Every now and then, I’m challenged by certain questions at the gym which force me to ignore what is ideal and address what is ideal for an individual. Typically, it’s dealing with well-intended older members who want to exercise, but are walled into their comfort zones, and are only willing to use machines and/or walk the treadmill.
Most of the time, it’s the funny younger folks who decide to mess with me for comic relief. They might talk about how low-intensity, long duration cardio is the most efficient fat-loss modality ever, or where to put their feet on the leg press. I try to predict the good-natured trolling, but every once in a while something sneaks by. Recently, while squatting in the only rack in the gym, someone walked up to me and said, “Hey, can you give me a form check on my squats?” to which I replied, “Sure, let’s go.” “Okay, I’m using the Smith Machine.”
“Wait, seriously? Why not?” And at that very moment, I realized he wasn’t trolling, but was, in fact, completely serious about getting a form check for squatting on the Smith Machine.
In more colorful words, I explained that the Smith machine is the paper computer of squatting:
You won’t fool anyone into thinking that they’re looking at a computer, but unfortunately the same isn’t considered for “squats” with the Smith machine. They’re common place in most gyms, and some people even opt for Smith Machines over squat racks, either out of necessity or because they’re worried about form/technique, and deem it to be safer. Gyms like Planet Fitness, who don’t even have squat racks, contribute to this.
Now, this post is more than a simple calling of Smith Machine squats as bullshit, which they are. For the record, Smith Machine squats are bullshit. I’ll try to remind you later, as well.
More importantly, I’d like to remind you why they’re bullshit, and that’s simply due to the fact that the bar can only move up and down. It can’t move slide to the left or the right. It can’t rotate left or right, and it can’t tip left or right. Unlike you, which can do anything you damn please with a barbell, the Smith Machine only goes up and down. I won’t even credit it with a “training wheels reference”, because that would imply that it’s something to start with. Instead, it’s similar to the Tomorrowland Speedway. Anyone who’s ever driven knows it’s ridiculous, but those who haven’t driven think it’s the greatest thing ever. Unless you’re 6 years old in the weight room, you don’t need the Smith Machine Squat.
Now that I’ve done ranting, let me provide some simple suggestions for getting yourself far away from the Smith Machine. Firstly:
Not under a heavy barbell, or even under load; The movement pattern should look okay. For some people, body weight squatting is comfortable, others need to Goblet Squat to feel comfortable. They may be able to do a free squat, but for most people, using a box to maintain consistent depth is important. Here are two videos, and a link to a post I wrote called “Anterior Loaded Squat to a Box“.
The Goblet position and the box keep folks honest, especially those who squat high. To help your hips (really, your brain) feel comfortable in the bottom position, performing upper body exercises in half kneeling may help, as well as performing single leg exercises. As two blanket-case examples, below you’ll see a half-kneeling anti-rotation chop, and a dumbbell split squat.
Now, both of those exercises might be in your program anyway, but if you’re keen on Smith Machine squats, they’ might help you develop control you lost by squatting on a fixed axis; You may be very surprised with how unstable you are free squatting. It doesn’t make you a bad person, so don’t worry. For the sake of your joint health, overall training effectiveness, and subjective measures of awesomeness, do yourself a favor and get off of the Smith Machine and into the squat rack.
Lastly, people who squat with the Smith machine also use the bar pad. What is this world coming to?! You don’t want to be either person.