When working out in the gym, one of the most common questions is between smith machines vs. free weights.
On one side of the coin – you have the true gym hardcore who believes free weights are the only way to train. And that smith machines restrict the range of motion – and as a result, are a poor way to build muscle strength and stability.
However, the reality is both can be tools for building muscle and strength. And both have their purpose. This article will discuss the differences between smith machines and free weights and when to use one over the other.
What is a smith machine?
A Smith machine is a weight training equipment consisting of a barbell fixed within steel rails, allowing only vertical or horizontal movement. It is named after its inventor, Rudy Smith, who patented the machine in the 1950s.
Generally, smith machines are used as a replacement for squats and bench presses as well as upright shoulder rows. You can adjust the height of the barbell to perform a variety of these exercises.
Smith Machine vs. Free Weights Benefits
1. Controlled Environment
Smith machines offer a more controlled environment with the barbell fixed on tracks, while free weights allow users to lift in any direction with no extra support. Both have their pros and cons.
2. Joint Friendly
This can benefit beginners or those with joint issues, allowing for a more controlled and stable movement. However, it can also limit the activation of certain muscle groups and hinder the development of balance and stability.
3. Form Friendly
Smith machines are designed to help people perform exercises with good form and safety as the barbell is fixed on tracks.
Smith machines are excellent for people new to the gym, especially when performing Barbell Squats.
Generally, the barbell squat technique takes a long time to master – and having the barbell in a more controlled manner is a little less daunting than putting a Barbell on your back for the first time.
4. Best for Beginners
Smith machines make it easier for beginners or those who struggle with technique to learn how to do exercises correctly without risking injury.
Free Weights vs. Smith Machine Benefits
Anyone seasoned in training in the gym typically turns their nose at smith machines because free weights offer clear benefits over smith machines.
1. Stabilizing Muscles
For one, free weights allow you to move in any direction and use additional stabilizing muscles that may otherwise go unused when performing smith machine-based exercises.
2. Balance and Coordination
Free weights also require more balance and coordination as body weight must be controlled during each rep, thus providing an additional challenge even for experienced lifters.
3. Enhanced Range of Motion
Free weights also provide a greater range of motion than smith machines due to their general nature, which may allow for better overall muscle size and development.
Smith Machines vs. Free Weights Pros & Cons
Here is a table of pros and cons for training with free weights versus training with Smith machines and the key differences.
Here is a table of pros and cons for training with free weights versus training with Smith machines:
|Free Weights||Smith Machine|
|Greater range of motion||Controlled movement|
|Improved balance and stability||Good for isolation exercises|
|More natural movement pattern||Can be safer for beginners|
|Progressive resistance||Stable base for exercises|
|Can be used for compound exercises||Can be good for those with joint issues|
|Free Weights||Smith Machine|
|Requires proper form to avoid injury||Limited range of motion|
|May be more challenging for beginners||May not be as effective for balance and stability|
|May not be suitable for those with joint issues||May not be as effective for increasing strength and muscle mass|
|Resistance must be manually adjusted||Can be boring for some users|
What is the difference between a Free Weight Bench Press vs. Smith Machine Bench Press
In 2010, A study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research which found that there were no significant differences in muscle activation of the pectoralis major or anterior deltoid for experienced and non-experienced lifters when bench presses were performed using both the regular barbell bench press vs smith machine bench press.
The study looked at various loads (70% 1RM & 90% 1RM) for both groups. There was a significant difference in muscle activation by the medial deltoid with the free-weight bench press.
This suggests that a body of scientific evidence shows that free weights require more activation of stabilizing muscles throughout the movements.
Can Smith Machines be a Good Alternative to Free Weight Squats?
Smith squats can be a good alternative to free-weight squats as they offer a more controlled movement. Especially beneficial for beginners or those with joint issues as explained above. Smith machines are a great alternative to squats for beginners due to their less risky nature, especially for those who do not have good squat form.
What are the Cons of using Smith Machines vs. Free Weights?
Compared to free weights, smith machines offer much less range of motion: The fixed movement of the Smith machine can limit the range of motion and restrict the activation of certain muscle groups. This can hinder the development of balance and stability and may not be as effective for increasing strength and muscle mass.
Smith machines may also not be as effective for balance and stability: Because the barbell is fixed within the rails, the body is not required to stabilize the weight actively. This can limit the development of core stability and balance.
Smith machines may not be as functional: The controlled movement of the Smith machine may not translate as well to everyday activities and functional movements.
Are free weights harder than a Smith machine?
Free weights can be harder than a Smith machine for some individuals, depending on their experience level, strength, and physical limitations. Free weights allow for a greater range of motion, making specific exercises more challenging and requiring greater muscle group activation.
Free weights require the use of stabilizing muscles to control the weight, which can make certain exercises more challenging and improve balance and stability
Can you build muscle with Smith machines?
It is possible to build muscle with Smith machines, but they may not be as effective as free weights for building muscle mass. Free weights allow for a greater range of motion, leading to greater muscle group activation and improved muscle growth.
Is it easier to lift more weight on a Smith machine?
It may be easier to lift more weight on a Smith machine for some individuals, depending on their experience level, strength, and any physical limitations. The fixed movement of a Smith machine can limit the range of motion and make certain exercises easier, as the weight is not moving in an uncontrolled manner.
But let’s call an apple an apple – if there is enough weight on the bar – doing a squat with a smith machine is going to be difficult.
Smith Machines vs Free Weights Final Verdict
Smith machine squats can be a good alternative for some individuals, such as beginners or those with joint issues. However, free-weight squats may be more effective for developing balance and stability, increasing strength and muscle mass, and improving functional movement.