When the Department of Kinesiology at California State University published a paper in 2010 titled “A Comparison of Muscle Activation Between a Smith Machine and Free Weight Bench Press” in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, some people thought it was the end of Smith machines.
In short, the paper reached the conclusion that free weight bench presses (sometimes called Olympic benches) are more effective than lifting with a Smith machine. According to the research, here’s why:
Reason One: Greater Muscle Activation Occurs with Free Weights
The whole purpose of weight training is to activate and stress specific muscles in order to build them, so one of the best ways to compare any weight training exercise is to measure muscle activation. The Cal State study used electromyography to measure muscle activation, and concluded that free weights resulted in greater activation of the medial deltoid when compared to a Smith Machine (compared at 70% and 90% of maximum effort). That’s a pretty clear argument for going with free weight bench presses as opposed to a Smith machine – although the study also found no difference in muscle activation in the anterior deltoid or pectoralis major muscles.
Reason Two: Stress vs. Stability
The other two main defects of the Smith machine approach the study identified had to do with the way the body moves. On the one hand, the Smith is often regarded as a safer workout because it’s so stable – reducing the chances of an injury. This is true, and remains one of our most compelling reasons to support using a Smith machine. But the study concluded that this stability also reduced the effectiveness of the workout, since with free weights, your body must compensate for the instability; as a result, more muscle groups and whole-body stresses are introduced, making for a more powerful experience.
The study also found that the Smith machine’s bar path, which controls the motion used (and makes it more stable and safer) can stress the joints in unnatural ways as the body compensates for being forced into an unnatural motion with the weight, thus reducing effectiveness.
The Benefits of a Hybrid
What the Cal State research didn’t study—but what we at Gym Source have found to be a very popular option among weight trainers—is the freedom and safety that come from a Smith Machine-olympic bench ‘hybrid’ apparatus, such as the Hoist PTS. The Hoist PTS allows the user full 3-dimensional movement (vertical, horizontal and arc) plus the ability to safely ‘dump’ the weight load if needed. Priced similar to a Smith machine, the Hoist PTS has a compact footprint and a smooth, natural feel.
At Gym Source, we proudly sell top-quality Smith machines and free weights and benches in our stores. And while the Cal State research is quite compelling, many of our trainers and commercial clients still prefer a Smith machine—or integrate free weight presses and Smith machine training as part of their routine. If anything, the Cal State research has driven Smith machine manufacturers like Tuff Stuff and Hoist to innovate even more, and—particularly in the case of the Hoist PTS—make their technology keep pace with what an educated fitness clientele demands.
Bottom line is this: Whether you choose to work out on a Smith or a bench press is a very personal decision. We take the science of fitness very seriously, and we look forward to learning more—and gathering other points of view—as research continues.