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Smith Machine vs.Free Weights for Bench


Hello all

Great to see such a good community here, thought it was about time to stop lurking and sign up!

Its 2 weeks since I started training and I am glad to say that I am piling the muscle on and getting some real gains which is really great. My focus has been on the compound lifts such as squatting, deadlifts, shoulder presses, dips and chins and of course bench presses.

I am usually using the smith machine for bench press as I don't always have a spotter. Training late at night, the gym is usually empty. The smith machine gives me confidence to pile the poundage on.

However, and here is the question, tonight the smith machine was being used so I decided to do my bench on the loose weights -- but using a lighter weight than normal I was swaying all over the place and really struggling.

There are 2 explanations I can think of which I'm sure u guys are a lot more knowledgeable and can either refute or confirm them! Either:

  1. Smith machine has been giving me too much support and I don't have the balance to press the same weight on the free weights, (or has been compensating for poor technique) or

  2. Smith machien is usually on a slight incline, therefore I'm lacking the strenght in a certain part of my chest to bench press on the flat bench - i.e. these muscles havent developed?

Ideally I'd use the smith machine however if it means im building fake strenght then of course I'll let my ego take a hit and revert back to lighter weights on the free weights if that's what's needed!

Any thoughts?


Well congratulations on your new lifestyle and welcome to T-Nation!

I (and many others) will suggest that you ditch the Smith Machine and practice your form with free weights.

Using free weights allows you to work all the stabilizer muscles that are needed to balance the load. This explains the reason why you wobbled underneath the bar on the bench press.

You're only 2 weeks in to your training. Develop good habits now and save the Smith Machine for assisted lifts down the road when you have the basics figured out.

Good luck.


Dude, it's been 2 weeks since you started training. 2 weeks.

I think you're already over-analyzing this. There is no fake strength, if you lift something heavy with good form then you lift something heavy.

My advice would be to try and find someone with enough muscle and experience and see if they will help you out.


Sorry that should read 2 months, if that makes any difference.


I'd still say the same thing. The first couple years will(can) give you the most gains so this is the time to establish good habits and a good base to build onto.

That's why getting help from someone a lot more experienced (at the gym) would be my advice.

As for the freeweights - yes, they are better but there is nothing wrong with the smith for certain exercises; I use it for shrugs, rack pulls and shoulder/incline presses.


Agreed... But nothing beats free weight exercises.


If you're really concerned about safety, try doing your bench presses in the power cage if your gym has one. You'll be able to set the pins to catch the weight if you drop it, and you won't get the support that the smith machine gives you.


I'm with Polish Rifle, learn the barbell and dumbbell lifts. Research them one at a time and practice them. Here's a link that will help:

Finding someone in your gym for advice is a dodgey idea, because most people in gyms don't know what they're doing.


And what exactly are you supposed to do when you're trapped at the bottom of a rep in the smith machine? You can't exactly dump the weight.


I think the smith machine functions as a cage so you don't get crushed.

If the gym is pretty empty, why not put the smith bar on the floor, set the pins and then use a barbell?

This is assuming your gym doesn't have a power cage.


Hey guys, thanks for all the great responses.

In a way I feel a bit guilty about posting up the question in the first place as I admit I was hoping that I'd get responses telling me smith machine was going to be just as capable of building good all round strength, when deep down I knew that wasn't the case and I'd have to bite the bullet and go onto the free weights for bench.

I guess the smith machine was my little ego boost that let me lift heavy and add on weight each session and give me a little bit of cockyness to hide from my weakness on the bench.

Today I dropped the ego and went onto the free weights. I had to drop a little weight which hit me mentally, however did 5 sets and now my technique is coming along and my balance is a lot better which will allow me to up the weight next session.

Although lighter weight my arms (triceps?) took a bigger hit, my chest is puffed and even more core seems a little fragile! So all in all I think it will be better for me in the long run. What seems like one step back will hopefully let me get many many steps forward in the long run.

Quite an interesting insight into the psychological side actually, how sometimes your arrogance needs to take a hit and u need to step outside safety net for u to make gains.

Same with the squat, V squat machine allowed me to lift heavy and get that little arrogance but when I switched to real squat I had to take the weight way down and go back to first principles.

In the long run, it's all good though.

Thanks once again guys, will keep u posted on my progress throughout the coming months.



Oh just a word on safety as I may be missing the problem - with free on the bench, cant u just bring it down safely onto your chest and then either ditch the weight?

As long as grip is good so you don't lose hold of the bar, I don't see the risk?

Enlighten the newbie please!


So I am benching lets say with 2 plates on each side. I bring the bar down onto my chest nice and controlled. I tip one end of the bar to get the plates off ..here's where you idea falls down

I now have a bar with plates on one side and now suddenly the end of the bar shoots up into the air whilst the otherside clatters to the ground.

Safe? I think not.

If you are only just starting out you should use free weights and only go to active failure ie you stop on the rep before the rep on which you would fail on. That's how rowers do their strength training. There's is nothing pansy about not going to failure.


Yes, you can dump the weight as long as you don't use collars. Still, you should try to find something with some sort of spotters, like a power rack.

Also, if you don't mind taking a bit more of a hit on your ego, do floor presses when working heavy.


I assume you mean DB floor presses?

I'm just imagining someone epic-failing under a heavy BB while lying on the floor and it doesn't seem pleasant


Not really. If you're at least using 135, the plates will hold the bar off of you. I meant BB presses.


OK I get an imagination fail there.

For some reason I didn't connect the fact that you were lying on the floor with the fact that the plates will hit the floor and therefore stop



While I agree that for the most part that DB's and BB's are better than machines, the Hammer Strength plate loaded machines can be great if you really want to push the envelope and don't have a partner.

I'm in the same boat as you as I always workout alone. I use almost exclusively barbells and DB's, but I use plate loaded HS stuff also. For instance After I do 5 sets of max effort military press with a barbell, I'll do 5 sets of alternating shoulder press on the HS machine. I'm able to do far more weight at that point than I would if I used DB's

just to play devil's advocate, I'll quote Professor X who said "Someone show me where your stabilizer muscle is" (or something like that). I know that to question the barbell dogma is a no-no...but I think there's wisdom in it.

As for your bench, I think you'll be fine with a standard flat bench with barbell as long as you're smart about it. Choose a weight that will be difficult but doable for your last rep (I use straight sets 5x5). If you're eating enough you should be able to add 5-10lbs to it the next week and still be ok.


Smith Machines = Towel Holders


"Stabilizer Muscles" is the wrong term. "Muscle Stabilization" is the correct term.

Lots of information on the importance of stabilization available all over.