The smith machine is a mainstay in most commercial gym setups.
In some places it’s not uncommon to only see a smith machine and no power rack at all, such is the popularity of this piece of equipment.
So popular is it that you’ve probably asked yourself, “what’s up with the smith machine, can I use it, should I use?”
Unsurprisingly, the response to this question are varied but, in my opinion, if you’re looking to build muscle and strength there is only one response that matters.
And that’s “no you shouldn’t use the smith machine” and it’s not just because I don’t like them, but because in some circumstances they can range from being downright dangerous to entirely less effective.
Essentially, it’s a lose, lose situation.
Which is why in this article we’re going to look at what a smith machine is, why you shouldn’t use it and what you need to do instead.
The smith machine is the brainchild of Jack LaLanne, a bodybuilder, fitness and nutrition advocate and motivational speaker.
In a career that spanned decades, the smith machine was born out of Jack’s desired to be able to squat heavy weights without the need of a spotter. His aim was to create something that complimented a free weight workout routine, not replace it.
This led to the smith machine, a self-spotting piece of equipment that has a bar fixed in place on two vertical poles and adjustable safety brackets to prevent the weight from dropping if you cannot complete your rep.
The smith machine, although once popular (even Arnold Schwarzenegger used it at one time) is now shunned by most in the fitness industry and viewed as ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Let’s be honest you already know where this article is going but in the interests of presenting the full picture let’s look at both the advantages and disadvantages of the smith machine.
As you can see, whilst there are some advantages, they are heavily outweighed by the disadvantages, but don’t take my word for it.
In short, the smith machine reduces your performance but fix the path of the bar which in turn forces you into unnatural positions on some lifts. It also has been shown to less effective for building muscle and strength when compared to free weights.
Related: How to Get Bigger Legs
You often come across the idea that the smith machine is perfect for to get to grips with the fundamental movements (squat, bench, deadlift and rows) before picking up the free weights. However, I have 2 main issues with this:
The smith machine is not like using free weights which means it doesn’t make sense to use it as an introduction to them.
With the bar path being fixed you’re forced to set up and move differently when using the smith machine compared to free weights. Not to mention that you’re also not working the stabiliser muscles that get trained when doing free weights.
This all combines to leave you underprepared for the switch.
A much better option is to start learning with an unweighted bar or even bodyweight equivalents if the bar is too heavy i.e. squats and lunges. For most people, a standard 20kg bar should be an achievable starting point and with the safety bars of all modern power racks, you have no issue with needing a spotter either.
Free weight movements are the natural alternative to the smith machine, particularly as research consistently shows that when it comes to compound movements like the bench press and squat using free weights is superior.
However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use all weight machines. This article is specifically about the smith machine, which you should avoid. Other machines like the chest press, leg press and leg curl are all viable options when training.
My recommendations are to have the bulk of your training program built around using barbells and dumbbells when possible. Adding in the use of machines when or if needed.
This will give you a well-rounded training plan that minimises your risk of injury and gives you the best results possible.
The smith machine, although found in most gyms worldwide and once very popular, should be avoided if you’re serious about building muscle and strength.
Not only can it increase your risk of injury, but current research shows it to be a less effective method of muscle activation which leads to subpar results.
Instead, stick to free weight exercises for the bulk of your training, adding in machine exercises as and when needed for a well-rounded training program.