Martin Berkhan’s classic post on F***arounditis is worth going back to read over and over again, and I’ve been doing just that recently. His comments on gym-goers who refuse to learn how to lift properly spurred me into writing on a topic that I’ve mentioned in passing before and that requires some elaboration. I’ve posted before about how not to lift. Here’s an expansion on the subject with a post about one of my favourite bugbears: the Smith Machine.
What is a Smith Machine?
Put simply, it’s the contraption shown below. (Obligatory hot girl in tight outfit included gratis, you’re welcome, and no, that is NOT the way to do ANY kind of squat, EVER.) If you go to any halfway decent gym, you know exactly what it looks like:
There is a reason why these things are constantly festooned with short women in tight spandex and out-of-shape guys who clearly need to lay off the corn chips. Here is a simple list of reasons why you might consider using a Smith machine:
- It’s intuitive to use, and that’s because you don’t have to worry about balancing the weight when you use it- the weight is already stabilised for you
- It seems safe because the pins that catch the weight for you are there and visible
- It looks simple enough to use; just load up some weights and get to work
How to Injure Yourself on a Smith Machine
Well the simplest way is just to, y’know, use the damn thing.
The second point above should tell you exactly why these things are dangerous- they instill a false sense of security and safety and lull you into thinking that you can press or squat far more weight than you really can. Let me tell you two stories that should give you serious pause if you are thinking about using these things.
Bench Press on a Smith Machine, Pain and a $800 Hospital Bill Ensue
First is my own story from about 4 years ago. I was using the Smith machine to do bench presses- which weren’t even real bench presses either, since I wasn’t going down to the chest. (Yeah, I was literally one of those people that Berkhan was writing about back then…) I must have loaded 275lbs worth of plates onto the machine early one frigid Wednesday morning in February. I was tired and not quite “with it” due to the fact that I wasn’t eating or sleeping the right way back then, and the natural consequence was that I lost control of the bar and it slammed down onto my chest.
Because I had 275lbs on the bar, my left shoulder was snapped back and pushed nearly out of its socket; all of the tendons and ligaments in that shoulder experienced a sudden strain that they were never meant to endure. The pain was incredible- the only time I’ve felt anything worse is the first time I tore up my back trying to deadlift something like 435lbs. I had to hot-foot it to an emergency room- in sub-zero temperatures, mind- to get it checked out. Although nothing had really been torn (thankfully), the tendons never fully healed properly, and as a result my shoulder still aches and pops all the time. Recently, by bench-pressing with a full range of motion and thereby strengthening the chest and shoulder muscles properly, that pain has disappeared, but I’m still nowhere close to my goal of benching 225lbs cleanly and with a full range of motion.
Think about that for a moment. I lost 4 years of muscle and strength development because I didn’t use a barbell and weights to bench press properly and with good form. It’s only now that I’m getting back up to decent weights on the bench press, and I know that I’m going to hit my limit for the bench pretty soon- I was benching 200lbs on Tuesday and it was hard, and I’m a guy that can squat 335lbs without problems.
Squats on a Smith Machine, Followed by a Trip to the ER
So I met a friend and former colleague of mine for a beer or three shortly after I did in my shoulder, and we got to talking about what had happened (since I had my arm in a sling, it was kind of difficult not to). This guy is a real meathead, he’s lifted some serious weight in his time- I remember he told me how he used to deadlift 495lbs as a warm-up set on his way up past 600lbs. He started using the Smith machine to do squats, and that’s where he ran into serious trouble.
See, the thing about squatting on a Smith machine is that it completely misaligns your body. Because the bar is balanced on your back, the temptation is to let your knees jut forward while your back and shoulders come down in a straight line above your hips. This is incredibly dangerous when you have 400lbs worth of plates on the bar, as my friend did. The inevitable did indeed happen- his kneecap popped and shot forward as every single tendon in his right knee tore and gave way. The gym literally had to call an ambulance for him- and because he was working out in an NYC gym, the emergency services had to shut down the entire street for the thing to get through. He had to go through several surgeries to reattach the knee cap properly followed by intensive physical therapy. And he’s never been able to hit those same weights again. (Also partly because he’s over 50, and the fact is that a man’s strength declines as he gets older.)
How to Squat and Bench CORRECTLY
This is how you do it, as Mehdi from Stronglifts demonstrates:
I’m pretty strong, by conventional standards, for a guy my age. Mehdi is several years older than me and makes me look like a complete pussy. This guy is the genuine article- a real powerlifter who not only knows how to lift but knows how to teach. He also happens to run one of the finest resources you will ever find for anyone who wants to become strong through hard work and natural training. I’d say you owe it to yourself to check out what he has to say.
Once again, if you value your strength and health and safety, NEVER use a Smith machine. For ANY exercise. Learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of those like me. Train hard, be strong, stay well.