DID YOU KNOW ?
The Smith Machine is a popular device in most commercial gyms, featuring an often bearing-mounted and counter-balanced barbell with hooks on its sides running up and down two vertical, or near vertical, steel rails. The integrated barbell can be racked at various levels with a quick turn of the wrist, which can be useful to prevent it from coming down on the user when failing in any lift. This perceived safety aspect makes the Smith Machine particularly attractive for beginners and early intermediate lifters, as it allows them to safely perform the most barbell exercises relying on the machine’s linear guidance and not requiring any spotter. Unfortunately, depending on the assistance provided by the Smith machine eliminates the need to balance the bar. This comes at the price of not adequately developing the stabilizing muscles and surrounding structures required to perform the equivalent lifts with free weights and to control the body’s posture while performing them. The resulting muscle imbalances will increase the risk to incur an injury when performing the corresponding exercises with free weights or engaging in other physical activities.
Additionally, the Smith Machine does not support acquiring the proper technique of certain barbell compound movements, particularly of those, where the barbell does not naturally travel in a vertical linear path throughout the motion. When beginners and intermediate gym-enthusiasts perform such exercises exclusively in the Smith Machine’s enforced “up and down” fashion, it will promote poor biomechanics and will cause a rude awakening, when they eventually attempt to perform the respective movements with free weights. Even worse, the frequent use of the Smith Machine with its strict up and down motion may over time result in undue stress on the joints and involved connective tissues.
A good example for one exercise, which should definitely NEVER be performed by anyone in a Smith Machine with vertical guide tracks, is the Flat Barbell Bench Press, as the Smith Machine does not allow to perform this exercise in its natural movement pattern.
When correctly performing the free-weight Flat Barbell Bench Press, the barbell does not travel up in an entirely vertical path throughout the motion, but it rather moves in a diagonal path from the middle of the chest back to its top position right over the shoulder joints. The barbell’s touch-down point on the chest and its top position over the shoulder joints diverge by several inches, a divergence, which the strict vertical bar-path of the Smith Machine does not accommodate. When bench pressing on a Smith Machine, the body needs to be positioned so that the bar will be able to touch the middle chest at the bottom of the lift, but the Smith Machine will not allow to push the bar backwards towards its natural top position right over the shoulders. While the barbell would actually need to ascend slightly diagonally and backwards, the Smith Machine constrains the bar to move straight up along its vertical guide rods, which the shoulder joints must compensate for. This can over time cause severe stress and injury to the shoulder joints.
The above explanation does not mean to imply that the Smith Machine is entirely without merits, but is intended to make you aware of the machine’s shortcomings. Advanced athletes, who already master the technique of the vital compound movements and have developed strong stabilizer muscles by regularly engaging in plenty of free weight training, can certainly get benefits from occasionally using a Smith Machine. This especially applies for movements where the barbell travels in a linear path, such as a Bent-Over Row, Romanian Deadlift, or Calf Raises, standing on a block, etc. After being fatigued from performing several sets of free-weight Barbell Bench Press, it can also be a good idea to perform another two or three sets of Incline Press in a Smith Machine; after all, during Incline Press, the bar’s top position and its touch-down point on the upper chest do not diverge as significantly as during the Flat Bench Press, which makes the Smith Machine ok to use for this movement. The Smith Machine can also be be helpful tool for those returning from an injury and trying to get back into their work-out routine.
However, beginners and early intermediate gym-enthusiasts should definitely not exclusively rely on the Smith Machine for practicing their barbell exercises. In order to establish a solid foundation, beginners and early intermediate lifters need to primarily concern themselves with learning the correct techniques of the most essential basic free-weight compound movements, which can only be achieved performing them with free weights. This will not only be the best approach to mastering the correct natural movement patterns of these exercises, but will also best activate and develop the targeted muscle groups while improving strength in the necessary stabilizing musculature to stay safe and over time become able to progress to heavier lifts without injuries.