It’s hard to think of another machine that gets as much hate as the Smith machine.
Sometimes known as squat racks with training wheels, it works by having a barbell travel vertically while guided on two rods. This helps to stabilize the weight so the lifter only needs to focus on pushing up and down.
“Yea, but it doesn’t work the stabilizer muscles, bro” is the general response given by many lifters, who have learned just enough to feel confident speaking about these types of things (even though they don’t have any research to back it up).
They’re not wrong. But, they’re also not right.
So what gives? Is the Smith machine good? Bad? Or just misunderstood? Let’s find out.
Table of Contents:
- What Is A Smith Machine?
- Do Smith Machines Work?
- How Do Smith Machines Work?
- Are Smith Machines Bad?
- When Are Smith Machines Bad?
- Who Shouldn’t Use Smith Machines?
- 3 Smith Machine Myths
- When Are Smith Machines Good?
- What Are The Best Smith Machines?
What Is A Smith Machine?
Back in 1936, fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne opened America’s first health and fitness club in California. As his business grew in the 1950s, he designed several pieces of equipment, including various pulley systems and leg extensions.
Another piece of equipment was a barbell with a sliding apparatus. It was meant to act as a self-spotting device to allow people to train with heavier weights.
During this time, another fitness entrepreneur by the name of Rudy Smith saw LaLanne’s original design. He made some tweaks and altered some of the mechanics, and then began to mass produce them. And behold, the Smith machine was born.
The Smith machine is a large piece of equipment that resembles a squat rack. A pair of rods is behind the two front uprights, and a barbell is attached and slides up and down on a sliding apparatus. On either side of the barbell are hooks that allow it to be secured at various heights so that a solo person can rack and rerack the weight by themselves.
Over the years, the Smith machine has seen its fair share of variations. One version has the metal rods slightly angled back, resolving some of the bar path issues( we’ll discuss this in more detail below).
Another more advanced version is what’s sometimes called the 3-D Smith machine. On these, the barbell slides up and down 2 rods in a similar fashion. However, these rods are attached to two more rods at the top and bottom of the machine. These rods run back and forth, allowing movement across two planes.
Do Smith Machines Work?
Yes! Of course, the answer to this question relies heavily on what is meant by “work.” However, thousands of people have successfully used the Smith machine.
While free-weight compound lifts will always be our first choice, that doesn’t render the Smith machine useless. On the contrary, it’s a proven method of resistance training that provides beneficial results when used in the right situations.
The Smith machine moves on a fixed bar path which can limit the range of motion. However, its design allows for heavy weights to simulate most exercises done with the barbell.
Doing so puts all the focus on the prime movers rather than the stabilizers, which can theoretically allow you to move more weight in the same pattern. You can get an idea of the types of moves you can perform with this piece of equipment in our article on the Best Smith Machine Exercises.
How Do Smith Machines Work?
As mentioned, the Smith machine resembles standard squat racks. On the first two upright beams, a metal pole runs up and down parallel to them.
These two metal poles will act as a track for a barbell on a sliding mechanism, allowing the barbell to move up and down with guidance. In other words, the barbell can not move side-to-side or back and forth.
In addition, larger hooks run up and down its entirety on the back side of the two front beams. These allow the barbell to latch onto to be secured at a desired location. If someone training alone has an issue standing a load up, they can turn the barbell to secure it. In this manner, it acts as a built-in safety mechanism.
Using a Smith Machine, you can perform all types of exercises, ranging from the Smith Machine Bench Press to Smith Machine Squats.
Are Smith Machines Bad?
It’s tough to answer this with a 100% yes or 100% no, as the Smith machine is one of those pieces of equipment that is good in some circumstances and not in others.
It depends on what you’re doing and what style of Smith machine you have. Don’t worry. We’ll discuss all of this.
When Are Smith Machines Bad?
There are a few major criticisms of the Smith machine, which I want to address now.
1) They Don’t Allow For A Natural Path:
Because the bar is on a single-track path, the bar is only able to go up or down. Unfortunately, this restriction can cause unnatural positions as the barbell doesn’t always move in a strict path when performed with free-weight barbell movements.
For example, during a free-weight bench press, we assume we’re pushing the bar straight up. However, the bar actually goes up in a J pattern and curves back to your head.
At the top of the exercise, our hands are extended straight up, putting the barbell over our shoulders, and then we bring the barbell down to our chest on the descent.
Now, think about doing a Smith machine bench press. If the barbell starts above your shoulders, the fixed bar path means it would stay there the whole time. When you bring it down to chest-level, imagine how tight your shoulders would get trying to press it up with the bar around your neck.
That lack of range of motion can even lead to injury over time. You can help counteract the lack of range of motion by learning best form on a Smith machine before using it.
2) They Don’t Train The Stabilizer Muscles:
Another concern is that the Smith machine doesn’t train the stabilizer muscles, AKA any muscle that works to provide support rather than being the primary mover.
Let’s go back to the movement pattern of free-weight bench presses.
On a Smith machine, the weight can only move on one plane: up and down. This is because the apparatus guides the weight, so the only muscles that need to work are the ones actively pushing the weight up. In turn, it takes the stabilizer muscles out of the equation. In fact, studies have shown that a free-weight squat can have 43% more muscle activation1!
3) They Allow For Lazy Technique:
Because the barbell is attached to the sliding apparatus, your form isn’t as important in keeping control of the barbell. For example, when performing free-weight squats, the lifter must keep the barbell over the center of gravity. Not doing so can cause all sorts of trouble.
When doing Smith machine squats, the bar is held in place, relying on muscle force production alone to propel the barbell upwards. This rigidity means that, even if your form fails, you might still be able to get the bar up through sheer strength.
Now this isn’t necessarily the fault of the Smith machine, but it does happen and is something you need to be aware of.
Who Shouldn’t Use Smith Machines?
There are two trainee groups who likely won’t benefit as much as others when using the Smith machine.
1) Strength Athletes & Powerlifters:
The Smith machine will likely stunt your strength gains. Plus, any strength athletes who want to compete in the big three lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift) must squat under a barbell. It’s an actual event in the competition, so if you don’t train how you compete, you won’t perform.
If your primary goal is strength, then the Smith machine doesn’t benefit you much.
In addition, the transfer to athletic performance is also blunted as sports and movement happen in free space. Unfortunately, the Smith machine only works on two planes, which limits its real-world application.
Again, free weights would be the superior option for this group.
3 Smith Machine Myths
Okay, we went over the cons. Now, let’s touch on some common myths about the Smith machine. Of course, some of these aren’t necessarily myths, but rather, are misinformed and don’t address the entire topic.
In fact, some of these debunk the thoughts in the section above on what makes the Smith machine “bad.”
1) The Smith Machine Doesn’t Train The Stabilizer Muscles.
So as we saw above, the Smith machine does cut out a lot of muscle activation from stabilizers. However, that assumes the person wants to train the stabilizer muscles.
There are a lot of machines used by people who dislike the Smith machine. For example, the leg press is one of the most common pieces of equipment used almost universally by beginners, veterans, strength athletes, and bodybuilders.
However, no one has ever complained about the leg press not working the stabilizing muscles. You can see the same thing for back row machines, chest press machines, hack squat machine…you see what we’re getting at.
The point is that using stabilizing muscles doesn’t decide a machine’s value. Rather, it just narrows down its specific purpose.
2) The Smith Machine Is Bad For Your Joints.
Similar to the myth about the stabilizer muscles, there is some truth to this. However, that doesn’t mean every exercise is bad. You just need to be mindful of this problem with your exercise selection.
For example, split squats are a great option as your torso should remain vertical. You could argue it may even be better for quad development as it removes the stabilizer muscles (see how the situation dictates if something is good or bad?)
The incline bench press still makes a J pattern when benching, so this may not be as good for the Smith machine, but in shoulder presses, the bar moves straight up. In short, some exercises work better with the Smith machine, while others do not.
So again, these statements are myths because they only apply the statement to certain situations.
3) You Can’t Build Strength With The Smith Machine.
This is just silly. You can improve muscular strength with just about any movement that allows progressive overload.
So here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say your 5-rep max on Smith squats is 200 pounds. You then use progressive overload and increase your five-rep max to 225 pounds. What happened?
Naysayers will likely say something about how it’s not real strength as the stabilizer muscle groups aren’t being trained. While this isn’t entirely untrue, your primary muscle groups are still getting stronger.
To be clear, free weight exercises are superior, but acting as if basic physiology doesn’t apply to the Smith machine is silly.
Still, what if you don’t care about strength? Not every exercise we do is ideal for strengthening a muscle. Some are more geared toward hypertrophy, but that doesn’t make that exercise bad.
When Are Smith Machines Good?
Smith machines are definitely beneficial in several situations. Here are legitimate times when you may want to look at the Smith machine.
1) You’re Training For Hypertrophy:
Again, many complaints about the Smith machine assume that people want to train for strength. Yes, the machine stabilizes the weight, but so does every other machine.
Many people prefer stability for muscle hypertrophy as it allows a lifter to hit a muscle group hard. At the same time, it allows compound exercises which means you can move heavy loads.
Some people going through rehabilitation cannot benefit from the added stability in the movements. In fact, machines are generally the preferred piece of equipment used in rehabilitation settings.
The Smith machine allows a large variety of movements with just one machine, making it a valuable tool for this population.
3) Elderly And Special Pops:
Again, not everyone can do barbell squats or other exercises with a barbell. Perhaps their balance is off, or their core muscles aren’t strong enough to support the instability.
As the Smith machine provides added stability with its double rail system, these groups can benefit and still get a safe workout.
What Are The Best Smith Machines?
If you’ve reached the point in which you’ve determined a Smith machine is right for you, your next step is to find one that works well.
For detailed guidance on this, be sure to check out our article on the 7 Best Smith Machines.
My personal favorite is the Force USA G3 as it’s not only a Smith machine but a full cable pulley system machine as well. It would make an awesome singular piece of equipment for a home gym!
The Force USA G3 All-In-One Trainer is the perfect entry level All-In-One Trainer. Combines a power rack, functional trainer, smith machine, chin up station, and core trainer…
Let’s address some of your more frequently asked questions.
Is the Smith machine bad for squats?
Due to the limited movement restrictions, the Smith machine can place unwanted stress on the back. Therefore, we recommend doing a free-weight squat and possibly using the Smith machine for split squat varieties.
Is A smith Machine Bad For Bench Pressing?
Because the bench machine goes up and down, it doesn’t accommodate the natural J-pattern in a proper bench press movement.
Is the Smith machine good for anything?
Absolutely. The Smith machine works well to focus on muscles during compound movements.
Is a Smith machine bar 45 pounds?
No. The barbell of most Smith machines weighs around 30 pounds. However, due to the friction from the sliding apparatus, the barbell can feel even lighter. Different machines will have slightly different measurements, so consider this when counting your load.
Is A Smith machine better or worse than free weights?
We’re not going to use the word “worse.” However, in general, free weights are better than the Smith machine. The free barbell allows freedom of movement and requires more muscle activation. So, for example, for major moves like the bench press, a free weight bench press is likely the better option.
Are Pushups Bad on a Smith Machine?
No! Many people use the Smith machine for incline and decline pushups. Since it allows different heights, it can make these pushups more or less difficult.
Are Smith Machines Dangerous?
Smith machines can be dangerous due to the fixed bar path. But if you use correct form and perform the right types of exercises on them, they are not.
So, Are Smith Machines Bad? What We’ve Learned
With the Smith machine compared to free weight movements such as the barbell bench press or barbell squat, we still think the barbell is the superior training method. The human body just isn’t meant to only move on a singular plane with a fixed path.
But this doesn’t mean the Smith machine isn’t helpful in the right scenarios.
Plenty of gym goers successfully use the Smith machine to achieve their goals, so don’t let the naysayers keep you from incorporating it into your workout.
If you’re interested in adding a Smith machine to your home gym, check out our article on the 7 Best Smith Machines For Home Gyms!
Schwanbeck, Shane; Chilibeck, Philip D; Binsted, Gordon. A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. December 2009. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181