Smith Machine Vs. Barbell: The Ultimate Face-off

Comparison of barbells and smith machines
For a beginner looking for a great weight training workout, choosing between a Smith machine and a barbell can be confusing. This Buzzle post sheds more light on the argument.
Did you know ...
... that Smith machines are actually more useful for doing pullups, inverted rows, and incline pushups, than squats?
A Smith machine is an essential modern gym equipment, and is used by millions to firm up their upper body. A barbell, on the other hand, has been neglected by many as a relic of old times. So which one is better, the Smith machine or the good old barbell?

The pursuit of becoming bigger, stronger, and fitter is one that drives hordes in through the doors of gyms, and straight into the cold, mechanical grasp of machines. The debate between working out with free weights and exercise machines is a hot topic in the fitness world. I am very much in the former camp: Pullups over lat pulldowns, jumping rope over treadmills, and yes, barbells over Smith machines.

This debate between free weights and weight machines stems from the invention of the modern marketing gimmick of 'isolation exercises'. These exercises are meant to task muscles separately, so that no single set of muscles is overworked. This basic principle is terribly misguided, and isolation exercises are not just inefficient, but can also be dangerous. Here's why.
The whole purpose of working out is to become stronger and fitter, which naturally leads to a better appearance. Exercise machines defeat this fundamental purpose by singling out a specific set of muscles and working them to the exclusion of almost everything else. While this enlarges and strengthens those muscles, the person doesn't become noticeably 'stronger'. This is not how the human body was designed to operate.
Strength comes from having a strong set of muscles, connected to a strong set of bones by a strong set of connecting tissues.
Compound exercises such as barbell squats, pushups, and pullups, work the muscles, as well as the connecting tissues (tendons and ligaments), and strengthen a larger part of the body more effectively than any single exercise machine. For instance, when you perform a set of lat pulldowns, you only work your lats and arms, and that too not very effectively. If you do a pullup, though, you work everything right from your wrists to your lower back.
Smith Machines or Barbells?
Man doing machine squats
Woman holding barbell
Smith machines and barbells are both required to do one of the most basic exercises, squats. But the two differ in the same fundamental way described above. A Smith machine has an equivalent of a barbell fixed at both ends, so that it can be moved vertically by the user. On the other hand, a barbell is completely balanced by the user alone. The Smith machine, which takes care of actually balancing the bar, may seem like the better option, but it isn't so.
Safety
A machine that makes the job of lifting weights easier may seem like the better option, but in reality, Smith machines just lull you into a false sense of security. The fixed bar on a Smith machine actually forces you to adopt dangerously unnatural poses to get a squat done. As opposed to the natural curved motion in a barbell or bodyweight squat, a Smith machine enforces a straight-line, 'up-down' motion that is very stressful for your knees and lower back. Knee injuries from doing Smith machine routines are common.
Efficiency
As explained before, exercise machines are inherently less efficient than free weights. A Smith machine takes off the load of actually holding up a barbell, and in the process, weakens the connecting tissues and stabilizing muscles (since they are not used in the exercise) around the muscles it does strengthen. As a result, if an exercise-machine-freak decides to do something strenuous, the connecting tissue will give up before the muscle, and he will have serious joint injuries to deal with. Free weight and bodyweight exercises strengthen, as mentioned before, every single part associated with the muscles focused on in an exercise, and thus develop a much better muscular balance and functional strength.

The ease in lifting a bar on a Smith machine also encourages users to lift more than they actually can. If they then make a transition to free weights, they will have to start with a much lighter load.
As you can see, free weights are a much better way of strengthening your body than exercise machines. Smith machines are not just less efficient than barbells, but can also cause serious joint and skeletal injuries. If you want to do squats the right way, even simple bodyweight squats with no extra weight are much better than doing squats on Smith machines. If those are too easy for you, but you can't quite hold the heavy barbell yet, hold dumbbells in either hand while doing squats. Slowly keep on increasing the weight of the dumbbells, until you feel confident enough to lift the big B. It may take time, but don't―whatever you do―succumb to the alluring charm of the Smith machine.
Advertisement