Smith Machine vs. Free Barbell Squats?

Just the other day, we received a question from Shawn, who writes:

“Hi bud, like your videos! Could you do one on Smith machine squats vs free weight squats, is one better than the other? Is 95 lbs in the smith machine equal to 95 lbs with a free barbell?”

That’s a great question! And just like the discussion surrounding free weights vs. machines in general, it can get quite contentious.

I answer this question in the video below, but if you’d rather read, you can skip to the transcript below the video.

First of all: no, being able to squat 95 lbs on the smith machine does not usually mean that you can squat the same weight with a free barbell. Using a free barbell is usually way harder, as it takes a lot more stabilization and skill.

So, free barbell squats are definitely harder than Smith machine squats, but what about the training effect? Well, that isn’t necessarily as black and white.

If your goal is to be able to squat a large amount of weight with a free barbell, then you need to be practicing with a free barbell. Could you use smith machine squats as some kind of an accessory lift? Sure, but the majority of your squat training and even leg training in general should be done in the form of free barbell squats.

But when it comes to muscle growth, building huge quads and glutes, much of the difference vanish. Your muscles don’t know if they are pushing against a machine or a barbell. The only thing they care about is:

  1. Are they contracting hard?
  2. For a sufficient amount of reps?
  3. Through a long range of motion?

If you check those three off, then you are going to be building muscle, and you can definitely do that using a smith machine.

In fact, exercises that are too unstable are less effective for building muscle, since they might force you to terminate the set because your balance is starting to give out, and not your muscle force. Machines don’t have that balance aspect. However, regular free barbell squats are generally also stable enough, to the point that this isn’t really a problem.

So for strength purposes, it depends on how you want to be able to express your strength. If you want to get strong in the free barbell squat, then you have to practice it. If you only care about building bigger thighs and glutes, then you could probably choose either one.

And, finally, depending on what rocks your boat, this might be the most or least important point: The free barbell squat is a piece of iron culture. Barbell squats have been used as a staple for growing bigger and stronger legs by every kind of athlete ranging from bodybuilders, to track & field, and of course powerlifters. When you put your back under this bar and unrack it, you become part of that culture and help carry it forward. I don’t know about you, Shawn, but that kinda gets me going.

Thanks for the question, Shawn, and good luck with your squatting, no matter what kind of equipment you choose!

Here’s some resources on squatting and free weights vs. machines:

Do you have a question that you want me to answer the next time? Just leave a comment or send a message!

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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.