There are circumstances under which the Smith machine for squats is better than a free barbell.
The Smith machine is actually better for squats than the free barbell — if you meet certain criteria.
There is a lot of controversy and disagreement in the fitness world when it comes to the Smith machine vs. free barbells for performing squats.
Which is better: Smith machine or free barbells for squatting?
This depends on your goals, and it depends on you.
If you insist that the Smith machine is worthless, can you honestly say you’ve never seen a man with king-sized quads using the Smith machine for squats?
He probably squats with a free barbell, too, but have you ever seen him doing such?
The Smith machine is a good piece of equipment for people who, for one reason or another, have problems with the free barbell.
If a person has a weak low back but good strong legs, do you really think he or she should push to muscle failure with free barbell squats?
Their back will cave long before their legs get fatigued; hence, they’ll never gain mass in their legs.
This is where the Smith machine comes in; it will allow them to push the legs hard without their back giving out.
People with weak backs that hurt under the tension of heavy or even light squatting need to work on strengthening their back — however much possible, since there may be a permanent spinal issue with a disc.
But in the meantime, the Smith machine is the equipment of choice for when these people squat.
And what if they just can’t remedy their back problem?
A person whose back gets tweaky upon doing free barbell squats with challenging weight will have to quit the set prematurely.
However, their back may feel just fine upon using the Smith machine with an equally challenging weight load.
If a person has long thighs relative to calf length, this will impede efficiency of free barbell squatting.
When a person has long thigh bones relative to lower leg bones, the squatting motion becomes increasingly tricky as he or she lowers closer to getting the thighs parallel to the floor – and that’s without any added weight.
The relatively long upper legs put pressure on the instep and lower shin area. The hips will feel uncomfortable unless they are flexible or loose.
The Smith machine eliminates this problem, because there is a much greater range with which to position the legs. Leg positioning with the free barbell is very limited.
Leg muscles are more isolated with Smith machine squats, which means there is good potential here to build muscle mass.
Free barbell workouts burn more calories, but what if maximum calorie burn isn’t your goal?
What if you want to blast your legs without a weak or tweaky back getting in the way? And what if the proportions of your leg bones don’t accommodate free squatting? Then the Smith machine is for you.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health.