To beginners, a gym can look like an overwhelming sea of torture devices. It's easy to lose focus on your workout because of a lack of understanding or a poor choice of equipment. As a general rule, free weight or free standing exercises work more muscle groups and don't force your body into uncomfortable positions, but, like everything, different things work for different people. Personal trainer Brooke Marrone walked me through several machines it's best to avoid and their superior alternatives.
1. AVOID: The seated leg extension.
"This can put your knees at high risk," warns Marrone. Most machines force you to move the way the machine moves, and it's important to use natural movements, she says. "You were just at work all day sitting down, and you're coming to the gym and now you're sitting at another machine. It's really important to move your body."
INSTEAD: Do squats.
A basic body weight squat would be just as good, if not better. If you're having trouble with form, or if you have joint problems, chair sits (literally just sitting in a chair and then standing, with multiple repetitions) are a great way to start. For more advanced moves, you can do modifications to your squats, like using one leg.
2. AVOID: The seated chest fly.
You're isolating a few muscle groups and doing a pretty unnatural movement. This exercise runs a high risk of putting unnecessary strain on your rotator cuff.
INSTEAD: Do push-ups.
As with squats, you can modify push-ups to make them easier or harder. Push-ups force you to work your core and stabilize your surrounding muscles, as opposed to isolating several large muscle groups, like most machines do.
3. AVOID: The seated hip abductor.
"You should be using your hips, thighs, and natural body weight at the same time," Marrone says. When you're sitting, you're not using your core.
INSTEAD: Use resistance bands and do lunges.
"Resistance bands are much less expensive and you can travel with them." You can also do side leg raises or side lunges. If you want to focus on the inner thigh, put a ball between your legs (quite literally, any ball) and squeeze. This can be done on your back or in a squat position.
4. AVOID: The seated shoulder press.
"This machine has a very restrictive range of motion and can cause a lot of shoulder issues," says Marrone. Forcing these muscles into an awkward position can lead to serious injury.
INSTEAD: Use free weights or medicine balls.
The same exercise can be done with free weights (you can use a set of dumbbells), which means you'll be using your natural range of motion. Throwing a medicine ball against a wall (from about two feet away, with your arms above your head) will give similar results and get your heart rate up.
5. AVOID: Any abdominal machine.
These machines only work your outer abs, not the deeper muscles, so you don't get even muscle tone and it can actually make your abs less flat.
INSTEAD: Do planks.
Planks are perfect not only for working your abs, but your arms and back as well. Any free-standing, twisting exercise (like trying to touch your knee to the opposite elbow in a plank position, for example) is also a great way to work your obliques.
6. AVOID: Abusing the treadmill.
"Don't hold on to the treadmill unless you're 80," says Marrone. If you feel like you have to, you're going too fast and you're not letting your body do the work.
INSTEAD: Mix up your cardio.
When you're first starting out, it's great to hop from treadmill to bike to elliptical for about 15 minutes each. You'll avoid overworking specific muscle groups that aren't used to the repetition. Hill repeats (alternating between inclined and flat positions) will take constant stress off your joints.
And finally, Marrone says to always go to the gym with a plan in mind. It'll keep you from wandering around and arbitrarily committing to machines based on what looks good or happens to be free at the time.
Brooke Marrone runs Brook Marrone Fitness and more info and classes can be found on her website.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor changes have been implemented by the Cosmo.ph editors.