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Squats: Barbell VS. Smith Machine

There are few topics that irritate me as much as those who argue for the legitimacy of the Smith machine in an athlete’s proper strength training program. A few of the more common arguments include:

  • Smith squats are good for those starting out, who don’t know how to squat.
  • Smith squats are safer because they allow you to squat without a spotter.
  • Smith squats are no different than squats with a real barbell.

If you have been around LBEB for any amount of time, you know our opinion of things like the leg press and the smith machine for strength and size development, but for those that don’t, let’s take a little journey and pick apart some of the common arguments presented above.

1. Smith squats are good for those starting out, who don’t know how to squat.

Because sitting that far back with a tampon bar prepares you for a real squat

 We hear this argument a lot, usually from the same crowd that say “Hey, at least they are off their butts and doing something!” The problem that arises from this argument is that the Smith squat and barbell squat are similar mostly in name, and little else. The feet must be placed in front of the Smith bar in order to compensate for the guided path of the Smith machine, causing a shear on the knees, as well as a rounded lower back that occurs at the bottom of the smith squat.

The reason I would never recommend a person “start on the smith machine, then move up to free weights” is because the two movements are so different. I have coached a lot of people, most of them were complete beginners. I had every single one of them start out by doing simple air squats, then move on to an empty barbell , then finally a loaded barbell. The reason for this is because the movements of my progressions are very similar to one another in regards to trunk recruitment, knee position, and torso elevation. On more than one occasion, we have watched on of my newer lifters (less than 2 months training) out-squat a different coach lifting right next to them, and they did it with impeccable form.

If your idea of a good squat is keeping your knees together while keeping your butt up and touching your nipples to your knees, you have issues. A smith squat will not prepare you for the movement patterns of a barbell squat, stop using this as an argument and educate yourself on correct technique.

2. Smith squats are safer because they allow you to squat without a spotter.

In the video above, the woman outlines all the benefits a Smith machine can offer to a beginner lifter. These “benefits” are the exact reasons you should NOT be using this machine. The spotting excuse holds little water as well, since nearly every squat rack has guards or catchers on them. You can set these catchers to just below the lowest point of your squat in case you need to bail, thus eliminating one of the biggest arguments for the Smith machine.

Another option is to use bumper plates so you can simply toss the bar off your back if failure occurs. Not sure how to bail? Email me! I have worked with women who have literally never set foot in a gym before calling me, and they can squat up to 200lbs within a few months of starting. If a brand new person can squat without a spotter, so can you.

3. Smith squats are no different than squats with a real barbell.

On the topic of the similarities between Smith and barbell squats, we may need to beat a dead horse. Charles Poliquin, my squat Grandmaster, has this to say on the subject:

“With a Smith machine, the bar is on a track, and this increased stability decreases the requirement of the body’s neutralizer and stabilizer muscle functions. Therefore, the strength developed on such machines has minimal carryover to a three-dimensionally, unstable environment such as occurs during the freestanding squat. This is an especially important fact to those who use weight training to improve sports performance.”

A huge drawback of the Smith machine is that eliminates the need for your body to build stabilizer muscles, as it does the stabilization for you. We may rag on folks who over-emphasize stabilization training, but the bottom line is if you have no stabilization muscles, what the hell kind of training do you think you are doing? In addition to the stabilization factor, the Smith machine places unnecessarily high levels of stress on the patellar ligament and the anterior cruciate ligament. Some bodybuilders favor the Smith machine because of its focus on the quads, but remember folks: Just because it creates a favorable response with a muscle does not mean it is is healthy for a tendon or joint (like the sumo deadlift high pull, or BTN strict press).

On a more scientific note, researchers have found that use of the Smith machine resulted in vast reductions of power, due to the increased load during the concentric phase and the reduction of the potentiation from the stretch-shortening cycle as well as a decrease in velocity for the eccentric phase. Now say all of that ten times fast.

The long story short is this: stop trying to justify your use of the Smith machine. You say that is is useful to do assisted pullups or to hang rings from? There are literally a thousand other places to hang rings from. It astounds me that gyms will spend thousands of dollars on this piece of equipment so someone can hang a TRX band over it. Get under a real bar, and get a solid coach to guide you on your way.

Want to learn more about why the Smith machine needs to sleep with the fishes? Check the sources below.

-Poliquin 1

 – Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P. D., Binsted, G. A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009. 23(9)/2588-2591.

-Buddhadeev, H., Bingren, J., et al. Mechanisms Underlying the Reduced Performance Measures from Using Equipment with a Counterbalance Weight System. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(3), 641-647.

 – Vingren, J., Buddhadev, J., et al. Smith Machine Counterbalance System Affects Measures of Maximal Bench Press Throw Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 25(7), 1951-1959.

-Poliquin Myths 2


28 thoughts on “Squats: Barbell VS. Smith Machine

  1. I use the smith machine all the time….for pullups and inverted rows…but I don’t think that’s what they intended it for.

  2. We have a smith maching at my globo-gym and my adorable 50 year old women clients know that the smith machine is for doing inverted rows and straight bar pulls up and THAT’S IT.

  3. “Just because it creates a favorable response with a muscle does not mean it is is healthy for a tendon or joint (like the sumo deadlift high pull, or BTN strict press).”

    What should we be looking out for when doing SDHPs?

  4. I’d say that one of the most important things to learn when it comes to heavy lifting is how to bail on a lift in a safe manner. Gaining the confidence that I can ditch the bar should I hit a failure point is vital in getting over that mental sticking point when it’s time to hit the ME-lifts.

    Practice bailing!

  5. Thanks for the link, Brandon. Interesting reading for certain. I guess no more SDHPs for me…

  6. Good point. Just like many youth programs for gymnastics, marshal arts, etc, teach how to fall properly, before they teach anything else.

  7. I never heard of SDHP’s and the only time I ever use the smith machine is….wait….what’s a smith machine?

  8. I lift at my office gym. We have no bumper plates and no squat rack. Of course we have a smith machine but I don’t use it. For squats, I currently power clean the weight up and hoist it overhead onto my back. I can’t go too heavy because bc no bumper plates and no rack. I’m doing light weight/high reps but I want to go heavy like the rest of the LBEB community. I’m pretty sure I’m not getting the same benefits with light weight/high reps. Any advice, tips? Not really trying to join a gym since most of my money goes to food, rent, misc bills, and more food. Keep up the great work with the site. Thanks.

  9. Okay, here’s a question related to all this…on the weekend, the gym that I have access to has a leg press machine, and a Smith machine. No squat/power rack. So, if I want to work out legs on the weekend, would I be better off doing leg press, or Smith machine squats? (Of course, real squats would be my preference, and I’ll do this during the week at the gym where I have access to a squat rack.)

  10. question here to get thoughts on something

    my gym at work has a smith machine that allows for 2D movement. in other words, it’s still travelling up and down, but it’s also got travel forward and back.

    while it’s not going to be nearly as good as a bar- stabilizer muscles don’t get worked controlling tilt and yaw- it seems to me that this would not have nearly the same shortcomings as a standard smith.

    considering that there are no bars and no bumpers in the gym, it stands to reason that this would be a “better than nothing” option.


  11. Steinborn squats. You tube it. You still prob won’t be able to max out, but you will be able to squat heavier than your max power clean

  12. To all of you with no access to a squat rack: steinborn squat!
    That is all.

  13. Thanks for the advice, much appreciated.

  14. Zercher squats anyone?

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  16. I think anytime you can get proper access to do a real free weight option is essentially to truly gauge yourself in terms of strength growth. I recently came across a guy who used the smith machine for benching a lot and he tried to get the same results on a free weight system with a spotter and did just fine…

    But when it came to squatting his form was a little all over the place and he was admittedly “out of his element”…

  17. Good post 🙂 I have made experiment and used smith mashine for 2 months, then i changed to barbell on squat rack. I somehow felt pain only after first 2 workout on smith mashine, then everytime it was same, after i switched to squat rack i felt sore for few days after first workout and after every other workout again using barbell on squat rack i feel sore. From my opinion squat rack is better 🙂

  18. I’m curious as to what these “stabilizer” muscles are and where they’re located on the body.

  19. Basically the stabilizers while doing squats is your core since it prevents you from swaying all over with the bar on your body.

  20. awesome post! I show Body weight or kettlebell squats and never use the smith!

  21. One and only supporting case for using smith machine. I did it for almost a year but this is an extreme case.
    Having dislocated both hips and making a bit of a mess of a lot of my body below this level I was given the never walk again diagnosis, second time I’d been given one.
    I needed to build strength into my body to support the recently weakened joints, but couldn’t guarantee that something wouldn’t give out of that I would maintain balance and not fall onmy face or backwards.
    Solution was the much loathed and despised smith machine. Starting off, no weight on it and movement of about 3 or 4 inches, literally didn’t even fully unrack the thing, sets of between 1 and 4. Hurt like a (insert expletive here), felt pathetic and hated being so lame. However along with a number of other things some of which involved the smiths I go back to walking, and even running, then decided to try doing some real weight training.

    If you think that the smith will directly prepare you for real squats, you are kidding yourself. If you aren’t interested in doing real squats and just want something mildly similar to work leg muscles and a big safety net, go for it. If you can’t squat because of injury but want to keep at least some of the muscles you use to do them working or have some other reason to be needing remedial safety the smiths wins over free squats every time.

    The only time I have used smith for squats since then have been to do impossible angles for variety or when I have had to travel for work and there was literally no choice. I would rather do smith squats than none but now training at home there isn’t even that option, free weight and safety rack, catchers inch or so below bottom of the movement just like the author says. Being someone who likes training to failure this has been needed often.

  22. My obersvation is that most competitive powerlifters look excessively fat, compared to other athletes and compared to most people. Is this an accurate observation and if so why is this the case? Thanks

  23. That is because they are lazy and eat garbage food, like mcdonald’s, KFC etc.. Anything to easily and cheaply get the calorie intake up.

    I bet their farts and poops smell like death!!

  24. Because the purpose of competitive powerlifting is to move as much weight as possible. In order to do that, you need to take in a lot of calories as fuel. You also can’t do much in the way of cardio, as that has a negative impact on muscle recovery, which is needed to preserve strength gains.

  25. If its good enought for CT Fletcher and Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler…its good enough for me

  26. CT Fletcher squats less than my female athletes. Ronnie Coleman is in a wheelchair. Cheers!

  27. may use the smith for some bodybuilding exercices i guess and light squats for athletic world its different

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