By Nick Nilsson
Author of Time-Volume Training
The Smith Machine is a piece of equipment found in most commercial gyms around the country and, as a rule, it's pretty much ALWAYS either misused, overused or misunderstood.
What Is The Smith Machine?
If you're not familiar with what a Smith Machine is, that's easy...it's the machine that has a bar that moves up and down on a vertical "track." The bar has hooks on the end that allow you to hook it onto the machine frame to hold it up along with stoppers that stop the movement of the bar.
It's basically an imitation of a power rack only without the freedom of movement of a barbell...and therein lies the majority of the problems with the Smith Machine. More on the later...first, though...
What Exercises Are GOOD on the Smith Machine?
This is the million-dollar question. The Smith Machine actually IS good for a few exercises. It's not a total waste of space.
It's a little known fact that the Smith Machine was originally designed for PARTIAL training...very short range of motion training done at specific points along the path of an exercise (for example, the top lockout of a barbell bench press).
And for partial training, it can actually be quite useful. The original idea was to improve the stability of extremely heavy weight when doing partial range of motion training to make it safer. That way, you could focus on just moving that relatively heavier, supramaximal weight, which is what partial training is most useful for.
I've used the Smith Machine for lockout partial training (and some bottom range training) in the past and found it to be just fine (I still prefer free weight, though). The linear and completely vertical path of the bar doesn't interfere with an exercise when it's done for very SHORT range of motion movements and the stabilizing factor really can be useful when dealing with very heavy weight.
I've also found it to be useful for doing standing calf raises. That exercise is basically a directly vertical upwards push from the calves and you'll actually benefit from the linear stabilization of the bar with this exercise in the Smith Machine. If you don't have a calf raise machine (or don't have a good calf raise machine) in your gym, try the Smith machine with a calf block and the bar across your back like a squat. It actually works really well.
What Exercises are BAD on the Smith Machine?
Yeah, it's just that simple.
Pretty much everything else should NOT be done on the Smith Machine (other than exercises that use just the bar of the Smith Machine as apparatus where the bar never moves, like a chin-up, for example).
It's a piece of equipment I would forbid you from getting for your home gym due to the injury potential it has.
Because when you use it for FULL range movements, THAT is when the trouble starts.
Your body is not built to move in a linear fashion. When you stick yourself onto a machine that FORCES you into a linear movement pattern, it's like a car trying to drive a perfectly straight line down a curving road....you might be able to go a distance without hitting anything but when the straight path ends, you're going to start grinding up against the guard rail.
And that's what happens with the JOINTS of your body when you try and jam them into a linear movement pattern...it's going to grind your joints like a car on a guardrail.
Partial training is like a drag-strip...straight and all about power. Full-range training involves curves.
The best example of this is the squat. One of the best ways to wreck your knees is to do deep Smith Machine squats, especially if you set your feet a little forward to take emphasis off the glutes.
When you squat down to the bottom and start pushing back up, this puts tremendous shearing force through your knee joints. The knee is simply not meant to take that kind of force...you may not get an injury right away but repeated use of this exercise will grind down the connective tissue of the joint, just like a car trying to go straight on a curvy road.
If you're currently using the Smith Machine for anything other than short, partial-range training, calf raises or as an apparatus, quit it. Your joints will thank you for it.
If you're considering buying a Smith Machine for your home gym, don't. Again, your joints will thank you for it. The few exercises you CAN do with it aren't worth the space it's going to take up. Get a real power rack instead.
Learn how to squat with free weight...it's one of the basic movement patterns of your body and you'll get FAR more benefits from it by getting out of the Smith Machine and using a barbell or dumbbells.
And if you think I'm just hating on the Smith Machine...I'm not. It's just an inanimate object...it's not personal. What I want to be sure of is that you're not using the Smith Machine, thinking it's beneficial and hurting yourself by doing do.
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