Types of Exercise Equipment

Walking into a gym full of machines can be intimidating, and while exercise equipment comes in all shapes and sizes, it can be divided into four main categories. Once you understand the function, benefits and drawbacks of each type of equipment, you will be better prepared to make workout choices that fit your goals.

Free Weights

Most gyms have a section dedicated to free weights. Free weights are the racks of dumbbells and barbells that are not attached to any machine. Lifting with free weights engages your core muscles in order to stabilize your body and allows for a greater range of motion. You can work any muscle group with the same set of free weights. These weights take up little space and are often cheaper than machine weight equipment. Proper technique becomes critical when using free weights, as they do not provide the support and direction of weight machines.

Weight Machines

Each machine at your gym typically is designed to target a single muscle or muscle group. Weight machines house a stack of weights attached to a pulley. As you perform the exercise, your movement engages the pulley to lift the weights. Most machines have illustrated directions printed on them, making them simple to use. The limited range of motion and support for the rest of your body make them safer for beginner lifters. It may be difficult to work several muscles at once on a machine, as your range of motion is limited. If you are significantly shorter or taller than the average person, certain machines may not accommodate your body. In a home gym, you would need many different machines in order to get a total body workout.


The cable machine is a cross between free weights and traditional weight machines. The cable machine consists of a wide rectangular metal frame with a cable on each side. Each cable attaches to a weight stack and runs along a track so you can adjust the height. Cables give you the range of motion, core stabilizer workout and versatility of free weights, and the machine takes up very little space. Unlike most other machines, you can work nearly every muscle group by adjusting the height and grip of the cables.

Cardio Machines

Many cardio machines mimic the motions of everyday activities or sports, such as running, biking or rowing. Low-impact machines such as ellipticals or stationary bikes take the pressure off your joints, but lack the bone-strengthening benefits of higher-impact machines like the treadmill. Most cardio machines track your distance, estimated calories burned, time and heart rate.

Other Equipment

Resistance bands, medicine balls, stability balls and jump ropes are just a few of the portable and budget-friendly alternatives to traditional gym equipment. Resistance bands allow you to perform many exercises that you would normally do with dumbbells or a barbell. The bands are light and compact for resistance training when you’re on the road. Medicine balls, while heavy, are compact and help strengthen your core, arms and chest. Inflatable stability balls can take the place of a weight bench for many lifting exercises, and are often used in Pilates for core strength training. Jumping rope takes the place of large cardio machines with a cheap, light-weight and small bit of equipment.

About this Author

Lydia Stephens began writing in 2009. She writes travel, craft, garden and sports content for eHow, Garden Guides and LIVESTRONG.COM. Stephens played competitive soccer for 19 years, was a weight lifter for three years and also runs marathons. She has a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from the University of Texas.