From Hero to Zero? The History of the Smith Machine

There is a large machine at one corner of my gym that has been relegated for the use of hanging towels, hoodies and jackets over. The other day while I was doing some oblique exercises next to it, I asked my trainer why no one ever used it, he shrugged dismissively and said “That’s just a Smith Machine” and proceeded into a tirade of reasons why I shouldn’t ever use it. Naturally I became curious and later that same evening I googled the Smith Machine. What I discovered was that despite having fallen from favour recently, the smith machine has had its time in the spotlight. Here’s what I learnt about the history of the Smith machine.

Although the name is misleading (more about that in a bit) the Smith machine was actually an invention of one Jack Lalanne.

Francois Henri “Jack” LaLanne was a fitness and nutrition guru.  He was known for not only having “turned his life around” after a rocky time as a teenager, but for becoming a motivational speaker and an advocate of maintaining America’s overall health. He said that the “Salvation of America” relied on how healthy its people were and promoted physical health and nutrition throughout his career.

He rose to fame for publicly preaching the health benefits of regular exercise and a good diet, the numerous books he wrote on fitness,  and “The Jack LaLanne Show” a fitness television program he hosted for almost 35 years. He is also credited for opening the nation’s first fitness gyms in Oakland, California in 1936. Soon dozens of similar gyms popped up all over the country that bore his name.

In the early 1950’s Jack invented what became the basis of the Smith Machine. He had wanted a device that would allow him to train safely with a barbell when he didn’t have someone around to spot him. He rigged up an apparatus that could slide on to itself so people could squat with free weights. He thought it was a ‘safe’ way for people to reap the physical benefits of weighted squats without the ‘danger’ of damaging your back with unrestrained weight. The Smith Machine may possibly be one of only negative things to mar Jack’s otherwise impeccably successful career.

Later the apparatus was spotted by a man called Rudy Smith, a manager at a local men’s bath house. With the assistance of a Paul Martin, Smith then improved on the design and modified the model. He first installed the modified “Smith” machine (named after himself) at Vic Tanny’s Gym in Los Angeles. At the time Smith was managing the one gym. By 1960, Rudy Smith had been promoted to an executive position in in Tanny’s gym chain. He mass marketed the Smith Machine and the machines found their way into all leading gyms in the country, and later across the world.

The modern day Smith machine comprises of a barbell which is supported on both ends to protect the user from losing balance mid squat and falling over. It is used to do weighted squats, shoulder presses and bench presses. Since the bar just requires rotating to be locked into place, it supposedly creates a safe environment for a squat and eliminates the need of having a spotter or personal coach.

In its heyday, the Smith Machine was the darling of many an experienced gym buff. It was also considered a great tool for exercises involving a short range of motion like calf raises and shrugs. It was also used extensively for performing exercise variations.

While the idea behind the machine was fantastic in theory, the reality is not the same.

When you use a smith machine to do the basic version of simple barbell movements like bench presses, squats, or deadlifts, the smith machine forces your body into an unnatural movement pattern. Smith machines do not allow your body to make use of any of the stabilizers because the movement path of the bar is fixed.

Because of the fixed path, Smith machines are not effective at all unless your body is the exact size and shape the machine was designed for. Since they are designed for general use they do not adjust to the specific requirements and dimensions of the majority of people. Also due to the fixed path, these machines cause additional stress, especially to the joints because it’s unnatural for your body to move along the same path as a Smith machine. This leads to higher risk of injury and essentially does not train what you want to be training. Since you are unable to apply torsion to the bar you can’t achieve a good setup. You constantly need to readjust the bar mid-lift, and that is where the safety lock also becomes a problem. Additionally this technique of squatting increases the vector load that is placed on your knee joints!

Recent studies have also proven that muscle activity is decreased by almost 43 percent when using the Smith machine in comparison to doing the same moves with free weights. In short, the Smith Machine’s place in strength training equipment history is highly controversial!

One comment

  1. Someone will eventually patent a
    “subtracting as well as the present adding” resistance smith machine.
    ((Leg extensions warm you up for …. heavier leg extensions.))

    The total vertical movement weight of the exerciser and the bar must be calculated, then the total warmup fractions imposed.

    Old way way = I’ll warm up with leg extensions, then squat 45,135×28, 225×16, 315×12. This doesn’t account for the fraction of your bodyweight that you move vertically, and is actually more like 200, 290, 380, 470 [in this example a 200 lb bodyweight = approximately 155 moving resistance.]

    Adding your vertically moving bodyweight to your calculations illustrates the necessity of taking away bodyweight. i.e. “subtracting” at the lighter high rep warmup sets.

    Holding a “subtracting — pulling” bar onto your shoulders while doing the lighter warmups with 25% then 50% of your actual moving bodyweight, IMO has enabled injury prevention.

    Unfortunately, right now, it’s called squatting while arms around a wide pulldown device.

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