This article is by Soldier from the Muscle and Brawn forum.
In the basement of the building where I work there is a gym. It’s stocked with all the standard gym fare; A pull down machine, a seated row machine, a flat bench, an incline bench, a decline bench (because, ya’ know, you gotta hit those pecs from every angle bro!), and even the all important biceps and triceps machines. Distinctly lacking, however, is the king of the gym, the lord of lifting devices, the titan of titanic lifts, the power rack!
Even his little buddy the squat rack has been omitted, surely to make room for the super cool adjustable cable machine. But dry your eyes, my large legged lifting brethren. All your squatting needs can be met in style with one gorgeous piece of modern tightening and toning technology. Mr. Smith machine to the rescue!
This scene has been played out in numerous gyms across the country. The beauty of an expertly performed, powerful squat has been replaced by the inherently “safer” smith machine squat. The bar is attached to sliding rails, so there’s no worry about falling over, having to stabilize the bar, or developing big, strong legs that will make you get new jeans.
Even scarier is the idea that people are actually CHOOSING to use the smith machine for lifts like squats, bench press, incline press or overhead press. Here’s why you should avoid the smith machine for most of your lifts.
The smith machine was lauded upon its arrival to the lifting world because it would make squats “safer” by allowing you to move your feet out in front of you, therefore allowing a greater range of motion with less strain on the knee. This statement exposes a dire lack of knowledge about the working of the knee joint. There are two problems with this line of logic.
- The implication is that if you bend the knee LESS, then you will put LESS strain on the knee. In fact, the opposite is true. Stopping the squat without bending the knees all the way places far MORE stress on specific parts of the extremely complex knee joint. If, instead, the squat is performed so the knees are close to their most bent position, the stress is distributed more evenly throughout the knee joint. But we’ve all heard this argument before. It’s been around ever since the day one man squatted deep and another man squatted half way down.
- This is where the smith machine stands alone. By allowing (and even SUGGESTING) that you put your knees out in front of you as you squat, you are placing a sideways, shearing force on the knees. Rest assured the knee is designed very well for keeping your feet directly underneath you while you squat. We’ve been doing it for HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS. Just because you decided to sit in a chair all day for 20 years and now have the mobility and leg strength of an 80 year old who died 2 weeks ago doesn’t mean that your knees aren’t designed to let you squat with your feet directly underneath you. Your abs are designed to resist forces from a number of different angles in order to protect your spine. Your knees, on the other hand, are designed to bend and extend. They DON’T like being pushed sideways, twisted, or pretty much anything else that happens in a smith machine squat or on a football field (Oh man, his knee is NOT supposed to bend that way. Let’s watch 40 replays from every angle!).
There is another reason why the smith machine comes up short. Ask any of the big time squatters where they place the bar on their back and you’ll get tons of different responses. The one thing you will NEVER hear, however is “Eh, I just put it wherever.” There is a reason why most powerlifters take a while to actually unrack the bar after they get on the platform. The bar must be in the perfect place on your back if you want to move the most weight consistently. This is simply impossible with a smith machine. Because the bar must be turned to disengage the hooks and allow the bar to move freely, it’s impossible to consistently place the bar in the same place on your back. This reason alone is enough to keep most serious lifters from even considering using the smith machine for squats!
If you find a traditional barbell squat uncomfortable, welcome to reality! It’s a hard movement to perform, and a hard movement to master, but stick with it, do your research on proper form, and do whatever mobility work you need to do so that you can squat naturally, with your feet underneath you and 800lb on your back, just like God intended.
Seated Pressing Movements
The idea of using a smith machine for pressing movements comes from another huge misconception. Contrary to what you may believe, when you perform barbell movements the bar NEVER goes straight up and down. NEVER. EVER. PERIOD. When performing any bench press variation the bar should move slightly away from your head as you lower the weights, then move slightly towards your head as you lift. Let’s look at what happens in a standard flat bench press.
- After the bar is unracked, your arms should be perfectly perpendicular to the ground when viewed from the side. For those of you who didn’t pay attention in geometry, that means they should be straight up and down. This puts the bar directly over your shoulder joints.
- As the bar starts to descend, the elbows begin tucking to your sides. This tucking allows you to use more muscles in the lift, but also protects your vulnerable shoulder joints. Because the bar must stay more or less directly over the elbow, it will naturally move slightly towards your feet.
- The bar touches the chest between the nipple line and the bottom of the pec muscle, approximately 6 inches closer to your feet than it would be if the bar came straight down.
While it’s true that lifting free weights forces you to stabilize the weights, thereby activating more musculature and initiating greater strength-building adaptations in the body, this is NOT the only benefit of using free weights. Barbells and dumb bells also allow your body to move in a more natural way while lifting, which means you will actually be SAFER then you will be with machines guiding your path (even machines names Smith), in contrast to popular opinion.
Most people set up for a smith machine bench press by positioning the bar directly over the shoulders, which forces them to unnaturally flare the arms during the decent and bring the bar to the upper chest, creating a very dangerous position for the shoulders.
When people set up for the smith machine incline press they CAN’T put the bar directly over the shoulder because they would hit their chin on the way down, therefore they place the bar in a position that has their arms tilted towards the feet at the top of the movement. This is also a dangerous, unnatural position that puts undue strain on the shoulders and elbows.
During the seated military press the bar starts on the top of the chest, then as the bar is pressed upwards it moves backwards after the head is cleared. Again, NOT in a straight line up and down, and forcing yourself to move in such an unnatural way is just asking for problems.
Most serious lifters avoid the smith machine like the plague, and I know that many gym-goers don’t understand why. Rest assured, it’s NOT out of respect for tradition or out of some misguided attempt to be “hard core”. The rise of new equipment like bands and chains prove that lifters are always open to new ideas that will help them reach their goals, but the smith machine, unfortunately, is NOT among them. In the end the smith machine just isn’t good for much more than taking up the space where a power rack SHOULD be. I’m happy to have access to a gym in the same building where I work, but it’s a shame that I’ll never be able to use it for my lower body training. I’ll never use a smith machine for my big lifts, and you shouldn’t either!