Smith Machine in Strength Training: Pros & Cons
What is the Smith machine?
The Smith machine is weight training equipment that consists of a barbell which is fixed within steel rails. In other words, the Smith machine can be described as a power rack with a barbell on a fixed track. It’s a plate loaded resistance machine. This means you can load it up with multiple free weight plates; this makes it a fixed resistance machine with free-weight properties.
Smith machines use a traditional 45-pound bar, but in some cases, the bar balances on springs to negate most or all of its weight. The purpose is to add smoothness to the movement. Many lifters don’t like this feature because it takes away from the macho spirit of weight lifting. Also, the movement is a bit too smooth, removing all the coordination and extra muscle usage associated with lifting free weights.
Standard Smith machine design & measurements
The simplest Smith machines take up about as much room as a power rack: 4 feet in width and depth, with about 7 feet of headroom. You’ll need about 2 extra feet to each side to accommodate the bar, and a couple of feet in front to approach it safely. Expect to pay at least $500 for this basic Smith. The machines get bigger and more expensive from there.
What are the advantages of using the Smith machine?
- Balance/safety. The primary benefit of the Smith machine is also its disadvantage – balance. Unlike a regular barbell, which you have to lift as well as balance, the Smith machine balances the bar for you. You don’t have to worry about the bar wobbling or slipping from your grip. This makes it good for those with injuries and those new to the gym environment. Also, it’s safer for those working alone. The disadvantage of this, however, is that balancing the bar is a big part of the effectiveness of the exercise.
- Self-spotting pins. These pins prevent the bar from being lowered below a certain point, so there’s no chance you’ll get crushed under the bar if the weight is too heavy.
What are the disadvantages of using the Smith machine?
Although the Smith machine has been widely used by weight trainers, there are many disadvantages associated with it. Here are the main reasons to bypass the Smith machine.
- Unnatural movement (only up and down). A barbell normally travels not only up and down but also forward and back. That’s the way your body naturally lifts the thing. You never move a weight straight up and down, like a piston. But that’s exactly how a Smith machine forces your muscles to move – up and down, with no back and forth.
- Lifting the bar only in a straight line. Another problem with the Smith machine is that most models force you to lift the bar in a straight line, whereas your body moves in a natural arc while performing presses. Forcing the body to move a bar in a straight line could cause undue stress on the joints and associated connective tissues.
- Pattern overload. Pattern overload is another concern. Say you do only one exercise for shoulders – overhead barbell presses – and you do them only on a Smith machine. That means you work them at the exact same angle each time you enter the gym. If anything about that angle rubs them the wrong way, you’re screwed.
- Extremely dangerous for some exercises. What we think is unacceptable and completely crazy to do (and we hope you’ll agree) is a leg press on this machine. Lying on the floor with the bar situated above the hips is very dangerous. Un/re-racking for this exercise can be tricky due to the way the Smith machine is designed. You will most likely want to enlist the help of a spotter (or two) with the exercise to ensure that you don’t risk injuring yourself.
- You’re not engaging your stabilizer muscles. If you’re only using the Smith machine you won’t be honing in on the stabilizer muscles required to stabilize both yourself and the weight you’re lifting.
Smith machine as a home training equipment
We’re doubly dubious about people having these things in their homes. It’s not that they’re dangerous (though we do believe that, over time, they can lead to pattern-overload injuries, which we’ll explain in a moment). The problem is that they’re too safe.
Of course, you can say the same thing about a multi-station home gym. In fact, the Smith machine may offer you some alternatives the multi-station doesn’t. Since you use your own bench with the Smith, you can alter angles regularly on chest presses, easing the strain on your shoulders. That’s not possible to accomplish using a multi-station home gym.
Smith machine or power rack (power cage)?
The answer is really straightforward. Choose power rack (power cage) when ever this is possible. A power cage is a large steel frame with a series of stanchions affixed to the sides. You stand in the center of the cage and place your bar on the stanchions that are at the right height for your lift. A power cage doesn’t offer as much safety as the Smith machine because after you lift the bar from the stanchions, you’re on your own. Still, the cage does offer an extra measure of protection during heavy lifts or lifts that require a lot of balance. And if your muscles give out, the stanchions catch the weight before it crashes to the floor. This piece of weight training equipment functions as a mechanical spotter for free weight barbell exercises without the movement restrictions imposed by equipment such as the Smith machine.
Exercises you can perform using the Smith machine
Here are some basic Smith machine exercises:
- Bench press (flat; incline; decline)
- Shoulder press
- Back squat
- Standing calf raise
- Upright rows
- Bent-over rows
- Body-weight or inverted rows
- Smith machine squats Vs Barbell squats
- Smith machine shoulder press
- Smith machine shrugs
- Smith machine bench press
While we’ll concede that a Smith machine can help you build some muscle and improve your strength, we’re pretty skeptical about the usefulness of that muscles and strength. There aren’t any real-life activities that require moving a counterbalanced object up and down on a pair of rails. And we have to wonder whether the unnatural movement might even inhibit your ability to move heavy objects in a three-dimensional world.