Safety First

The smith machine is probably one of the most popular pieces of equipment people love to use in the gym. In fact, in most gyms, it’s never free. It’s always occupied. People love it! Not only is it easy to use, you can do a huge variety of exercises in it. The smith machine is pretty multifunctional and if you have an exercise in mind, I can guarantee you the smith machine will accommodate it.

But it’s not just its ease of use and multi-functionality that is attractive to lifters, it’s also the sense of safety it provides. In free weight exercises, you only have your body and nothing else to help control and stabilize the weight in a safe fashion. With the smith machine, it does it all for you; all you have to do is lift the weight. This all makes it sound like the smith machine is every weightlifters dream come true. But is it? Well, I will be honest, the smith machine gives lifters the illusion that it’s safe, but in reality, it’s actually quite the opposite. Interested? Then read further.

Stabilizer Muscles

One of the reasons why free weights are so great is because you get to build up the strength of your stabilizer muscles. Simply put, those muscles that support you during an exercise. Not only will your muscles allow you to move weight, there will also be muscles that keep your body in a safe, optimal and efficient position while moving that weight. If not, your body will tend to compensate and bring other muscle groups into play that shouldn’t. In other words, your body risks adopting inefficient behavior to get the weight you want, up. That means, a risk of injury. This all sounds like simple stuff, but the problem is, not enough people pay attention to the role of these stabilizers in movement execution. Without them, you are always going to be walking a fine line between training injured or injury free. Not to mention, it’s going to be a tough task making long-term size and strength gains without great stabilizers!

In a free weight movement, you only have your body to support the weight. Nothing else: no machine, no frame, and no assistance. It’s simply just you and the weight you intend to move. This means your body has to play a dual role: lifting weight and supporting it at the same time. I know you body never has it easy! Ok, so it’s a lot for your body to ask, but luckily biology has provided your body with a way of dealing with this: stabilizers. In any free weight exercise while your body attempts to move a desired weight (the working of prime movers and antagonists), their will be other muscles working at the same time to make sure it is held in the best position possible to support this weight (stabilizers). Without these stabilizers, your body would simply have no way of keeping itself in a safe position or, it would simply try to compensate too much.

Smith Machine Squat

  • This shows a typical barbell back squat and a smith machine version.
  • In the barbell back squat A will be your stabilisers (core, hip musculature and back) supporting the weight during the movement. With B your primary movers (glutes and hamstrings in hip extension and quads in knee extension).
  • Without strong stabilisers, your core and back would just collapse under the free weight squat. It doesn’t matter how strong your quads, glutes and hamstrings are. If you have weak stabilisers you won’t be able to keep your body in a optimal position to carry out the movement with maximum force.
  • In the smith machine squat, the question mark highlights the lack of stabiliser muscle influence – no need for core, back and hip musculature stabilisation. The smith machine takes care of this. Although you still work your glutes, hamstrings and quads, you get no stabilisation development. No great for long-term progress!

The No Go Zone Of The Smith Machine

So where does the smith machine come into all this? Well, a smith machine is not a free weight exercise, which means one thing: little to no stabilizer action. Most people choose the smith machine over free weights for one reason: safety. It is believed that smith machine substitutes of popular free weight compounds such as bench, squat and shoulder press are much safer. This might come as a surprise to you, but they are actually MUCH MORE dangerous than people realize. The main feature of the smith machine is the frame itself. Now, you don’t have to worry about stabilizing the bar in the air, the machine does it for you! All you have to do is get under the bar and push. That’s pretty simple, right? Well, this is what makes the smith machine such a popular piece of equipment: the hard work is really done for you. That means your stabilizers don’t need to work nearly as hard enough (or at all!) to ensure support of the weight. They can take extended vacation time!

What Happens With Too Much Smith Machine Work?

If you were to keep prioritizing the smith machine over free weight versions of popular exercises, then you risk a path of problems. I am not going to lie, you might not experience them now and it might be smooth sailing for you for a while, but the problems will be building up. Sooner or later they will definitely creep up and strike. So, don’t pay the price for that!

The major problem is simply lack of development of stabilizer muscles means terrible performance on free weight exercises. Believe it or not, most people fail to make progress on major compound exercises not because their prime movers can’t move the weight, but because they can’t maintain a strong body position during the lift. They just don’t have the stabilization strength for it. Without getting into some tricky physics (no one likes that!) if your body ends up taking all sorts of weird positions and shortcuts during an exercise (e.g. knees cave in, back collapses, your hips sway) then that’s going to fundamentally change the efficiency of the movement. Chances are, it just becomes harder for you!

The simple fact is, without strong stabilizers you are never going to be able to maintain an optimal and safe body position in order to produce the maximum force needed. Simply ask yourself the question: How can I increase the weight over time, if my body can’t support it? Yes, your body will naturally try to compensate and bring other muscles into play so you can at least finish the movement. But, it’s still not a safe or optimal alternative for the long-term.

Smith Machine Squat.png

  • This graph shows what tends to happen when people substitute common free weight exercises (squat, shoulder presses, bench) for smith machine versions.
  • As you can see, you are still working the primary movers in a smith machine version, but this time, the smith machine takes over the role of your stabilisers. This means that over time, the more you perform these exercises in the smith machine, the development of your stabilisers will fall behind leaving you at risk of injury if you try to perform the free weight versions (A).
  • Without properly developed stabilisers, it becomes difficult for your body to maintain an optimal, safe position during an exercise. It will also struggle to support the weight in the safest way possible. This makes it difficult to overload over time.
  • It’s not just about developing your prime movers, it’s all important for long-term progress to develop your stabilisers. This is why the smith machine is a NO GO for long-term gains.

 

Stabilization Is Key

There are lots of problems when it comes to using the smith machine to replace conventional free weight movements. I haven’t mentioned all the problems or the article would become too long. But, one of the main problems that whizz over people’s heads is lack of stabilization work. This is why I will never recommend people use the smith machine: it fails to address one of the most fundamental mechanisms that your body needs to develop in order to ensure optimal and safe performance in the gym: stabilization.

Free Weight Squat.png

  • This graph represents what happens with muscle development over time with free weight exercises. Unlike the smith machine, free weights will not only develop your primary movers, but also your stabilisers.
  • Unlike the smith machine, your body now has the added challenge of stabilising a free bar in the air. This means, your stabiliser muscles have to work equally hard during the movement.

Even if you are starting out or just getting used to the main compound movements, you don’t have to begin with the bar or throw lots of weight on it. You can always begin with your bodyweight, then progress to dumbbells and then finally the bar. The reason why free weight movements are always more difficult is because you also have the added element of stabilizing and controlling the weight (unlike the smith machine). But this is good and exactly what you want! It means you are not only developing your prime movers (those used in moving the weight), but also those involved in maintaining optimal body position during the exercise. Not only will this reduce the chances of injury in the long-term, it will also mean better progress on the essential core movements.



If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below!