Although the Smith machine is constantly in use, it has no shortage of critics. What is the Smith machine accused of that makes it so bad?
Detractors accuse it of being unnatural – which of course it is. What gym exercise is natural? Every exercise is either an unnatural movement or it’s trained in an unnatural way. When have you ever had to lower a huge weight down to your chest, press it back up and repeat several times? When was the last time you had to place a load on your back and squat up and down with it? Or picked something off the floor and flung above your head in one fell swoop (babies aside). All of course on flat ground and with an evenly loaded object. Even a chin up happens rarely and certainly not for multiple times. None of the exercises done in the gym are ‘natural’ or resembles anything you encounter on a daily basis.
It has a fixed bar path
Admittedly It does fix you into one plane of motion. However, this criticism isn’t levelled at other machine weights, sled pushing or many strongmen events which it would be just as true for. Even many properly executed free weight exercises require a straight bar path if you are to do them correctly.
It doesn’t work your stabilisers
Would your stabiliser muscles really wilt the second you even look at the Smith machine? No, because it makes no difference if the bar is fixed or free. Stability is not trained on heavy lifts, it’s a prerequisite. When a muscle takes on the role of antagonist, neutraliser or fixator then stability is already happening. All these anticipatory contractions occur in the joint because you are moving, not because you are having to balance something. Besides I’m still yet to fall over or drop a bar mid exercise, so which free weight lift do you do that really tests your balance and coordination?
It’s not functional
What about developing functional strength? Well, the Smith machine can help you gain muscle and make you stronger, that’s about it. Not everything has to be super specific to be ‘functional’. Whether any benefit of getting bigger and stronger translates into enhanced sporting performance or is a transferable skill just depends on the task in question.
Let’s not be so hasty
Before you join the mob and denounce it as the gym equivalent of training wheels or a glorified clothes rail, allow me to explain why I believe it is a useful piece of kit.
Every piece of equipment can be misused, cause injury and has limitations and certainly the Smith machine is not the right tool for every job. But, it doesn’t have to be a barbell simulator. It is often as good and sometimes even better than a barbell in its own way. Here are a few exercises where I feel this to be the case:
1: Seated shoulder press
Overhead pressing is always best done seated and on a steep incline (explained here: 5 exercise tips for healthier shoulders). However, there are problems. Dumbbells are unwieldy to get into position and even a barbell needs to be un-racked and re-racked between sets. Setting the bar at the bottom of the lift limits you to what you can move from this low position. Set the bar at the top and what do you do if you can’t complete the rep?
With the Smith machine, you can position yourself to benefit from the optimal line for the entire range of motion of the exercise. You can also rack and un-rack the bar at a height of your choice.
2: Hack squat
Depending on your reasons for squatting you could just do all your squats in a Smith machine as a regular squat uses a pretty straight bar path. But the Smith machines real value comes by using it to do something that you can’t do with a barbell.
By positioning your feet in front rather than underneath you, you can lean against the bar and maintain a completely upright torso throughout the exercise. The trunk will still be engaged (you have a bar on your back after all) but it places the emphasis and lion’s share of the work on the legs.
This is a particularly good option if you want to squat in the higher rep ranges and do not want your back giving out before your legs.
3: Incline bench
The Smith machine is no good for a flat bench press as the bar moves from the lower region of your chest to directly over your shoulders on a diagonal or ‘J’ shaped bar path. However, with an incline the bar path is straighter.
This is a helpful addition to a regular bench press for chest development and a bigger bench as it suits higher rep ranges and isn’t limited by what you can un-rack or get into position (unlike the barbell or dumbbell variations).
4: Drag curls
This rarely used bicep exercise is best done on the Smith machine because of the fixed plane of motion. The bar remains close to the lifter throughout the movement so there is less chance of leaning back to counter balance. As the elbow flexes the shoulder extends which keeps the biceps at a good length during the entire exercise (this is known as a muscles length-tension relationship).
Don’t do this exercise too heavy or try to move the bar higher than the top of your abs.
5: Supine/ inverted rows
Apart from pull ups and chin ups, there are not many bodyweight exercises available for your upper back. This row variation isn’t the best for lat development but a great choice for the rear delts.
The Smith is ideal as the bar does not roll or slide and it is easy to adjust the height of the bar, giving you more control over the angle at which you do the exercise.