FREE WEIGHT SQUAT VS SMITH MACHINE SQUAT

Nicholas Napier

Nicholas is a fitness enthusiast, Navy Veteran, and MBA who makes his living as a writer near San Diego, California. Deep into building a home gym himself, he knows what it's like to look for things.

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Conclusion

Free weights and machines both have their pros and cons when it comes to resistance training. Which is the best for you largely depends on individual factors, such as your background, circumstances, and goals.

Both types of exercise equipment can be useful in different situations and for different purposes, and it is better to be open-minded and keep both tools in your toolbox than to definitely and unnecessarily close the door on one of them.

What are the advantages of the Smith machine squats in comparison with barbell squats?

Top 3 pros

  • Safety. Smith machines can be a good substitute for free-weight squats because the guidance they offer reduces the likelihood of accident due to a loss of balance.
  • Especially suitable for beginners. The movement is far easier on a machine because it is completely guided and you do not have to balance the bar. This lessens the chance of injuries due to a loss of balance as your muscles tire. Deteriorating technique as a result of fatigue is also less likely. Therefore, if you are a beginner, a machine is safer than free weights until you master the movement. The Smith Machine is excellent for this purpose.
  • Convenient for those coming back from an injury. It’s easier on your joints, making it a great tool to use when you’re feeling beat up or coming back from an injury.

Other benefits

  • Allows you to you bring your feet in front to various distances. Placing your feet farther out during a SMS may result in more glute and hamstring activation than during a FWS where the feet are naturally closer to your center of gravity. This effect can prove especially beneficial if your hamstrings and glutes are undertrained or underdeveloped when compared to your quads.
  • You do not have to take a barbell from stands, step back to perform your set, and step forward at the end of a set in order to return the bar to the stands.
  • Supplementing or taking some time away from free weights might actually improve your strength, with one big caveat—you perform the squat in the Smith machine just like you do with free weights. This means that you don’t position your feet in front of you like you would in a hack squat machine, and you end up leaning forward around 45 degrees at the bottom of the movement. The vast majority of people don’t Smith machine squat this way, but you can indeed make your Smith squat feel very similar to your barbell squat.
  • Your 1-rep max will be higher during the Smith machine squat when compared to the free weight squat.
  • You can easily perform SMS with one leg only (isolate one leg) because you’re fully balanced. You only have to focus on lifting the weight, while balance and stabilization is a non-issue here.

Exercise Machines General Strength

One of the big criticisms of exercise machines is that they might not be as good for developing general strength, and there’s some good logic behind that argument. But is it true in practice?

If we compare the barbell bench press against the machine chest press, in both cases we’re emphasizing our chests, shoulders, and, to a lesser extent, our triceps. Even with a barbell bench press, it’s rare for us to be limited by, say, the strength of our abs or spinal erectors. If that aspect of the lift is removed with the machine bench press, it’s not necessarily a big deal.

The leg press machine.
The leg press machine.

But if we swap out a front squat for a leg press, or a barbell row for a chest-supported row, we’re removing our lower backs from the equation, and so our lower backs won’t be getting enough stimulus to grow bigger and stronger. We may not develop the strength needed to lift free weights or to carry things in the real world. That’s where machines can be less well-suited for developing general strength. Mind you, that isn’t necessarily a problem that comes from using exercise machines, but rather from choosing more isolated lifts. For instance, a hack squat machine involves our spinal erectors, so that problem disappears.

The goblet squat.
The goblet squat.

Exercise machines are good at developing strength in the muscles that are being worked, but different lifts work different muscles, and so it’s possible to choose exercises, whether with exercise machines or free weights, that don’t develop well-rounded strength. For instance, the leg press works our legs without working our backs, which might not translate very well to being able to carrying things around in our arms, especially when compared against a lift like the goblet squat.

Smith machine squat mistakes

Do NOT make these 4 terrible mistakes while performing the squat Smith machine style.

Shortcutting the range of motion

Doing a Smith machine half squat with all the weight plates in the gym might well give you a temporary ego boost, but it won't do much for your legs. In fact, research shows that deep squatting, where your hips break parallel, leads to 7% extra muscle growth in just 12 weeks [3].

Better still, squatting deeply is no worse for your knees than squatting to parallel or above.

But do you know what is bad for your knees?

Allowing too much forward knee travel

Some forward knee travel is inevitable during any quad-focused Smith machine back squat. However, don't take it to the extreme. Forcing your knees over your toes in an attempt to eke out more range of motion or quad stimulation is suicide for your long term knee health [4].

Instead, increase the range of motion at your hips by taking a step away from the Smith machine and only allowing a moderate amount of forward knee travel. You'll be much stronger this way, and your knees will thank you for it.

Rounding your lower back

If I had a pound for every time I saw someone squatting with a rounded back; I'd be sipping protein shakes under a Thai palm tree after my daily beach workout.

When you're using the Smith machine for squats, rounding your back is just about the worst mistake that you can make. Not only does it take virtually all the tension off your quads, but it turns your squat into a weird sort of good morning that cripples your spine in the process.

That said, some "butt wink" is fine, especially if you squat deep. Butt wink (in case you don't know) is essentially when your pelvis tilts forwards (and thus makes your lower back round slightly) at the bottom of a squat. It's natural and harmless according to most fitness professionals.

Letting your knees cave in

Despite there being more squat technique guides and videos than ever before, the knee valgus epidemic is spreading like wildfire.

And by knee valgus, I mean internally rotated knees. It's a common side effect of squatting in Smith machine systems with too much weight. Your knees can't handle the stress, and so they literally buckle under the pressure and cave in like a roof built from Lego bricks.

The end result isn't pretty. Best case scenario you have knee pain, worst case scenario you need a knee replacement (I'm not joking).

Thankfully, by opening up your hips and flaring your feet out around 15-30 degrees, you can sidestep this issue for the most part. Just make sure to wear some knee sleeves if you're going to do Smith machine back squats regularly, because they add a lot of stability to your patella.

Weight Machines Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Easy to learn and use – Most machines have a picture demonstrating its use, which for most machines is pretty self explanatory. This makes them easy to use on their own or with other machines to create your own circuit. If hiring a personal trainer is out of your budget, they are easy to figure out by simply watching the person ahead of you.
  • Isolate muscle groups more efficiently – Since most of your body is pretty stable on most machines you are able to target the larger muscle groups more efficiently. This is beneficial to those who have a solid foundation and are looking to improve their physique by building bigger muscles. This can be the preferred method for some bodybuilder types.
  • Allow you to train with heavier weights without assistance – If you are fairly inexperienced with proper technique when using free weights, it may be difficult to add resistance. Some machines will allow you to slap on extra weight without risk of injury. This may also be useful if you are pressing or squatting without a partner or spotter. (Note: proper technique is paramount before you need to worry about adding weight. Train smart.)
  • May be useful for elderly populations and/or rehab – For someone that has a really low level of fitness and/or is recovering from an injury, machines may be the tool to get their strength up quickly and safely. Since machines isolate it may also be easier to work around certain injuries.

Cons

  • Non-functional – Although machines will make you bigger and stronger, they don’t train complete human movement patterns (See: primal movement patterns) that are necessary to, well, move. Perhaps the worst machine is the Smith Machine which locks you into place for heavy exercises like squats and bench and doesn’t take into account different body types, which is a recipe for disaster. Weight machines just don’t translate well into strength and fitness for daily activities, not to mention athletics.
  • Neglect smaller stabilizing muscles – Since you are isolating target muscle groups, the important stabilizing muscle groups around the joints take a back seat. If you neglect these smaller muscles for too long, you run the risk of chronic injury and poor posture.
  • May cause injury directly and indirectly – Although safer to use with lower levels of skill, it is still possible to use too much weight and enough poor form to cause a serious injury. Overloading the same movement day in and day out is also an easy way to set yourself up for an overuse injury. Form is important and like anything else the danger is in the dose!
  • Fill up during peak hours – If you have ever worked out in a commercial gym during peak hours you may have noticed that every machine in the place seems to be filled up. Instead of waiting for that guy that has been on the machine bench press for 20 minutes to get up, head over to the free weight area for some more breathing room.

Free Weights Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Allow you to train functional movements – This could be a topic on its own, but basically free-weights and bodyweight exercises have greater carryover to what you do in real life such as daily activities as well as athletics.
  • You can use full range of motion – You have complete freedom to move around rather than being locked into a specific range of motion or pattern. This allows your body to do what it is naturally built to do, move.
  • Place a greater demand on stabilizing muscles – Using free weights will activate more synergistic stabilizing muscles while you are training. Will help to keep your joints healthy and fully operational when done properly!
  • More bang for your buck exercises – If you have limited time to train and want to get a lot accomplished with few exercises then free-weights are the way to go. My two favorites are deadlifts and Turkish get-ups. There isn’t a muscle in your body that doesn’t get worked with these two alone!
  • Allow for endless variation – With machines you are really limited to what you can do depending on what is available. With free weights, all you need is one dumbbell and you can do hundreds of different exercise variations. One of my favorite circuits to do is to choose one dumbbell and do as many exercises as possible for time. Press, squat lunge, swing and carry are just a few!
  • Train anywhere – Learning how to train with free-weights or body weight allows you to literally train anywhere since machines aren’t always available. When I go on vacation and travel by car it is easy to bring a kettlebell, some bands and a TRX to get in some quality training.
  • Less expensive – Free weights are the way to go if you don’t have access to a gym since they are much less expensive than machines. You can easily build a killer home gym for under $200!

Cons

  • Takes some skill to learn proper technique – Free weight exercises have a higher learning curve than machines and you may need someone to show you proper technique. Having a trainer show you or reading a book on weight training may be the way to go. Take your time and try to avoid creating bad habits by copying others that have bad form (e.g. Youtube).
  • Greater risk of injury when not done properly – When using bad form it is easy to move a bodypart or joint out of proper alignment and tweak something. This can cause injury so make sure you know what you are doing and use the appropriate weight.
  • Need a spotter to lift heavy weight on squat or bench press exercises – Some exercises are difficult to improve on if you don’t have a training partner or which may slow down progress. At the very least you can ask a trainer to check your form and maybe give you a quick spot. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.

The Pros And Cons Of Free Weights

Although weight machines will certainly help you build muscle, that’s not the only factor to consider, Hall notes.

The Pros

Basically, machines simply can’t help you build total-body strength, balance, and stability like free weights can.

“Anyone who cares to gain strength, build muscle, or just look and feel better should spend most of their time doing compound movements with free weights,” Hall explains. Since you’ll have to balance and move the weights without support, more of your body has to work (and in different ways) throughout every rep.

The Cons

Given that, exercising with free weights over weight machines certainly doesn’t make you exempt from injuries. “A person needs to be very aware of their form to ensure proper range-of-motion and avoid injuries with free weights,” says Norvell.

In fact, one study on injuries sustained at fitness facilities noted that more than half occurred while strength training with free weights, often as a result of overestimating strength (and piling on weight too quickly), using poor form, or even failing to execute a rep and dropping the weight on a body part. Ouch.

Luckily, you can keep your free-weight routine incredibly simple and still see results. In fact, some of Hall’s favorite free-weight exercises for building strength—which include goblet squats and bent-over rows—are also some of the simplest.

The Final Say

Whether your home gym is stocked with kettlebells, dumbbells, or an array of random workout gear, reliable exercises exist for working out all of the major muscle groups.

While expensive machines may make gyms look more appealing, they are certainly not the only way to get potent training.

By knowing the optimal ways to engage key muscles using our home gym equipment, we can find the ones that make the greatest impact, and take our fitness to levels never thought possible.

What to read next: Buying the Best Olympic Barbells

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