The Smith machine — that piece of equipment with a barbell fixed in a sliding plane of motion — has a bad reputation among trainers and coaches. And with good reason: It encourages poor form, makes strength imbalances worse and can cause injury by restricting natural movement.
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If one of your arms is slightly longer than the other, for example, and you do a bench press using the Smith, the machine will force both arms to press the bar equally, says Aaron Brooks, a biomechanics expert and owner of Perfect Postures. As a result, one side will get stronger than the other — and stay that way.
"It's not real movement," Brooks says. "[The machine] forces the joints to move in a way they may not want to move in because it's a fixed plane of motion."
For this reason, performing squats, bench presses, upright rows and other popular exercises on the Smith machine isn't your best bet. But the Smith doesn't have to be wasted gym real estate when you know how to properly use it. Here are six benefits of using it and the best way to get what you want from it.
1. Carve Your Chest
Although the bench press isn't something you should perform on the Smith, you can do a more advanced move on the machine that will strengthen your chest even faster: the bench press throw.
To perform the toss safely, lie beneath the Smith machine and throw and catch the bar at the top of presses. Execute six reps, or fewer, per set. That's the optimum range for enhancing power.
Not everyone is ready to toss the bar, however. So start with an incline push-up on the fixed bar, says Jeremy Frisch, owner and director of Achieve Performance Training. He says that many times people who are aiming for a good push-up start on the floor, which won't help them improve very quickly.
If this applies to you, try using the Smith instead. Place the bar at an incline to train with your hands on the bar, maintaining a straight body line from head to heels during the push-up motion. "As you get better at that incline," Frisch says, "move it down and down and down, until you can do [the push-ups] on the floor."
2. Row Your Way to a Sculpted Back
Not only is the fixed bar of the Smith great for incline push-ups, it's also great for turning the push-up upside-down with the inverted row.
Set the bar at hip height (this is key to help maintain form) and lie beneath the bar. Extend your arms up and grab the bar with an overhand grip that's slightly beyond shoulder width. Create a straight body line from head to heels, with your heels resting on the floor and your torso suspended in the air. Keeping a rigid body line, pull your chest to the bar.
To make the move easier, bend your knees slightly — or even all the way to 90 degrees. If you bend your knees, however, make sure you keep your body straight from shoulders to knees throughout the move.
3. Open Your Hips and Strengthen Your Legs
Most exercisers don't move laterally once they've left organized athletics, which is rough on our hips, says Frisch. Without this side-to-side movement, our hips and groins tighten, which can cause back and hip pain, and we lose single-leg strength, which can make us prone to injury.
The Smith machine can fix this with the barbell duck-under. To do it, set the bar at hip height and stand with the bar on your left side. Take a long stride beneath the bar with your left leg so that your toes still point perpendicular to it, then duck underneath.
Stand up on the other side by bringing your right leg to meet your left leg. Repeat in the other direction. Continue in this way until you've passed under the bar 10 times in each direction.
4. Use the Bar for All-Over Conditioning
There are few things that get you moving and having fun like a jungle gym — and the Smith machine can sub for one. Turn the fixed bar into an obstacle to really get your heart pumping, says Jared Meacham, director of fitness services at Sky Fitness & Wellbeing.
"Set the bar about 2 1/2 feet off the ground, then step over it," he says. "After that, hit the deck and bear crawl backwards underneath the bar." The bear crawl will get your heart racing and help with push-ups, burpees and other on-the-floor moves.
Meacham also uses the bar-as-obstacle to test dive bomber push-ups, a variation that increases flexibility in the hamstrings and core while strengthening vertical push.
To perform this exercise, begin in a normal push-up position. Move your hands closer to your feet so that your hips push up and your body forms an inverted "V" shape. From this position, lower your shoulders and head and move your chest forward as if you were trying to slide your head and chest under a tripwire.
Then lower your hips and raise your chest so your arms are straight and you feel a stretch in your abs. Reverse the move to return to start. Once you're good at the move, set the bar just in front of your head at the start position, Meacham says, and aim to lower the bar over time.
5. Rip Your Core With These Moves
In the same way you used the fixed bar for incline push-ups, you can use the elevated bar for incline planks — with one or two hands, says Mike Wunsch, performance director at Results Fitness.
"You can use this to pass from hand to hand, perform push-ups with a knee drive, or single-leg or -arm push-ups," he says, adding that when you get good at a move at a higher level, you can "fix the bar in a new position and try again."
And Meacham suggests another option: performing an upside-down version of the T push-up. With the bar in a high position, assume the start position for an inverted row. Release one hand and rotate your body down so your arms form a straight line and your body forms a "T" shape. Pull with your hanging arm and rotate back to start. Then repeat on the other side.
6. Get a Stronger Squat
Isometric moves like the plank train your body without moving a muscle and are great for more than your core. Just try holding a body-weight squat in the bottom position for more than a few seconds, and you'll feel the burn.
But while moves like these, or "yielding isometrics," allow muscles to lengthen, there's another type of isometric exercise called "overcoming isometrics." Overcoming isometric exercises add more power to your body, says Frisch.
To get a feel for an overcoming isometric move, stand in front of a wall and push it as if you were going to move the building. The building probably won't move, but your body will tire out.
Pushing against an immovable object like this is "one of the best ways to get stronger at a movement," Frisch explained. "You're working the prime mover muscles," which will make you more powerful at the start of a movement. And the Smith machine's fixed bar is a great immovable object to push during squats, bench presses and shoulder presses.
To perform an overcoming isometric squat on the Smith machine, perform the down portion of the squat using an unloaded bar. At the bottom of the move, lock the bar in place. Press up on the bar, pushing against its immobility, just as you did against the wall in the example. Hold this push for as long as you can or up to 30 seconds.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever used the Smith machine before? What exercises do you do on it? Had you heard that some trainers discourage people from using it for standard squats and bench presses? What other machines do you use at the gym? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!