If you listen into the ‘chitter chatter’ amongst the regular gym bunnies on a Monday night, you will probably hear a discussion or two debating the differences between a free bar and a smith machine. Often, a free bar will come out on top at the conclusion of the conversation! However, as much as I rate free bars and I would probably also be inclined to agree they are slightly better, I do think under the right circumstances smith machines have a place! Here is a face-off between the two pieces of equipment in question on 3 different exercises!
The free bar on this exercise forces you to balance all of the weight which stimulates your ‘fixator’ muscles and your core. On the smith machine you don’t get this because the mechanics of the machine help stabilise the weight! On the other hand, you could perhaps say that the smith machine helps you isolate the pecs more effectively simply because it doesn’t bring other muscle groups in to stabilise the weight as a free bar would. However, due to the fact that you have to constantly control the weight with the free bar, there isn’t anything but fresh air to support you; I would say that the free bar will help stimulate your muscle fibres more effectively due to extra tension on the pecs!
Some people love squatting on free bars but hate smith machines and vice versa! Personally I have a take on both, as you would expect naturally! The free bar is better from the point of view of movement because it allows you to use a form you like; you are dictated by a machine. However, some people who struggle to squat with a narrow stance, as myself, due to the length of our legs; the free bar has its limits! On the other hand, a smith machine will allow you to stand with any stance because you don’t have to concentrate on stopping yourself from falling over! From experience, I do find the smith machine can sometimes place excessive stress on my lower back opposed to the free bar! With everything into account, I would choose the smith machine to squat if you struggle with balance, because you can focus on using different stances and hitting your thighs from different angles! By no means am I saying not to use the free bar because I do a lot, but I have a soft spot for the smith machine on squatting day!
This is a very tricky one! So many people I hear say that deadlifts can cause you to have a blocky midsection because your core has to help lift the weight. My take on that would be ‘nonsense’ simply because your core lifts with every exercise!!! Load the bar and squat down 90 degrees and see how your abs tense up, same thing! Personally, unless I have to I won’t deadlift on a smith machine much because I find it to be very restrictive, and I find the angle is off! However, I will occasionally because I think it is a great exercise for the back and I don’t always have a free bar at the gyms I use. The free bar is the ultimate for deadlifting because it allows you to use a free range of motion which I value a lot, when you consider the level of stress on your lower back during this exercise!
Phew, that was a battle!!! The free bar has come out on top according to my score cards with a close 2-1 victory. However I would strongly recommend the smith machine to everyone and I wouldn’t ever say it isn’t any good, because they are great!!!