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Is the Smith machine good or bad? And will it get you injured? (or will it build muscle?)

By Henry Wilson
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Before investing in even the best home Smith machine, it's crucial to learn whether the Smith machine is actually good or bad. After all, it takes some balls to move away from gym equipment as tried and tested as barbells.

Of course, you can and should use both free weights and machines (looks like I spoiled the ending). However, depending on your goals, you'll want to prioritise one over the other.

So, is the Smith machine bad for you? And can you build muscle with Smith machines?

I'll answer those questions, and many more, in just a moment.

What is a Smith machine?

Man working out his legs

But first. What is a Smith machine? Here's the Smith machine definition: a Smith machine is a resistance training machine that offers barbell style training in a fixed plane of motion. In other words, the bar can only move up and down.

As such, it's a popular piece of gym equipment for those who want to train without a spotter, because you can easily re-rack the bar at any point during a rep.

Are Smith machines bad?

strong man training his legs in a gym

Many people, particularly free weight purists, strongly believe that Smith machines are bad.

They'll say that Smith machines aren't natural (yeah, that old chestnut). Yet they'll proceed to lower heavy pieces of metal over their neck and chest as if bench pressing has always been a perfectly normal activity since the dawn of time.

Listen, fellas. There's nothing "natural" about lifting big metal objects for the sole purpose of looking muscular. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with such a past time, either. But bodybuilding—of all kinds—is a relatively new phenomenon. And—roids or no roids—it's far from natural.

"Yeah but Smith machines force you into a fixed plane of motion" Oh really? Well so does gravity. But I'm not going to go and live on the moon, am I?

Man training his shoulders using the smith machine

Ok, I'll admit that Smith machines can stress your joints...if you use poor form. Otherwise, they're actually much safer than free weights (you'll learn why in a minute).

Plus, a fixed plane of motion is actually ideal for building muscle because you can focus purely on your prime movers. Because let's be honest, nobody besides scientists cares about the size of your "stabiliser muscles". Whatever they really are.

But big arms and a muscular chest? Oh, they'll get people talking alright.

Smith machine pros and cons

Pro: Stronger mind-muscle connection

bodybuilder doing shrugs in the gym

As mentioned, since Smith machines naturally remove the balance factor from the lifting equation, you can focus purely on stimulating the working muscles. This training style provides you with a more potent pump and enables you to establish a stronger mind-muscle connection.

And, over time, it leads to faster muscle growth since you'll naturally stimulate higher levels of protein synthesis (the key driver of hypertrophy) with each session.

Pro: Increased confidence

woman training her legs inside the gym

I've seen a gazillion free weight fails in my time. But I hardly ever see a Smith machine fail. Want to know why?

It's because Smith machines are much safer than free weights (yes, I said it). How so?

Simple. With a Smith machine, you can re-rack the bar at any point during a set with a simple wrist turn (you can't do this with free weights). Plus, the safety stoppers have always got your back, even if you accidentally make a cock-up of the barbell racking.

Naturally, this inherent safety encourages you to train to failure. Which, in turn, stimulates faster and more abundant muscle growth.

Pro: Quicker muscle growth

Body Builder Putting Weights On Bar In Gym

I'm not going to deny the muscle-building prowess of free weights. After all, barbells and dumbbells have built more mass monsters than just about any other piece of gym equipment.

However, I'm willing to bet that anyone who got jacked from lifting free weights could've gained size even faster by prioritising machines. Why?

Because with machines, your stabilisers never hold back the main muscles that you're trying to work. Removing the balance factor from the equation leads to faster size gains because your main muscle groups are always receiving full stimulation. That's why bodybuilding Smith machine workouts are so effective for bulking up.

Con: Fixed plane of motion

sporty woman doing back squats

A fixed plane of motion is the most commonly cited disadvantage by Smith machine haters. Me? I say let them hate.

If they want to strengthen their stabiliser muscles (rotator cuffs, etc.) with free weights, then more power to them. I work my rotator cuffs too (with cables).

But when it comes to the bulk of my weight training, I'm not pumping heavy iron to get in my physio's good books—I'm lifting to get jacked.

And the more specific the range of motion, the better. Because it means that the tension is going precisely where I want it to. Namely, on the muscles that I'm trying to work.

Con: A false sense of strength

bodybuilder performing behind the back shrugs

Most of the lads in my gym, including me, are significantly stronger on Smith machines than they are with free weights. Obviously, this is great for gaining size because it means that you can overload your muscles with more resistance.

However, you might get a shock when you try to lift the same weight with an Olympic barbell. Because chances are, your stabiliser muscles will need a few weeks to acclimatise to the additional balance requirements [1].

Now, that said, I read a study a while back that showed that people were, on average, 3% stronger on free-weight presses than on Smith machine presses. So it just goes to show that you naturally excel at the lifts you train for (I'm presuming the subjects were, like most fellas, more used to lifting free weights).

Con: Complex setup

two girls working out

Obviously, whether or not a Smith machine is bad from a setup perspective depends on the particular exercise that you're performing.

If you have to manoeuvre a bench across a weight room (which often resemble obstacle courses) then yes, the setup can be a bit of a nightmare. And it's actually one reason why I now train at home.

Otherwise, the setup is pretty straightforward. Especially since Smith barbells are usually slightly elevated already, which means that you don't have to bend down as much to load discs onto the bar.

Smith machine injury risk and accidents

sporty man wincing in pain

Out of all the Smith machine problems discussed, injury is by far the biggest concern for most people. Thankfully, however, Smith machine injuries are pretty rare indeed. Especially when compared with free weight accidents, which are devastatingly common. Nonetheless, they do still happen.

For example, one fella from America become a quadriplegic when the Smith machine crushed his spine. According to the source, this was because the machine he was using didn't have a high enough dead stop [2].

Similarly, one poor girl from England became paralysed from the waist down while doing squats. Sophie Butler lost her footing, and the 70kg bar fell onto her spine. But despite her injuries, she's back in the gym doing what she loves. And her story will leave you feeling inspired—that I can promise [3].

What you'll notice about these accidents, is that they're freak accidents. They're not something that occurs every month or even every year. But free weight injuries? Oh, those happen all the time. In fact, people die every single year from dropping barbells on themselves.

FAQ

Do Smith machines build muscle?

bodybuilder doing smith machine shrugs

Yes, if you train consistently and consume enough high-quality protein, then you can see noticeable muscle gains from using the Smith machine.

Do Smith machines cause injuries?

sporty woman with knee pain

In rare cases, yes, Smith machines can cause injuries. However, in general, Smith machines are much safer than free weights because you only need to turn your wrist a few degrees to re-rack the barbell.

Is using a Smith machine cheating?

a muscular man with a syringe

While it's true that the Smith machine balances the bar for you, it doesn't actually lift the weight for you. So no, I definitely don't consider using a Smith machine a form of cheating.

Will a Smith machine help with muscle imbalances?

close up of a woman's quadricep muscles

Performing unilateral exercises is the best way to reduce muscle imbalances. However, since you don't have you rely on your stabiliser muscles to lift the weight (which are always more developed on the stronger side of your body), the Smith machine is significantly better than free weight for improving your muscular symmetry.

What is a Smith machine used for?

Young woman working out on a Smith machine in a modern gym

The Smith machine is used by weight trainees who want to gain muscle and strength without the assistance of a spotter. It's also used by bodybuilders who wish to place a greater emphasis on particular muscle groups to make them grow larger.

What's the most effective Smith machine lubricant?

person spraying silicone lubricant on machinery

I personally use the silicone-based WD-40. However, you should definitely check with the manufacturer of your particular Smith machine for recommendations.

What's a good Smith machine maintenance regime?

Man cleaning gym equipment

To maintain your Smith machine, lubricate the moving parts with a silicone-based spray every month. Then, every 3-6 months, check the tightness of the bolts, to ensure that the frame is still sturdy.

Who is the Smith machine inventor?

Jack-lalanne flexing his muscles

The Smith machine was invented by an American man called Jack LaLanne. It was later improved upon by Rudy Smith and Paul Martin [4].

Why is it called a Smith machine?

thinking women with question mark on white background

Smith machines (also called Smith cages) are named after Rudy Smith. He was a men's bathhouse manager in the 1950s, and he noticed Jack LaLanne's interesting invention. Smith then commissioned Paul Martin to improve the concept, and that's how the modern-day Smith machine came about.

Did Dorian Yates use the Smith machine?

Dorian-yates flexing his bicep

Yes, Dorian Yates was a big proponent of using the Smith machine for bodybuilding purposes. Dorian wasn't satisfied with his leg growth from regular squats, so he switched to the Smith machine version. And he saw excellent results. He also used it for incline presses and shoulder presses for much the same reason [5].

Are Smith machines good for bodybuilding?

bodybuilder flexing his muscles

Yes, the Smith machine effectiveness is particularly apparent in bodybuilding style training. This is because it allows you to place greater emphasis on particular muscle groups, which leads to faster hypertrophy.

Can you put a Smith machine on a 2nd floor?

interior of a home gym with sports equipment

Obviously, you'll need to assess the structural integrity of your own home. But I don't see why not. I know many people who have Smith machines and home gyms on their second floors, and they've never had an ounce of trouble.

So, is the Smith machine good or Bad?

It's time for the moment of truth: are Smith machines good or bad?

While there are certainly some undeniable Smith machine disadvantages—cumbersome setup, questionable free weight carryover—It's hard to argue that Smith machines themselves are inherently evil.

fitness equipment for strength training at a gym

Like with most gym equipment, the quality and magnitude of your results are determined by the kind of form that you train with on the Smith machine. Heavy, full range of motion Smith machine training will always produce superior results to half rep free weight workouts.

So, are Smith machines any good?

You bet they are! If you're training for pure size like me, then Smith machines are arguably the most effective training tool that you can use. After all, they essentially mimic barbell exercises, but without any of the disadvantages (stabilisation, the need for a spotter, etc.)

Do you agree? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Let me know if you've made gains with the Smith machine, or if you hate it with a fiery passion.

Until next time.

Henry Wilson
I'm an experienced research assistant who's responsible for the scientific accuracy of the information provided by Smith Machine UK. When I'm not analysing the latest studies from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and advising university physiology departments, you'll find me cycling in the great British countryside.
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