Updated: Feb 13, 2022
If you lift in a gym, there's a pretty good chance that you've seen a smith machine before. If you don't what that is, it's the machine in the picture below. You'll often hear people saying that the smith machine is bad for one reason or another.
People will tell you that it's the worst piece of gym equipment you could ever use. Others will tell you that it's for cowards and wimps. People interested in gym science might tell you that it's dangerous to use a smith machine.
On the contrary, you'll hear people telling you that the smith machine is superior to free weights. Some people will tell you that you're missing out on gains if you don't use the smith machine. So what's really the case?
Well, in this post, we'll be looking into the science behind the smith machine, and looking at the pros and cons of it, before drawing a conclusion as to whether or not you should be using it. Finally, we'll look into how you can incorporate the smith machine into your training, should you decide to do so.
Pros of the Smith Machine
Less Stabilization Required (Better Muscle Isolation)
The first, and probably biggest advantage of the smith machine is that it allows users to mostly forget about the need for their stabilizing muscles. You'll see many beginners first struggling to bench press at all, even if they're using a weight that they're clearly strong enough to press.
This is due to the lack of development in their stabilizing muscles, causing the bar/dumbbells to fly all over the place. However with a smith machine, you don't have to worry about stabilizing the weight. It's on a fixed machine, almost like training wheels on a bike.
According to this study by Evan E Schick, "Results indicated greater activation of the medial deltoid on the free weight bench press than on the Smith machine bench press." This suggests that stabilization muscles are indeed less active during smith machine exercises than they are during the free weight counterparts.
While it may not sound so true, the lack of a need for stabilization can actually be a good thing.
You see, since you don't have to worry about stabilizing the weight, you can focus solely on hitting your target muscles. For example, you can allow your lats to do more of the work during a smith machine row, instead of having your forearms, mid delts and other stabilizing muscles do too much of the work.
This means that lifting on a smith machine actually allows for a better chance to isolate your target muscles, and really hone in on your hypertrophy-focused work.
You Can Usually Lift More Weight
According to this study conducted by Michael L Cotterman, "The squat 1RM was greater for the SM than the FWs; conversely, the bench 1RM was greater for FWs than the SM." Now, this does likely warrant further investigation, but this suggests that for some exercises, lifters are able to move more weight on the smith machine. However, if you asked most people, they'd likely tell you that you can move more weight on the smith machine than on a barbell. Especially on exercises like squats and shoulder presses.
This is likely due to the lack of a need for stabilization, allowing you to lift more weight using a smith machine than you usually could on free weight exercises. This means that you can apply more mechanical tension on your muscles (basically the amount of weight that you lift), which has been shown to be the main driver of muscular hypertrophy.
Since you're usually able to load heavier on a smith machine, you're able to progress quicker in terms of strength as well, which will lead to more mechanical tension placed on your muscles over time, meaning more all round muscle growth in your target areas.
Due to you not engaging the stabilizing muscles as much, this also means that more of the load is placed onto your target muscles. Again, this increases the mechanical tension specifically on your target muscles, such as your front delts in the overhead press.
This may mean that the smith machine is a better option if your main and only goal for an exercise is targeted muscular hypertrophy. You're not worried about building functional strength, or strength on your free weight movements like the clean and jerk or deadlift. Just focused on building muscle size.
However, there are still other factors that we have to take into consideration.
You Usually Don't Need a Spotter
The smith machine has a major advantage over free weights, and that would be the fact that you can simply twist the bar at any point and instantly have it reracked safely (although accidents can and do still happen).
This means that you generally won't need a spotter on your smith machine exercises, as opposed to your free weight exercises like the bench press and squat. This doesn't really affect the quality of your training, but it definitely is an advantage as you don't have to recruit another person to help you lift safely. Of course, if you have access to a spotter, it's always a good idea. But if you don't have one, it's not the end of the world.
As you don't need a spotter, you can often save lots of time by not having to wait and ask for spotters. Definitely an advantage of the smith machine.
Less Taxing on the Body
Generally, free weight and bodyweight exercises are going to be more taxing on the central nervous system (CNS) and body in general than machine exercises will be. The smith machine is no different.
This is most likely due to the fact that you don't have to stabilize the weights you're lifting, resulting in less involvement of the stabilizing and core muscles, and less overall muscle engagement throughout the body.
So if you're running a high frequency training split such as full body 5 days a week, machines are definitely going to be your friend (including the smith machine). Our bodies need to rest, and by doing more of our lifting with machines, we create less fatigue, which is crucial for those that train very often, whilst still being able to build muscle in our target areas.
Athletes who often train twice a day, and very serious gymgoers will likely favor these machines as they're not only generally better for muscle isolation, they're less taxing on the CNS and allow for more accumulated volume throughout the week. If we were to do most of our exercises with heavy free weights, we'd tire out very quickly and the later sections of our workouts would suffer pretty hard.
Even people who lift, but have jobs that are physically demanding such as builders or stockroom workers can benefit from the lowered fatigue of lifting on a smith machine. You see, it's not just your training in the gym that can be affected. The advantages of the smith machine can roll over into everyday life as well.
Cons of the Smith Machine
Fixed Bar Path
The first con of the smith machine would have to be the fixed bar path that you have to follow during your exercises. This fixed bar path (usually not completely vertical) can force you into unnatural and uncomfortable positions, which can cause injury over time if you lift heavy loads.
Especially on exercises such as the squat and deadlift, where your spinal erectors and core play significant roles all throughout the movement, your risk of injuring yourself is amplified.
The fixed bar path will also result in poor form, forcing you to find ways to adapt. For example, on a smith machine back squat, you'll find many people squatting with their feet out in front of their bodies, and vertical spines. Almost resembling a wall sit.
During a squat, the natural mechanism of the body is to bring the torso and knees forwards in order to keep the weight over the midfoot. By squatting (and doing certain other exercises) on a smith machine, you're altering the movement pattern severely, in a bad way.
And even if you were going to squat with your feet under you as if you were using a barbell, you'd be forced to lean forwards more than usual to account for the slanted bar path, resulting in more stress on your spinal erectors, which already take a beating from lots of your compound lifting.
Likewise, in a deadlift, the bar is supposed to travel straight up and down. However, if you're lifting on a smith machine with a slanted bar path, you're never going to be able to achieve a deadlift with proper form. You'd have to move your feet accordingly as you brought the weight up closer to you. And if you've ever tried that whilst holding a heavy load in your hands, you'll know it's near impossible.
The fixed bar path can also put your joints in weak or dangerous positions, such as your shoulders during a smith machine bench press. Or your elbows during a smith machine curl. This can lead to injuries over time, and cause you pain in all your future exercises if you are not careful.
So probably the biggest con of the smith machine would be its fixed bar path. Some exercises are okay to do on the smith machine, but some should definitely be avoided.
Exercises such as the shrug, overhead press, bent over row, calf raises, inverted rows, bodyweight tricep extensions and some others are safe to perform on the smith machine. Even the bench press is fine on most occasions.
However, we'd high discourage any squatting, deadlifting, hip hinging or hip thrusting. Simply because you don't want to put your knees and spinal erectors in those awkward positions. A single injury can be life changing. And it's especially risky under heavy loads.
You may be more likely to develop pains and aches all over the body, including places like your lower back, knees, wrists, shoulders and elbows.
Less Overall Muscle Engagement
Due to the lack of a need for stabilization of the weight we're pressing, your core and stabilizing muscles are not as engaged as they are during free weight movements. We mentioned that before.
This means that while it does allow for lifters to better isolate the target muscle groups, smith machine exercises likely wouldn't be the best choice as your primary lifts if you're wanting to develop a well rounded physique.
You can do smith machine rows towards the end of your back day as a finisher for the lats. But they shouldn't replace pull ups and barbell rows, which heavily engage the core, as well as all the other smaller muscles. The smith machine row does not allow for a chance to work all the stabilization muscles.
And while we did mention that due to the smith machine being less taxing on the body, athletes may favor it more, they also need to think about the functional strength involved. Since you're lifting on a fixed track, the bar will never wobble, and you also do not have the ability to move it either. Vary rarely would we see any kind of physical movement like this outside of the gym, let alone out on the sports field.
So in terms of total muscle engagement and functional strength, barbells and dumbbells will always be better than smith machines.
So Should You be Using the Smith Machine?
We'd have to say that overall, it's not as bad as some people make it look, but it's not as glamorous as some people make it seem either. Basically, you can use it if you want. Using it won't bring about some magical gains, but not using it won't limit your potential for growth too much either. You can use whatever you want, you just have to be smart about it.
If you're just looking to build muscle in target areas for a specific exercise, and you're not too worried about building up the stabilizing muscles, then it's a good idea to incorporate some smith machine work.
Or if you're on some kind of physical rehabilitation, perhaps just coming off of an injury, the smith machine can be a good way to build your foundational strength back up, with the added safety.
However, for almost any other lifting purpose, we'd recommend doing most of your work with barbells and dumbbells, or other machines that are better suited to our natural biomechanics.
Once again, the smith machine's fixed bar path is not optimal for joint health, and it certainly does not have too much roll over into your every functional movements either.
The free movement and higher total body muscle engagement of lifting with free weights or better machines will add up over time an help keep you training as efficiently as possible, for as long as possible.
So to recap: do most of your work with free weights and specific machines. You can add some work on the smith machine if you know exactly why you're doing it, and have considered both the advantages and disadvantages of the machine.
Incorporating the Smith Machine Into Your Training
Let us continue it stress that you should avoid squatting and deadlifting on a smith machine at all costs. Even if it means you do a bodyweight workout. It's terrible for your joints and spine, and can seriously affect your ability to train in the future.
Do the bulk of your training with free weights if you're looking to become a better overall athlete. Include some machine work as well for a well-rounded training program, and use the machines (including the smith) to isolate your target muscles for a better hypertrophy stimulus.
We'd say that for most of your work on the smith machine, it should be done near the middle or end of your workout sessions, due to the more isolated component of a smith machine exercise. We wouldn't recommend doing your strength work on machines, as lifting on a smith machine is simply very different to lifting on a barbell.
And if you're going to be competing in things like powerlifting meets, being strong on a smith machine will not matter. You have to be strong on your free weight exercises.
This means your smith machine work should mostly be done in the rep ranges of 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. This is going to best allow you to stimulate muscle growth, without causing too much fatigue by lifting heavy for no good reason.
Then, your heavy lifting and bulk of your training should be done with free weights. That's the best way you can ensure that you build a well-rounded body. People notice the stabilizing muscles, and you should not neglect them.
To conclude, the smith machine certainly is not the terrible waste of time that people make it out to be.
It has its pros and cons, but has a time and place in many training programs. You can definitely use it to have great effect on your gains, but it's important that you weight the pros and cons of this machine before you commit to any heavy loads during your workouts.
We hope you've enjoyed this post, and consider sharing it with your friends if you found it helpful! We could all use a little extra knowledge from time to time.
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