What Is A Smith Machine – Are They Good Or Bad For Lifting?

A common question we hear about fitness equipment is, "what is a Smith machine?" If you're reading this, you've probably seen or at least heard about a Smith machine and want to know more about it.

Put simply, a Smith machine is a barbell on rails, kind of like a power rack. It eliminates the need for a spotter and allows you to lift safely.

However, opinions are divided on whether or not they're good for lifting. To learn everything there is to know about the Smith machine, continue reading!

Origin and History

Although originally invented by fitness expert Jack LaLanne in the 1950s, the Smith Machine got its name from Rudy Smith. A friend of LaLanne, Smith improved on the original design, patented it, and started featuring it in the gym he was managing at the time.[1]

From there, Smith machines rose in popularity and are now a staple in almost every commercial gym, with fitness enthusiasts customizing a Smith machine workout into part of their routine.

What Is A Smith Machine – Are They Good Or Bad For Lifting?

Various Types Of Smith Machines

When it comes to types of Smith Machines, there are plenty of options to choose from. What is the best Smith machine?

That depends entirely on your needs. How does a Smith machine work? That depends on the type of machine you’re using. Let’s take a closer look at the various types of Smith machines available.

1. Residential Smith Machines

As the name suggests, residential Smith machines are designed specifically for home gym use. These machines tend to feature a 1-inch hollow bar that fits standard-sized weight plates. However, some models do feature a 2-inch Olympic bar.

This type is a budget-friendly option and generally offers a weight capacity of between 300 and 400 pounds. One thing to be aware of is that some residential Smith machines feature nylon bushings that don’t feel quite as smooth as a commercial Smith machine.

2. Commercial Smith Machines

This is the type you’ll find in commercial gyms. Typically constructed using a heavy-duty steel frame with steel rails, they’re built to withstand more frequent use, can handle heavy weights, and offer excellent safety features.

The commercial Smith machine helps to ensure ultimate safety in the event of a failed lift by featuring height-adjustable safety arms to suit the lifter.

3. Half Smith Machine

This is a compact piece of fitness equipment that often consists of a smaller Smith machine combined with a weight bench.

This option is ideal for those lacking space, as well as those looking to bench press without having a spotter around. You’re also able to do other exercises (like leg presses) or even rehab an injury.

4. Counter Balanced Smith Machine

The purpose of this type is to reduce (or counterbalance) the weight of the bar. Since the bar of a commercial Smith Machine will generally weigh 45 pounds, being able to reduce the bar weight down to 20 pounds allows you to target specific muscles (like the triceps).

Altering the Smith machine resistance is also useful for beginner lifters learning certain movements or lifters working through an injury.

5. 3D Smith Machine

Unlike a standard Smith machine that is limited to a fixed plane and vertical movement only, the 3D Smith machine has the ability of horizontal movement as well.

This type tends to feel most similar to lifting with free weight but has the benefits of additional safety features of a Smith machine.

6. All-In-One Smith Machines

This option is also ideal for weight lifters with limited space. These machines combine a Smith machine, a power rack, and a cable pulley system into an all-in-one solution that allows you to do many exercises on a single machine.

This includes a leg press, lat pulldowns, rows, pull-ups, and many different exercises. All-in-one Smith machines often also feature a multi-bench for you to do your bench pressing and even offer weight plate storage too.

7. Selectorized Smith Machines

Although not a commonly found type, selectorized Smith machines feature a bar attached to a double rail system with weight stacks for you to select your desired weight.

Use As a Self-Spotting Device

A common question we hear is, "are smith machines safe?" Since the Smith Machine is a piece of equipment designed with the barbell fixed to safety rails, injury while (correctly) using it is rare.

Unlike when using free weight on a power rack, Smith machines provide the benefits of being able to lift properly (and safely) without the need for a spotter.

With that said, if you’re going to be self-spotting, be sure to use a Smith machine that features an adjustable stop. You should always ensure that the stopping point is aligned to your height so that you are adequately protected against injury when training.

Related Article - Which Lifts Require a Spotter?

are smith machines good for lifting?

Why Use A Smith Machine? (The Pros)

Workouts Are More Isolated

When using a Smith machine, you can effectively isolate certain muscle groups more so than if you were using free weights.

Since it’s designed to have a limited range of motion with its vertical bar path, you won’t be using additional muscles to help stabilize the bar and can just focus on the main muscle you’re targeting.

It Can Be Safer

The Smith machine offers several slots along the frame, which you can hook the bar onto. This means that, at any phase of the lift, you're able to lock the bar if you fail your lift. By simply twisting your wrists, the bar will essentially rack itself.

This means that lifting without a spotter is safer. In addition, you'll also be able to push your limits more and attempt heavier lifts than with power racks (aka power cages).

Exercise Variety

Although originally designed as a squat machine, this machine offers a variety of exercises to help you target every major muscle group Smith machine exercises include:

  • Standard squats
  • Split squats
  • Leg extensions
  • Standard bench presses
  • Incline bench press
  • Shoulder presses
  • Bicep curls
  • Inverted rows
  • Incline and decline push-ups
  • Regressed pull-ups
  • And many more!
man doing overhead press on smith machine

Why Do Smith Machines Get A Bad Reputation? (The Cons)

The Grips & Movements Can Be Awkward

Perhaps the most significant criticism of the Smith machine is the fixed vertical plane that forces you into a set range of motion.

When using a Smith machine for Olympic lifts or compound movements, certain exercises may not feel as comfortable as they would when using a free-weight barbell.

For example, the bar path when doing a Smith machine squat often doesn’t feel as comfortable compared to doing barbell squats within squat racks (aka squat cages) or power racks.

Does Not Train Your Stabilizer Muscles

Earlier, I mentioned that Smith machines are excellent for isolating muscle groups. Unfortunately, this also means you won't be training the appropriate stabilizer muscles either.

Therefore, it's important to incorporate variety in your training and try to include using both a Smith machine and lifting free weights within your exercise routine to build muscle mass, as having all your lifts be Smith machine assisted isn’t always the best option.

Remember, the actual amount you’re lifting on a Smith machine is not the same as when using free weights.

Increased Chance Of Injury

Although the limited range of motion affects comfort, it can also increase the chance of injury. With the added strain on your joints (particularly on your knees during squats), injuries are common when lifters don't pay attention to their foot placement and overall form.

You Might Over-Perform Exercises

Even though the weight feels easier to lift when using Smith machines, it’s important not to over-exert yourself.

This is particularly crucial if you’re a beginner lifter who doesn’t know their limitations yet. If you feel significant strain or pain during the workout, you should stop and take a break.

In addition to this, it’s also good to switch up your workout routine and incorporate variety in your training plan. Avoid doing the same exercises every day.

The Range Of Motion Is Not Ideal

On most Smith machines, the fixed track vertical movements force a range of motion that is not ideal. It’s always best to achieve a full range of motion when using gym equipment.

This ensures that you not only activate the primary muscle group involved in the workout but also work your stabilizing muscles too.

woman doing lunge on smith machine

Frequently Asked Smith Machine Questions

What weight is the bar on a Smith machine?

The Smith machine bar can weigh anywhere between 6 to 45 pounds, depending on the machine. However, most commercial machines have an average weight range of between 15 to 25 pounds.

What is 225 on the Smith machine?

This depends on a number of factors, including the weight of the bar for the specific model you're using, as well as whether or not you're using a counterbalanced machine. Either way, 225 on a Smith machine will be lighter than doing 225 free weight - but it's impossible to say by how much.

Should beginners use the Smith machine?

Yes! The Smith machine is an excellent choice for a beginner who is not yet confident in their lifting but will still ensure safety while they learn.

Can you deadlift on a Smith machine?

Yes, you can. However, it's important to know that it will be a "modified" deadlift, and you won't get the same benefits compared to if you were using a barbell.

This is because the bar will travel in a fixed path, which requires less effort to control the weight. In addition, the bar won't touch the floor, which makes the starting position of the lift higher too.

Are Smith machines good or bad for squats?

They’re not ideal because they force you into incorrect form and can cause increased strain on your knees (which can lead to injury). Additionally, since the stabilizer muscles aren’t activated, you’re practically doing a leg extension rather than a squat.

Are Smith machines recommended for doing bench press?

If you have the option, it’s best to stick to free weight for bench presses. A 2010 study on the comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and a free weight bench press found that free weights offer a higher level of muscle activation. [2] If you don't have the option, something is better than nothing!

Related Article - Can You Use a Smith Machine For Bench Press?

What is the difference between a Smith machine and a squat rack?

The main difference is that the fixed track of a Smith machine means you don’t need a spotter. Whereas with a squat rack, the weight is not fixed, and you should lift with a spotter present.

What is a good price for a Smith machine?

You can expect to pay anywhere between $800 to $1000 for a basic entry-level machine. Whereas other types (like an all-in-one machine) can cost you between $1800 to $3500.


Conclusion

That wraps up our comprehensive guide to the Smith machine. We hope that all of your questions and concerns have been addressed.

Now that you know what a Smith machine is, why you should use it, and why it often gets a bad reputation -  you’ll be able to incorporate the Smith machine into your workout and achieve your weightlifting goals in no time!

References:

1. https://jacklalanne.com/about/

2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20093960/

Last Updated on August 29, 2022