Whether your goal is to build muscles, stay in shape, or achieve your workout goals, free weights or a Smith machine are workout tools worth considering.
Not many people are still aware of the differences between the Smith machine and free weights. The questions on their minds are: Smith machine vs free weights - Which is best? Are free weights easier to use? How much does a Smith machine take off? Are Smith machines more traumatic? Is a Smith machine squat easier?
In this article, we will provide answers to these questions, cover the definition, pros, and cons of a Smith machine and free weights. We’ll also discuss the main differences between them, give you recommendations, and provide answers to the most frequently asked questions.
So which are better: Smith machine or free weights? The difference between a Smith machine vs free weights is that a Smith machine allows a limited range of motion, but provides better balance, stability, support, and safety. Free weights allow a wider range of motion, offering higher muscle activation and muscle-stabilizing effects.
What Is a Smith Machine?
A Smith machine is a piece of workout equipment that mimics barbell strength training motion. It comprises a barbell with weights fastened between two steel rails. This equipment allows vertical movement through the bar path. It also supports different kinds of strength training exercises, such as bench presses, shoulder presses, deadlifts, rows, and squats.
Beginners mainly use a Smith machine because of its support system and safety.
A Smith machine is designed with safety in mind. It has an inbuilt safety feature that keeps you from losing weight and limits the need for a spotter. One example of a safety feature is the catch rods found along the vertical support. If you experience difficulty dropping or lifting the weight, you can engage the bar catching with a twist of the wrist to lock the weight.
Another example of a safety feature is the adjustable stop that allows users to set the lowest moving distance of the weight.
2. Target Specific Muscles
The construction of the Smith machine allows a limited range of motion. This implies that you can easily target a specific muscle group with it.
For instance, if you just want to target your quads, you will set yourself up like you would for a leg press and lean back into the machine.
3. Provides Stability and Balance
Many Smith machines have a self-balancing feature. In addition, the guide rods on the machine also help to provide stability and balance. Because of this, you can simply focus all your attention on lifting the weight.
Also, since the bar path and guide rods only support a vertical motion, you don’t have to worry about the weight moving sideways, slipping backward, or forward.
4. Helps to Promote Good Form and Posture
Smith machines are typically constructed with steel rails that secure the weight in position. This allows users to lift the weight properly without losing balance or stability. This promotes good posture and form during workouts.
1. Fixed and Vertical Path
Since a Smith machine has a fixed path and only allows vertical motion, many experienced athletes find the movement unnatural and uncomfortable.
2. Limited Range of Motion
The Smith machine’s limited range of motion means that you are not able to do all possible variations of the exercise compared to free weights. A Smith machine has only one fixed vertical direction which makes it impossible to use, for example, for such exercises as bicep curl, French press, and some others that you can easily do with free weights.
3. Difficulty in Bailing Out and Aid in the Development of Poor Self-Spotting Skills
Although a Smith machine is equipped with many safety features that lessen the need for a spotter or self-spotting, however; machines are prone to malfunction at one point. For instance, when the bar gets stuck, it’s very difficult to bail yourself out of the situation.
In addition, the safety features of a Smith machine enable people to develop poor self-spotting skills, which may be useful if they decide to lift free weights.
Our Recommended Smith Machine
The Titan Fitness Smith Machine is our recommended Smith machine. This unique 260 lb piece of equipment features an eight-position safety system, 600 lb weight capacity, knurled barbell, 12.5” of loadable space, adjustable J-hooks, 8” Olympic weight storage posts, a rubber band to protect your feet, and a counterbalance function to help you achieve your workout goals. This product also offers a one-year warranty.
With it, you can maintain your form, adjust resistance with its four band pegs, protect yourself from injuries, and enjoy a smooth and easy, safe, supportive, and functional workout session.
What Are Free Weights?
Free weights comprise dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and all kinds of weights that you can move freely through space. In other words, it’s the traditional way of strength training without the support of a machine.
Because of its high difficulty level, many experienced athletes favor it more. For instance, for free weights, you have to master balance and stability to reduce your risk of injuries. In addition, you need to develop self-spotting skills to bail yourself out if you’re stuck.
1. More Variety
Let’s take for example bench press. You can do it in a Smith machine or with free weights. When using free weights you can choose between a barbell or dumbbells. The last one allows you to change the angle and add rotation, targeting minor muscle groups more.
2. Higher Muscle Activation
Because of the muscle self-stabilizing effect of free weights, several scientific studies have shown that free weights have higher muscle activation than Smith machines.
A study comparing the legs and trunk muscles’ activation of free weights and the Smith machine shows that free weights are more effective in strengthening muscles such as plantar flexors, knee extensors, and knee flexors.
Another study comparing muscle force production for bench press and squat using a Smith machine and free weight shows that the subjects experienced a greater 1RM for bench press and squat when using free weights. Besides, a free weight bench press offers greater muscle activation and upper-body muscle development.
3. Affordability and Portability
Free weights are small in size and are very easy to store. In addition, free weights are less expensive compared to a Smith machine.
1. High Risk of Injury
A study examining weight-training related injuries suggests that the risk of injuries in a free weight is higher than that of a Smith machine. This is because free weights have no safety features or support system. It’s just you and, sometimes, your spotter. In addition, applying the wrong techniques can lead to injuries in free weight. It’s almost impossible to apply the wrong techniques in a Smith machine.
2. Developing Proper Techniques and Form Requires Time
With free weights, it takes time to master an exercise or develop form. This is because free weight requires better balance, coordination, and stability.
Smith Machine vs Free Weights
Smith machines and free weights are both workout tools that can help athletes build muscles, maintain fitness and achieve their weight training goals. Here are the main differences between a Smith machine and free weight:
Free Weight Is More Functional but More Difficult to Master the Proper Technique
Because you can do a bigger number of exercises and your range of motion is not limited by rack dimensions, free weights are more functional than a Smith machine that only allows vertical movement.
In addition, a Smith machine has an inbuilt stabilizer that makes strength training easier. With free weights, you have to do all the work yourself.
Free Weights Have Greater Muscle Activation
With exercises such as bench press, free weight has a greater muscle activation than a Smith machine because of the usage of stabilizer muscles.
With a Smith machine, your stabilizer muscles are not just targeted that much compared to free weights because the machine stabilizes the weight for you.
A Smith Machine Is More Suitable for Beginners
Because of a Smith machine’s safety features and support system, it’s more suitable for people who are starting their strength training journey.
On the other hand, free weight requires users to take caution when training to avoid injuries. It also requires a great deal of time before one can develop form, which can be stressful for beginners.
Are Smith Machines as Good as Free Weights?
Smith machines are as good as free weights with more benefits not only for the beginners but experienced athletes as they can achieve better muscle isolation.
Can You Build Muscle With Smith Machines?
A Smith machine is an effective piece of equipment to build muscles. Even though you cannot do the entire variety of exercises like with free weights, you still have a wide diapason basic exercises such as bench press, squat, or deadlift which are crucial for muscle growth.
Smith Machine Squats vs Barbell Squats – Which Is Better?
Smith machine squats and barbell squats are both good. However, with a Smith machine, you may do some more isolated exercises. On the other hand, free weights allow you to improve stability and support a greater range of motion.
Smith Machine Deadlift vs Free Weight – Which Is Better?
Both target the same major muscle groups such as legs, hips, back, and core. However, the Smith machine deadlift minimizes the range of motion which takes away some leg development. So, you’ll require more time to get the same result as with free weights.
Before choosing between free weights and a Smith machine, you should consider your goals. If you want to target more muscles, develop balance and coordination, and improve your overall efficiency, free weights are the best option.
If you are a beginner or want to target specific muscles and limit the risk of injuries, the Smith machine is the best option.
Many people incorporate both free weights and Smith machines. Free weights have greater muscle activation and may lead to injuries if not used properly. Smith Machines can make you stronger and may rob you of the effects of stabilizing muscles.
The Titan Fitness Smith Machine is our recommended Smith machine. We outlined features that make it outstanding and a good investment.
Have you used a Smith machine before? Did you find it beneficial? How was your experience? Did you develop any injuries? Which do you prefer between a Smith machine and free weight? And why? Share your opinions in the comments.
- A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat // PubMed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19855308/
- Comparison of muscle force production // PubMed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15705030/
- A Comparison of Muscle Activation // ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/41112033
- Epidemiology of weight training // PubMed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20139328/
- A comparison of muscle activation // PubMed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20093960/
My name is Ihor and I have been a professional weightlifter since 1996. With over 20 years of competition experience, my resume includes European Champion in 2009 and the silver medalist at 2011's Senior World Championships – 105kg division.
I competed at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics.
After hanging up my own competitive lifting shoes, I decided to share my huge background as a coach. I am currently coaching multiple athletes who are competing at national and international competitions.