Free weights vs. Smith machine

What do squats and bench presses have in common? Well, quite a lot actually is the answer. But specifically they are two of the most commonly used compound exercises, found in most training repertoires. That isn’t the only thing though. They are also two of the exercises that you can do with either free weights or on the Smith machine.

Just for anyone that isn’t sure what the Smith machine is, it is a barbell that is fitted between two rails, allowing for perfect vertical movement of the apparatus. So the question is does it matter how you do your squats and bench presses and does either method promote or inhibit positive results?

Let’s be very clear from the outset, it is almost always the case that the answer falls somewhere in the middle. What I mean by that is that one is rarely exclusively better than the other but that doesn’t mean that both don’t possess certain positives and negatives. Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s have a closer look.

The first thing to say is that the Smith machine is safer. YouTube is full of videos of people who just couldn’t control the weight they were trying to bench and ended up dropping it on themselves. On the Smith machine that risk is almost completely eliminated. At any point in the religion you can hook the weight back on and take a break if you need to.

If you rely on your training partner to turn up for every session to spot you on your bench press then the Smith machine is good for the same reason. It almost acts like a training partner that takes the burden of weight off you as soon as your rep is complete. That being said, I’ve yet to come across one that can motivate you like a training partner but you never know what they will come up with in the future.

Free weights have their benefits too. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can lie alongside somebody who is using a Smith machine and perfectly replicate the movement. What that tells us is that it isn’t a natural movement. Nobody naturally benches as perfectly as you do on a Smith machine. The result of this is that when you complete your exercises on the machine you are putting unnecessary strain on both your knees and your lower back. When we are talking about efficiency, this is exactly what you don’t want to have happen – wasting energy on muscle groups that aren’t being trained.

Then you have to think about muscle activity in the areas you are training. The nature of the Smith machine is that it is counterbalanced. And put simply, this is done solely to reduce energy and increase efficiency. So muscle activity has to be reduced on the Smith machine, with Men’s Health arguing that muscle activity can be reduced by half when you choose to ditch the free weights.

None of this means that you should completely avoid using one or the other though and in fact, that was never even the intended purpose. Since its creation the Smith machine has only ever been used as part of a training regime that incorporates free weight usage as well.

My advice would be to try and use free weights as much as possible but that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when you can use the Smith machine. If you aren’t 100{e247ef2f99dfc0bc75e074b1ac933c200478cf8913d2da2bbe9d5daddf1eb195} confident in your form then it can be great for getting used to the movement that you want to achieve. It’s also great when the free weights are all being used. You don’t want to just stand around waiting. And like I said before, if your training partner can’t make it that day and you don’t want to end up on the internet captioned with bench press fail then using the Smith machine might just be safer for you.

If you’re interested in starting the gym and think you could do with a nudge in the right direction from a professional, talk to Ollie Lawrence Personal Trainers in Manchester today to find out what we can do for you.

Ollie Lawrence
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