So, you want to know how much easier bench press is on a Smith machine?
In effect, we’re back to the age-old argument – free weights vs. machines.
This is not to say that machine exercises are ineffective, as you can still build muscle and strength.
However, you’re probably also wondering how much more you should be able to bench on a Smith machine when compared to using an Olympic barbell.
So, allow me to explain what you need to know.
How much easier bench press is on a Smith machine will depend on the machine itself, your body type, your bench press form, and how well your muscles are developed. For a like-for-like weight comparison, a Smith machine bar will weigh 15-25lbs in most commercial gyms. However, a standard Olympic bar weighs 45lbs. So, if you’re using the same number of weight plates, a Smith machine will effectively be 20-30lbs “easier”.
You Can’t Compare Smith Machine & Bench Press
The main problem with trying to compare a Smith machine bench press to a free weight bench press is they are effectively two different exercises.
Yes, I’ll admit that it “appears” that they have the same movement pattern (they don’t).
Plus, they target the same muscle groups, primarily chest, secondary muscle groups are the shoulders and triceps.
However, in truth, this is where the similarities end.
The Bench Press “Arc”
One of the biggest differences is that the Smith machine will provide a fixed, predetermined plane of movement.
In other words, the barbell moves straight up and straight down without ever deviating from this trajectory.
This rarely, if ever happens when you bench press with an actual barbell.
In fact, you’ll typically find that the barbell is around nipple line at the bottom of the movement and in line with your shoulders at the top.
In effect, the barbell actually moves in an arc when you use free weights.
The exact same can be said when you perform any barbell exercise on the Smith machine and then compare it to free weights.
I can guarantee when you squat, deadlift, overhead press, and even row, with free weights, the barbell never travels in a perfectly straight line.
Additionally, both sides of the bar on a Smith machine will always be raised and lowered equally and at exactly the same pace.
You will hardly ever get this type of perfect barbell symmetry when bench pressing with free weights.
Unfortunately, none of us are actually built with perfect symmetry, or have both sides of the body with exactly the same amount of strength and muscular development.
The Smith Machine Stabilizes the Bar
You’ll often hear that the major difference between free weights and machines is the use of stabiliser muscles.
Now, while this is true to some extent, it doesn’t actually provide the full picture.
Basically, when you bench press with a Smith machine, you are not stabilising the bar.
As I’ve explained above, the bar will move up and down equally on both sides, along the same trajectory, irrespective of where your hands are.
Essentially, if both your hands were to the left-side of the bar on a Smith machine it would still move up and down with perfect symmetry.
If you were to try this with a conventional barbell, the right side of the bar would fall towards the floor, and the bar would no doubt end up falling on top of you.
In other words, you have to stabilise a free weight barbell, which is what makes it a harder exercise than using a Smith machine.
Not All Smith Machines Are the Same
However, this doesn’t mean that all Smith machines are exactly the same.
Therefore, not all Smith machines will be as “easy”.
There are a fair few factors to consider here, although the most obvious will be the actual weight of the bar on the Smith machine.
To be honest, this can dramatically vary from one machine to the next.
With that being said, when it comes to commercial gyms, the bar on the Smith machine will typically weigh 15-25lbs.
You’ll usually find this information on the machine somewhere.
So, in effect, the Smith machine is much lighter than a standard 45lb Olympic bar.
In other words, if you placed two 45lb plates on either side of a standard Olympic bar (4 in total), the weight you will be bench pressing is 225lbs.
However, if you place exactly the same number of weight plates on a commercial gym’s Smith machine, you’ll be benching approximately 200-210lbs.
So, immediately the Smith machine feels easier because you’re bench pressing less weight.
But, you’ll also find that some Smith Machine bars can weigh as little as 6lbs or even as heavy as 60lbs.
So, always look for this specific information on the machine itself.
Something else to consider is the actual condition of the Smith machine and how well it is looked after.
As the machine uses a system of pulleys and a track it will provide better movement if it is regularly oiled.
Plus, you can actually make a Smith machine exercise harder by changing the angle at which you’re pressing the bar up.
As I’ve mentioned, the bar will always travel along a predetermined path.
But, if you’re not applying force directly along this predetermined path, you’ll require additional force to move the bar.
In effect, you can make the Smith machine bench press harder by pushing forwards or backwards slightly.
What follows are some related and frequently asked questions about the Smith machine bench press.
Is the Smith Machine Bench Press Effective?
As a standalone exercise, yes, the Smith machine bench press is effective.
There is a similar movement pattern with the conventional bench press and there’s no need to use a spotter.
Furthermore, many of the stabilizing muscles typically used with a free weight bench press variation are not required when using the Smith machine.
This in itself means that you can isolate and target the pecs to a greater degree.
So, if your goal is pure chest hypertrophy then the Smith machine may actually be a better option than the traditional method of using free weights.
Of course, the traditional bench press also targets the chest, but you are required to provide your own stabilization.
This means that there are many more muscles involved with the standard bench press, which can lead to better overall strength gains.
As I’ve alluded to above, the Smith machine will provide its own stablization, which allows you to solely focus on pressing the load.
In other words, if your focus is strength training you would be better off using free weight.
However, if your goal is pec hypertrophy then the Smith machine bench press is extremely effective.
Will the Smith Machine Bench Press Improve My Free Weight Bench Press?
I think I’ve said this enough times now, but the two movements simply aren’t the same exercise.
Granted, as I’ve mentioned, the Smith machine will isolate the pecs to a greater degree.
So, you would automatically think that better developed pecs would improve your bench press with free weights.
However, the fact that you aren’t taking the same bar path and using far fewer stabilizing muscles (if any) with the Smith machine means that you probably won’t improve your traditional bench press.
Okay, there may be some crossover, but not enough to see a significant difference.
In fact, I know many gym-goers have made the transition from Smith machine to free weight bench press and are surprised by how significantly different they are.
Let’s not forget that most standard Smith machines will have a bar that is lighter than an Olympic bar.
Therefore, you should never try to bench exactly the same weight when moving over to free weights.
I would actually recommend that you reduce the weight significantly when first starting to use the traditional bench press.
In fact, I would generally use 50-70% of my Smith machine bench press weight, while I’m “learning” the new movement.
You’ll actually be shocked at how heavy 70% ofSmith machine weight will feel, and this goes to show just how much work your stabilizing muscles do with free weights.
Should I Use the Smith Machine or Dumbbell Press? (No Spotter)
Here’s an interesting question posed by a Redditor.
Basically, this person had a break from training, has now started working out again, but in a different gym without access to a power rack.
Therefore, the “safety element” of using the power rack to bench press is now removed, and now they want to know whether to bench press in the Smith machine or use dumbbells.
I haven’t listed the 2 answers this individual received on Reddit, however, one answer is what I’d consider good advice, whereas the other respondent should probably be ignored.
Basically, this person has been told to find a spotter for their regular bench press, and if no spotter is available then use dumbbells.
This I completely agree with.
That being said, the other respondent simply told this person to go for it and then use the bench press roll of shame if they fail a rep.
Now, while many gym-goers may often use the roll of shame I’m not a fan.
The last thing that I would want to do if I fail a rep is to roll a loaded barbell, which weighs more than, across my chest and rib area.
Sure, you may get away with doing this on a regular basis, but it’s also an injury just waiting to happen.
Personally, I would either use the bench press as normal, but perhaps look to train with less weight and a higher rep scheme.
Failing that, I would prefer to use dumbbells, which at least allows me an easy escape route should I fail a rep.
As for the Smith machine, yes you could use this as an alternative, but it’s not an exercise I would like to use as a main lift.
As I’ve mentioned, the Smith machine bench press and the standard free weight bench press aren’t really the same exercise.
Due to the difference in bar path and the fact that the Smith machine provides external stability, they aren’t a like-for-like exercise.
However, I understand that if you have limited equipment available then you have to go with what you have.
There is actually nothing wrong with this individual using ALL of the bench press variations mentioned here.
Basically, mix up your lifts on a regular basis and hit your pecs from a variety of angles, while adhering to proper safety protocols.
Key Learning Points
- The main reason that it is easier to bench press on the Smith machine is the difference in bar weight. A Smith machine bar will generally weigh 15-25lbs in a commercial gym, whereas an Olympic bar weighs 45lbs. So, if you’re using the same number of weight plates the Smith machine will feel easier due to bench pressing less weight.
- The Smith machine doesn’t have the natural “arc” that you have with the free weight bench press, but rather the bar path is straight up and down.
- When you bench press with free weights you will also incorporate many stabilizing muscles. These stabilizing muscles are not used with the Smith machine, as the machine itself provides “external stability”.
- The Smith machine bench press is effective if you wish to isolate the chest muscles to greater effect.
- Using the Smith machine won’t have a crossover to the free weight bench press due to the factors above. This means that when you go from using the Smith machine to free weights you should reduce the load significantly.
- The Smith machine is ideal to use if you dont have access to a power rack or a spotter.
- If you don’t have access to a spotter or a power rack using dumbbells would be a better alternative as it has a better crossover to the free weight bench press.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.