Consider the differences before using either piece of equipment.
"How much can you lift?" is a common question asked in the gym. While your answer may vary based on your current fitness level, other variables such as starting weight also affect your answer. Smith machines and free-weight barbells are standards pieces of equipment in most gyms and fitness centers. Though both can be used similarly in your workout, there are weight differences between the two that should be noted.
Know the Weight Variations
The Smith machine is equipped with a barbell which is attached to a sliding track mechanism. The rod system is counter balanced, providing a starting weight which varies from 15 to 35 pounds. Free-standing barbells also vary in weight depending on size and type. Typical barbell weights range from 33 to 45 pounds. The significant starting weight differences require adjustments to any weight added if using both Smith machines and barbells to perform the same exercise.
Build Your Foundation
When beginning a workout program or increasing the amount of weight for a particular exercise, having a balanced and stable foundation is important for executing lifts. The barbell recruits more muscle stabilizers in order to maintain balance. For example, when using a barbell for the bench press exercise, your anterior deltoids engage in order to stabilize the movement. When using the Smith machine, the track mechanism acts as a stabilizing unit, allowing you to focus more on lifting a heavier amount of weight rather than balancing throughout the entire movement.
Prioritize Your Safety
Smith machines are ideal to use if you are at risk for injury or have limited range of motion. The sliding bar allows you to effectively complete an exercise without placing undue stress on your spine or working joints. In addition, a Smith machine provides an automatic spotting system which you can use for heavier lifts. Though the Smith machine may provide more overall safety than the barbell, free-weight barbells can still be safely and effectively used. Maintaining proper form and perfecting technique is essential to ensuring injury does not occur when using the barbell. Ask for a spotter when using the barbell for heavier lifts.
Use Them Appropriately
Both pieces of equipment can be a valuable addition to your workout routine. If ultimate strength is your fitness goal, using the barbell will more accurately measure power output. The Smith machine is a versatile piece of equipment that can be used to train all major muscle groups. Because the Smith machine provides muscle stability, start here when focusing on balance. Advance to the barbell which will utilize more support muscles. If you are recovering from an injury, consult your doctor or a physical therapist in order to receive optimal exercise instructions.