In recent years, strength and resistance training has been an increasing trend. Increasing and improving the strength, tone, mass, and/or endurance of the muscles is the goal of this training. This form of training is done through constant exercising against an external resistance which can include dumbbells, own body weight, gym equipment, and other objects that cause the muscle to contract.  Other than changing the physical size and shape of muscles, resistance training can significantly improve motor functions and enhance power dimensions of the muscles. The two most commonly utilized techniques in doing strength and resistance training are either doing it with free weights or doing it with exercise machines such as the smith machine. 

On one hand, free weight, also known as free form exercise, permits one to exercise and perform actions imitating those in real life. In order to do strength and resistance training through free weight, one uses his or her own body weight. On the other hand, exercises on the machines, also called fixed form exercises, are performed under a more controlled setting and require less muscular coordination and postural control and therefore there is less risk for injury to occur. One of the most common equipment being used for fixed form exercises is the Smith Machine. The Smith Machine is a weight equipment containing a barbell fixed between steel rails. A range of different exercises such as squats, bench press, rows, seated overhead press, and drag curl can be performed using the smith machine. The Smith Machine allows fixed vertical movements. However, recent models of the equipment now also permit movements in forwards and backward directions. Furthermore, a more stabilized muscles and proper body posture is achieved by the smith machine because of the weight present at the base of the equipment that counterbalances the heavy weights users lift. 

Squat is one of the most popular and most effective exercises of all time. The obvious muscles being targeted when you do a squat are the muscles in your lower body. However, in order to do this compound exercise properly, you also require to utilize a number of muscles above your waist. With that, the lower muscles targeted in a squat include your gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius or the muscles of your buttocks, quadriceps or the muscle in front of the thigh, hamstrings or the muscle at back of the thigh, adductor or the muscles in the groin, hip flexors, and calves. The squat also targets your core muscles in addition to the lower body. These muscles include the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae. There are a wide range of benefits in doing squats such as strengthening your core; reducing the risk of injury of daily life because you strengthen the muscles in your lower body and hence you are better able in performing full-body movements with correct form, balance, mobility, and posture; burning a significant amount of calories, and hence good for losing weight; and lastly, boosting athletic ability and strength. Finally, squats can be performed using free weights and/or exercise machines. With that, here are the things you should know when doing free weight squats and smith machine squats:

  • Free Weight Squats
Weight Squats

Image lifted from: https://www.coachmag.co.uk/barbell-exercises/6705/how-to-master-the-barbell-back-squat

For the free weight Squats, you unrack the barbell with your traps and take a few steps back which requires stabilization and balance.  After that, in order to do the actual movement, you have to keep the weight aligned with your center of gravity from head to toe. Then, you must bend your legs and lower hips toward the floor, making sure not to let your knees move inward. It must be remembered that you need to squat down parallel or below with your feet slightly in front of you so your quads will bear most of the weight load. After that, return to stand while squeezing your glutes. Repeat this depending on your desired reps. Most recommend 3 to 4 sets with 10 reps each. 

The downsides of doing a free weight squat exercise is you cannot place your feet out in front of you as far as you when you utilize an exercise machine such as the smith machine. Because of this limitation, this can cause a reduction in the maximum activation of your glute and hamstring muscles. Also, overall resistance load potential has shown to be lower in the free weight squats when compared to the smith machine squats since you are using more muscles to stabilize the weight. 

  • Smith Machine Squats 
Smith Machine Squats

Image lifted from: https://ifpa-fitness.com/about-us/ask-dr-bell/free-weight-squat-vs-smith-machine-squat/

With the smith machine squat, you essentially do what you would with a free weight squat. Hence, you unrack the bar exactly as you would for a free weight squat. However, you do not need to take any steps or even balance the weight because the smith machine will do it for you. You simply have to put your feet to the desired position and focus on your form as you do the squat movement. In order to do a smith machine squat, you must first adjust the bar of the equipment so that it falls right onto your shoulder height. After that, you must start loading the weight of your choice to the bar. Then, position your hands about shoulder-width apart on the bar and grip it. Next, step in front of the rack while the rest of the bar is placed on your upper back. After that, do an open wide leg stance. After unlocking the bar, descend as slowly into a squat feeling the weight on your abdomen while keeping your head and spine in a normal position. Once in a squat, hold for one second in that position. Then, with the force on your core, stand back up and squeeze your glutes at the top of your squat. Repeat steps for a good three sets of 12 reps. It is good to note that the only way to perform the smith machine squat safely is to place your feet somewhat further out in front of you, since you are in a fixed position keeping them too close to your body is not safe for your knees. You must also remember that you should squat to parallel or just below like a conventional squat. The downside of doing the smith machine squat is that as you place your feet far out in front of you during the squat, it can be very dangerous for the knees since your body is not supporting most of the resistance which in normal squats, reduces pressure on the knee joints. Also, smith machine squats are not as beneficial for athletic performance or daily activities which need a more natural range of movement and the support of stabilizer muscles built by using free weights. 

Difference Between Free Weight Squats and Smith Machine Squats 

A study conducted by Schwanbeck et al. in 2009 wherein they determined which exercise, whether free weight or Smith machine squats, was optimal for activating musculature. They were able to come up with a conclusion through comparing the electromyographic activity of the legs muscles such as tibialis anterior, gastrocnemius, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, biceps femoris, and trunk stabilizer muscles such as lumbar erector spinae and rectus abdominis. 

Difference Between Free Weight Squats and Smith Machine Squats

Figure 1. Mean (6SD) electromyographic (EMG) mean absolute value (MAV) of the tibialis anterior (TA), gastrocnemius (Gastroc), vastus lateralis (VL), vastus medialis (VM), biceps femoris (BF), rectus abdominis (RA), and erector spinae (ES) during free weight squat and Smith machine squat. Free weight squat results are shown in dark bars, and Smith machine results are shown in white bars. Results are mean 6 SD. *Significant differences between exercise modes at p , 0.05. (Lifted from: Schwanbeck et al., 2009)

The figure above shows the result of the study conducted by Schwanbeck et al. in 2009. According to the figure presented above, the free weight squat has shown a relatively higher total electromyographic mean absolute value compared to the smith machine. To be specific, from the gastrocnemius, the free weight squats showed a 34% higher electromyographic mean absolute value; for the biceps femoris, a 26% higher electromyographic mean absolute value was observed; and for the vastus medialis, a 49% higher electromyographic mean absolute value was observed. Furthermore, with each subject having a higher electromyographic mean absolute value during the free weight squat compared to the Smith machine squat, the free weight squat also elicited a 25% higher electromyographic mean absolute value from the vastus lateralis. However, it must be noted that statistical significance was not reached between each exercise. On the average of all muscle groups, the free weight squat elicited a 43% higher electromyographic mean absolute value compared to the Smith machine squat. 

Therefore these findings indicate that when training the muscle groups of the legas, the free weight squat may be superior to the Smith machine squat. Moreover, free weight squats most likely will result in greater strength development and muscle mass gain between these groups of muscles with long-term training. However, you must not immediately think that smith machine squats are not beneficial for you. You can still utilize the smith machine squat so that you can have varying angles when doing the exercises. It also aids stabilizing the weight and hence is beneficial to people who are still beginners in doing the squat exercise. Also, more glute and hamstring activation may occur with the smith machine squats compared to free weight squats  because you place your feet farther out when doing the smith machine squats. 

In conclusion, it is up to you and your fitness goals on what type of squat you will use. In the end, you can still choose to incorporate both types of squat exercises into your leg and core training. You can opt to alternate between free weight squats and smith machine squats from workout to workout. You can choose to perform free weight squats first in your leg workout and follow them with the Smith machine squats after the free weights have already fatigued your stabilizer muscles. 

References: 

  1. Lindberg, S. Healthline. 2019. 7 Benefits of Doing Squats and Variations to Try. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/squats-benefits. Retrieved on 17 July 2020. 
  2. Miller, T. Fitness Volt. 2019. Free Weight Barbell Squat Vs. Smith Machine Squat: Which Is Better For Gains?. Retrieved from: https://fitnessvolt.com/barbell-smith-machine-squat/. Retrieved on 17 July 2020. 
  3. Schwanbeck, Shane; Chilibeck, Philip D; Binsted, Gordon A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 9 – p 2588-2591. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181
  4. Stoppani, J. Muscle and Fitness. 2018. Barbell Squats vs Smith Machine Squats. Retrieved from: https://www.muscleandfitness.com/flexonline/training/barbell-squats-vs-smith-machine-squats/. Retrieved on 17 July 2020.