The Smith machine is probably the most polarising piece of gym equipment. Every cheap commercial gym has one, and it’s many folks’ introduction to squats and other barbell lifts. But it’s not a barbell, or anything close to one, and hardcore gym bros scoff at it.
To be sure we’re on the same page here, here’s what a Smith machine looks like. There may or may not be a bench positioned inside of it, but the main feature of the machine is that it has a bar on a track.
The difference between a Smith machine and a barbell
The bar of a Smith machine is horizontal, and you can load plates onto it like a barbell. But thanks to the track, the bar can only move up and down, not in any other direction. If you set the stops properly, it can also ensure that you’ll never drop the bar or pin yourself underneath it. That arguably makes it safer and more approachable than an actual barbell, and that’s why it’s so popular.
But these pros are also its cons. Because the bar is attached to its track, your body doesn’t need to work as hard to stabilise it. A barbell, by contrast, only stays on your back because you are holding it there. The straight up-and-down bar path also doesn’t match the actual motion of many barbell lifts. A bench press should actually curve in a J shape, for example, hitting toward the bottom of your ribcage when the bar is at its lowest point, and ending somewhere above your neck or upper chest when it’s at the top. The Smith machine isn’t set up to mimic that.
And so we arrive at our impasse: The machine is convenient and beginner-friendly, but it restricts movement. Which of these factors trumps the other? Here are a few things to consider.
The dangers of injury are greatly exaggerated
One of the most common arguments against the Smith machine is the fear of injury. But as we’ve discussed before, the idea that specific exercises will hurt you is mostly unfounded.
If people were routinely wrecking themselves on Smith machines, capitalism dictates that manufacturers, gym owners, and (most importantly) gyms’ insurance companies would simply stop tolerating their existence. That’s clearly not the case. There’s also no scientific data that I could find linking injuries to the use of Smith machines. That’s not to say people can’t get hurt using them, but the folks claiming that the machines are dangerous should really be the ones to back up their assertions.
Let’s take the flip side, though: Do Smith machines’ safety features make them safer than barbells? While it’s true that Smith machines make it hard to drop the bar on yourself, the same is true for any appropriate barbell setup. If you’re squatting in a squat rack, you should know how to set the safeties. If you’re benching without safeties, you should have a person spotting you. Barbells and Smith machines are both safe when used properly.
Barbells give you a better workout, sort of
If you’re training for a barbell sport, like powerlifting, you need to learn to lift and stabilise a barbell. A Smith machine won’t teach you the necessary skills to succeed. And if you’re training with barbells to get better at another sport, the barbell lift may be the better option.
But does everybody need barbells? This boils down to the machines vs. free weights argument all over again. Free weights (including barbells and dumbbells) require a bit more skill and coordination than machines, and they also activate more stabilizing muscles. If you value those things, you’ll be better off with free weights than with any machine.
But not everybody is in a place to choose between the two. Some gyms only have a Smith machine, and no barbell, so you have to work with what you’ve got. And some people are happy to train with both free weights and Smith machines, so their stabilizers aren’t getting neglected after all.
Plenty of people get strong and jacked with Smith machines
Look, I’m into barbell sports. I enjoy weightlifting and powerlifting and strongman, and I will take a barbell over a machine any day. I think I last used a Smith machine in the 20-teens and it was just because I was sick of the multi-step process of setting up a hip thrust station with a barbell. But I also recognise that not everyone is like me.
Pro bodybuilder John Meadows, for example, has a YouTube channel that is full of tips on using Smith machines to build muscle. For example, here’s one on leg exercises that includes a crucial tip on how to avoid strain on your knees: Set up with your feet in front of the bar, instead of right underneath it as you would for a barbell squat.
He has similar tips for bench press and other lifts, and after watching a few videos, it’s clear that for someone who is only trying to build muscle, not train for a specific sport, the Smith machine is a perfectly cromulent tool. It has its pros and cons, but plenty of people find it useful and effective.
How to know if the Smith machine is for you
I don’t love Smith machines, personally, even though I recognise that they have their uses. If you’re looking for my advice on whether to use the one at your gym, here’s how I recommend thinking about it.
If you’re training for a sport, especially a strength sport, barbells will be the most efficient way to train for strength, stabilisation, and coordination. Other free weights like dumbbells and kettlebells may be good options, as well. If you use Smith machines at all, they should be only a part of your training and not the main way you lift heavy.
If you’re afraid of barbells, I recommend getting over it and learning how to use them. Just because you can get stronger with a Smith machine doesn’t mean you should let fear determine how you work out.
If your gym doesn’t have barbells, a Smith machine is a lot better than nothing. Supplement your Smith machine training with whatever else the gym offers, like heavy dumbbells.
If you’re trying to avoid the Smith machine at all costs, be aware of the tradeoffs you’re making. For example, if your gym has a limited selection of dumbbells, you may reach a point where you can’t do progressive overload while sticking to dumbbell exercises. It’s better to do a Smith machine exercise with challenging weight than to spin your wheels with light dumbbells just because of your feelings about the machine.
So, there you have it: Smith machines are a tool with some serious drawbacks, but if you look at them as completely unacceptable you may be limiting yourself unnecessarily. Make smart decisions based on your goals, and don’t be afraid to lift heavy.