Can you be a fast runner and also be strong?

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

I saw an article in Outside Magazine recently that attracted a bit of ire from readers. In it, the writer checks out the case of American endurance athlete Ryan Hall, and how being so good at long-distance running made him, physically speaking, weak.

Hall has retired from a prolific and successful career as an elite runner, and has since taken up weight training to go alongside a less intense regimen of running. Since his retirement, he’s packed on some muscle and become noticeably stronger. The conclusion: Elite distance runners are fast on the course, but that speed comes at a cost. Namely, strength.

This is where a bunch of online readers collectively lost their minds. They attacked the article, the writer and the publication. You can read it here.

But what they failed to objectively conclude was that the premise is the article was right.

If you’ve read this blog much, you might be surprised to hear me say that. I’m a committed runner, regularly racing in 15k, half marathon and 25k events. Mostly, I run for fun. How can I dare to say that runners are weak?

Let’s step back a moment. There are some things we have to square away before I can defend the article in question, and my agreement with it.

We need to define “strength.” From the outset, let me say that it takes a mentally strong person to run big distances, and to run those distances fast. Running long distance at higher speeds is grueling. Pain is constant. The body is telling you to stop. You can’t be a sub-1:30 half marathoner or a 3-hour marathoner and not be mentally and emotionally tough, not to mention well-conditioned.

But it’s important to distinguish between being “well-conditioned,” “mentally strong,” and “emotionally strong” and what qualifies as “strength.”

Strength is quantifiable. You can objectively measure it. The easiest way to do that can be found in how much mass you can move. Can you pick that thing up off the floor? How much weight can you lift above your head? These types of questions can be answered — and usually are — in different weight lifting moves. Someone who can deadlift 500 pounds is stronger than someone who can’t. It’s that simple.

At the elite level of long-distance running (or even at distances like the 5k), efficiency is key. The heart and lungs are going to be taxed at the highest levels, so any mass (muscle or otherwise) that is not essential to the goal is either going to slow you down or be pared off your frame. There are muscley people who can do a 5K 21 minutes, but you won’t see anyone who looks jacked running 15-minute 5ks or 80-minute half marathons. The extra muscle competes too much with the rest of the body when the pace approaches that of runners like Hall, or Meb Keflezighi, or even college scholarship athletes involved in endurance sports.

On the other end, it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to see high-level distance runners who can squat or deadlift twice their body weight. The training that goes into running really fast, or really far, or both forces the body to adapt, and when it comes to running, the sacrifice comes at the cost of muscle, and ultimately, strength.

This is even true of fast-but-not-elite runners. The 1:30 half-marathoners, or the 3:30 marathoners, for example. Or most people who run ultras on a regular basis, regardless of pace. Similarly, you won’t find any power lifters running 24-minute 5ks or any bodybuilders breaking four hours in a marathon. They might be strong, but they won’t be fast or be able to go very far.

(I might add for beginning runners and exercisers, you can gain strength and speed for awhile, but those goals will eventually collide.)

I’d look at my own history here. When I run less, I gain strength. When the miles pile up, I lean up. But I also lose strength. Right now, I weigh about 190 pounds. During marathon training, I dipped to 172. I can deadlift probably 80 more pounds now than I could then. But I doubt very seriously I could come within an hour of the time I hit for those 26.2 miles, and my current 5k is a couple of minutes off my PR. (As a matter of disclosure, I have tried to be both, but the results have been predictable: At my best, I’m moderately strong and not very fast.)

What I’d conclude is this: When you see articles like the one mentioned above, don’t freak out. Don’t get offended by a headline that tells you endurance running will make you “weak.” Understand that strength is objectively quantifiable, and being really fast while also being really strong are competing goals that, for most people, won’t happen simultaneously. Go ahead and train hard for the goal you want, and embrace your own “strength.”

Bob Doucette

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Five reasons why I lift

weights

I’ve been a gym rat most of my adult life. Weights became a thing for me at age 17, and my affinity for the iron hasn’t waned.

Many people play around with weight machines, or tinker with free weights. Others shy away, bothered by the noise real lifting creates, and maybe the personalities a weight room attracts. Not me. I’ve never felt self-conscious about lifting when the real big boys were around. I’m not the biggest, strongest dude around, but that doesn’t bother me. I just do my thing.

But I often hear about how maybe I should do other things. That people of my age shouldn’t lift heavy weights. Or that being a gym rat is too “indoorsy,” and how you can get all that strength training doing stuff outside (sorry, but you can’t). And more than a few of my female friends have heard endless dronings about how they shouldn’t lift because they don’t want to get big.

Well, you can (and should) do resistance training deep into old age (way past my age for sure). And ladies, those barbells and dumbbells will do you a lot of good without making you look like a linebacker.

So in the spirit of my last post, here are five reasons why I lift…

barbell

Because it’s a stress-reliever. Had a rough day? Someone tick you off? Get under a bar or pick up some iron and take out your aggression in the gym. The controlled violence of the lift and endorphin rush when you’re done might leave you wrecked when you leave, but you will feel awesome. It sure beats eating your problems, punching your boss or drinking your woes away.

Because it makes me a much healthier human being. Strength training builds up your muscles, and when done right, increases mobility, stamina and athleticism. A weak body is often a sicker body. Strong ones tend to stay healthier for much longer, and can leave you active and capable well into old age.

Because being strong is useful. A powerful body can do more things than a weak one can. That’s not an opinion. It’s an objective reality. It goes beyond opening pickle jars, too. The physical labor you can do, the punishment you can endure, the ability to take care of business in a dark alley — all these things are made easier when you’re strong. Strength isn’t the only factor, but it’s a damn important one. When it comes to the physical tasks and challenges you face, being strong is more useful than being weak.

Because I can. Sort of like what I wrote about running, I’ve been given one body and one life. If lifting heavy things can make that life better, I should do it. And if I see a heavy thing I want to move and have that ability, I want to because I can. Not everyone has that option, but I do. Might as well use it.

Because there are few things that will make you feel as boss as lifting something big. Looking for a confidence booster? Set a goal to lift a certain amount of weight you cannot do now. Train for it. And then do it. It may sound superficial, but when you accomplish that goal, it will make you wonder what else you can do once you set your mind to it. That’s how I feel every time I load a bunch of weight on the bar, walk up to it, and pick it up off the ground. And best yet, the process of getting to that point will leave you stronger, healthier and more mentally disciplined than when you started. There’s a lot to like about all of that.

Do you lift? What are your reasons for hitting the iron? Holler in the comments.

Bob Doucette

The Gym Rat Code: 11 rules to follow when you’re at the gym

This is a tool, one that gives you power. But use it wrong, and it's a source of pain. And setbacks.

It’s early January, it must also be National Gym Month.

The turn of the new year means a lot of people will be trying to turn a new leaf. Often, that includes those wonderful fitness resolutions.

The gym rats — those of us who hit the iron 12 months out of the year — are well accustomed to seeing the effect of the New Year’s resolution on our workout space. A whole bunch of people we’ve never seen before or haven’t seen in awhile will be clogging up the works at fitness centers across the country this week.

I’m cool with that, mostly because for some of you, it means that real transformation is underway. You won’t see me giving folks the “Get off my lawn!” stare just because a few more people are taking up some gym space.

But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a high number of annoyances that come with the flood of newbies who are suddenly mastering the art of the dumbbell bicep curl. So for your sake and our sanity, here are a few tips from Gym Rat Nation on how to behave during the unofficial National Gym Month:

An exercise station is not a parking space. If you’re going to rock those lat pulls or leg presses, have a seat, get your work done, and move on. Sitting there for 15 minutes before finishing your second set is quite rude. A little self awareness helps here, in that you should realize that other people (gasp!) might want to use that machine or bench, too.

Put the damn phone away. You’re not at the gym to text, check Facebook or post selfies. You’re there to work off that pumpkin pie you snarfed all by your lonesome. We waste more time on cellphones than just about anything else we do, so why bring that time-wasting habit to the gym? That text, social media post, cat video or selfie can wait. Do your work, move to the next station. If need be, leave the phone in your locker or in the car. Trust me, it’s not a vital organ. It’s a portable piece of technology that can actually be set aside for an hour or two.

Don’t crowd the dumbbell rack. When you’re grabbing a pair of dumbbells, do us all a favor and don’t just stand in front of the rack while you get your epic pump. Take a few steps back. Otherwise, you might be standing in front of several pairs of other dumbbells the rest of us want to use. Seriously, I don’t want to have to reach for a weight that’s right in front of your junk because you’re too lazy to create a little space.

Minimize the chit-chat. You may know some of us at the gym. But we may not want to talk to you very much while we’re there. A few words, a sentence or two, that’s fine. But don’t drag us into a conversation. We’re there to get some work done, and a play-by-play breakdown of Sunday’s game, your epic pub crawl or a recap of the latest “Game of Thrones” episode is not furthering our goals. Save the water cooler talk for places where calorie burns and work sets are not part of the business at hand.

Excellent tools for fitness. But put 'em back when you're done.

Excellent tools for fitness. But put ’em back when you’re done.

Clean up after yourself. One of my two greatest pet peeves of the gym is when people use a bunch of weights and put none of them back when they’re finished. They leave the floor looking like a tornado flung random dumbbells and plates everywhere, leaving it up to gym employees or other exercisers to sort it all out. Dude. This ain’t your mom’s house, and you aren’t four years old. Put your stuff back when you’re finished.

Clean up after yourself, Part 2. So you’re working hard and sweating, right? That’s fine, but it’s not OK to leave pools of sweat on benches and seats. Any gym worth its salt has towels and spray bottles ready for you to wipe your goo off the equipment. No one wants to wallow in your slime or clean up after you, and certainly these are the types of behaviors that give people staph infections or MRSA. Do your part and leave no trace of your perspiration behind.

Don’t slam the weights. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There is no reason most exercisers should slam weights. Aside from people doing powerlifting barbell work with bumper plates, or perhaps deadlifting big amounts of weight, there’s no excuse for it. You’re either using too much weight or you’re trying to draw attention to yourself. Stop it. It’s douchey as hell and can damage equipment.

Leave the ladies alone. The gym is sometimes populated with female exercisers, and many of them have done an excellent job at getting themselves in shape. Kudos to them. But it’s not a bar scene, and it’s not a singles mixer. Stash the pick-up lines, don’t leer at the gal in the yoga pants and in general, let the gals do their work. They’re not there for your romantic fantasies, so keep your eyes on the ball and remember why you’re there.

Don’t be a coach. Unless you’re a trainer who works there or if you’re asked, we don’t want to hear your tips. I confess, I’ve been guilty of this one when I see atrocious form at work, but I always felt like a douche afterwards. Why? Because it’s a douchey thing to do. Unsolicited training advice is unwanted training advice in almost all situations. Chances are, the training tips you got from your high school football coach suck anyway.

Share. Especially at this time of year, lots of people are going to be wanting to use the same equipment as you. Be cool and let folks work in a set with you. Or pick a different weight or exercise station. We go along by getting along. You don’t own that pair of 25s on the dumbbell rack. They sorta belong to all of us.

And finally, no curls in the squat rack. The squat rack seems like a convenient place to load up a bar with plates and use as a station for barbell curls, right? You can rest the weight on the safety bars, walk up to it, do your thing, and then set it back down in the cage without having to bend over. Don’t do it. Ever. The squat rack is for squats. Serious lifters squat, and we take great offense when this precious piece of real estate is being squandered on your epic bicep pump. So take your bro-curls elsewhere, junior.

If you can do these things, you will get along well with the gym rats, and given time and commitment, you’ll become one. And believe me, there are far worse things to be.

Bob Doucette

The dreaded setback: Six things you need to do when you’re injured

This is a tool, one that gives you power. But use it wrong, and it's a source of pain. And setbacks.

This is a tool, one that gives you power. But use it wrong, and it’s a source of pain. And setbacks.

If you’re an active person, there is a good chance you have to deal with the dreaded setback. We push our bodies hard, trying to get in better shape, to sharpen our competitive edge, to get stronger. But then something comes along, and boom – you’re flat on your back, or walking with a limp, or something else that shows you’re not quite right.

Though I try to be athletic, it’s not a natural talent for me. What I lack in natural ability I make up for in effort. Unfortunately, that can land me in trouble. A few knee and ankle sprains from basketball, for example. A series of nasty neck tweaks from jujitsu. A back injury from weight training.

The last of those three is the one that comes back to haunt me the most. A little more than 10 years ago, I was squatting pretty heavy – too heavy, as it turns out, given my actual strength and subpar form. My back seized on me mid-rep, forcing me to drop the weight off my back and crash to the floor. Fortunately, this was in my garage gym, so no one else got hurt or startled by the crash, but the injury was there just the same.

As the years have gone by, I’ve done my best to avoid reinjuring my back. But every now and then, it flares up, most recently about two months ago. Again, I was lifting hard – careful on the squats, but really trying to get after it on my deadlifts. One day at the gym, I was getting under the bar for my first set of back squats, and at the bottom of the lift, that familiar, painful twinge seized me. The workout was pretty much over before it began. I backed off the squats for awhile, but within a week, I felt good enough to resume heavy deadlifts.

A month later, after finishing off a particularly grueling round of deadlifts, it happened again: while doing a set of snatch-grip deadlifts, my back freaked out. This time, I had to stop doing my favorite lift altogether.

It’s frustrating to see progress halted so abruptly by the body you’re working so hard to improve, but it happens. The “down time” – days and weeks following such a setback, when you’re figuring out what you can and should do as you heal – can be really important. For me, this last mishap helped teach me a good number of things, so I’m going to share them with you:

Back off and heal. No pain, no gain, right? Wrong. Soreness is one thing. Injury is another. Pain is not weakness leaving the body. It’s your body trying to tell you something’s amiss. If you’re running hard but battling severe knee pain to the point where your speeds and distances are falling off, maybe you need some time off, or find an alternative for your endurance training for a period of time (swimming or cycling, for example). If you’re bench-pressing like a madman but your shoulder sockets are on fire, perhaps you’re pressing your way to a serious injury. You can’t outwork an injury by going harder. Swallow your pride and heal.

Re-evaluate how you’re training. This is key, as it may reveal what’s causing the injury in the first place. For me, I needed to think hard about how I was doing two different exercises, and I was able to identify what was going wrong. Bad form was to blame in both cases, causing my already janky back to work extra hard to make up for weaknesses elsewhere. Load enough weight on that dicey platform and it’s no wonder I got hurt. My advice: have someone watch you lift and give you feedback. Have that person record you doing some reps, then watch the replay. Be ruthless in critiquing your form and fix it. In the short-term, that probably means backing off the weight for a time until you get your form right. Lifting lighter with good form is far better than lifting heavier with poor form. Same goes with running. Plenty of running shops offer stride analysis, and good coaching can fix bad running form. It may take awhile to get used to the changes, but in the long run you’ll benefit. Ask any reformed heel-striker, they’ll tell you the same.

Find alternative exercises. Back squats may have been out, but I could still do lighter front squats. And I came to love/hate the Bulgarian split squat. These didn’t replace anything, but they kept me working vital muscle groups while I was unable to load up on the back squats.

Embrace the warm-up. I’ve become a fan of corrective exercises and the foam roller. I don’t spend a huge amount of time on either, but enough to make sure I’m ready for the work to come. And before a hard lift (especially on days where I’m doing the big lifts), I do things to warm up before walking up to/getting under the bar. Sumo squats with a 60-pound kettlebell? Dang right. Three sets of them at the beginning of my leg day before I even sniff the squat rack. Smirk if you want to, but neglecting those light warmup sets is a mistake I’ve often regretted.

You may feel like you have to crush it every day. But dude. Take a rest day.

You may feel like you have to crush it every day. But dude. Take a rest day.

Take your rest day. God rested on Day 7, so if it’s good enough for The Almighty, it’s good enough for you. One day a week, you need to chill. Eat right, or course. But spend a day not running, not lifting, not crushing a ride or ballin’ so hard. Enjoy some Netflix or a football game on the tube. Relax. Your body needs it.

Reevaluate periodically. If your workout is working, cool. If it’s not? Maybe it’s time to change things up. And if you’re finding yourself getting too run down, or battling through too many nagging injuries, it’s definitely time to make changes. Don’t get stuck in a training routine that takes you nowhere, or worse, keeps getting you hurt. Embracing change in these situations is a good thing.

Fast-forward to the present, I’m gradually working back into my older routines, with an eye on the lessons I most recently learned. Surprisingly, the gains are coming, and showing up in new ways – faster, more powerful running, for example. Here’s to getting fitter, stronger and faster while staying injury-free.

What injuries have you dealt with? What did you do to get back on track? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Bob Doucette

My 500th post: What a ride it’s been

After 500 posts, you'd think I'd run out of stuff to say. Nope.

After 500 posts, you’d think I’d run out of stuff to say. Nope.

It’s hard for me to believe, but this very post marks a milestone for me. Going back to the fall of 2011, I’ve posted here 499 times. This marks No. 500.

It’s tough to quantify all that has happened during that time, and what I’ve chronicled here. It’s been a fun ride so far!

Adventure anyone?

Adventure anyone?

Some of the highlights for me have been the trip reports. I created a category just for them, and I still believe the heart of this blog belongs there — all the training, the gear, the planning, those things led to adventures that have taken me to some incredible places in several states. Add in a couple of guest posts and you’re talking about stories coming from Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Not surprisingly, these reports keep getting clicked by people seeking their own adventures in the places I’ve grown to love.

Being active outdoors. Yes, please.

Being active outdoors. Yes, please.

There has also been plenty of fitness to go around. It’s a big part of my life, be it about running, weight training or just funny observations I’ve seen while on the run or in the gym. Race reports have been big here. You all have seen me go from an occasional runner to a marathoner in just a few short years. Maybe it’s time to do another one.

Despite the fear and violence, the good guys showed up. And will keep doing so.

Despite the fear and violence, the good guys showed up. And will keep doing so.

Lighthearted fun and humor is a big part of what I do, but there have been some more serious moments. Following the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, I looked at what was facing the people of Boston by what I’d seen already happen in Oklahoma City. I found cause for encouragement, and said as much. More than 40,000 of you read that post, which remains the most-read thing I’ve ever written on an online platform. Since then, we’ve seen the justice system deal with the surviving terrorist from the attack, as well as a whole lot of inspiration in the past two Boston Marathons from runners, supporters and survivors. Boston proved me right.

Mmmm. Gear.

Mmmm. Gear.

And let’s not forget the gear reviews. I’ve been able to test a lot of gear for running, hiking, backpacking and camping, among other things. I’ve done most of that on my own, but it’s also been good to work with Salomon Sports to test their shoes and give them — and you — honest feedback on their stuff.

Worth protecting.

Worth protecting.

Lastly, it’s been great to see how this space has helped give voice to preserving my local trail haunt. Thousands of people read and shared posts about Turkey Mountain and the controversy surrounding a proposed outlet mall there. While that situation is still not completely settled, the level of awareness and advocacy for urban wilderness in my hometown has increased dramatically since last fall. It’s been good to be a part of that, and I’m grateful to all who have joined the effort.

So what can you look forward to going forward? Life has its ebbs and flows, but rest assured there will be more adventures, a whole lot more fitness and more gear reviews.

In conclusion, let me just say thank you. Thanks for reading, as there is no greater compliment to a writer. Thanks for commenting, even if you disagree with my take. The interaction is great regardless. And thanks for sharing. If you’ve shared any of my posts on social media other otherwise, you have my gratitude.

So there it is, folks. No. 500 in the books. I hope you all have enjoyed it, found some usefulness from the posts, and maybe some inspiration. Possibly even a laugh or two. Here’s hoping we can keep going down this journey together for a while longer, and who knows — maybe I’ll see you all on the trail.

NOTE: Oh, and if you haven’t already, look me up on Instagram (proactiveoutside), find me on Twitter (@RMHigh7088) or like my page on Facebook. I’d love to connect!

Bob Doucette

Injuries: Dealing with one angry muscle

One little muscle.

Well, not that little. But it’s just one. You’d be shocked, however, at the amount of work that thing does, and how little you can do when it’s injured.

I’m talking about the trapezius. You have two of them, one on each side of your upper back, running from the base of your skull, down the spine, and flaring out toward your shoulder joint. The trapezius helps you lift things over your head, stabilizes your neck and head, and it an integral player any time your pick something up from the ground.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

So I hurt mine about a month ago. I’m not sure, how, but I think it happened while performing a barbell complex exercise, and the poor thing got overtaxed, freaked out, and stayed tight as a drum for weeks. It’s just now getting better. But I learned a lot about how critical this muscle is to a lot of simple functions.

First off, the injury. Yuck. It made turning my head to the left very iffy and stiff. It’s a residual thing from my martial arts days, when my neck would get cranked when grappling. Every now and then it wants to act up again.

The good news is the injury did not stop me from running. It did slow me down some — any aggravated muscle will do that to you. Injuries tend to tax you all over, I suppose.

But the list of weightlifting exercises I couldn’t do for three weeks is rather lengthy.

No bench press. No incline presses. No deadlifts. No barbell back squats. Even things like tricep cable push-downs and chin-ups flared it up, as did a number of other, seemingly innocuous lifts you wouldn’t think included much use of the ole traps. Boy, was I wrong.

So what did I do for three weeks? I found substitute exercises and otherwise backed off.

Here are some examples…

Instead of barbell back squats, I did the leg press. No weight on the shoulders, but still some work for the thighs and glutes. I was also able to do a lot of light single-leg dumbbell moves (single-leg Romanian deadlifts, lunges), and goblet squats were still OK.

Instead of bench presses and incline presses (which were totally out), I used a seated chest press and did pec-deck flies. Not the best subs, but it was something. And it didn’t aggravate my neck.

Instead of cable push-downs, I did light single-arm triceps extensions with lots of reps. Again, not ideal. But you do what you can.

Some exercises were completely unaffected. I had no problems working biceps and calves, for example. Others, though, were just out. No barbell deadlifts, no pull-ups or chin-ups (though cable lat pulls were OK), and no isolating shoulder moves at all. And forget planking and push-ups. Face-down on a horizontal plane just means the traps had to work that much harder to keep my head stable, and my neck was having none of that.

Most importantly, though, was this one simple trick: I backed off. I knew I could run and do some lifts, but doing all the biggies had to go away for awhile until that muscle chilled out. So between the rest or light work, there was a lot of foam-rolling, postural exercises and rest.

And it worked. I’m back to a normal routine again, my left trapezius is calm, and I can turn my head to check traffic when I’m out on a run or just driving without having to turn my whole body.

So the bottom line is this: If you injure a muscle, don’t push through. Figure out what aggravates it and stop doing that. Give it time to heal. If rest isn’t enough, then maybe professional help is needed. But for the most part, a little TLC and some down time is what your body needs.

Bob Doucette

Three reasons to avoid using the Smith machine

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.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it's not.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it’s not.

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.

Bob Doucette