It’s a question I hear being asked all the time, “Why Does the Smith Machine Feel Heavier?”
In truth, this seems really weird.
I mean, surely training with a traditional barbell should be both harder and heavier.
However, for some this simply isn’t the case.
As it turns out there are some perfectly reasonable explanations for the Smith machine phenomenon, and I’ll explain these to you now.
Why Does the Smith Machine Feel Heavier?
There are various reasons why the Smith machine feels heavier. The bar isn’t always lighter than a traditional Olympic bar, this will depend on the gym. Plus, the Smith machine forces you to stay in one plane throughout the movement, so you may be forced to change your usual body position with certain lifts. You also use more stabilizing muscles to help with traditional barbell lifts. Furthermore, poor quality Smith machines are a factor, as this can cause additional friction.
1. The Weight of the Bar Can Dramatically Vary
As it turns out, not all Smith machine bars were created equal.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to know the exact weight of a Smith machine bar because there are so many factors to take into consideration.
Add to this that the weight can also vary from gym-to-gym.
We are typically led to believe that the starting weight of a Smith machine bar is 15-30lbs.
So, immediately you can see that this is less than the 45lbs of a standard Olympic bar.
Therefore, in effect, if you’re adding the same load in weight plates, a Smith machine should feel lighter (because it is).
However, the bar can also be constructed from various materials, plus there may also be “add-ons”.
As an example, a Smith machine bar won’t undergo the bending stress at either end that an Olympic bar does.
So, to counteract this some Smith machines will have added bars and hooks at the end.
This could make the bar itself weigh from 30-40lbs, and in some cases as much as 55-60lbs.
Therefore, depending on your gym, and the bar construction material, a Smith machine bar could actually weigh more than an Olympic bar.
So, the reason it feels heavier is that it is actually heavier.
Admittedly, most Smith machines are counterbalanced with a system of counterweights, pulleys, and cables.
So, this should actually make the bar feel lighter.
But, as I say, you never really know the actual starting weight unless you have a label telling you how much it weighs.
2. The Smith Machine Forces You to Stay in One Plane
This is probably the biggest difference between training on a Smith machine and with free weights.
Basically, with most Smith machines the movement you make is straight up and then straight back down again.
Admittedly, some machines will have their guide rails angled on a slight incline.
This is so that you can better mimic the natural movement of lifts like squats and the bench press.
However, in truth, it is still very different from performing these exercises with free weights.
Most Smith machines won’t allow your torso to lean forward when you perform squats.
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You literally have a perfectly straight torso and go down and back up again.
Realistically, when you perform squats and the bench press with free weights you do move around a bit.
You’ll occasionally perform a bounce or move ever so slightly in order to gain an advantage.
This “advantage” is completely removed when using the Smith machine.
You may believe that your form is absolutely perfect when using free weights, but it’s likely you cheat every so slightly.
So, the Smith machine may feel heavier simply because you cannot cheat at all.
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3. Your Body Position May Differ With the Smith Machine
I have touched on this above, especially when it comes to squats.
There is definitely more of a forward lean when you perform squats with free weights.
In fact, you have to take numerous factors into consideration when squatting with a conventional barbell.
Two of the most important elements are your height and the length of your legs.
You’ll typically find that taller people with longer legs will have to lean forward slightly more than other people.
In effect, those of you with shorter legs will have an easier time squatting.
So, if you have particularly long legs, being forced to keep a more upright torso on the Smith machine will automatically make the movement much harder.
Basically, you completely alter your range of motion, plus it’s likely that you’ll have to change your stance as well.
Once you have to completely revamp the dynamics of an exercise, it’s almost like starting out again, this will automatically make an exercise feel more difficult.
4. Your Stabilizing Muscles Aren’t “Helping”
One of the main reasons that most of us prefer to use free weights over the Smith machine is that we typically have to use more muscles when performing the same movement.
Again looking at squats and bench press, there are numerous stabilizing muscles used with free weights.
You are basically having to use a lot of the muscles to literally balance the weight.
However, this need to balance and stabilize the weight is taken away when you use the Smith machine.
At first glance this should mean that using the Smith machine will make an exercise easier.
If you’re not using as many muscles when performing a particular exercise then there is less overall strain on the body.
This makes perfect sense.
With that being said, you can also look at it from the opposite perspective.
The fewer muscles you’re using to perform a particular exercise, the more strain the muscles you are using have to take.
In effect, you almost turn exercises like squats, bench presses, and even deadlifts into an isolation exercise.
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Okay, perhaps a slight exaggeration, as you will be training more than just one muscle.
However, you will still be using fewer muscles than if you were using free weights.
It all adds up.
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5. Poor Quality Smith Machines Create Friction
The final reason that the Smith machine feels heavier goes back to its construction again.
Most Smith machines in commercial gyms will have a counterweight mechanism.
Plus, all Smith machines have a glide system.
This is why it is so easy to lower the bar down.
It literally feels weightless in your hand as you guide the bar.
However, not all Smith machines will be of the highest quality.
In order to save on expense there may be no counterweight system.
Furthermore, there may be a cheap bushing system installed, which creates extra resistance between the path of the bar and the glide system.
In effect, not only do you have to lift and lower the bar and additional weight plates, you also happen to be fighting against friction.
So, it is perfectly feasible that the “same weight” on a poor quality Smith machine will feel heavier.
So, as you can see, using a Smith machine may not always be easier and lighter.
There is no standard weight for the bar on a Smith machine, although it does usually weigh less than an Olympic bar.
However, there are cases when it will be heavier.
You have to stay in one plane, literally straight up and straight down, which negates some of the advantages when using free weights.
The most obvious advantages with free weights are the ability to change your body position, as well as using your stabilizing muscles during lifts.
Plus, you could simply be using a poor quality Smith machine, which will make various lifts feel much harder and heavier.
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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.