So when it comes to the smith machine squat vs barbell squat, which is better? Is the smith machine squat really better than the free standing barbell squat?
The number one exercise performed by bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts around the world for building bigger quads and rounder glutes is unquestionably the ubiquitous squat.
There are numerous squat variations ranging from foot position to barbell position to target the quads and glutes in different ways. But what are the differences between performing a free standing barbell squat vs the smith machine squat? Is one more beneficial or safer than the other? Opinions seem to vary.
Rethinking the Smith Machine Squat
I have personally been doing the smith squat for many years as my go-to glutes machine. However, after further investigation, I have come to realize that perhaps my thinking has been wrong. My number one reason for doing the smith machine squat was for safety reasons and that I could add more weight and possibly get better results. However, after researching this topic more extensively, I have decided to make some changes to my workout style.
In order to make your own decision, here are some points to consider when choosing between the smith machine squat and the free standing barbell squat. Here are some reasons you may want to reconsider how you do squats.
The Smith Machine Squat and Safety
Smith Machine Squats for Safety: Probably the number one reason for using the smith machine is for safety reasons. Nobody wants to get stuck on their last forced rep. The smith machine does an excellent job of giving you the option to hook the bar into position to quickly terminate execution if you run out of strength. A great option to have if you do not have a spotter.
Free Weights – Barbell Squat: You can increase your safety on the free weight barbell squat by using a spotter, or using a power rack. On the power rack, set the safety pins or support bars to just under your parallel squat position to catch the weight if you run out of steam. If you do not have a power rack or a spotter, I would strongly recommend not doing free standing barbell squats.
How Safe is the Smith Machine Squat vs Barbell Squat?
Smith Squat: You would think injuries on the smith machine would be less than with free weights, but this is not necessarily true. Because of the heightened sense of security, many tend to take more risks and add more weight too quickly which leads to more back injuries.
Positioning your feet too far in front will also cause more stress on your lower back and could result in a lower back injury, or too far under the bar could cause too much stress on the knees.
Another problem is unnatural movements due to limited flexibility. The smith squat forces you into a fixed pattern which could lead to injury. There is a newer generation smith machine that allows for 3D movement, however, I have yet to see a gym with this type of smith machine.
Barbell Squat – Free Weights: With free weights, your body has the freedom to position itself freely and naturally follow an arched path. Free weight does not balance the weight for you, making your stabilizing muscles stronger. Thus, a stronger lower back will help prevent back injuries in the long term.
Smith Squat: Since the smith machine helps balance the weight for you, performing the exercise becomes easier and less strength is required overall. This can lead to slower gains.
Secondly, if you overload the machine and use too much weight you could end up with a back injury.
Free Weight Barbell Squat: Although you may be using less weight than on the smith machine, your body will be working harder at moving the weight since you are using your own stabilizers and not getting help from a machine to balance the weight for you.
Sacrificing weight for better form will always benefit you more in the long run and lead to better results. And since injuries should be less, you will spend more productive time in the gym strengthening and building muscle.
If you have been using the smith squat for quad and glute development, give the free weight barbells a spin. I do believe that free weight barbell squats will aid in strengthening your core muscles which will make your back stronger. Only using the smith machine, I believe may weaken your back muscles, giving you less support and increase your chances for back injury.
So my personal verdict would be that both are beneficial and great exercises to build bigger glutes and legs, but a good mix of both would be a good decision. That said, I have changed my workout routine to also include free weight barbell squats and not solely smith squats.
With over 30 years of experience in strength training and fitness, Mark LaRue is the founder of Fitness Mastered, a blog to help educate fitness enthusiasts of all fitness levels, age, and gender. We write topics that range from weight training and exercise routines to weight loss strategies, motivational videos, and home workout machine reviews, to name a few.