So the big question is when it comes to the smith machine squat vs barbell squat, which is better? A question I have been asked and one that I myself have pondered many times. That said, I took it into my own hands to do some due diligence and find out whether the smith machine squat is 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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Rethinking the Smith Machine Squat
- Is The Smith Machine Squat More Effective At Adding Strength & Muscle?
- Smith Machine vs Barbell Squat and Safety
- How Safe is the Smith Machine Squat vs Barbell Squat?
- Advantages & Disadvantages
- Which is Better For Building Bigger Glutes?
- My Final Verdict!
Rethinking the Smith Machine Squat
I have personally been doing the smith machine squat for many years and it has mostly been my go-to machine for leg and glute training. However, after doing some investigation, I have come to realize that perhaps my thinking has been wrong all along.
Make sure to check out my review on inexpensive yet effective glute building machines for your home or apartment.
My number one reason for doing the smith machine squat was for safety and so that I could add more weight and possibly get better results more quickly. However, after researching this topic more extensively, my thinking has changed and 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.
Is The Smith Machine Squat More Effective At Adding Strength & Muscle?
Let’s first start off by answering our most asked question, being whether the free weight barbell squat is more effective or the smith machine squat is more effective at growing muscle size and strength.
Since I have plenty more for you to read about safety and the advantages and disadvantages of using both and how to use them to target certain muscle groups, I thought I’d spare you the agony and add this short video instead.
Smith Machine vs Barbell 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 safely hook the bar into a locked position to quickly terminate execution should you run out of strength. A great option to have if you do not have a spotter.
Barbell Squat with Free Weights
The barbell squat is typically done using a squat rack with barbell hooks, but unfortunately in most cases without safety pins or support arms. In this case, the risk of getting pinned under your barbell is a great concern and danger.
So to avoid injury you can increase your safety on the free weight barbell squat by using a spotter. Or better yet, by using a power rack. Most gyms today have a power rack, also referred to as a power cage or squat cage. And if you’re not a gym-goer, there are also very affordable power racks you can buy for your home gym or garage.
On a power rack, you would 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 against doing free standing barbell squats.
How Safe is the Smith Machine Squat vs Barbell Squat?
Is The Smith Machine Squat Really Safe?
We have seen how the smith machine squat can be much safer when it comes to the built-in safety mechanisms that prevent you from getting trapped under a heavy load. But are there other matters we should be concerned about?
You would think injuries on the smith machine would be far 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 too much weight too quickly. This can lead to muscle tears and more back injuries.
Many users positioning their feet too far in front of them which can result in added stress to your lower back. This can easily result in a lower back injury if the weight is too heavy. Additionally, positioning your feet too far under or behind the bar could cause too much stress on the knees.
Another issue with the smith machine is unnatural movements due to limited flexibility. The smith squat forces you into a fixed pattern which could lead to joint stress or injury.
There is however a newer generation smith machine that allows for 3D movement. Unfortunately, I have only seen this type of smith machine in one gym I have visited.
Barbell Squat – Free Weights
With free weights, your body has the freedom to position itself freely and naturally follow an arched path. Free weights do not force you into an unnatural position. This can also help make your stabilizer muscles work harder and become stronger.
This means your lower back muscles are more engaged and will become stronger over time. That said, a stronger lower back will also help prevent lower back injuries in the long term.
Advantages & Disadvantages
What we have learned is that both the smith machine and the free-standing barbell squats have their advantages and disadvantages.
The Smith Squat helps balance the weight for you, and so performing the exercise becomes easier and less strength is required overall. This can lead to improper form and a weaker lower back which over time could result in injury.
Secondly, the smith squat can give you a false sense of security and so overloading the machine is tempting.
The Free Weight Barbell Squat on the other hand, albeit 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.
This will help strengthen your lower back and core muscles while increasing overall body strength.
Don’t miss my article on dumbbell deadlifting for bigger glutes [dumbbell deadlift vs barbell deadlift].
Sacrificing weight to improve your form will always benefit you more in the long run and lead to better results. And since the risk of injuries will be greatly reduced as a result, you will spend more productive time in the gym strengthening and building muscle.
If you have exclusively been using the smith squat machine for your leg and glute exercises, 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 of back injuries.
Which is Better For Building Bigger Glutes?
I obviously can’t leave out this question, as I know much of my demographics are female and thus I feel obligated to include this important question.
I know that for most ladies out there, working out your glutes is one of the most popular and favorite muscles to workout. Much like us guys love to workout our arms. So I can understand why you might want to know if the smith machine squat may be better than the barbell squat.
Basically, I believe both are great at building quads and glutes. But the smith machine may have one up on the free-standing barbell squat in that it give you more options to target your glute muscles.
There are some routines that you can execute better and more safely on the smith machine. For example, positioning your feet slightly more forward can isolate your glutes more than just your normal foot position under the bar. This is not possible with a free weight barbell squat.
More isolation exercises that can be safely performed with the smith machine would also include one-legged forward or reverse lunges. You could, for instance, add a step platform to increase the stretch in your glutes and activate muscle fibers you otherwise could not with free weights.
So I believe the smith machine is by far a better choice for building bigger glutes.
My Final Verdict!
So my personal and final verdict would be that both are beneficial and great exercises to build bigger glutes and legs, and a good mix of both would be the best decision.
That said, I have changed my workout routine to also include free weight barbell squats and not solely smith squats.
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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, ages, and gender. We write topics that range from weight training tips and exercise routines to home workout machine and fitness related product reviews, to name a few.