You’ve probably heard your own fair share of weightlifting scary stories. Stories like the guy whose spine crumbled under the weight he was trying to lift. Or, you know, that other guy whose face got smashed in doing bench presses.
Yeah, lifting by yourself can be dangerous, especially if you aren’t used to lifting yet or you have decided to add more weight. That’s what spotters and buddies are for - they’ve got their eyes on you and your back if your own body fails you.
But what about those who want to lift by their lonesome in the confines of their own homes? You certainly can’t rely on your kid to be your spotter, right?
Luckily, the Smith machine was created for lifters and although it has its own drawbacks (you can’t expect exercise equipment to be perfect all around!), it certainly affords a measure of safety, especially for those who are planning to lift without spotters or exercise buddies in the vicinity.
Now that I’ve opened up the topic, I’m sure you have a lot of questions about it. What is a Smith machine? What is it supposed to do? How safe is it? And if it is so safe, can it still help you build strength? Are the support and safety features factored in on the total weight?
Patience, young Padawan, and let me answer your questions one by one.
First things first - let me explain what exactly is a Smith machine.
Basically, the entire contraption is a barbell that is fixed within steel rails so that you can only move up and down or in a nearly vertical direction as much as the machine can allow. These vertical posts, called runners, usually have a couple of slots where you can just hook the barbell on if you feel yourself lagging or if the weight is too much.
Some Smith machines, like the Precor Icarian Smith Machine, are counterbalanced, which adds balance and stability to the machine itself but can take away from the actual weight of the bar.
If there is anything the Smith machine can boast about, it is the added safety it provides for those who are lifting without a spotter. There have been a lot of horror stories about blokes crushing their spines and chests that can intimidate lifters from working out in their own homes.
The Smith machine can help alleviate some of that fear.
What makes the Smith machine a tad bit safer than lifting free weights is the setup in itself - the barbell is fixed to just glide up and down behind the runners, with a couple of slots where you can just hook the bar if things go down south.
The barbell can be hooked just about anywhere on the Smith machine so if you feel like things are getting to be a little too much for you, it’s no big deal. Just hook the bar up on one of those slots and you’ll be fine.
Although this does limit your movements and there are some who even hate the Smith machine because it could actually force you into an unnatural movement pattern, you cannot argue that it does have an advantage over free weights in terms of safety.
You can reserve the macho lifting and squats for the gym where you have a dedicated spotter to watch every move and rescue you the moment your strength flags. If you are too shy or unlikeable to get a spotter, suck it up and do some Smith squats instead.
Now, we come to one of the drawbacks in the Smith machine.
Although the Smith machine uses a full-sized Olympic bar, typically seven inches long, some lifters make the mistake of adding the exact weight of the bar to the total weight lifted. Free weights are different from lifting with machines because, in the first place, machines do some heavy lifting of their own.
The Smith machine is designed so that the bar glides up and down the contraption, which makes the bar lighter. This may reduce the bar’s weight by as much as 10 to 20 lbs.
Aside from that, some machines are also counterbalanced, as mentioned previously. While this does add stability to the entire thing, this means that the lifting cannot totally be attributed to your efforts alone. The counterweight reduces the weight of the bar significantly so that the starting weight varies between 15 to 35 lbs.
What’s more, some Smith machines also feature a spring mechanism that also neutralizes the weight of the bar.
So yeah, it’s not all you.
Lifting with a Smith machine or any machine for that matter has its perks and downsides. Aside from forcing you into an unnatural movement pattern compared to lifting free weights, the Smith machine also affects the weight of the bar so. Because the bar is made to glide in a vertical movement, the mechanism that allows such movement also makes the bar lighter.
As discussed above, some machines are also counterbalanced and some have a spring mechanism that neutralizes the weight of the bar. These measures help stabilize the Smith machine but this also means that you cannot factor in the actual weight of the bar.
Although the mechanism of the Smith machine does significantly affect the weight of the bar, you can still add the weight of the bar to the total weight lifted. You just have to make sure that you use the starting weight and not the actual weight of the bar before you go about bragging to your buddies. This number is usually indicated on the label of the machine and can range from 15 to 35 lbs. If you’re not sure, you can call the manufacturer and ask them for this piece of information.
Lifting with machines or free weights have their own advocates, who would eagerly defend one side against the other. Although Smith machines have their own drawbacks - nothing in this world is perfect, after all - it cannot be denied that it does provide a modicum of safety especially if you are lifting alone without a spotter.
Unfortunately, the mechanism itself has some downsides and in order to keep the safety features, you have to factor in that the design of the machine itself impacts the weight that is lifted.
The weight of the bar in a Smith machine is lighter as compared to lifting with free weights. This is due to the design of the machine that makes the bar glide up and down the vertical posts or runners. Other machines are also counterbalanced, which provide added stability but also reduce the weight of the bar. Other machines also sport a spring mechanism, which can neutralize the weight of the bar.
This is why you can lift “more” with a Smith machine as compared to free weights.
Although this is the case, you can still factor in the weight of the bar in your calculations of the total weight lifted. You simply have to make sure that you use the starting weight indicated on the machine and not the actual weight of the bar.
Did this article answer your question? Do you use the Smith machine? How does it feel compared to lifting with free weights? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to share this article with your family and friends!
I am Mike R.Bowen, founder of Fitness On The Weekend dot Com and my aim is to help busy people find time for fitness. We will give you actionable advice on how you can keep fit and healthy even on those busy days!
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