Although there are now many variations of the smith machine, with different pieces of cable exercise equipment and styles of bench being added, essentially there are two main designs.
There is the smith machine that has a vertical set of steel rails that the barbell moves up and down, and there is a design where there is a slight angle (usually around 7 degrees) which can help provide a more natural range of motion.
If you look at the majority of smith machines, certainly in commercial gyms, you will see that there are Olympic weight plate storage pegs and a wide base. Both of these are for adding extra stability when performing exercises in the smith machine.
Where did the idea for the Smith Machine come from?
The Smith machine was invented by Jack LaLanne who started setting up sliding exercise equipment in his gym in the 1950s. This design was then spotted by Rudy Smith who had the design improved and then installed the modified version in Vic Tanny’s gym in Los Angeles which he was managing at the time. By the end of the 1950s, Rudy Smith was an executive in Tanny’s chain of gyms and the Smith machine was being manufactured and sold more widely.
Safety benefits of the Smith machine
With any Smith machine design you will always find a pair of hooks that are attached to the barbell, which will lock and unlock the bar when you rotate it. This is in comparison with free weight benches or power racks where you need to get the weight to a fixed point before being able to rack it.
With only a small gap between these holes on most machines this not only means that you can rack the weight midway through a repetition, but also gives you the confidence to try for extra reps that you may not normally have considered if you were using a free weight barbell.
Even though these locking hooks and holes in the support frame would probably be safety enough on most smith machine models, some now also feature locking blocks that are attached to each of the steel bars underneath the barbell.
These can be hooked on to pegs along the support frame to stop the bar travelling below a certain height.
This can be useful for many reasons. If you only want to isolate the top half of a movement such as with close grip bench presses, where your shoulders may be too exhausted to perform full range close grip bench presses but you have a lot of strength left in the triceps. By only moving the weight through the top third or half of the movement this takes out a lot of shoulder work and emphasises work on the triceps.
Use in moderation
If you are currently a member of a gym, the chances are the Smith machine is a popular piece of equipment. It allows you to move a weight through a fixed range of motion for a variety of exercises from seated calf raises to bench presses, often with a much heavier weight than when using a free weight barbell.
Even though this is a very safe way of lifting, Smith machines should be used in moderation. Because the range of motion is fixed and often simply vertical, you don’t engage all the supporting muscles such as your hips or your core, and can leave you with muscle imbalances and a potentially higher risk of lifting related injuries if you then attempt the same weight using a free weight barbell.
It’s best to use the Smith machine perhaps every other week, and replace the exercises that you would normally perform with the Smith machine with free weights on the other week. This will help to develop the supporting muscles while still allowing you to lift the heavier weight in the smith machine on a regular basis which will help prevent any imbalances.
What to look for when buying a Smith Machine
If you are looking to invest in a Smith Machine system for your home gym then this can be a very good decision. In the majority of cases the cost for an entire Smith Machine system will be less than a year’s gym membership. This will allow you to perform most of the exercises you will need to develop every muscle group effectively when combined with a free weight bench and barbell rack for free weight exercises.
Although there are just the basic designs that simply have the support frame and the barbell, there are now a range of smith machines available that utilise a series of high and low cable pulley systems and have removable benches with leg exercise attachments that you can adjust to incline, flat or decline positions.
These types of smith machine make the best use of space, offering a wide variety of exercises that are often usually only offered if you were to buy a separate multi gym. Of course it all depends on what you already have, and if you already have a multi gym system at home you may only need to buy the normal smith machine rack on its own.
Exercises you can perform in Smith Machines
- Flat, Incline and Decline bench presses (when bench added)
- Front squats
- Back squats
- Front barbell shrugs
- Behind the back barbell shrugs
- Upright rows
- Barbell rows, both underhand and overhand
- Calf raises, both seated and standing
- Military presses
- Close grip bench press (when bench added)
Effectiveness of Smith Machines
There have been various studies that have reported how much more effective free weights are than using a Smith Machine, and although this does seem to be the case, there is no doubting their effectiveness at providing a safety barrier for when you want to use heavy weight for either full or partial range movements.
When it was designed, the smith machine was being used as just a part of a successful workout plan, and this is how it should be considered today. Although you may not lift as much weight when performing the exercises with free weights, you will be developing more supporting muscles and promoting more growth and strength gains in the future because of it.
So in summary although the Smith Machine should still be included in your workout if there isn’t a power rack or spotter and you need the added safety of performing an exercise with heavy weight.
Often lifters will use them more around the time when they get close to a plateau with their main free weight lifts, as it will help to overload the weakest portion of the movement.
Free weight training should be prioritised for the overall development of the targeted muscle group and stabilizer muscles.
Smith machines have the added benefit of often being designed with many more additional workout stations, particularly if they are accompanied by a removable bench. It’s important to find a smith machine that allows you to perform all the exercises you need, while still making the most effective use of the space. The product comparison chart helps to make the most important information clearer if you are looking to buy a smith machine for home workouts.