You’ve probably read somewhere that if you really want to get strong, you need to do squats.
You may also have wondered how you can do that difficult and taxing exercise with the highest degree of safety. And heading into your gym, you saw a couple of things: a standard free-weight squat rack and a different sort of setup that looks a lot like it — a Smith machine.
Upon closer inspection, you notice that the bar is attached to the machine on vertical rails, and racking it is mostly a simple matter of a turn of the wrist. The weight won’t move around, and because of its fixed nature, you won’t be pitching forward, backward or to the sides, even if it’s heavily loaded.
Slide a bench in there, and you could say the same thing for a bench press or shoulder press inside the Smith.
And then you might be tempted to conclude that the Smith machine might be a safer way to get in a few of your bigger lifts.
And you couldn’t be more wrong.
Let me say from the outset that you are highly unlikely to have a disastrous weight-dropping failure doing exercises on the Smith. Conversely, many too-proud lifters have had their fair share of mishaps with a heavily loaded barbell on their back or hovering over their chest. Bench press accidents, on very rare occasions, have killed unlucky solo lifters.
And it’s for this reason that many smaller gyms or corporate fitness centers buy these things instead of settling on a decent squat rack or bench press. Aside from “safety,” they also can forgo the cost of buying a squat rack, bench press and incline bench for the price of a Smith and an adjustable bench, and save some space in the process.
I truly would like to eradicate this type of thinking from people who run gyms and fitness centers. I was dismayed that a company where I used to work included a Smith machine in its dramatic renovation of its fitness center. And at the gym in the building where I live, I’ve lobbied in vain to get managers there to clear out some room for a real squat rack.
Thankfully, I also have access to another gym that has the tools I prefer. But just so you know where I’m coming from, here are three reasons why you should forgo ever using a Smith machine:
The motion of the machine only works in a straight line, whereas you naturally squat and bench press in an arc. When squatting, your hips go back as you descend, the bar takes a slight sweep back following the hips, then does it again in reverse when you rise back up.
Similarly, a proper bench press starts with a descent to the lower pecs, then goes back up slightly toward your eyes to finish the lift. Most Smith machines are straight up and down, a very unnatural motion. Even angled Smith machines still stay on a track, limiting overall muscle recruitment.
Lifting on a Smith machine puts increased strain on your joints and back. When you’re doing a big lift like a squat, a whole slew of muscles get used: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, and many other, smaller muscles throughout the legs, hips and core. But because of the isolating nature of a Smith machine’s movements, many of those muscles just don’t fire. You lose hamstring tension, which in turn puts increased strain on your knees. And because the action of the Smith machine squat has you pushing against the bar rather than allowing the bar to move with you, hello lower back pressure. I can tell you first-hand how awful that feels.
The problem is less acute on the bench press, but it is there. The bench is hard on your shoulders; it’s even harder when performing the exercise on the Smith. And the one-track motion of the Smith machine makes it almost impossible to get the right arc on a good military press.
Finally, as I stated earlier, you’re just not working as many muscles on a Smith machine as you do on a free bar exercise. This is especially true with squats, where the muscle recruitment of the exercise is so complex. The whole purpose of doing these big lifts is to hit lots of muscles, not isolate them. The Smith machine leaves out key muscles, thus making a squat or bench on them an inferior lift.
So what it a Smith machine good for? Well, it’s just dandy for inverted rows, and when you rack the bar on its highest setting is a good place to do chin-ups in a pinch. But that’s about it.
So do yourself a favor. Avoid the Smith machine. Find a free weight squat rack or bench press and do that instead. And if your gym only has the Smith for these exercises, find another gym.