Some say that smith machines are great for you and others are clinging on to the belief that they are the worst thing that happened to weight training in human history. Instead of listening to the self-proclaimed fitness experts, here is my take based on my training for the 2018 Bench Press World Championships and years of powerlifting competitions.
After a quick browse on the world wide web I came upon a comment about smith machines. The writer, without identifying credentials, passed the following commentary: “You do not work your stabilizers and muscles in a real range of motion over all 3 planes of motion. Machines are bad....unless you want sub par athletic performance and increased risk of injury due to muscle imbalances and weaknesses. People do squats on a smith because they can't do them free form...so instead of working on their weakness, they make the exercise easier. Short cuts in fitness...will lead to short cuts in sub-par results.”
What I like about this comment is that it pretty much summarised most of the common myths that exist about smith machines.
Now what I don’t like about this is that people read these comments and take them as gospel and preach them to fellow weight trainers. For inexperienced weight trainers who are researching their future gym equipment purchase, they regard these statements as fact.
So lets work through the various parts of this statement.
Smith Machines Don’t Work the Stabilising Muscles
The first thing that came to my mind about this claim is who would do all their exercises on a smith machine? Smith machines are designed to help you target a specific muscle group. For example, if you just finished your free weight bench press you would jump on the smith machine and do incline bench press or triceps press (medium to narrow grip).
You have already worked hard on the flat bench press, pushing hard either for maximum weight or a certain number of reps. This is the exercise you will be working the hardest at in your workout.
By jumping on the smith machine and doing inclines, you are working muscles in the upper chest that didn’t get overloaded on the flat bench. The smith machine is often the best way to isolate these muscles.
Even if you own just a smith machine and don’t have access to a free weight training machine like a power cage or squat rack there are plenty of ways to add a bit of variation when training. Staying on the chest workout, you might do your first work set on the smith machine in the flat bench press position. To work your stabilising muscles, just add some sets of push ups after the smith work.
On leg day, grab your weight plates and perform some lunges or split squats to compliment your squats on the smith machine.
Real Range of Motion
Well it is true that the smith machine does have a fixed range of motion. Whether or not this is “natural” is debatable. Yes the bar might follow a different path as compared to a barbell bench press and barbell squat.
However is it any less natural than the movement of a leg press, leg extension, preacher curl, lying leg curl, seated calf raise machines (I could keep on listing all the machines you find in a gym which most of us use). To say that using a smith machine will lead to muscle imbalances and weaknesses should really be qualified.
Smith Machines, like any weight training equipment or exercise when done improperly will lead to muscle imbalances, weaknesses and most importantly injury. But if these people used the machine properly, with correct form and in the right order in their workout, they would see that the smith is a very valuable tool.
Just like any machine, you first need to learn how to use the smith machine to suit your own body shape. Simple things like adjusting your grip when benching enables you to shift the load on to different muscle groups. You can also position yourself under the bar, so it will be higher or lower on your chest to once again target different areas.
These subtle variations all work to improve imbalances, not create them.
Once again, the same applies for squats. Rather than standing in the same position when doing squats we can step forward and vary our feet width to shift the load in order to activate the targeted muscle or muscle group. Plus front squats are easier for most to do on smiths – this is practically a different exercise to back squats, so adding this to your repertoire is priceless. For the record I hate to doing barbell front squats because my wrists are torched from heavy benching, so the smith machine is the only way I would do this great exercise.
Increased Risk of Injury
The main argument against using smith machine was that they cause injuries due to muscle imbalances and weaknesses after prolonged use.
Ironically the opposite is true, smith machines are frequently used in rehab to help build and strengthen the injured muscle. That is why you see them in elite sporting facilities. When an athlete is recovering from an injury and the joint is unstable, the smith machine allows them to work muscle groups with greater stability.
The smith machine is also a great tool to prevent injuries, as it is much safer to do some exercises when training by yourself. When benching at the extremes like I do, lifting off the j-hooks without a spotter can be potentially dangerous as I have to overextend my shoulders which exposes me to risk of injury. We all have those days in the gym where we feel super strong and you want to push hard. But if there is no one here to give me a spot I might steer clear of the barbell bench press.
So I jump on the smith machine and go for max effort (that’s the only real way to grow muscle). Doing this I have complete confidence, even going for a rep that I am doubtful as I know I can always lock out part way through the rep. Sure I can do this on the power rack with spotter bars (I wouldn’t be confident doing this on some of our competitors racks with their flimsy construction :) ) but the smith machine allows me push to the very end. It is this sort of extreme effort that helps to redefine your boundaries.
No matter what your experience level, and not just for the smith machine, to avoid injury it is all about correct positioning. You have to remember that barbell on the smith machine is fixed and will only move in a vertical line, so you compensate for this by correctly positioning your body.
For bench press again, rather than positioning yourself in the un-racking position you have to place yourself in a position which would allow you to lower the bar in the same spot as you would do in free weight training. If you don’t do that you will have your shoulders too far back, and you will force internal rotation of your rotator cuffs which may lead to injury. I’ve always said that you might get away with improper form 100 times but on the 101st time something will tear. It is the little things in training which makes the difference between reaching optimum results and injuring yourself.
Are Smith Machine Squats Bad?
Each of us are built differently, meaning what works for me might not work for you. Some people can’t do squats or at least they can’t do free weight squats straight away. If you don’t have the hip flexibility or your quads and tendons are too tight, chances are squatting will bring you more pain and discomfort and might injure you rather than bringing you muscle growth.
Smith machine squats are a great way to get moving towards a barbell squat. And the perfect accessory exercise once you are there.
For some people they simply do not like barbell squats. So smith machine squats are a great alternative that work most of the same muscles.
So my question is – Is squatting on a smith machine better than not squatting at all? Yes, squatting on a smith machine is easier, but that’s the whole point of using the smith machine so that you could still work your legs with proper form rather than struggle away with free weights.
All you have to do is some extra accessory work for those stabilizers and you will reap similar results without having to put yourself through doing an exercise that you don’t particularly like. Remember the most important part above all about this debate is that we must always enjoy our training.
Referring back to the initial comment, training on a smith machine will give you sub-par athletic results. Sometimes these comments are mad by arm chair quarterbacks who don’t compete. I have participated in over 30 competitions (powerlifting, strongman, bench press only) over the past 8 years. I am currently preparing for World Classic Bench Press Championships in Finland. My training consists of 3 bench press days and 2 days for shoulders, legs and accessory work. That’s 5 days per week of pushing exercises, so my joints and muscles are always under tremendous stress, I don’t have much time to recover so what I did to ease the stress on my joints was incorporate smith machine exercise into my training regime.
Strict training programs require variation. For example, instead of doing military press with a barbell I would do them on smith machine. It allows me to do the exercise in a controlled manner and still get the same results without putting my joints at risk (my lumbar spine cops a real beating!). You can’t lift max on every exercise, trust me I’ve tried and the only result I got was 3 weeks off training because I injured myself.
Rather than going for your personal best every single workout you should focus on balance. You need to distribute the working load throughout your workout. Your muscles might be able to handle a bigger load but remember that your joints and tendons take a bit longer to strengthen and recover.
By adding a movement on the smith machine with less weight, instead of doing it with a barbell, allows me to work the muscle while saving my joints.
The number one rule I learned during my 8-year long career in powerlifting is that you can’t get fast results, the only thing you can do fast is injure yourself. You must be patient, results don’t come fast but if you take your time and do everything correctly you will be able to enjoy slow yet continuous improvements.
Smith Machines for Convenience
An often overlooked advantage of smith machines is that they are much more easier and convenient to use than a barbell on a power cage or squat rack.
If you use smith machines for certain exercise while working through a long program day you will save time. Rather than adjusting J-Hooks, Spotter Arms, racking a barbell and loading it up with weight, you can just load your smith machine up and you are good to go.
Plus, all you have to put away is the weights. The Barbarian and Megatec smith machines come with a built in half racks, that allows you to switch from free weight bench press into 45 degree incline smith machine press or a decline chest press.
If you were lucky enough to own Barbarian Smith Cable Rack or Barbarian Monster you can jump to cable crossover straight away and do some chest flys. Spend your time resting between sets instead of wasting your time setting everything up.
The Final Word on Smith Machines
Not everyone has been born to be a professional powerlifter or strongman, but we all can improve our general strength. Smith machines can be an useful accessory to aid you in the process. However, it can work as an double edge sword, like everything else in training. You can’t focus just on one exercise or on one particular muscle group, you have to occasionally switch up you training routine in order to keep progressing.
If you are doing the same exercise for a long period of time your body becomes efficient at that particular task and you will burn less calories and the muscle will need more stress to grow. That’s why it’s good to switch up your training every once in a while, to shock the muscle. Make sure you switch up you training routines every 3 months in order to grow. Don’t forget to stretch as it is a vital component of training. Always focus on the form instead trying to lift the maximum weight. Train safe!