Most commercial gyms these days will contain a Smith Machine or two, and their large impressive shiny frames and apparent ease of use tend to have the effect of luring less experienced exercisers into the clutches of their attractive looking, but unfortunately rather poorly designed mechanical frames. Despite being so prevalent in so many gyms for so many years, there are a number of serious flaws in both their form and function.
First invented in the 1950s, the design of a barbell on a vertical sliding rail built into a pseudo Squat Rack was originally the work of celebrity American fitness guru Jack LaLanne, before the concept was taken on, modified, and patented by Rudy Smith.
The theory behind the Smith Machine is a noble one; to allow novice exercisers the ability to confidently undertake free weight barbell exercises with the support of the machine’s frame and the security of the quick racking notches on the vertical rods. The reality, however, is not quite so straightforward.
Resistance training exercises are great for squash players, and this is an area we’ve looked at before on the site. One of the fundamental purposes of training with free weights, however, is to not just work the main prime movers of an exercise (Pectorals/Chest, Quads/Thighs, Glutes/Backside etc.), but to also train the body’s vital smaller supporting and stabilizing muscles.
For an example of how this works in the real world, think of the lunge action in squash – there is the powerful lunge onto the ball powered primarily by the larger muscle groups, followed by the balance/stabilization as the body position is maintained as you actually play the shot. By taking this three-dimensional aspect of standard free weight training away by performing the exercise on rails, you’re blunting the body’s functional training response as the joints and muscles are forced into an unnaturally linear pathway with little or no requirement for auxiliary support.
This restriction of movement is not only unnatural; it’s also a potential injury risk. Take the Squat exercise as a prime example – in a proper Squat, you don’t just move straight up and down, you move at a slight angle and into another plane of motion. By keeping you set within a strict vertical movement, you are training a rather abnormal ‘fixed’ action when performing such an exercise within the Smith Machine, and placing unnecessary stress upon the constituent joints and connective tissues. Over time, this can potentially cause muscle imbalances and increase injury risk.
In terms of actual activation of the primary working muscles, the Smith Machine has also been shown to actually be only around half as effective as compared to standard lifts. Schwanbeck et al. studied muscle activity in Smith Machine exercises versus the same exercises performed with free weights and found there was a 43% higher muscular response with the free weight exercise. The bar within the machine is often also linked with a counterbalance, so you are not even actually lifting as heavy a weight as you believe, and this will be instantly noticeable the moment you go back to free weights.
As with almost any machine/exercise/workout that is out there, you may well see die-hard advocates or even a handful of high-level athletes continuing to use the Smith Machine. Training is an individual pursuit, and if someone feels that they gain benefit from some technique or apparatus, then that is of course entirely their choice to make. The weight of research and evidence is heavily against them, however, and the vast majority of currently practising S&C coaches and fitness professionals have moved on and will have their clients steer well clear of Smith Machines now.
If you’re new to training and not yet comfortable with free weight lifts, you’re far better off to simply work these exercises with very light weights until you build up the confidence to progress on to more challenging loads. Using dumbbells instead of barbells is a good first step – in exercises such as Squats and Lunges they can easily be held to the side and then simply dropped if you feel your form becoming compromised. Alternatively, work with a partner or spotter to help support and assist you with returning the weight safely in the eventuality of you needing to bail out mid-set.
As you progress in strength and confidence, you can then progress to full barbell options in appropriately designed apparatus such as Squat Racks and Cages. Safety is always a worthy consideration, but in the case of the Smith Machine, the perceived assurance from the apparatus construction comes at a high cost in terms of functionality and effectiveness.
B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director
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