By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT ProSource
A Contrary Opinion: The Smith Machine
as Your One Key Mass-Builder
Goals: Size, Strength
Almost by default, hardcore bodybuilders will tell you that there is no substitute for free weight training. Some will go on to tell you that all manner of machines in gyms should be summarily destroyed -- that they are only hindering your gains. But not all machines are created equal. While we may be willing to part with the almost universally-awkward machine shoulder press, we'd never part ways with the ubiquitous Smith machine. And that's not out of sentiment for a machine with a person's name -- this apparatus has tremendous value for lifters of all experience levels, regardless of goals. One big perk? You can squat more weight...about 5% more. Allow us to explain.
Weight lifting traditionalists favor free weights for a reason. Using barbells and dumbbells forces your body to recruit muscles in the most natural way possible -- man vs. gravity and all that. The instability inherent in many moves, particularly when using dumbbells, forces your body to recruit more total muscle. Machines put your body in more stable positions and reduce the amount of stabilizing musculature that is needed to complete an exercise with good form. But sometimes, you can sacrifice some of those stabilizers to trigger greater overload on the target muscles.
One study from Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa) found that lifters were about 5% stronger on the Smith-machine squat than on the free-weight barbell squat. With the bar on a fixed path, lifters were able to reduce their reliance on smaller stabilizing muscles and could therefore generate more force into the exercise.
Coincidentally, the same study showed that lifters were weaker on the Smith-machine bench press. Though both exercises have the lifter in a fixed position on a bench, the free weight variety to which we are all accustomed requires the bar to travel in a slight arc. The Smith keeps the bar on a fixed path and may put benchers at a slight disadvantage because of the body's unfamiliarity with that particular range of motion.
If you are finding it tough to add pounds to your barbell squat, you may want to begin your workout with the Smith squat every other week. Lifting 5% more on every set will be quickly put strength equity in the bank for the free-weight, barbell version of the squat which is essential for maximizing lower-body development. Try this Smith front-loaded workout next time you hit the gym for legs.
Leg Extension 3/12
For each exercise, select a weight that brings about failure at the rep range listed.
* Done as a warm-up, not to failure.
** On the last set, after initial failure, drop the weight by 20-30% and continue repping to failure once more.