Smith Machine is For Sissies?
Is the Smith Machine superior to free weights?
Let me explain.
There is a time and place for everything, and the Smith Machine does have its place. While I almost never use the Smith Machine, I can argue for its place in a training program.
But before I make an argument for the Smith Machine and tell you when and where it’s best used, let’s look at actual science.
In a 2010 study titled “A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press”, study authors concluded that “The results of this study suggest that strength coaches should consider choosing the free weight bench press over the Smith machine bench press because of its potential for greater upper-body muscular development.” (1)
The study had two testing sessions, each of which entailed either all free weight or all Smith machine testing. In each testing session, each participant's 1RM was established followed by 2 repetitions at 70% of 1RM and 2 repetitions at 90% of 1RM. Results indicated greater activation of the medial deltoid on the free weight bench press than on the Smith machine bench press. Also, there was greater muscle activation at the 90% 1RM load than at the 70% 1RM load.
Basically, for the bench press, the free weight version simply placed more load on the medial deltoid and greater overall muscle activation.
But they both still activated muscle and with the Smith Machine, I would wager that if training alone, it is much safer and if you want to go to or beyond failure, the Smith Machine would be a superior option. Although I can also argue that the fixed plane isn’t advantageous, and it is even more dangerous.
You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to.
That’s one lift. What about others?
Let’s see what one of the foremost experts on hypertrophy, Brad Schoenfeld says.
“Machines have a particular benefit for maximizing muscular development as they allow better targeting of individual muscles (or even portions of a given muscle).”
This is a dude who DOES the studies, and this is his opinion taken straight from his Instagram accounts.
Let’s talk about squats. What does the data say?
Stabilizing muscle activation is on average 43% lower on a Smith machine compared to free-weight squats. (2)
But, if I wanted to target quads, Smith Machine Squats can do that, almost like a leg extension or sissy squat – dat der isolation!
As for overall strength, Smith Machine DOES increase strength, this study backs it up. (3)
Here are my recommendations on Smith Machine use:
- For athletes, ditch the Smith Machine. There is very little transfer to sport. For bodybuilders looking to isolate a given muscle, work it in to overload and go past failure to really target that muscle, like quads on a squat.
- Make sure if you do Smith Machine Squats, you also add in Romanian Deadlifts and other hamstring movements because hamstring recruitment is very minimal in a Smith Machine Squat versus a Barbell Squat.
- Use Smith Machine for non-squat and barbell exercises. Smith Machine Single Arm Row, Shrugs, Split Squats. These are all able to be done safely to truly target the intended muscle
Before you become militant one way or the other, review the science and most of all, TRY the training modality. Ignorance and tribalism don’t only exist in politics, training and nutrition are just as bad.
Smith or not, go get some squats done – THAT’S NOT A GAME!