Smith machines are a popular strength and muscle building tool in commercial gyms. But what can you do if you want to train at home without a Smith machine? How can you replace it without actually buying one?
The best home gym alternative to a smith machine is a free barbell and power cage. The power cage can limit the risks of using free barbells while having none of the drawbacks of a Smith machine. Other alternatives are dumbbells and a functional trainer.
Find out more about what Smith machines do and how to best replace one if you don’t have access to one below.
What does a Smith machine do?
A smith machine is an interesting combination of two types of gym machine. A barbell and a machine with a fixed path. The barbell is connected to two guide rods on both sides of the rack. That means the barbell only moves up and down but not forwards and backwards or from side to side. In some cases the bar path is angled slightly or have a mechanism built in that allows the bar to move forward and backwards slightly. The barbell on a Smith machine is plate loaded and can be locked into place at almost every height through the bar path.
The smith machine is quite popular in many gyms because it allows people to lift more weight and do squats, bench presses and other popular barbell exercises with more safety. Or at least they feel safer. This might not actually be true in most cases.
People like Smith machines because they allow for more freedom than separate gym machines while also being able to lift heavier weights with the perception of safety because the barbell is fixed to guide rods that only allow up and down motion.
A Smith machine is a barbell that slides up and down on two rails. That means it can go up and down but not backward or forwards. There are a few high-end models that actually allow some back and forth movement because the vertical guide rods themselves are mounded on horizontal slide rails. Those are rare though.
On most smith machines, there is a kind of safety catch system that allows you to hook the barbell onto by rotating it. So if you feel you can’t finish a lift you simply rotate the barbell and there always will be a safety catch within a few inches.
A Smith machine can be used for pretty much every exercise you can perform with a free barbell where the barbell moves straight up and down. Any exercise where the bar doesn’t follow a straight path can not be performed on a Smith machine.
However most barbell exercises that are commonly performed in the gym should have a pretty straight bar path and can therefore be performed on a Smith machine.
This includes exercises like:
- Bench press
- Shoulder press
So which equipment is a good alternative and common in a home gym? Keep reading to find out.
Of course it’s also possible to buy a Smith machine for your home gym. Click here to find out how much you can expect to pay for one.
Problems with smith machines
I’m not a big fan of smith machines for the vast majority of exercises and think they offer the worst of two worlds. A smith machine can be loaded quite heavy since it uses the same weight plates as normal barbells. You might think the fact that the barbell is fixed on two rods makes it safer. And while it does in some ways, it is actually less safe than a regular barbell in other ways.
A Smith machine is safer because it’s almost impossible to fall over and get stuck under the barbell like it is with a free barbell. This is true and the biggest reason why people use Smith machines. They don’t like the risk of free weights but still want to do the barbell exercises. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be safer but sadly a Smith machine can be more dangerous in different ways.
Because the path of the bar is fixed, you can ‘cheat’ a little to lift the weight. Since the bar can only go up or down, you can use different muscles to push against the bar that would cause you to fall over with a free bar. This can create unnatural movement patterns and trains you to use muscles for certain movements that shouldn’t be used in that manner. So while you might get stronger in the Smith machine, it’s not very useful real world strength. For bodybuilding purposes where you just want to isolate a certain muscle AND you know very well how to target that specific muscle, a smith machine can work but even then in think there are better options.
Because a smith machine has a barbell, there are a lot of different exercises you can do. You have much more freedom to choose your body position and form than with other gym machines that have a seat. Those machines force you into a certain position to use them. This little bit of freedom on a Smith machine is actually quite dangerous. Because you can’t fall over, people often use terrible exercise form on Smith machines. Combine bad form with heavy weights and you’ve got a good recipe for injuries. A free barbell can of course be used with bad form as well but if your form is too far off with one of those, you’ll fall over or not be able to lift much weight so they are self-limiting in that way.
The fact that the barbell can’t move forwards and backwards on a Smith machine means you don’t have to stabilize the bar. While a movement is mainly done by a few of the big muscles, with a free barbell, you have to stabilize the bar at the same time as using the big muscles. Many small muscles around your joints have to work together to keep a free barbell stable. That work is taken out of the exercise by a Smith machine. So while the big muscles will get stronger, the surrounding support system isn’t being strengthened. This can cause weaknesses in the kinetic chain which means you can more easily hurt yourself when trying to lift something heavy in the real world.
Of course separate machines that target one muscle have many of the same issues. However, those machines are often designed in a way that forces you into a body position which leaves less room for injuries.
Smith machines cover up bad exercise form by limiting the movement of the barbell to only up and down. This can lead to increased injury risk and an incomplete development of musculature. This can limit real world benefits of the added strength and muscle.
Home gym Smith machine alternatives
There is no way to replace a Smith machine with no equipment. To properly replace one at home, you’ll have to invest in some equipment one way or another.
Here are the best setups that can be used for a home gym and can replace a Smith machine. Of course nothing is exactly the same as a Smith machine. These setups below have their own pros and cons.
Barbell + Coach
As you might have gathered from the paragraphs describing the problems with smith machines, a normal barbell is the best option to replace a smith machine at home. Just a barbell is not enough though. To stay safe, you want a full power rack as well. This is what makes using a barbell at home as safe as possible. A power rack has safety pins you can set at different heights to catch the bar if you would drop it.
Just a squat stand isn’t recommended for a home gym. Since you’ll be lifting alone, a full rack is a safer option. Full racks have four upright posts in between which you do your exercises. So the safety pins limit how far the barbell can go down, the upright posts limit how far forward and backwards the barbell can fall. You create a cage around yourself but within that cage, the barbell can move freely.
If you’ve always used a smith machine and are starting with a free barbell, start with very light weights and it’s a good idea to get some coaching on your exercises to make sure you’re using good form.
A free barbell is the best alternative to a Smith machine and is perfectly possible to get in a home gym. The safety of a Smith machine can almost be matched by using a sturdy power rack and it has none of the problems.
The safety is something you might be concerned about and that’s reasonable. There are two things that will mitigate most of the risk of a free barbell compared to a Smith machine:
- Good form (coaching)
- Power cage
With a free barbell, having good exercise form is very important. Actually in a Smith machine it’s very important too but you can get away with more without falling over. A free barbell has to be handled correctly or you will tip over or lose control. Getting some coaching is advisable if you don’t have any experience lifting free weights.
On a Smith machine, the injury risk is actually not lower than with barbells. That’s because a Smith bar doesn’t move horizontally so as long as you hold onto the bar, you won’t fall over. However, that leads to people using bad form on the Smith machine and with bad form the injury risk shoots up.
The other part of the puzzle is a power rack. This is a big rack you can use the barbell inside of. The upright posts and safety pins can catch the barbell if something were to go wrong. The combination of good form and a power rack is actually quite safe. Of course you’ll have to use some common sense and be careful with your body but that’s the same with every type of exercise.
Are still a little too intimidated by free barbells? Maybe a set of dumbbells is more your cup of tea. Barbells are great for lifting heavy weights and therefore building a lot of muscle and strength. Dumbbells on the other hand are better for smaller exercises and are great for building up those stabilizing muscles. That’s because dumbbells can move separately from each other unlike barbells.
Because dumbbells are generally lighter and you can’t really get stuck under one, they are a bit safer to use than barbells and still have many of the benefits of a free barbell. If you use a set of adjustable dumbbells, it’ll also be cheaper and smaller than a full barbell setup.
Dumbbells are the most compact and cheapest way to replace a Smith machine at home. Dumbbells don’t have the risks of free barbells because they’re usually used with lighter weights and you can’t be pinned under one.
Also, dumbbells are easy to drop if something were to go wrong. If you’re under a barbell, it can be difficult to get away from under it if something goes wrong and the weight is heavy. Dumbbells are easily dropped in most situations.
A functional trainer is a machine with two weight stacks attached to two cables. The cable ends are adjustable in height so you can push or pull from pretty much every height. The weight stacks just move up and down and the cables will go back to their starting position. A cable is obviously more flexible than the guide rods of a Smith machine but safety wise, a functional trainer is much the same. Actually it’s even better since you still have to use the stabilizing muscles to get the cable to move in the right direction.
A functional trainer with the normal D handle attachments would already be a good alternative to a Smith machine but there is a really cool attachment that makes it even better. A double cable barbell attachment is a bar with eyelets to attach a cable to on both ends. This means you practically have a barbell which is connected to a machine. There is just a little more movement in the barbell than with a Smith machine but as you can read above, that’s not a bad thing.
With the right attachments, a functional trainer is hard to beat because you have a lot of exercise options that can be performed safely, train your whole body in a way that creates functional real world strength. Barbells are better for really heavy loads though.
A functional trainer can be used to closely mimic a Smith machine with the right cable attachments. Functional trainers are large and expensive pieces of equipment but they are much more multifunctional than a smith machine and build better real world strength.
With cable exercises you have more freedom of movement than with a Smith machine so you’re forced to perform exercises with better form and build more real world strength. It also allows you to perform exercises with a natural movement pattern making the risk of injury lower.
To get the barbell feel like you do with a Smith machine, there are cable attachments available that make it feel very similar. The barbell cable attachment is a short bar with an attachment point on both sides. So you can attach both ends to a cable and you’ll have a barbell.
And also, there are some functional trainers that have a built in Smith machine. That could be something worth checking out.
Really just want a Smith machine? You can get them for your home gym as well. They aren’t even as expensive as you might think. If you’re planning to buy a Smith machine for your home gym, consider buying one that’s combined with another piece of equipment.
The most common with a Smith machine is a power cage or functional trainer. A combined smith machine and power cage means you can choose to use a free barbell or the smith bar. This is a great combination and can help you transition slowly from one way of training to another.