The Smith Machine – why it sucks and why it’s awesome

The trend currently in the fitness industry is for newly dedicated people who have gone all-in on the fitness lifestyle to pick out pieces of equipment that just aren’t “hardcore” enough or “functional” enough and spread the nonsense that using those pieces of equipment somehow means you are less of a fitness fanatic than those who don’t. I honestly don’t use a Smith Machine very often, but it does have its uses and they are really great. Read on!

As a fitness industry professional (yes, The Consummate Dabbler actually has a job), with over two decades of professional experience, and conservatively well over 4,000 hours of weight lifting under my belt, I can tell you that few pieces of equipment are more maligned than the Smith Machine. This really useful piece of equipment seems to be the whipping boy for the fitness bloggers these days which tells me, and you, that most of our less experienced fitness pros may not have a good sense of the overall scope of the subject.

An example of a squat (or hack squat) done in a Smith Machine. See how the red safety rack is not set to catch her if something went wrong? We’ve all done it. More importantly, see how her knee is behind the middle of her foot at the bottom of this rep? That’s stupid and dangerous, don’t put your feet quite that far forward.

4 reasons the Smith Machine sucks

  • Fixed plane of motion – the bar is attached to a sliding attachment that runs up and down on fixed poles. So, if you’re looking for a “natural” movement pattern, a free weight type load that requires stabilization of the bar or a “functional” movement then perhaps the Smith Machine is not the best choice in equipment.
  • False sense of strength – somehow, someway there are still people who have not figured out that a standard Smith Machine has cables attached to the bar that have weights on the end of them that are used to counterbalance the bar essentially making it much lighter than it actually is. This means that you can probably use more weight on a Smith Machine movement that mirrors a free weight exercise of the same kind. Additionally, the Smith Machine bar is attached to fixed poles that allow it to slide, but that also balance it for you. This means your stabilization muscles are not being taxed the way they would be if you were using free weights. In a nutshell, a Smith Machine allows you to use more weight than you could on the same exercise if using free weights.
  • Odd bar path angles – because of some legal issues many years ago, most Smith Machines you see in health clubs these days will have the bar path anchored to fixed poles at a slight angle. I love the old vertical machines, but they are just about gone these days because some moron put his feet too far forward and they slipped out in front of him and he came down on his ass, collapsing his spine with a load of weight on his shoulders. So he sued the company and won. “Stupid is as stupid does.” This slight angle can really suck! So instead of just getting into the machine and squatting, lunging or whatever, you have to find the right spot where all of your body parts move correctly in unison with the angle of the bar path. Bummer!
  • Core stability is reduced – when doing squats, lunges etc. you do not have to engage your core to the degree you would if you were lifting free weights. Free weight squats are going to require your core to engage to a high degree in order to keep that bar and the weight you put on it stabilized as you lift it. The Smith Machine lets you focus on specific muscles being targeted without requiring those all important core muscles to be engaged quite as much as they would if you were lifting with free weights.

Sometimes you need free weight for those lifts where you want a true sense of strength and stability. This dead lift is an example. But sometimes you want to focus on one particular aspect of your body and use of a Smith Machine is one way you can accomplish that.

4 reasons the Smith Machine is awesome

  • Fixed plane of motion – sometimes you want to focus as intently as possible on one area of your body. By using a fixed plane of motion, oftentimes you can do this. For example, during an incline bench press in a Smith Machine, you can really focus on the upper aspect of your chest without worrying about keeping the bar on a particularly ideal path. The machine ensures the bar path is set, all you have to do is lift. Some people may say that the Smith Machine creates or reinforces bad (or inefficient) movement patterns. Possibly so, but probably not. Your brain is no dummy. It does not confuse the movement pattern and muscle activation sequence of a Smith Machine squat with that of a free weight squat. And, even if it did, if you think your inefficient movement patterns are created by using a Smith Machine, you’re wrong. Your body was jacked up from being held too much as a baby instead of rolling and crawling on the floor, wearing shoes all day long and sitting behind a desk for half your life. The Smith Machine ain’t got time to listen to that kind of BS.  Remember – it’s awesome!
  • False sense of strength – because you can usually use more weight in a Smith Machine than you can using free weights, you may tend to incorporate it often into your workouts giving your body a different type of stimulus to adapt to. It feels good to load up a bunch of weight and just lift it without being concerned about dropping the bar on your throat of having a heavy weight crush you into the floor. Smith Machines are great when you want to lift heavy and are lifting alone. They have the built-in ability to secure the weight at any time during your lift if you feel you need to stop. The safety aspect of a Smith Machine when you want to go heavy but don’t have a spotter is awesome!
  • Odd bar path angles – this allows you to hit your body from all kinds of angles that just aren’t practical, and are sometimes impossible when using free weights. The bar path angle of a given Smith Machine will allow you to place your body in position around the path of the bar instead of the bar path moving around the movement of your body. This lets you really focus on feeling the muscles you are working and lets you find the angles and positions that give you the most results.
  • Core stability is reduced – yea, sometimes we don’t care about the bracing effects of our core to perform a movement. Sure, this is an extremely important aspect of efficient human movement. But again, the Smith Machine isn’t going to take your efficiently activating core musculature and somehow ruin it all for you. No chance! If your core activation efficiency and sequencing is off, that’s an entirely different set of concerns that you have. The Smith Machine still requires a lot of core bracing on lifts where you are standing, and while it is different from when lifting free weights, the trade off is you get total concentration on specific muscles or groups of muscles to build, tone and shape as best you can.

There’s the low-down on the Smith Machine and why it sucks and why it’s awesome. Essentially it all boils down to what you are trying to accomplish. The very reasons the Smith Machine sucks are the same reasons it is truly awesome. Remember, there are two sides to every coin. Every piece of equipment in a health club has a purpose and no piece of equipment satisfies all training needs. So be smart, refrain from trying to put any piece of equipment or type of training in a box and expect it to do something it isn’t designed to do. Use equipment to your advantage by incorporating it into your training program when it will allow you to improve as well or better than any other option will.

Until next time my friends, train hard and eat smart!

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