Bench vs Smith Machine: What Builds a Bigger Chest
by: Robbie Durand
The bench press is king of all chest exercises and is essential for muscle growth. It’s not uncommon to see some lifters doing smith machine bench press instead of doing the barbell bench press. Although the bench press is the exercise that most people use to judge overall strength, there are many variations, including the smith machine bench press. Both types provide their own unique set of risks and benefits. The bench press is the most commonly used exercise to build a better chest. The bench press exercise exists in multiple forms including the machine and free weight bench press. It is not clear though how each mode differs in its effect on muscle activation. Researchers compared muscle activation of the anterior deltoid, medial deltoid, and pectoralis major during a Smith machine and free weight bench press at lower (70% 1 repetition maximum [1RM]) and higher (90% 1RM) intensities. The subjects had electrodes attached to their shoulder and chest muscles so that the researchers could measure how hard the muscles had to work. Normalized electromyography amplitude values were used during the concentric phase of the bench press to compare muscle activity between a free weight and Smith machine bench press. Participants were classified as either experienced or inexperienced bench pressers.
Two testing sessions were used, each of which entailed either all free weight or all Smith machine testing. In each testing session, each participant’s 1RM was established followed by 2 repetitions at 70% of 1RM and 2 repetitions at 90% of 1RM. In general, all the targeted muscles were better stimulated when the bench press was performed using dumbbells, rather than exercising on the Smith machine. There was no significant difference in terms of stimulation on the pectoralis major and on the rear deltoid. The most significant difference was registered in the lateral deltoid, which showed an increase of over 40%. The results of this study suggest that athletes should consider choosing the free weight bench press over the Smith machine bench press because of its potential for greater upper-body muscular development. The researchers suggested that when using free weights, the secondary muscles are forced to play an extra role to stabilize the weight which cause more muscle fibers to be activated, this doesn’t happen when using the Smith machine. The smith machine is not completely worthless, there are times when you want to go heavy and no one is around to spot you, just don’t make smith machines the core component of your chest routine.
Schick EE, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Judelson DA, Khamoui AV, Tran TT, Uribe BP. A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Mar;24(3):779-84.
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