Dear Dr. Bell, is performing a Squat on a Smith Machine totally different than performing a standard Squat? It seems like the form changes? When would you recommend using a Smith Machine instead of free weights?
YES! There is a big difference between a Smith Machine Squat and a Free Weight Squat…or to channel Donald Trump…”IT’S A HUGE DIFFERENCE!!!”
The Smith Machine is first and foremost…A Machine! You use machines to provide external stabilization of an exercise. Beginners use machines for safety, to learn an exercise movement and focus on mandatory timing and breathing, while the Machine provides the stability to balance the movement. The Smith Machine is EXCELLENT for this purpose.
You use Free Weights: Barbells, Dumbbells, Kettle-bells, etc. to make an exercise more “Functional.” Functional exercises are less stabile. As you decrease stability, you change the stress on the Skeletal-Muscular System. The stress in machine exercises is almost entirely on the Prime Movers: The Primary muscle targeted by the exercise. Functional exercises decrease external stability forcing an inhibitory effect on the Prime Mover and increasing the stress to the stabilizing muscles. This is the reason you lift less weight as the exercise becomes less stabile. For example: In the Pistol Squat, you will only get about 30% muscle activation in the Prime Movers as you would when doing a Smith Machine Squat. Of course this means you will only be able to use 30% or less of the weight(LOAD) you use in the Smith Squat.
Most strength training exercises only stress approximately 40 different Prime Movers. If you focus your Program on the typical Bodybuilding exercises, you focus almost exclusively on these 40 and while these 40 make-up about 90% of your muscle mass, you still have a total of 606 muscles that you need to develop to keep you fully functional and healthy. STABILITY, FUNCTIONAL and CORE TRAINING exercises are designed to develop nearly all 606 muscles in your body. Even I can’t get to all 606! While I can wiggly my ears, I have not yet developed exercises for my eye lids!
If you are a Bodybuilder, Powerlifter, or strength athlete, you may be thinking: “Why should I care about developing the: Piriformis, Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Major or Minor, Coracobrachialis, Flexor Digitorum Profundus, Pronator Teres, Iliocostalis, Psoas, Iliacus, Gemelli, Pectineus, Popliteus, Peroneus Tertuis, Triceps Surae; or any of the other muscles you never hear talked about because “they don’t show!” or help me Squat, Sprint, Rebound, Hit, etc.
The Answer: You need Stability Training in your Program to maintain both BALANCE and SYMMETRY, to prevent injuries and thus remain consistent in your training. These are two very important components of the 12 IFPA Components of Fitness, not just to prevent injuries, but to prevent premature aging. To achieve your optimal fitness goals, you must be consistent in your training and this means avoiding injury. Those who focus only on Prime Movers, excluding training the stabilizer muscles are setting themselves up for injury. Those injuries can occur within the Weight Room and without! You could end up with a serious, debilitating muscle tear while putting your Tee-Shirt on, picking up a two year-old child, reaching for a glass on a top shelf or getting in or out of your car…all due to the imbalance you create within your Skeletal-muscular System.
You can also inhibit your optimal development through the Inhibitory Process of your Neurophysiology. Your Neurophysiology can actually inhibit your total rate of force production within your Prime Mover when it detects an imbalance in the stabilizers ability to control the lift. In effect, your Neurophysiology provides safety that will inhibit your Prime Movers from Maximal Contractions when it senses your stabilizers cannot handle the load.
My recommendation is to include Stability exercises in every workout. My personal Preference is do Stability exercises as part of my Warm-up and Cool-Down. And Personally, I never use the Smith Machine. While I still Highly recommend it for Beginners to learn technique, form, breathing, timing, etc. it has little value outside of training a beginner. It may provide an “Ego Boost” since you can lift a heavier weight on a Smith Machine, but at what cost? The Prime Movers are being highly stressed to get stronger, but your Stabilizers will get weaker! Don’t write checks with your Ego that your body can’t cash!
I do know some Powerlifters that use the Smith Machine to use heavier weight as part of their High Intensity Training Programs, but they still do plenty of Free Squat work, but again I still have concerns about Symmetry. At the extreme loads they lift, even a relatively minor imbalance can cause a serious injury. They may be able to do themselves a far greater benefit by adding some sets of Pistol Squats on a BOSU with the Opposite Arm Extended Overhead while Holding a Kettle-bell!!!! I don’t mean to imply they should jump into an advanced Stability exercise, but to use GPO to work-up to it! BUT…Good Luck trying to convince a Powerlifter to do it! I still have trouble convincing them to do 15RM sets for Hypertrophy….they call that Cardio!
WARNING: IF YOU ARE GOING TO USE SMITH MACHINES: Make sure you are on the right one! The Squat Smith Machine tracks perpendicular to the ground, straight 90 degree track from ground up. The Bench Press Smith machine angles back slightly to simulate the “Bench Press Arc (BPA).” The BPA starts at or slightly below the Solar Plexus ( Nipple Line on the Chest) and tracks upward and backward in a smooth arc until the arms are extended to form a 90 degree angle to the torso or slightly beyond. The bar will be balanced above a point over the neck-up to the eyes, or a least it appears that way to the lifter. DO NOT mistake the two machines or serious injury can occur!