Does the Smith Machine Deserve its Tarnished Reputation?
When you why should use the Smith Machine
The Smith Machine seems to capture the mockery of the lifting community. It’s developed a reputation as the squat rack with bumpers aka “training wheels”, or the bench press for newbs. And while yes, there are newbie lifters who use as a crutch, a lot gets lost in the finger wagging of its use.
You just have to Google “Smith Machine” and get a glimpse of the type of ire this piece of gym equipment produces. The one machine in the gym you should never use
How The Smith Machine Works
For those who don’t know, the Smith Machine is a weight training piece of equipment that uses a rigid, vertical track for a bar to travel along. Sounds simple enough, right? So why the hate?
The Two Types of Smith Machine Haters
Smith Hater #1: Intermediate Lifters
Intermediate lifters can be among the more judgmental lifters in the gym. Yes folks, the Dunning Krueger effect applies to the gym as well and Mt. Stupid is packed full of arrogant “fitness gurus”. We’ve all been there, It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
It seems quite often, intermediate lifters fall into binary thinking. “If you lift with a Smith Machine, you must be too scared to bench or squat” or the slightly more informed retort,“You’re not working your stabilizers, you’re going to develop bad habits.” While there is some truth there, you should grow out of this binary thinking as soon as possible.
Smith Hater #2: The Newbie Follower
None of us want to look stupid at the gym but the guys most at risk of never showing back up due to an embarrassing moment are the newbies. The only problem is, these guys tend to listen to the intermediate gurus up on Mt. Stupid, and without full understanding, unquestioningly adopt an aversion to using a Smith machine all-together.
To both parties, I am here to help.
The reality is the Smith Machine is a tool like any other at the gym. Like all equipment, It can be used intelligently or it can be used poorly. Elite level bodybuilders use the Smith Machine in all sorts of clever ways. The best glute exercise I know, to this day, requires a smith machine.
The Basics of Energy Expenditure
Energy and power levels should be at their highest at the beginning of the workout, so it is advisable to train your hardest and do the most effective work around this point in the workout (What is the goal of training after all if not performing maximal, targeted work on a muscle group to induce micro tears in the muscle). Workouts like Bench Press or Barbell Squats are often done around the beginning of the workout because of their nature as a compound exercise. Compound exercises work using multiple muscles groups together to perform a lift. Whatever your opinion on compound lifts, they’re more generally advisable to be worked into your program earlier in the workout due to their overall energy expenditure. More muscles working means more energy expenditure.
So when should we use it?
1. Later in the workout
While there are no hard and fast rules (you can use them whenever - why limit yourself to RuLeSsSs), the Smith Machine’s controlled motion, limiting the use of stabilizers, means you should use the machine when you’re more fatigued (ie. later in the workout). After two or three heavy compound lifts, Inclined Barbell Bench Presses may be less effective than at the Smith Machine due to stabilizer fatigue. Removing the need for stabilizers, the Smith provides a smarter choice for a late workout chest movement.
2. When you want to work very specific muscle groups
Continuing with the example of a Bench Press, we make note that the chest isn’t just one muscle, but a muscle divided into sections. The Pectoralis Major is divided into the upper (clavicular head), middle (sternal head), and lower (abdominal head) portions. To no ones surprise, targeting these portions of the chest require different movements, who would’ve guessed? There is a general consensus in which to target the upper chest requires performing incline work. To work the lower chest, decline is recommended. There is ample evidence to support this approach to building a fully formed chest.
With a well-developed mind-muscle connection, the Smith Machine offers the lifter the ability to target their muscles (in this case the chest), with even greater precision than upper, mid and lower chest - going as far as a specific portion of the upper chest. This can be especially exciting for the most advanced lifters among us who obsess over the slightest deficiencies in their physiques.
Stabilization can be thought of as a load distributing chain of muscle function. Removing the need for stabilization (as is the case with the Smith machine) offers the lifter that greater precision. This precision is exactly why you shouldn’t overuse the machine, less you develop asymmetric muscle development. It is a double-edged blade.
3. When there are no other ways to perform a movement
Like I said earlier, my favorite glute exercise, the Smith Split Squat, uses a smith machine and while it can be replicated with dumbbells, the wrist fatigue of holding dumbbells prevents you from going as heavy as you could using the smith machine. In the video below, notice how there is a twist added in to accentuate the glute squeeze. Try doing that with a pair of dumbbells.
To lend an olive branch, safety is a major concern with any movement that is restricted like it is with the Smith Machine. So you must do your homework and learn how to effectively use it.
The Smith hate rings hallow to anyone who has been around the block a few times. And while Planet Fitness’s bad reputation amongst bodybuilders does not help their case, anyone looking to get serious in the gym needs to understand the potential of the Smith machine. Just be smart about how and when you use it, less you reveal yourself as just another “guru atop Mt. Stupid”.