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Build bigger and stronger muscles with the Smith machine

The Smith machine is like the “Marmite” of the gym floor: some people absolutely love it, yet others go out of their way to avoid it. If you’re in that second camp but serious about adding more lean muscle, as well as building stronger and more powerful muscles, then you need to give the Smith machine a second chance, says New Body Plan fitness director and former cover model Joe Warner

The Smith machine divides option like no other bit of gym kit. I know people who don’t complete a single workout without using it to hit their chest, back, shoulders or legs. But I also knew one guy who only ever used the Smith machine as a coat stand to hang up his hoodie half-way through his warm-up!

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In my gym it gets used for two main moves. The men use it to bench press. The women use it to do glute bridges. But the Smith machine is far more versatile than most people give it credit for. And if you use it the smart way it can be a powerful weapon in your muscle-building arsenal.

We’ll get to the best Smith machine moves and some other expert tips on how to get the most from this machine in a bit. But first let’s look a bit more closely at how this clever bit of kit actually works.

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What is the Smith machine?

The Smith machine consists of a barbell fixed between two vertical rails (or runners) to allow only a vertical (straight up and down) movement. Each side of the runner has evenly-placed hooks on which the barbell can be secured, or racked, into place.

Weight plates can be added to either side of the bar to increase the amount of resistance, just as you would add weight a standard barbell or EZ-bar. But Smith machine bars are almost always lighter than an Olympic barbell, which weighs 20kg.

Who invented the Smith machine, and when?

The original concept of Smith machine is credited to American Jack LaLanne, the first and arguably most influential fitness and nutrition guru of the twentieth century, in the 1950s.

So why isn’t called the LaLanne machine?

Good question. LaLanne’s contraption was shown to a Los Angeles gym owner by the name of Rudy Smith. He liked what he saw but made some tweaks and improvements to the original design, before adding one to his gym (as well as adding his name to the machine). From there its popularity grew until it could be found in every decent commercial gym.

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Should I use the Smith machine?

If you want to maximise the size and strength of your muscles then Smith machine moves should feature regularly in your gym training programme. Why? Using the machine provides many advantages over using dumbbells, barbells, fixed-path resistance machines, and all other types of weight-training equipment.

We’ll get to the big benefits shortly. But it’s worth knowing that despite the many plus-points of using the Smith machine, you shouldn’t prioritise using it over other bits of kit or only ever use it for your weight-training workouts.

That’s because some of the key advantages of using the Smith machine can have a negative impact on your performance, physique and results if you use it exclusively or at the expense of other equipment, especially free-weight lifts, using dumbbells and fixed or Olympic barbells.

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What are the advantages of using the Smith machine?

The Smith machine provides multiple physique and performance benefits for everyone from complete gym beginners right up to lifelong bodybuilders. Here are some of the key advantages of regularly including Smith machine lifts in your weight-training programme.

It allows gym beginners to build muscle (and strength)

The Smith machines is fantastic for helping new lifters (or those back in the gym after an injury) to gradually build new muscle tissue, and increase their strength level, in a simple and safe way, without undue injury risk.

It also teaches you how the key weight-lifting movements – squats, lunges and presses – should look and feel, making the graduation to the free-weight versions of these lifts far easier and beneficial.

It allows you to “isolate” the working muscle

The Smith machine is a fixed-path resistance machine, which means the bar’s movement path is locked into a fixed, straight line so the bar can’t deviate forwards or backwards. The chest press machine or shoulder press machine are other examples of fixed-path resistance equipment.

These machines don’t require as much support from your stabilising muscles as free-weight moves, so more of the workload is placed upon the primary working muscle to illicit a greater growth response. This makes Smith machine moves very attractive to experienced lifters wanting to maximising the size of their muscles.

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It allows you to lift heavier for longer

For many free weight barbell lifts, such as the barbell bench press or barbell back squat, the limiting factor of how heavy you can lift, or how many reps you can do, isn’t the strength or endurance capabilities of the main working muscle. It’s the ability of many small but very important stabilising muscles to maintain their performance level.

If these secondary muscles begin to tire or fail then your set will soon come to an end. For instance, weak rotator cuff muscles (which play a huge role in stabilising your shoulder joint) will massively limit how much you can decline bench press, and weak abdominals or glutes will dramatically reduce your ability to squat and deadlift.

The Smith machine, thanks to the barbell being fixed into one plane of motion and so can only travel directly up and down, reduces the need for strong stabilising muscles, because the bar is always locked into a stable position.

It allows you lift without a spotter

Smith machines allow you to lift heavy, relative to your strength levels, in a safe and controlled manner, without the need for a spotter. (A spotter is someone who oversees your set and can step in to help you avoid getting stuck under the barbell if you fail a rep).

How? The evenly-paced hooks on each side of the Smith machine rails means that the bar can be “racked” at any point of the lift. All you need to do is “roll” the bar forwards by rotating your wrists so it catches in the hooks. This is not the case with free weight barbell lifts, such as the bench press or squat, when the bar can only be re-racked in one position (back at the top of the lift where you lift the bar out of the rack).

It allows you lift heavier safely

Most machines also have a mechanism which you can adjust to the desired hook height which stops the barbell at that height. This “safety catch” prevents the bar from going below that point, allowing you to position them at the correct height to ensure you won’t get stuck under the bar if the weight becomes too heavy to lift back up or re-rack.

You should always use the safety catches, especially when benching, because you can’t “roll” the bar down and off your body in a Smith machine in the way you can when you fail a barbell bench press.

The re-rack hooks, as well as the safety catch, means that Smith machine moves are, in theory, safer than free-weight lifting. Why? Because if you start to fail during a rep you can quickly and easily re-rack the bar at any point of the movement and end that set.

With a free weight barbell lift, if you can’t get back up to the top of the move to re-rack the bar, you’re going to fail the rep and end up with the bar stuck on your chest, pinning you to the bench (which is what happens when you fail the barbell bench press), or have to “dump” the bar – AKA “get out from under it very quickly” – so you don’t risk injury.

Learning how to successfully dump the bar from a failed rep is a skill in itself, and not something a relatively new lifter should attempt.

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What are the disadvantages of using the Smith machine?

There are some important drawbacks of using the Smith machine, which you may want to consider when planning your next gym, training programme. That’s why a combination of Smith machine moves, free weight moves and other machine moves is the smart approach for balanced muscle mass growth in all good training programmes. These main disadvantages include:

Reduced muscle activation compared with free weights

Smith machines may allow you to lift heavier safely and without the need for a spotter, but the sacrifice is reduced muscle-fibre activation of the main working muscles. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2009 found that barbell squats activated the working muscles 43% more than doing the same move in a Smith machine.

It wont work your stabiliser muscles

One of main advantages of using the Smith machine – it doesn’t require your stabilising muscles to support the main muscle movement – can quickly become a disadvantage if you never use other bits of kit. That’s because you want strong, mobile and healthy stabilising muscles to safeguard against injury, and allow joints to move through a full, free and flexible movement pattern.

Only ever using the Smith machine will make these important stabilising muscles weaker and “lazy”, so they can’t contract or engage quickly when you want them too. Any free-weight move – such as the dumbbell bench press or barbell deadlift – in which the bar can move in any direction, trains these stabilisers to contract to control, move and manage the weight in a straight line.

It can place strain on your joints

The straight-up-and-down nature of the Smith machine can place excess pressure on the joints when heavy lifting. That’s because some very slight forward-and-backwards movement can help get a heavy bar moving back up to the start position, allowing the muscles to contract to force the weight upwards without excess strain on the joints involved.

In a Smith machine the force of the muscles can’t move in any other direction than straight up or down, which can lead to shearing forces on the joints. This because more of an issue the heavier the weight on the bar.

You can miss out on the benefits of eccentric lifting

The eccentric phase of each rep is the lowering part: for example lowering the barbell down to your chest when bench pressing. Your muscles are far stronger during this phase of the movement than during the concentric (or lifting) part.

That’s why many smart training plans advocate a slow and controlled lowering of the bar during each rep, to work your muscles harder for longer for greater size gains. However, some Smith machine bars are counter-balanced in such a way that an empty, or very light bar, doesn’t lower under the effect of gravity alone, as is the case with free weights.

This means your muscles don’t get the muscle-building benefits of slow eccentric movements until the weight you add to the bar makes it heavy enough to overcome the effects of the counter-balance weight.

The weight of the bar isn’t standardised

The weight of the barbell fixed to the Smith machine is rarely displayed, and it can differ with different manufacturers (unlike Olympic barbells which you know are always 20kg, unless otherwise stated on the end of the bar).

This isn’t a major problem if you always use the same Smith machine (just add up the total of the weight plates for your total work-set weight). But if you use different gyms on a regular basis it becomes a bit more tricky to know exactly how much you’re lifting.

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What are the best Smith machine exercises?

The best lifts to do on a Smith machine are those exercises that, when performed perfectly, have the barbell move directly up and down in a smooth, straight line. These include:

Pressing moves

Shoulder press, bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, close-grip bench press

Pulling moves

Inverted row, bent-over row, barbell shrug, upright row

Lower-body moves

Romanian deadlift, split squats, front squats, back squats, glute bridge

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What moves shouldn’t I do on a Smith machine?

Exercises in which the bar moves forwards and backwards, as well as up and down, such as barbell biceps curls or barbell lunges, can’t be done on a Smith machine. That’s because the machine doesn’t allow the bar to move forwards or backwards, but only up and down. Any type of move that requires movement other than straight up and down is best done with dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells and other type of free weights.

And while some people use the Smith machine for deadlifts and the main squat variations, more experienced lifters often prefer the “feel” of using a barbell for these moves. That can be because these heavy lifts require multiple muscle groups, especially the core and lower back, to work together as a single unit to lift and lower the weight safely and effectively. So you want these supporting muscles to be firing fully for the maximum strength gains.

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