Why Athletes Should Avoid the Smith Machine

Just don't use it.

Every few weeks, an athlete will ask me about the Smith machine.

Normally, it goes something like, "Hey Coach, there's this thing at the Y where the bar is on these rails and it goes up and down on this track. Why don't we have one of those here?"

For those of you who aren't familiar, the Smith machine is a piece of equipment similar to a squat rack but the barbell is set between metal rails so it moves along a fixed track. Smith Machines can be found in most commercial gyms. They are an expensive piece of equipment, with certain models costing upwards of $1,000. If they are widespread and expensive, then that means they must be useful, right?

Wrong! There are very few people, if any, that I would recommend utilize a Smith machine in their training. Athletes certainly aren't one of them. Here are three reasons athletes should avoid this piece of equipment in favor of more functional options.

1. It puts the body in unnatural positions

As you can see in this picture, there is nothing natural about a Smith Machine Squat. If I am being completely honest, this isn't even the worst Squat I have seen on a Smith machine, but there is still so much wrong with it. The individual is performing a Back Squat, but his torso is completely vertical and his feet are out in front of his body. In a Barbell Back Squat, the torso and knees need to come forward to keep the weight over the mid foot. This is a natural mechanism the body has for maintaining balance during movement.

The Squat also requires great mobility at the ankles, hips and T-spine to be performed correctly, and that mobility is also important for sports performance. However, the Smith Machine Squat does little to enhance any of those. Proper lifting technique in functional exercises is one of the best ways to develop movement patterns. The Smith machine does nothing to help obtain this goal. By forcing your Squat into a fixed bar path, your body is forced to adapt to the equipment. This often results in poor form, an increased risk of injury and an underwhelming amount of muscle activation. This applies not only to the Smith Machine Squat, but also to Smith Machine Bench Press, Smith Machine Overhead Press, Smith Machine Split Squat, etc.

2. It only trains the prime movers

In every movement that occurs in the human body, there are skeletal muscles performing one of four functions: prime mover, antagonist, synergist and fixator. The prime mover is the large muscle that's responsible for the majority of the movement. For example, the prime mover of the Squat is the quadriceps, and for the Bench Press, the pectoralis major. The antagonist is the muscle that works against the prime mover to help to stabilize the joint. In the Squat, this would be the Hamstrings, and in the Bench Press, the lats. The synergist is a muscle that aids the prime mover in the completion of the movement. An example of this is the glutes in the Squat and the shoulders in the Bench Press. Lastly, a fixator is a muscle that stabilizes whatever joint the the prime mover originates from to allow that prime mover to function in an optimal manner.

When training with free weights, muscles must work to fill all four functions. But on a Smith machine, all the stability is already provided for you. There's little preventing the prime mover from performing its job, as the bar is on a track and cannot move anywhere but up or down. This reduces the need for the antagonist, synergist and fixator functions. The Smith Machine takes a Squat, which is an incredibly complex movement requiring the coordinated effort of your entire body in unison, and essentially turns it into a Leg Extension.

3. Little to no transfer to athletics

This point is obvious, but it is by far the most important point you need to take away from this article. The Smith machine allows for unrealistic movement patterns, meaning it does not train you to move in every day life. Every exercise you do should have transfer to the way you move in sport, and the Smith machine, with its fixed bar path and total lack of instability, does not.

There is nothing stable about sports. Sports are dynamic. Athletes need to be able to be balanced, strong and explosive. They need to be able to sprint but also be capable of stopping on a dime. Athletes need to be able to perform coordinated movements with all the muscles of their body working in unison to optimally compete. Exercises that utilizes the smith machine largely require no balance, coordination, skill, stability or mobility. These are all characteristics that should describe an athlete, so why would you spend your time training in a manner that neglects them?

If your goals include increasing athletic performance, the Smith machine should not play a role in your training. The Smith Machine Squat, arguably the most popular Smith machine exercise, is essentially a leg extension disguised as a functional movement. I leave you with a quote from strength coach and author Mark Rippetoe: "A squat cannot be performed on a Smith machine any more than it can in a small closet with a hamster." It's a strange analogy, but I think you get the point.

Photo Credit: Antonio_Diaz/iStock