Choosing the Best Smith Machine for Weightlifting
What is a Smith Machine? Though there are many types of Smith Machines to consider, the simplest way to describe a Smith Machine is a weightlifting bar that moves in a fixed vertical plane of motion within a steel frame.
What are the benefits of using a Smith Machine? Though most experts will agree that freeweights in the form of barbells and dumbbells are the gold standard in which to build the most muscular and strongest physiques in the quickest amount of time, the Smith Machine can be of great value to most and a necessity for some.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits that a Smith machine can offer is that of added safety. Most home gym enthusiasts can recall at least one time they got pinned under a missed rep on the bench press and had to scream for help or dump the barbell off to one side wrecking everything in its path. Not a pretty site! To help avoid these dangerous situations, a Smith machine bar includes built-in hooks that engage with a simple twist of the wrists into a series of slots or pegs that run the length of the vertical steel frame. This allows both customized lift-off heights to accommodate all size users and also lets the user "lock-in" on a missed rep and then slide out from underneath the bar without any collateral damage.
What exercises can be performed on a Smith Machine? Not all lifts performed with an Olympic bar and weight plates can be replicated with a Smith machine, but many of the same prime movers can. This would include bench presses, shoulder presses and rows for the upper body and squats, lunges and even calf raises for the lower body. Many trainees will also utilize the Smith machine for performing "finisher" exercises to make sure the targeted muscle group is fully overloaded for maximum growth.
Like a power rack, a Smith machine workout can incorporate various tools for isolating different muscle groups or creating variable resistance. For example, using an adjustable utility bench allows the user to perform decline, flat and incline bench presses. Adjusting the bench to a 90 degree angle allows for front presses which do a great job at working the front delts and triceps. And, incorporating weightlifting chains or rubber resistance bands during your Smith machine exercises is yet another way to expand the potential of this machine.
For most, using a Smith machine is a choice and can be used often or integrated once in a while to keep things fresh. But what about those suffering from shoulder or other joint injuries that wince at the mere thought of barbell or dumbbell bench presses or shoulder presses. For these folks trying to rehabilitate an injury, they may find performing light movements in a stable fixed plane of motion to be much less painful and a helpful aid in their recovery.
What type of Smith machines are there and which should I consider? There are a lot of variables here to consider when purchasing the best Smith machine for your location, fitness goals and budget. Below we list the most common choices and give you detailed information on each one so that you can best determine which is your best Smith machine.
Residential Smith Machines - Residential Smith machines are typically constructed using lighter grade frames, bars and other materials compared to commercial Smith machines. They can be purchased as stand-alone units or all-in-one units that include other features like cable crossovers, squat cages, butterfly attachments and lat pulldowns.
Most home gym Smith machines use a hollow Smith machine bar with a 1" diameter for regular weight plates and some will also include a 2" adaptor sleeve that allows the use of full sized Olympic plates. The weight capacity of a Smith machine for home use is typically around 300-400 lbs.
Most residential Smith machines, especially the economy models, will feature a nylon bushing system in which the bar rides up and down on. Depending on the manufacturer, these nylon bushing will travel on round chrome guide rods or chromed square steel tubing. While a home Smith machine equipped with nylon bushings does not offer the silky smooth feel that a commercial model might, they can be improved by periodically wiping down the guide rods or steel tubing with a lubricant such as silicon spray.
Examples of residential Smith machines with nylon bushings include:
All-In-One Smith Machines - The all-in-one Smith machine is more like an advanced home gym that caters to the individual that wants to add a freeweight element to their training. These machines can include numerous stations which will add to the height and footprint compared to the more simplistic stand-alone Smith. It's not hard to find some of these units offering both selectorized and plated loaded resistance options that tie in to various stations such as lat pulldowns, low rows, squat racks, cable crossovers, pull-up bars, plate storage and a multi-bench.
Residential All-In-One Smith machines include:
Selectorized Smith Machines - Although not that common, the selectorized Smith machine does exist. The selectorized smith machine is comprised of a centralized bar that is connected to a weight stack and dual guide rods on each side. The height of the bar is adjustable and the resistance is increased or decreased via a selectorized weight stack pin.
Commercial Smith Machines - Commercial Smith machines are built for all day use in dues paying facilities and commercial gyms. They are typically a stand-alone unit with no other stations included other than weight plate storage for quick and easy plate changes. They are fabricated from 11 gauge (.120 wall) 3" x 3" square tubing and/or 2" x 4" oval steel tubing which is mig welded and bolted together with heavy-duty bolts and other hardware. The superior structural strength of the commercial Smith machine provides safety to the user under the heaviest loads without risk of failure. Most are also equipped with adjustable height safety arms that can be set to the users proper height in case of a missed rep. Most manufacturers will include bolt-down tabs so that the Smith can be bolted to concrete floors for additional stability and safety. And a walk-through design is usually included to reduce tripping hazards and to make it easy to wheel in your favorite utility bench.
What type of bar does a commercial Smith Machine use? Because a commercial Smith machine is built for heavy weight training, they will use a full-size 7' long 45 lb. Olympic bar that is fully knurled often including center knurling for squatting. Weight sleeves rotate freely on bushings to remove any torque on the lifters wrists caused by spinning or wobbling plates. A Smith machine bar is the same type of bar used in Olympic bench presses and power cages.
Are commercial Smith machines painted? Another advantage of purchasing a commercial Smith machine is that they are usually built to order here in the United States which means different colors, including custom colors, are selected at the time of purchase. Instead of using paint, an electrostatically applied powder coats the steel frame and then is put in a 400-degree oven where the powder melts and adheres to the raw steel. The end product is a powder coated finish that is chip-resistant and holds up far longer in commercial environments than regular paint.
Are commercial Smith machines easy to assemble? Compared to a residential model, most commercial Smiths are Made In The USA and therefore don't have to be designed to fit into a small box in order to fit the maximum amount of machines into an overseas container. Therefore, there is far less assembly required with a commercial Smith, and when delivered, it will arrive on a large wooden pallet with mostly large sections of steel frames that will need to be bolted together.
Linear Bearing Smith Machines - One of the features that best differentiates a residential Smith from a full commercial Smith is the use of linear bearings. While there are residential and light commercial Smith machines that operate using linear bearings, because of added cost they are most commonly found in full-size commercial units.
Linear bearings dramatically improve the function of the Smith by providing resistance free vertical travel for the bar. The linear bearing sleeves can be seen on both sides of the Smith attached to the bar. These sleeves ride up and down on chromed guide rods that are case hardened for a long lasting smooth finish.
Examples of commercial Smith machines that use linear bearings include:
Counterbalanced Smith Machines - What is a counterbalanced Smith machine? The primary function of the counter balance system is to reduce the weight of the solid steel Olympic bar. A commercial Smith machine bar usually weighs in at over 45 lbs. if you count the hooks linear bearing sleeves. Counterweights will reduce this actual weight by about 20 lbs. or more giving users a lighter starting weight which is helpful when training smaller muscles groups such as the triceps. A counterbalance system is comprised of pulleys, cables, guide rods, bushings, and counterweights that are configured within the steel frame and attached to the bar so as to pull up on the bar reducing its weight during exercise. They will also include protective shrouds, much like a selectorized strength machine, to protect users and bystanders from moving parts associated with the counterbalance system.
A quality made Smith machine will include counterweights that ride on "Oilite" bushings. Typically the Oilite bushing is a powdered bronze that is mixed with oil and then pressed into a bushing shaped mold at about 30,000 PSI. A bushing shape is just a cylinder shape (thin wall). This bushing is pressed into a metal sleeve that connects to the counterweight. As the bushing travels up and down the inner guide rod, the friction creates heat which activates the bushing oil to lubricate the shaft.
Examples of commercial Smith machines that are counterbalanced include:
Angled Smith Machines - Why are some Smith machines built to ride on an angle? It is not uncommon to see Smith machines that have a bar that travels on a 5 or 7 degree angle. It is thought that an angled Smith machine will better accommodate the body's natural range of motion (ROM) on certain lifts such as the bench press or the squat. In these cases the lifter is able to align the feet or utility bench where they feel to be most comfortable and provide the best muscle group isolation.
Example of commercial angled Smith machines include:
3-Dimensional Smith Machines - What is a 3-D Smith machine? This is a Smith that is not limited to a defined vertical path. Unlike most Smiths that only travel vertically, the 3-D Smith also has the capability of traveling horizontally on a second set of linear bearings and guide rods. Combined, this simultaneous vertical and horizontal movement better mimics true free weight training by allowing user defined motion rather than fixed while still providing the built-in Smith safety features that most trainees prefer. And, for those that wish to revert back to the vertical only movement, the horizontal bearing and guide rod configuration features a lock-out mechanism.
A new comer to the 3-D Smith machine line-up is the XPT-051 by TuffStuff. The XPT Trainer is the industry's first and only self-spotting, free-weight training system allowing vertical, horizontal, diagonal, lateral and rotational bar movement. With the free-form bar and proprietary "Quad Lock" braking system, the XPT effectively combines the desired benefits of free weights with the safety of machine weights into one system. With the XPT you can perform conventional lifts, Olympic lifts and explosive, competitive movements to develop the highest level of speed and power.
Examples of 3-D Smith machines include:
In conclusion, there are a lot of things to consider when buying the perfect Smith machine and should be based on your personal preference and needs. With a little research like the info we have provided above, you can make a sound decision that will provide you with result producing workouts for many years to come.
Ironcompany.com is your best and most knowledgeable online source for Smith machine information and purchasing. For a complete list of our machines, please go here. If you have additional questions or would like a delivered quote, please call an Ironcompany.com fitness equipment specialist at 1-888-758-7527 or email [email protected]
About the Author
J.P. Brice founded IRON COMPANY in 1996 and is currently President and CEO. He began weightlifting in 1984 at the age of 14 and by the age of 25 turned his passion for fitness into one of the webs first and leading fitness equipment and gym flooring suppliers. He holds numerous Patents and Trademarks on various fitness equipment products and is the lead designer of IRON COMPANY branded free weights and strength training equipment. Today he works extensively with the US Military in providing the equipment necessary for combat readiness.