Smith Machine vs Free Weights: Which Should You Use?

 by Dr. Steve Hruby, D.C.

I’m a fitness advocate with a holistic approach to health, wellness, and longevity. I’ve walked the walk since 2009 - using my personal development methods to unleash the fitness champ within you.

  Fact Checked
 by Rhealyn Celestial
Reviewed by Rhealyn Celestial

I’m a researcher, and I’m also a full-time mom. I spend my weekdays crafting thoughtful articles for small businesses, and my weekends with my son learning about the world together

Imagine yourself a beginner at working out or lifting weights. Or you are just now starting to look for what can help maximize your workout goal. Now, you step into a gym and you get visually hit by rows and racks of equipment.

It can be pretty overwhelming, right? If you are this person, and you are looking for a guide in choosing what is the better choice for you – Smith machine vs free weights, then this article is for you.

What Is Free Weights?

Free weights is a form of strength and weight training using objects that you can literally just pick up and lift. These objects are not attached to any piece of equipment and can vary in weight and size.  You can use free weights at home or in the gym.

The most common free weights used are dumbbells and barbells. Other examples would be kettle bells, medicine balls and sandbags.

How Do You Do Free Weights?

Let us try to simplify the explanation using the two top commonly used free weights, barbell and dumbbells.

With the barbell, you would need to select the plated weights to use. Then, attach the weights on both sides of the bar. And lastly, you would clamp it securely to prevent slipping. 

Dumbbells, on the other hand, usually come with specific weights. You would also need to select the correct weight based on your workout goal. Then pick up the dumbbells on both hands and proceed to use. 

Now, that is the easy part. The harder part is in determining if you will workout using free weights or with the help of an equipment like the Smith Machine.

But first, let’s talk about the pros and cons of using free weights.

couple using kettlebells outdoors

Free Weights: What Sets It Apart

  • It feels more natural to the body because you are allowed wider range of movement.
  • It does not feel “assisted” at all. Hard core lifters prefer free weights because they feel like they do all the work versus some equipment doing some of the work for them.
  • It builds up the body’s balance and stability. The body’s core and stabilizer muscles are engaged and forced to work more because machines “assist” you while lifting weights.
  • There is more engagement for certain muscle groups. A result of one experiment have shown you will get more activity for certain muscle groups if you use free weights. These muscle groups are the lower calf muscles (or gastrocnemius), inner part of quads (or vastus medialis) and hamstrings (or biceps femoris).
  • You will likely burn more calories. You will sweat more because free weights will allow you to engage your bigger muscle groups more. This, in turn, can help you reduce any unwanted weight. 

Free Weights: What Are Its Drawbacks 

  • It can be overwhelming for newbies. Beginner lifters can definitely start with free weights. However, you may feel at a loss on how and where to start. And then you’d ask yourself, “Where do I start? How do to start?”. 
  • There is lesser focus on the target muscle group. Because you feel like you are doing a lot of things at once, you will be able to focus less on your workout target. Lifting free weights would require you to focus on other workout ingredients like balance and stability, lifting motion, and amount of control needed to lift weights safely and properly.
  • You can be more prone to injury. This is especially true if your technique and form is not correct. For a safer lifting experience, we advise that you ask a certified trainer to teach you the proper mechanics of a good lift. 

What Are Free Weights Best For?

Free weights are best for those who are not total newbies to lifting. Sure, everyone can start with free weights. However, it is best if you get supervision from a trainer when you want to start with free weights.

Our advice is for you to design a workout program that tailors to your specific goals. Also, your approach to lifting free weights should be progressive.  

If you have some experience, and your goal is to work on bigger muscle groups while developing greater power and helping you lose some weight, then the free weights are best for you.

Lastly, if you want a more natural feel where your body is not restricted to a vertical path movement, then you may want to consider trying free weights, too.

What Is Smith Machine?

The Smith machine is also an equipment that you can use from the confines of your home, or at the gym. It is a barbell attached to a steel frame. It has safety pegs running along the frame to hook the barbell in place.

fit woman using the smith machine

These hooks are especially usefully in cases where you find it difficult to complete your lift. It is also useful when you don’t have a spotter to help you maintain your form and posture.   

Additionally, newbies and seasoned lifters may find lifting using the Smith machine easier versus lifting free weights.  Weights are relatively lighter because the machine already “assists” you in lifting.

So, how will you know when to use the Smith machine? Let’s find out!

Smith Machine: What Sets It Apart

  • It is ideal for beginners. Using the machine can help develop good form and posture while doing the basic lifts.  Newbie lifters will get that confidence in lifting, and this can be the avenue for them to do heavier lifts using the machine or going to free weights. 
  • You can safely lift without a spotter. This is very convenient if you love to work out alone, or if your gym buddy cannot spot you. 
  • There is lesser risk of injury. Because of the Smith machine’s intrinsic design, you are able to lift weights more safely.
  • It allows you to focus more on your workout goal. Because you don’t need to focus too much on your body’s ability to balance itself while lifting weights, you can concentrate more on your form and muscle building. 
  • It complements your free weights workout. The Smith machine was not created to supersede or take away use of free weights. The secret is to incorporate both the machine and free weights into your workout routine.

Smith Machine: What Are Its Drawbacks 

  • It does not feel natural to the body. Your body’s range of movement is restricted because the machine moves on a single vertical path (up and down). This can take a while getting used to. But once your body gets the hang of it, you may come to enjoy using it.
  • It is not designed to be used exclusively in your workout. You will not be able to reach your fitness and weight loss goals if you just rely on the Smith machine. To get your desired results, it is best to use the Smith machine in tandem with free weights.
  • There is less engagement in our core and stabilizer muscles because the machine already “assists” you while lifting weights.   

What Is the Smith Machine Best For?

The Smith machine is one of the more unappreciated gym equipment out there. However, it is actually good for beginners who want to safely try out weight lifting. It can also minimize your risk of injury.

Additionally, if the goal is to build specific muscle groups without focusing on the body’s balance and stability, then you can hit this goal using the machine.   

Smith Machine vs Free Weights? A Quick Look

FactorsSmith MachineFree Weights
1. Beginner or Pro at LiftingXX
2. Range of Body MovementX 
3. Degree of Core Workout X
4. Strengthening of Stabilizer Muscles X
6. Risk of InjuryX 
7. Need of a SpotterX 
8. Muscle Group FocusedXX
9. Caloric Burn X

Other Questions You May Want To Ask

How Much Does a Smith Machine Take Off?

Depending on the design, the Smith Machine can take off around 15% – 20% off the perceived weight of the load. For example, a machine loaded with two 50 lbs plates on each side would have an effective weight of about 80lbs. 

Are Free Weights Harder Than the Smith Machine?

Free weights can be a bit overwhelming for newbie lifters. You would need to learn a lot of things before you can properly do free weights. You would also need to consider correct form and posture, on top of your workout goals on muscle building and strengthening.

woman working out lifting weights

Because of these, free weights can be harder to execute properly. But when you get the hang of it, you will find that it gives you more bang for the buck versus use of Smith machine.

Why Should You Not Use the Smith Machine?

Do not use the Smith machine when it is awkward and uncomfortable for you. We advise that you consult with a trainer on the equipment you will use based on your fitness goals.

Can You Build Muscle Using the Smith Machine?

Yes, the Smith machine can help you focus on and build specific muscle groups. These would be the shoulder core, triceps, biceps, pectorals, glutes, quads and hamstrings. 

However, if you want bang for the buck in your workout routine and more caloric burn, then using the Smith machine with free weights would be the best option. 

Is Free Weights Better Than Smith Machine?

The general consensus would be yes, free weights are better than the Smith machine.

Result of one experiment showed EMG was higher on the lower calf muscle, inner part of the quads and hamstrings when free weights were used during training. One basic function of the EMG or electromyography is to see how muscles can be activated.

However, deciding on what to use will still boil down to your own workout goals. 

Does the Smith Machine Reduce Weight?

Yes, the Smith machine can help you reduce weight, but if you also practice lesser food intake. Weight loss is achieved by combining caloric burn and caloric deficit. Simply put: burn more, eat less. 

CONCLUSION: Which Should You Use?

The choice will boil down to your workout goal and preference. 

If your goal is to workout using more realistic and varied movements, then try out free weights. If you want to develop power on bigger muscle groups, strengthen your core and stabilizer muscles while burning more calories, then go for free weights.

However, if you want a safer way to lift weights, then you can start with using the Smith machine. The equipment allows you to train without needing a spotter. It also minimizes risk of injury to yourself.

There shouldn’t really be a hard-line comparison between the two because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.  The Smith machine was never created to replace free weights. It was designed to complement free weights exercises especially when you do not have a spotter.  

Ultimately, the best approach would be to train using both. Use the machine in tandem with free weights. This way you will be able to maximize your workout routine and achieve your goals faster.

Leave a Comment