The Smith machine. It gets a bad rap throughout the fitness community, and many of us wouldn’t be caught dead using one. However, during the month of August, I did not have access to a power rack, and had to opt for the Smith.
My lifting routine is centered around five compound lifts:
- Bench Press
- Pendlay Row
- Overhead Press
I was worried that I was going to lose some strength over the month of August, but figured that using the Smith machine would maintain more muscle than just a bodyweight routine. Below I have provided my experience using a Smith machine for a month, and how my strength felt when I got back in the power rack in September.
In my judgements, I am comparing my strength in my first two sessions of each lift back in the power rack to my strength before I went into my month of using only the Smith machine.
My first squat day in the Smith machine I used the same weight as I would in a power rack, and did my normal amount of sets and reps. It felt heavy and unnatural, and I did not like the fixed bar path at all.
Throughout the rest of the month I lowered the weight and increased the reps. It still felt awkward, but better than going heavy like in my first session. I started getting pain in my knees. It felt as if the Smith machine was taking away emphasis from my glutes and hamstrings, and putting a lot more stress on my quads and knees. In the last week of August, I injured my left knee (my best guess is a sprain), and my knee became very stiff. It didn’t look too swollen, but I could definitely feel it.
When my knee finally felt good enough to start squatting again in the first week of September (now back in the power rack), I took it light and increased the weight gradually each set. I cannot tell if my strength improved or declined from squatting in the Smith, but considering my injured knee, the Smith was a bad experience in regards to squat.
If you are considering squatting in the Smith machine, I would recommend using lighter weights and really making an effort to use your glutes and hamstrings so you don’t hurt your knees.
Benching in the Smith felt extremely easy compared to using a free-weight barbell, so I kept increasing the weight throughout August. I also increased the amount of volume and decided to really blast the pecs because bench press seems to be a harder lift for me to maintain and improve on.
When I got back to benching with a free-weight barbell, the first couple sets felt a little awkward in regards to balancing the bar, but the feeling went away quickly. To my surprise, my bench press was STRONGER. I increased the weight in my first session back, and then again in my second session.
Pendlay row felt awkward in the Smith at first, but I got used to it quickly. Because the Smith machine made this lift so easy to balance, it felt really easy when I started doing it at the weight I used with a free-weight barbell. Because of this, I increased the weight throughout the month.
When I got back to using a normal barbell, I was STRONGER than before. In my first lift back with the barbell I increased the weight. I then increased the weight again in my second session back.
When I went to use the Smith machine for overhead press, I learned that I was too tall. Luckily, the gym I was using had a shoulder press machine, so I decided I would use it for the month. It was a seated machine and I was able to use more weight for more reps than I would on the overhead press.
My first time back doing overhead press with a free-weight barbell I was very cautious as I have known too many people who have injured their shoulders in the weight room. This is a hard lift to go heavy on, and to my surprise the weight felt LIGHTER than before. In my first session I did not increase the weight because there was no reason for me to risk injury, but in my second session I did add an extra set with increased weight and got it up no problem.
Deadlift in the Smith machine did not feel natural, and the gym I was using did not have enough plates for me to use the weight I normally use, so I had to go lighter. Because of this, I decided to do extra sets to ensure my muscles were still getting stimulated decently. After a couple sessions of deadlift in the Smith, the movement did start to feel less awkward and I could feel that I was in fact getting a proper stimulus.
When I got back to deadlifting with a free-weight barbell, I was able to hit my regular deadlift weight without a problem. In my first session back, I used the same weight I normally would, and did not try and add any because I wanted to be cautious. It felt like it took about the same effort as it did before my month in the Smith.
In my second lift, I added weight and hit all my reps no problem. Even though I added weight, I don’t feel that I gained any strength on the deadlift from using the Smith machine. Prior to my month of only using a Smith, I did feel I could go up on the deadlift, but this is a lift where I purposely increase the weight slowly as to avoid injury. Perhaps I gained a little strength here, but it’s hard to judge.
Because I had to use less weight than normal while deadlifting in the Smith, I expected my strength on the deadlift to go down, so I am happy to have at least maintained my strength.
After using the Smith machine for an entire month I can definitely see the value it provides. In the Smith you can add weight and reps, which can really help with hypertrophy and breaking a plateau.
I also wanted to note that contrary to popular belief, I don’t think the Smith machine should be used by novice lifters. Because more experienced lifters have built up their stabilizer muscles, they can incorporate the Smith machine to help hit some big muscle groups harder. New lifters should focus on free-weights and strengthen their stabilizers.
Moving forward, I will avoid using the Smith machine for squat because of the pressure it puts on my knees. I would advise other tall lifters to be cautious if thinking of using the Smith for squat.
Because of my improvements on the bench and Pendlay row, I may perform these lifts in the Smith from time to time. Although I did see an increase in strength on these lifts, I feel that if I only used a Smith for too long I would lose too much strength in my stabilizer muscles.
Overall, I am very pleased with the results as they exceeded my expectations.
Looking for a simple, effective, time-efficient lifting routine? Check out my three-day-per-week program: