns more calories than walking while it works the hamstrings and glutes, she says. Just 1-5 minutes on this machine can be beneficial, says Moreno.
"It will help you develop leg strength you can't develop on any other machine, besides, it's everyday life," she says. "We need to be able to walk up stairs."
Upper body (arm) ergometer. Most often used by people trying to get a cardiovascular workout while recovering from an injury, this machine can do a lot more. It's great even if you're not injured and don't need to sit, says Moreno.
She recommends hovering over the saddle in a mini-squat (dropping the seat a little, if necessary), which makes you use your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core for balance while you work your entire upper body and increase your heart rate.
"It brings the calorie expenditure up and it brings the fun up," she says.
For more challenge, Moreno suggests timing yourself to keep the rhythm of the song you're listening to for one minute, trying single-leg squats while using the machine, and switching directions without losing the beat.
Versa climber. You remember this oldie but goodie: the vertical climbing machine with pedals and handles you slide up and down to simulate climbing.
This machine goes back to basics, says Moreno: "You're moving your body weight. It's whole-body movement. There's a simplicity to it."
With arms and legs moving up and down, she says, you can incorporate more and different muscle groups that you would with an elliptical machine, bike or treadmill.
Rowing machine. The rowing machine has "tremendous applications for all kinds of individuals," says Westcott. "No. 1: it's not weight bearing, so there is no landing force.
Better still, he says, this exercise machine works more major muscle groups than any other cardio tool in the gym -- including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and anterior tibials (shins) in the lower body, and the pecs, shoulders, triceps, rhomboids, and lats in the upper body.
Exercise Equipment and Safety
All our experts advise working at your own level and getting instruction from a qualified professional if you're not sure how to use a particular machine. And as always, be sure to get cleared by your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
"Begin everything by taking a moment to stand in good posture," says Moreno, with ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over knees, and knees over ankles.
When executing a strength exercise, "try placing a small squishy ball (yoga block or towel) between the knees," she says. "You get extra inner thigh work plus an awareness of form and alignment."