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Smith Machine for Bodybuilding

I recently got serious about lifting/bodybuilding a few months ago. I did my research, found a good program for lifting and got my diet in order, and off I went doing 5X5.

Everything was going well, until I started feeling a little pain in my shoulder. I ignored it like an idiot and kept pushing myself. At first the pain wasn’t getting in the way of my lifts so I just manned up and kept going. About a month ago, I was in the middle of a set of incline press and felt a pain like someone was stabbing me in the shoulder. After that, I couldn’t do any pressing motions without horrible pain. I took a week off, went back, no dice. Waited another week, was pain free, but as soon as I was on the bench, it was back.

However, I’m finding that doing the flat bench press, incline press, and overhead press on a smith machine is pain-free. I can still squat and pull weight (deadlift, rows, etc) without pain as well. Everyone I’ve talked to has always advised against the smith machine for obvious reason (no use of stablizer muscles) but until I see my doctor and figure out what’s wrong, wouldn’t this be ok? I’m only trying to improve my physique, my actual strength gains are just a means of getting bigger as far as my goals go. I’ll still be making muscle gains in my chest and shoulders, isn’t that the goal?

I know most will tell me not to do anything at all until I fix the problem, but I’m too stubborn for that so if anyone has advice for me, give it from a standpoint that I’m going to keep lifting regardless. Thanks.

The exact same thing happened to me back when I started lifting.

Sure the smith machine has its shortcomings, but there are legit uses for it. I used it exclusively for a long time when my shoulders were killing me, and I have no regrets. As I recall, I did mostly heavy lockouts.

So basically I was able to work around my injury, make gains, and eventually come back to the barbell.

Side note: Have you tried benching with dumbbells? I always found them to be way friendlier on my shoulders…

If pressing in a Smith Machine is allowing you to be pain-free then I would recommend doing it. After all it doesn’t sound like strength and athleticism are driving factors behind your training anyway so it doesn’t matter (as much) that you can move heavy free-weights.

However, it’s important to address the source of your pain and try to correct it before it catches up to you. You don’t want to be limited to Smith Machine-only pressing for the rest of your life. Do the following exercises for a couple months on the days you press:

  1. Internal/ external rotator cuff work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wV6Kc_a_ioM
  2. Band pull-aparts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKBsia-o9N4

I have found that adding these exercises to my routine keep my shoulders pain free.

As an older lifter with numerous chronic joint issues (as well as several orthopedic disasters in my history), I rely on the Smith as a means for lifting heavy weights (heavy for me, anyway) in a safe manner. I use it to control ROM and to stabilize the weight; it also provides me peace-of-mind to know that if I have to bail on a rep, the Smith will catch it (as opposed to the bridge of my nose). I think it’s a fantastic piece of equipment; I use it in every workout. Sounds like you need to use it too.

I have never understood why some people single out the Smith as somehow being an inappropriate tool for bodybuilding. It’s just a machine, one of many found in most gyms. If someone slapped a sticker on the side of the Smith that said ‘Hammer Strength,’ would that make it OK?

[quote]DPikes wrote:
Everyone I’ve talked to has always advised against the smith machine for obvious reason (no use of stablizer muscles) but until I see my doctor and figure out what’s wrong, wouldn’t this be ok? I’m only trying to improve my physique, my actual strength gains are just a means of getting bigger as far as my goals go.[/quote]
John Meadows had a whole article discussing the benefits of using the Smith as part of a training plan (not as the centerpiece):

The goal should probably be to be able to lift and train hard when you’re 50. Just saying.

Lift now, for sure, but don’t use “Well I can still do X, Y, and Z without pain, so I’ll put off the doc’s office until Christmas” as an excuse to ignore the issue. At best, you’d be putting a band-aid on the problem. At worst, you’d run the risk of letting the issue progress more than it needs to and set yourself up for chronic shoulder trouble.

Basically, I’d say keep training if you can, but treat the urgency of the injury as if you were unable to train.

Try benching with dumbbells. I never tried it until I began to have elbow/shoulder pain when benching. It doesn’t hurt at all when I do dumbbell bench.

Theoretically, pressing movements, especially overhead pressing, should be painful if you have a rotator cuff problem. It is interesting that your shoulder doesn’t hurt from Smith machine overhead pressing. Let us know what the doctor finds out–maybe it is just a small rotator cuff tear?

[quote]Chris Colucci wrote:

[quote]DPikes wrote:
Everyone I’ve talked to has always advised against the smith machine for obvious reason (no use of stablizer muscles) but until I see my doctor and figure out what’s wrong, wouldn’t this be ok? I’m only trying to improve my physique, my actual strength gains are just a means of getting bigger as far as my goals go.[/quote]
John Meadows had a whole article discussing the benefits of using the Smith as part of a training plan (not as the centerpiece):

The goal should probably be to be able to lift and train hard when you’re 50. Just saying.

Lift now, for sure, but don’t use “Well I can still do X, Y, and Z without pain, so I’ll put off the doc’s office until Christmas” as an excuse to ignore the issue. At best, you’d be putting a band-aid on the problem. At worst, you’d run the risk of letting the issue progress more than it needs to and set yourself up for chronic shoulder trouble.

Basically, I’d say keep training if you can, but treat the urgency of the injury as if you were unable to train.[/quote]

In case you missed it please re-read this post.

It might seem like a pain in the ass but something that could be treated/managed fairly easily right now could turn into a chronic problem weeks, months or even years down the line. And if you really don’t want to get it seen to at least try R.I.C.E. and some mobility work and lots of warming up

I was at work all day and just got back to this post. Lots of good points and advice, thank you guys.

I made an appointment to see my doctor next week, in the meantime I’ll dial back the weights and do what feels comfortable and if it gets out of control again I’ll take time off. I’ll post an update soon.

@DPikes,

It sounds like you’re going about things the right way. Take the necessary steps to address/ remedy the pain but also know that having to use the Smith Machine isn’t a death sentence. It will get the job done.
But I will caution you that if you do stick to the Smith Machine, supplemental rotator cuff becomes even more important because you’re not getting any of it in your primary pressing movements.

Just an update. Things got worse, I took almost three weeks off and the pain never subsided. Saw my doctor this morning, and he’s worried I made an already torn rotator cuff worse so I’m meeting with an orthopedic surgeon soon. Best case scenario it might just be tendonitis and a cortisone shot will solve the problem. I had x-rays done and will need an MRI so there’s no telling yet.

Thanks for the advice again guys, the quality of posters on this site is refreshing.

Do you spend a lot of time at a computer (maybe for your job or something)? I too had some significant shoulder pain while benching and I think that while my bench form was probably poor, it was caused by postural issues that lead to other problems.

Do you have any symmetry issues between your left and right traps? Do you get any bicep tendinitis or have a tough time targeting your biceps? Do you have overly developed front delts relative to your chest and/or should your chest have more size relative to the amount you can benchpress? Check out the article ‘neanderthal no more’ and see if you have any of the issues they talk about.

This is what I did and I can bench painfree now.
Start doing sets of chin tucks everyday or every other day, start using the hammer strength iso-lateral and incline chest press machines if you have access to them and do the cross body variation (put your shoulder against the back pad instead of your back and push ‘across’ your body focusing on the MMC of the chest), and, after a month or so of staying away from benching, go back to it but instead of focusing on trying to move the weight with your chest focus on pushing your shoulders back and down by any means necessary (lower the weight way down, you’ll probably get a better chest isolation this way anyways and get more out of the bench).

It’s tremendously important that you are able to feel your chest taking the weight instead of your front delts (tucking the elbows helps but it really is more feel)…develop that mind muscle connection if you don’t have it already and consider the primary purpose of your benching to keep the weight on the chest instead of the delts.

Obviously, if you’ve torn your rotator cuff go to your doctor, and this advice won’t really apply until that’s healed up. But, IME, doing these things has taken me from being unable to do conventional bench due to shoulder pain to loving the benchpress

All that matter for growth is tension on the muscle and time under tension it doesn’t matter where you get that tension and tut from

I have the symetry issues with my traps someone mentioned and I can really notice it when I use the Top Squat device.

The problem I have with the Shirley machine is when people use it as a crutch otherwise it’s fine for limited stuff.

Using it to avoid shoulder pain though is just delaying the inevitable. The problem in the shoulder will just follow you.