Can we ban the smith machine already?

Fitness. Diving. Lifestyle.

Can we ban the smith machine already?

There are not a lot of things in this world that are completely useless.   Even chocolate teapots can be both edible and presumably delicious.

The smith machine however doesn’t even fall into this hallowed category.  It’s actually a step below it; not only does it have no discernible utility it actually does more harm than good.

Why, therefore does there seem to be at least one in every single gym?

Here’s what it looks like, so you can make sure to give it a wide berth:

For those who are lucky enough not to have ever used one it is essentially a bar attached to vertical rails on each side, which fix the plane of motion and allow you to rack the weight at pretty much any height.

It balances the weight for you with the idea that you don’t need a spotter since you can just twist the bar at any time and safely re-rack it.

What, is wrong with that, you might ask.

The logic

The main component of the smith machine’s success is the fact that it looks like it makes sense.  To be specific, it looks like it is both safer and easier than using free weights or a free bar.

When you move around free weights (unfixed to anything) there is always an element of balance required that limits how much you can work the target muscle. For example in the free weigth bench press the major muscles working are the pectorals (chest) and the triceps (back of the upper arm).

However your shoulder muscles (deltoids) and ligaments are also being used to balance the bar.  To a lesser extent you are also using your back (lats), core and even your legs to stabilise the weight and increase your pressing power.

The balance element and the requirement to work all these different muscles makes the exercise much harder, because you can’t just concentrate on pushing as hard as you can with your principle movers, you have to consider keeping the weight from falling on your face or tipping on either side etc.

This is why you’re always stronger on machines, simply because you can push harder.

The smith machine is essentially a giant machine: by fixing the path of the bar and supporting it it means you can concentrate on working the target muscles (like the pectorals for bench pressing or the quads for squatting), with the added bonus that if you can’t lift it you can rack the bar at any point and save yourself.

The problem(s)

The fitness industry is notoriously unregulated and when you see certified personal trainers using or encouraging the use of the smith machine it is evident that sometimes pieces of paper and words like ‘qualified’ don’t really mean anything.

I’m not hating, it’s just that it is so obvious to me, an ‘uncertified’ regular joe how bad the smith machine actually is.

It is because you’re not meant to move in straight lines.

If you look at anyone benchpressing with a free bar or squatting with a free bar on their back you’ll notice that everyone’s bar path is not only not 100% vertical, but characteristic to their own individual build.

It all depends on your particular muscle imbalances, limb length, strength and relative proportions (like the length of your arms relative to your torso, or your thigh length relative to your overall height).

There are of course basic form cues and a basic template for a ‘correct’ movement but each person essentially has to find their own safe and efficient movement that will allow development without compromising joints and putting strain on unnecessary areas.

The fixed bar path of the smith machine doesn’t allow any of this.  It forces you, regardless of your size and proportions, to move the bar directly up and down, which will put unnecessary strain on your shoulders if you’re benching or knees if you’re squatting.

Worse still its false impression of safety means that you’re likely to put on more weight than you can handle, putting even more stress on your joints.

On top of it all you’re not developing co-ordination, balance and strength in the supporting muscles, which means that functionally you’re not improving: squatting in the smith machine is not going to help you run faster or be more powerful in a sport simply because in real life your movements are not guided and supported by two metal rails.

Ever seen the guy benchpressing ‘100 kgs’ in the smith machine?  Put him under a free bar and he’ll be lucky to hit 80 kgs for more than few reps.

Are there REALLY no positives?

Short of melting it down and selling the metal off to buy a squat rack I really, honestly, can’t think of any.

It makes my knees hurt when I see anyone squatting in one, especially when they’re doing it right next to a nice, safe squat track with a bar.

I think it’s a good example of how ‘optimising’ exercises can backfire.  A lot of commercial gyms are always on the lookout for a new-improved way to exercise, from vibrating mats to ever more complicated systems of pulleys and levers to isolate a muscle no-one has even heard of.

I’m all for progress, but with training it’s often the case that the tried-and-tested ways are the best.  The problem is that at first, the old ways are not always the easiest.  But practice and knowledge makes perfect.

If you value your joint health as well as actually getting functionally stronger and more balanced, you can do yourself a giant favour by avoiding the smith machine completely.

If you’re a gym owner or gym manager reading this can you just get rid of yours and make some room for a squat rack?


4 Responses

  1. nadia says:

    I don’t know if I should laugh or cry about it but it’s exactly what the gym owner makes us do during “girls” training!
    Gotta say my muscles are sore after using it (and not the wrong ones) but what do I know, I’m definitely in the zero-to-some-exercise phase 😛

    • steve81570 says:

      I don’t know if that is funny or not either…is there also a squat rack? Free weights will take more time and practice to do properly but it really is worth the effort, and much better for your joints. Soreness is ok but it doesn’t accurately tell you how much you have worked, (i.e. being more sore doesn’t equal a better workout) and in the long term the smith machine is not going to be good for you! Insist that he shows you how to do the exercise without the machine!! Or if you want I can show you one time.

      Also there shouldn’t be a difference between ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ training…but keep up the good work!

  2. nadia says:

    There must be a squat rack as well, but I also do them without the machine and less weight during fitness courses. He really follows us personally when using the machine though, every rep, ensuring we do it right. I don’t feel it strains my knees more then the “free” ones, but maybe it depends on how much weight you put on?
    As for the difference between girls and boys of course there isn’t in theory, it’s just that he created a class to motivate us girls to train the lower body muscles (and be bikini ready! LOL)and guys are too proud to come (may I add not enough to watch though)!

    • steve81570 says:

      The problem isn’t the weight, it is that the movement is unnatural. The free version is natural and develops coordination, balance and strengthens all the balancing muscules as well, so it is more beneficial.

      It is of course up to you, but personally I would concentrate on doing the free version, which has more advantages and will be more natural for your knees and joints in the long term.

      I can imagine the guys being too proud to be taught, though I’m sure he doesn’t mind either just having to carefully watch you girls perform every rep lol!

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