If you read last week’s article, you likely recall me talking about just how much I hate box squats. Well, today, we’re talking about the one thing I hate more than box squats: the smith machine!
The day SoCal Powerlifting gets a smith machine is the day I quit. Now, if you’re reading an article on socalPOWERLIFTING.net, you likely know enough about powerlifting for me to skip over the conversation of whether or not your smith machine PRs count for anything (they don’t). So I’ll leave it at this: you can probably do more weight on the smith machine than you can on a real barbell. The catch? So can everyone else, and literally no one cares.
So, do I hate the smith machine just because it’s easier? Of course not. This is powerlifting. The sport of arching on the bench and pulling ultra wide stance sumo.
My beef with the smith machine has nothing to do with “cheating.” Powerlifters cheat however we can to lift as much weight as possible.
No, I hate the smith machine because it fucking sucks. Let’s talk about why:
One of the most common complaints against the smith machine is that it locks you into a specific range of motion, increasing injury risk. I agree with this critique whole-heartedly.
Defenders of the smith machine will argue that this is the case with all machines, including those beloved by powerlifters such as the leg press, hack squat, chest supported row, etc. While they do have a point, there’s one key difference. Most of these machines support the back, but the smith machine does not.
At the very least, most machines don’t encourage the user to round or arch their backs in accordance with the machine’s set movement pattern. But when used for squats or deadlifts, the smith machine can often encourage this rounding or arching depending on a lifter’s build, foot positioning, etc. all while the spine is under load.
In theory, beginners should be perfect candidates for the smith machine, but in reality that’s not the case.
Since beginners generally have the least amount of proprioception (body awareness), they’re extremely likely to arch or round their backs a ton at first. Without a neutral spine, the risk of injury skyrockets from the shearing forces created in the arched or rounded positions.
Although it may seem like the smith machine’s rigid bar path would encourage a neutral spine, it doesn’t. Instead, it deprives the beginner the chance to “feel” how a neutral spine will help, because no matter how they stand, the bar path doesn’t change.
In other words, it doesn’t teach beginners how to squat. It teaches them how to smith machine squat, and as soon as you switch ‘em to free weight squats the form all goes to shit.
While I’m far from a big proponent of “functional training” (when the hell are you going to need to flip a 500 lbs tire in your day to day life?), there is something to getting away from strictly machine training.
Stabilization is one of the instagram fitness world’s favorite buzzwords, but it’s become a cliche for a reason. While I’ll never recommend lifting weights on an upside down bosu ball, I’m a huge proponent of strengthening core stability through proper barbell work.
Free weight barbell movements have a much greater impact on your back/core strength. They make you use your core muscles in order to maintain balance. As a result, they strongly reduce the risk of you injuring yourself outside of the gym from a basic task like bending over to pick something up.
Traditional barbell work is also less likely to create imbalances as, while the movement is still obviously repetitive, it will also expose weaknesses naturally (i.e. a weak lower back will round) while the smith machine will hide and possibly further advance these imbalances.
Without the wide range of motion you get from free weight exercises, you aren’t getting the same “total body” muscle activation. Even perfect squat technique in a smith machine means you’re only stressing specific muscle fibers over and over again, instead of working the much wider variety of fibers involved in traditional barbell movements.
Advocates of the smith machine will argue that this can be a good thing as it will cause the fibers used to develop at a faster rate due to these specific fibers bearing all of the stress on their own. That may be true, but it also means you’d need to work in a ton of other exercises to get the same benefits you would from a barbell.
This is similar to the reasoning of why the barbell squat is significantly more beneficial than a leg press. It’s not that the actual piece of equipment is that bad in and of itself; it’s just that there are so many other better options. You simply get more bang for your buck with a traditional barbell movement, all with a lower injury risk and better carryover to competition movements as well as day to day tasks.
This point is a bit obvious, and there’s not much to say, but it’s still worth noting. Obviously, the set movement pattern of the smith machine will massively reduce the carryover of the smith machine to any of the competition movements for powerlifters. This alone is reason enough for the smith machine to be absent from any decent strength training program, besides maybe some light accessory work such as a smith machine shoulder press.
Of course, there are situations where a smith machine’s the best you can do. Not everyone can get a proper power rack for their home gym, after all. If you’re limited on space, it might make more sense than having a separate squat rack and flat bench. Still, a combo rack would serve you better if it’s a space problem.
How do you feel about the smith machine? Do you love it, or do you agree with me? Let us know over on IG.