When you think of one of the more “extreme” workouts in the bodybuilding world, it’s surely the bench press. How many people – even those very well-informed in the fitness world – will cite their strength and level of training by how much they can bench? While it’s certainly not a complete definition of your strength and health, its shorthand for strength is definitely most acceptable.
When you bench press, you’re training a whole heck of a lot of things, and not all of them are physiological at that. Bench pressing is hard work for your body, and the weight involved is severe, even if you’re a beginner lifting far less weight. You will strengthen your pectoral muscles, your shoulders, your upper back, and the entirety of your arms, hands, and the involved joints.
You’re also training yourself for endurance and mental discipline. Lifting and lowering this kind of weight, as well as duration holding it above you, takes dedication and serious endurance.
However, with traditional bench pressing, there’s a downside. It’s dangerous. You should never bench press a barbell weight alone, and your spotter should be as strong or stronger than you and trained properly. Even then, accidents can and do happen when this exercise isn’t performed in a safe environment.
This can discourage a lot of beginners for a couple of reasons. Unless you’re already fairly strong from other exercises, you’re going to feel like a real wimp when you first start benching, lucky if you can lift over a hundred pounds over you (even if you can hoist that kind of weight in a daily situation). Lifting weight directly against gravity like this is harder than hoisting something, after all.
This will discourage beginners who feel insufficient in front of their trainer/spotter and is also an issue for the less socially-inclined people who are discouraged by any extracurricular activity involving “friends” or professional aid.
Of course, there exist technological solutions for problems like this, such as Smith machines, which are a lot safer, and less risk of an accident. You’ll see Smith machines in many gyms, and consumer versions do exist as well, though they tend to be one of the pricier pieces of equipment you can buy.
There exist a lot of detractors when it comes to Smith machines as well, citing that it won’t provide as good of a workout because it’s more lenient on muscles as a compromise for safety and accessibility. Still, others are proponents of them for beginners, due to this safety and the reduced need for trainer intervention to make use of the concept.
Is there any science behind which is better? Yes, in fact! A serious study was done by California State University in 2010, which was quite extensive and conclusive, though the conclusion may frustrate more than inform in some cases.
First, we need to describe how this experiment worked. A lot of times, scientific results are published in health journals with only the most basic description of the experiment or study’s nature. Sometimes this is necessary, but we feel understanding the experiment is key to appreciating the conclusion reached.
That said, the experiment wasn’t that complex to grasp, simply being a comparison of two groups using either a Smith machine or a traditional barbell. They chose average (20s) people. To be fair and account for experience, both groups were half experienced (six months or more) in bench pressing, the others absolute novices.
Even, equal groups assembled, the real test began. First, everyone did a one-rep max, which established the maximum strength of a participant.
After this, a series of EMG sensors were placed on the target muscle groups of each participant, which could read a multitude of biometric variables that shape a picture of a routine’s effectiveness. Each participant then did two reps with either seventy or ninety percent of their maximum, which is closer to proper training, where one never overextends oneself.
After some delay to let residual effects diminish, the two groups switched roles and performed the experiment a second time. The results were then calculated through some seriously complex math, which we’ll show mercy and spare you from here.
First, let’s talk about the cold hard mathematical conclusion, and then talk about the applicable conclusion everyday exercise. Yes, the traditional barbell bench press is better than the Smith machine, providing better muscle group coverage, and a better overall workout.
However, experiments like this do have limited applicability of these results, because the technology simply does not exist to measure every aspect of an entire body for an experiment like this. Only three muscles were actually measured, which means other, secondary or even third-level muscles targeted by bench pressing went completely unmeasured in this study.
The difference in these other groups could be nonexistent between a barbell and a Smith machine, or they could vary more wildly than the differences that were measured. It is believed that (partially due to psychological awareness of being the only thing holding the barbell up), more muscle groups are activated when doing traditional barbell lifts, versus the perceived safety and handholding of a Smith machine.
Results for You
That’s the science, but what does this mean for you, as an average person trying to get into serious shape? Honestly, you can go three different ways with this. You could shrug off the extra muscle activation and simply add some other routines to account for it, and enjoy the safety and independence of a Smith machine for all of your bench pressing needs.
You could dedicate yourself to biting the bullet, being extra careful, and sticking to the tried and true barbell, which has mathematically-guaranteed better results. If you’re already a gym member, you may as well just go all in, as you’re pretty safe in a gym, and you’ve already overcome any shyness that inhibits you, really, at that point.
But, we recommend a more balanced path to take with this. It can be hard to procure the proper attention for the amount of time you need to bench a week, depending on your goals and routine. Thus, a Smith machine can be pretty darn convenient in that regard. Thus, we suggest an even mix of barbell and Smith machine if you have access to both. More days than not, you can use the machine, as long as at least a quarter of your total bench pressing sessions per period, are with a proper barbell.
We also recommend incorporating some additional things on those machine days, to target your deltoids and some other groups that a machine doesn’t activate, but a barbell does.
In the end, though, it’s all about which is more practical for you as an individual, and what’s more readily available. Yes, a barbell works better than a Smith machine. Does that mean that a Smith machine is a bad choice?
Certainly not, as long as those other muscle groups are getting a proper workout through other means.
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