Smith Machine vs Barbell Bench Press – Which is Best?

Why chest day matters

For many athletes and casual lifters, your bench press weight is a measure of how well you perform in the gym. The bench press engages multiple muscle groups and is a core lift – making its mastery just about mandatory if you’re trying to get strong and build mass. How much you can bench is an easy litmus for how well you train, so it’s no wonder that everyone wants to add mass and up their weights.

If you’ve ever happened to be in a gym on Monday, all the benches were likely taken – and most of the Smith machines, too. Mondays are standard chest day, though the origin of that urban habit isn’t entirely known. What is known is this – if you want to get strong on any of your lifts, you have to train your chest appropriately. If the line is long for the bench, you might consider using a Smith machine to get your sets in move on with your workout.

Smith machine and standard barbell bench press

The debate about which is better – free weights or machines – is one that’s raged in gyms for generations. One of the most common questions is whether or not a Smith machine is just as effective as a barbell bench press. Advocates of the Smith machine say that it’s easy to learn on, and you’ll be able to perfect your technique.

Barbell enthusiasts say that a Smith doesn’t engage as many muscles as free weights, so you’re ultimately wasting your time.

So, who’s right?

First, let’s take a look at the muscles that make up your chest.

Anatomy of your chest 

There are literally dozens of exercises you can do on chest day, but there’s no need to flounder in the gym trying to do them all. Overtraining your chest can lead to a variety of injuries – namely shoulder issues and strained pecs. The key is to learn how to alternate between a range of chest exercises. For your programming, that might mean taking a closer look at the Smith machine. You might be surprised how it can be used to help you reach your goals. 

Your chest is made up of two muscle groups – the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. Understanding your own anatomy is key to developing a training regimen that’s best suited for your goals. Let’s take a look at the muscles that make up your chest.

Pec major

  • The primary movement of your pec major is to adduct the arm and internally rotate your shoulder horizontally. 
  • Large, fan-shaped muscle
  • Most commonly thought of when training chest
  • Has two different sections – the sternal (lower) head and the clavicular (upper) head
  • Sternal is responsible for three big movements, all of which help you lift your arm up overhead
  • Horizontal adduction 
  • Internal rotation
  • Shoulder extension

Pec minor

  • Responsible for anterior scapular tilt – helps pull scapulae up and forward onto your ribcage.
  • Helps prevent injury
  • Improves aesthetics
  • Most common chest injuries relate to stiff and weak pec minor muscles. Specific training on your lower traps, rhombus, and scapulae will help your shoulders feel better. 

When you train your chest, you have three options – flat, decline, and incline — each target either the pec major, pec minor, or a combination.

Flat and decline bench press decreases the amount of flexion available to your shoulder. This results in more stress on your sternal heads.

Incline bench shortens the clavicular portion of your pec major. The higher the incline, the more the clavicular head and anterior delts are stressed.

This is important to understand because it can help you integrate Smith machine training into your chest day. By targeting either the pec major or pec minor with the assistance of a Smith machine, you might be able to overcome plateaus and push bigger numbers.

If your form is less than perfect, a Smith machine might help you activate more muscle fibres in your chest, triceps, and shoulders. This will ultimately help induce more muscle growth, and you’ll prevent the likelihood of injury as well.

The biggest takeaway is this – when you’re training chest, you should choose exercises that help maximise your development and work on strengthening stabiliser muscles as well. Compound pressing – pressing from many different angles – helps to balance your pec development. Enter the Smith machine.

Smith Machine

Jack Lalanne invented the Smith machine. It’s a piece of equipment that is designed to offer controlled barbell movements. It consists of a barbell secured between two steel rails. This allows for vertical movements. Some newer models allow forward and backward movement as well.

In addition to being used for presses, a Smith machine can be used for rows, squats, and overhead presses. The weight of most Smith machines is counterbalanced by additional weights that are at the base of the machine. This allows a user to lift heavy without exhausting the stabilising muscles that are activated with barbell lifting. 

Benefits of Smith Machines

There are some advantages of using a Smith machine – mainly weight stabilisation and safety.

  • Stabilized weight – Counterbalanced Smith machines come with a self-balancing barbell. Guide rods mean that you don’t have to worry about controlling the direction of the barbell, so you have more focus available to push your weight. The bar moves along a fixed vertical plane, and it doesn’t have the option of moving in any other direction.
  • Safety – Smith machines come with the ability to hook the barbell in place, which eliminates the need for a spotter and might help you feel confident to push bigger numbers. You can quickly and easily hook the bar into the frame, which helps keep you safe if you’re lifting alone.

Disadvantages

  • Improper posture – Some advocates of Smith machines suggest it helps promote good posture and proper form, but that’s a little bit of a misnomer. Smith machines don’t allow for personal movement or freedom of movement, and since everyone has a different anatomical range of motion, you might not find that it helps promote proper form. 
  • Faulty centre of gravity – The fixed bar path can be uncomfortable for some people, especially if you have already perfect proper form and technique.
  • Unnatural body movement – Some studies have found that Smith machines use excessive force along with overloading muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When used exclusively, this can cause trauma to the stabiliser muscles.
  • Less effective – Some Smith machines have counterweights at the base. This helps to counterbalance the weight of the barbell and increase your ability to lift weight. Your muscles work less, which causes a decrease in overall muscle activation. 

Barbell Bench Press

The bench press is one of the most important movements to master. It’s essential for upper body muscle development and helps to build overall strength. We already know that bench pressing activates both the pec major and the minor pec muscles. With proper form, it can also activate glutes as well. The complexity of a quality barbell bench press is often overlooked since it seems like such a simple movement at the outset.

Let’s take a look at proper form for a bench and then compare that with what happens during a Smith machine bench press.

  • Foot placement – Feet are the start of a strong base, just like with a squat, overhead press, or deadlift. Try to keep your feet pulling backward to your butt as far as you can go while keeping them flat on the floor.
  • Proper positioning – Back position will look different for everyone since no one has the same anatomy. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to begin activating all of your back body muscles. Make sure your upper back is flush against the Bench.
  • Arch and retract – Arching is a point of contention for lots of lifters, bodybuilders especially, who think that it’s just a powerlifting technique. Arching will help you maintain a neutral spine, keep your scapulae engaged, and keep you back protected as you press. The more you arch, the less the bar has to travel.
  • Grip properly – The bar is yours. Grip it! Hold the bar as far down on your palm as possible to prevent your wrist from moving backward. Grip width will depend on your body type and personal goals. If you have long arms and are trying to push as much weight as possible, you need a wider grip. Narrow grips are best for those with short arms and for anyone who lifts in hypertrophic weight ranges.
  • Brace, contract your core, unrack – Belly breathing is key here. If you’re not comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, your Bench is ultimately going to suffer. One full cycle of breath helps set your mind to the lift. Push your back into the bend hard so that the lift off feels easy.
  • Breathe in and lower – Take a deep belly breath and engage your core. Think about trying to bend the bar into a U shape with your hands. This helps your elbows track properly instead of flaring out. It also allows for your lats to engage and helps protect your shoulders. Keep your breath held in until you’re on the ascent of your press.
  • Touch the bar to your chest – Where you touch down on your body will depend on the length of your arms and your grip. It doesn’t matter where you land, as long as your forearms are at 90 degrees from the ground. Aim for anywhere between your top ab and nipple line and try to hit the same spot every rep.
  • Push up and engage glutes – On your push up, let out your breath and tighten your glutes. This activation helps drive your legs into the ground and will help your body stay tight. Ultimately, this technique will also help you push more weight.

When you use a Smith machine with a counterbalance to bench, the majority of the weight on the bar is removed. That’s because of the counterbalance weights that are inside the Smith machine. As such, much of the movement of a bench press becomes moot. For example, you won’t be able to try to bend the bar into a U shape, since it’s attached to the machine. Similarly, you can’t position yourself properly, since the bar has fixed placement.

Further, touching the bar on your chest will look the same for every lifter when you’re using a Smith machine, since there’s no forward or backward movement. The reality is that you’re not going to need to drive with your legs because you’re not going to feel a press on a Smith machine the way you do a conventional barbell press.

Advantages of Conventional Benching

The bench press is a compound, functional movement. So, if you train it properly, not only will you build a strong chest, but you’ll also invariably strengthen other parts of your body as well.

  • Builds mass and increases strength
  • Endless variations
  • Improves other lifts
  • Perfect for multiple muscle group development since it engages so many stabiliser muscles

Benching helps increase upper body strength, improves your overall muscle endurance, and helps build strength for other pressing exercises.

Disadvantages

Injuries associated with flat Bench are primarily the cause of incorrect form. Most benches restrict the contraction of the scapulae and force an exaggerated movement of the primary shoulder joint.

Because most benches restrict scapulae activation, the portion of the shoulder joint ball is forced to move to the end of its sockets. Scapulae can’t retract when the elbow moves beyond the shoulder. Over time, this can cause a decrease in internal rotation flexibility as your external rotators continue to become tighter over time.

There are very few disadvantages of performing a barbell bench press. Provided your form is right, and you’re engaging the muscle groups the way you should, it’s a relatively safe moment. Correcting bad body mechanics will help remove or eliminate your risk of injury. By isolating and activating key stabiliser muscles like the scapulae, you keep yourself out of harm’s way.

Which is Better?

A 2010 study showed that traditional barbell benching is going to give you more muscle activation per movement.

It’s especially beneficial for targeting the small stabiliser muscle groups that help you perfect your form and push heavier weights. That’s because when you perform a barbell press, you’re not only performing the movement, but you’re also engaging tons of smaller muscle groups to ensure the barbell doesn’t move in the wrong direction.

Using a Smith machine takes that direction out of the movement, so it’s easier to do. Using a Smith machine doesn’t cause any more muscle activation in the anterior delts or pec major.

The smartest approach is to begin your training on a conventional bench. It’s always best to start with the basics and master form and technique first. Plus, there’s anecdotal evidence that suggests people will plateau sooner with Smith machine benching. Since they’re able to use heavier weights sooner (without proper muscle development), they get stuck more often.

That’s not to say that a Smith machine is completely without usefulness. They’re great for adding volume and reaching hypertrophy if you’re already fatigued from a heavy lifting day. They’re also instrumental in getting you back to lifting if you’re recovering from injury. For those times you don’t have someone available to spot you then they can be invaluable.

Conclusion

No matter which method you choose for training your chest, it’s critical that you keep your form correct. Just like with the other compound lifts, improper form and technique only lead you down the road to injury. Make sure you’re not making one of these common chest training mistakes.

  • Bouncing the bar – If your bar bounces at the bottom of your rep, you’re using momentum to lift your weights. That means your chest is doing less work, and you’re ultimately defeating the purpose of the exercise in the first place. Even more alarming is that you can injure your sternum or ribcage if the bar lands in the wrong spot. Think slow on the descent. More controlled motion on the negative will ultimately lead to greater muscle development.
  • Chest isn’t engaged – At the top of each rep, you should feel your chest working. If this is an issue for you, try adding in some flyes before you bench to help focus on chest contraction.
  • Core isn’t active – Deep belly breaths and an engaged core are critical for a good press. Diaphragmatic breathing will help you with all of your core lifts because it creates tension and stability in your core.
  • Flared elbows – Elbows should be tucked in, not flaring out to your sides. Pressing with flared elbows puts a ton of pressure on your shoulder and can ultimately lead to rotator cuff tendon inflammation.
  • Incomplete ROM – Range of motion is key on all compound lifts. If your barbell doesn’t touch your chest, you can’t rep the weight. You’re also not actively using all of your major pec muscles, and you’re putting yourself at risk of injury. Better to lay off the ego and lower the weight to something you can successfully rep with proper form.
  • Incorrect starting position – Your bar path is critical to a good press. Your ideal start position can be found by holding the bar about your shoulders with straight arms. Move it forward and backward until you feel like it’s weightless. Then drop it slowly to your chest so that it lands at about nipple level. If you’re keeping your elbows tucked, this should feel natural. That’s your particular bar path.
  • Loose grip – The bar is yours, so hold onto it like you mean it. A loose grip will cause your wrist to bend backward, and you lose tension in your forearms.
  • Planted feet – Your feet don’t need to move once you’re under the bar. Just like scapulae retraction, planting your feet will give you a ton more stability and help you bench more. Push your feet down and forward. If you’re only pushing your feet down, your butt is going to want to lift.
  • Scapulae aren’t engaged – Stabiliser muscles are so often overlooked in pressing motions. When you pull your shoulder blades down and together, you’re creating more stability and helps raise your chest off the Bench. This lessens the distance the barbell has to move.

The flat barbell bench press is going to give you the chance to activate more muscles and force you to work harder. In this way, it’s light years superior to using a Smith machine to build mass and strength. It’s the cornerstone of pec development and will help with compound lift progression as well.

When it comes to training chest, there are so many options to make each lift exciting and progressive. Also, the variations of barbell benching (flat, incline, and decline) it’s easy to add in dumbbell work or even the Smith machine – if it aligns with your goals.

Note: If you are thinking of getting a bench for your home gym then take a look at our weight bench reviews and buyer guide.

When you’re planning your programming, think about which exercises will give you the most return for your time investment and create routines from there.

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