Take a quick look around the gym and you’ll notice how many people are packed into the free weight area. Barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls and anything else that doesn’t look like a machine are quite popular with hardcore fitness aficionados. The current trends of “functional training,” “working the core” and “working out like athletes” are all expressions of free moves.
Oftentimes in fitness we think of things in black and white. For abs, we’ve demonized the crunch and made planks the new hero. However, the shades of gray can’t be overlooked. Let’s take a new look at the Smith Machine.
And the winner is…
Free weights have their advantages. They promote better body alignment, involve other stabilizer and neutralizer muscles and work on movement and other fitness components such as balance that reflect how the body functions in daily life and sports. In addition, you may burn more calories due to the higher muscle involvement.
However, machines are easier to use and safer. This allows you to move from one exercise to another rapidly with the proper set up. Therefore routines could be done faster when using machines. Thus you may end up burning the same calories than when using free weights since with free weights you need to take time to assemble bars and plates.
In particular, the Smith machine has been widely compared to free weights for two gold standard exercises such as the squat and bench press. As predicted, when doing free weights you can expect as much as 43 percent higher muscle activity than in the Smith machine. However, other studies show that trainees were able to lift more weight and isolate some muscles better when doing bench press and/or squats in the Smith machine rather than with free weights.
Jack Barnathan, founder of NY Strength Peak Performance Consulting, explains that when using the Smith machine “the normal ‘arc’ of the squat for example, is more of a pelvic tilt / sitting motion, and clearly not a “straight” up and down path. When one attempts to squat or shoulder press or bench with the Smith machine, it forces them into the straight range of motion, and eliminates the normal arc that is created when one respects the round nature of our joints. This natural arc is lost, and now forces are falling upon (with the squat) the spine and knees.”
Bottom line: Switch up your workouts. Alternate between free weight exercises and machines. If you are looking for a high intensity workout where strength and power are the goals, this will be a good day for free weight moves. If you are looking for more of a muscle endurance type of exercise routine, go for the machines. Keep in mind that free weights and machines will tax the muscles in different ways and will also stress different muscles. Overall, this will keep challenging your muscles to avoid reaching a plateau.
However, when in doubt, Barnathan adds, “Free weights permit what I define as true functional training by permitting the athlete to develop the strength to handle the weights, even picking them up safely, and finding the normal, natural range of motion and arc in the motion of the set.”
The Smith Machine workout
(location Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa Miami Beach, clothing by Lululemon Athletica, photos by Andrew Meade Photography, Inc.)
This routine will emphasize muscle endurance so the weight to use will be moderate. The goal is to keep a steady pace which will allow you to get some cardio and muscle conditioning benefits.
- Perform each exercise for the number of sets and reps as indicate below before moving to the next exercise.
- Rest less than 45 s between sets and no more than 60 s between exercises.
- The rest time is an “active rest” which means that basically you’ll use this time to set the bar and the weight for the next move.
- The routine has been designed alternating between the lower and upper body so the muscles are not overloaded.
- Perform 3 sets of each exercise, 15 reps each. As for the bonus exercise pull-ups, do as many as you can. Take as much rest as you need for this last exercise.
Squat: When using the Smith machine keep in mind that the closer the feet are to the body, the more that the quadriceps gets the work while the farther they are, the more that the gluteus and hamstrings work.
Overhead lunges: This is a complex move that requires upper body and trunk stabilization and strength. Go down at 90 degree angle while keeping the back in alignment with your body and arms straights but elbows not locked. If you find hard to do the full 15 reps in this position, do some as the picture shows and when you get tired switch to a shoulder press in a stagger position. Do the number of reps and sets for each leg.
Deadlift: When doing this exercise keep the bar close to your body, back straight, chest up, abdominals tight and neck aligned with your spine. Go as low as you can while keeping form. Bend forward and backward using the gluteus and the hamstrings but not the back. To get a better range of motion, stand on a step to do the exercise.
Push-ups: Take a wider than shoulder width apart position while leaning the body onto the bar with the back straight, chest up, shoulder downs and core tight. The higher the bar, the easier the move because the less body mass that you need to move. If you want to perform an advanced move, put the bar parallel to the floor and place your feet on a physioball.
Bonus Pull-ups: This move will give you a lot. It works the back, biceps and core. Switching to a pronated grip (palms facing away the body) will isolate the back better.