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A Closer Look at the Smith Machine

author image Greg Presto
Greg Presto is a sports and fitness reporter and video guy in Washington, D.C., who thinks fitness should be fun and an adventure, whether you're on a trail, in the gym, or on the living room floor. He's done work for "Men's Health," "Women's Health," "Shape," "Prevention," "Reebok," "USA Today" and others.
A Closer Look at the Smith Machine
A woman using a smith machine. Photo Credit: Serghei Starus/iStock/Getty Images

The Smith machine, the 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 in Auburndale, Massachusetts. As a result, one side will get stronger than the other -- and stay that way.

"It's not real movement," Brooks said. "[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 the squats, bench presses, upright rows and other popular training moves commonly executed on the Smith machine is not your soundest option. But the Smith doesn't have to be wasted gym real estate when you know how to safely use this fixed bar to train every part of your body.

Many times, people who are aiming for a good pushup start on the floor, which won't help them improve very quickly. They should try utilizing the Smith machine instead.

Two Ways to Carve Your Chest

Although the bench press is not 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 -- throwing and catching the bar at the top of presses.

To perform the toss safely, lie beneath the Smith machine and execute six reps, or fewer, per set. This is the optimum range for enhancing power.

Not everyone is ready to toss the bar, however -- or to even do a traditional pushup to work the chest. In these cases, too, the fixed bar can come in handy, says Jeremy Frisch, owner and director of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Massachusetts.

Frisch says that many times people who are aiming for a good pushup start on the floor, which won't help them improve very quickly. If this applies to you, try utilizing 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 pushup motion.

"As you get better at that incline," Frisch said, "move it down and down and down, until you can do [the pushups] on the floor."

The Best Place in the Gym to Row

Not only is the fixed bar of the Smith great for incline pushups, it's also great for turning the pushup upside-down -- working horizontal pulling with the inverted row.

Set the bar at hip height and lie beneath the bar, instructs Craig Ballantyne, creator and owner of Turbulence Training fat-loss system. Reach 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.

Don't move the bar around, advises Ballantyne. If you set it too high, you'll likely contort your body to get your chest up. Setting the bar at "hip height generally works because it allows you to drop down and come up without using any body English," Ballantyne said.

To make the move easier, bend your knees slightly -- or even all the way to 90 degrees. If you bend your knees, however, make certain you keep your body straight from shoulders to knees throughout the move.

Open Your Hips to Relieve Pain 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.

"You're going to shift the weight from foot to foot and really force yourself to get good on one leg," Frisch said. "You get mobility. You get great range of motion in the groin area. It's a great body-awareness drill."

And if you haven't moved this way recently, it'll work your glutes intensely.

To do the barbell duck-under, 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.

Use the Bar as an Obstacle for All-Over Conditioning

There are few things that get you moving and having fun like a jungle gym -- and your gym has one if it has a Smith machine. Turn the fixed bar into an obstacle to really get your heart pumping, says Jared Meacham, owner and personal training director at Precision Body Designs in Covington, Louisiana.

"Set the bar about 2 1/2 feet off the ground, then step over it," he said. "After that, hit the deck and bear crawl backwards underneath the bar."

The bear crawl will get your heart racing and help with pushups, burpees and other on-the-floor moves.

Meacham also uses the bar-as-obstacle to test dive bomber pushups, a variation that increases flexibility in the hamstrings and core while strengthening vertical push.

To perform this exercise, begin in a normal pushup 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.

Rip Your Core With These Moves

In the same way you used the fixed bar for incline pushups, you can use the elevated bar for incline planks -- with one or two hands, says Mike Wunsch, performance director at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California.

"You can use this to pass from hand to hand, perform pushups with a knee drive, or single-leg or -arm pushups," he said, 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 pushup. 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.

Get a Stronger Squat on the Smith -- Without Squatting

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 Jeremy Frisch, owner and director of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Massachusetts.

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.

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