Marta Montenegro: Four moves + One piece of equipment = Total-body workout

Take a quick look around the gym and you’ll notice how many people are packed into the free weight area. Barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls and anything else that doesn’t look like a machine are quite popular with hardcore fitness aficionados. The current trends of “functional training,” “working the core” and “working out like athletes” are all expressions of free moves.

Oftentimes in fitness we think of things in black and white. For abs, we’ve demonized the crunch and made planks the new hero. However, the shades of gray can’t be overlooked.  Let’s take a new look at the Smith Machine.

And the winner is…

Free weights have their advantages. They promote better body alignment, involve other stabilizer and neutralizer muscles and work on movement and other fitness components such as balance that reflect how the body functions in daily life and sports.  In addition, you may burn more calories due to the higher muscle involvement.

However, machines are easier to use and safer. This allows you to move from one exercise to another rapidly with the proper set up. Therefore routines could be done faster when using machines. Thus you may end up burning the same calories than when using free weights since with free weights you need to take time to assemble bars and plates.

In particular, the Smith machine has been widely compared to free weights for two gold standard exercises such as the squat and bench press. As predicted, when doing free weights you can expect as much as 43 percent higher muscle activity than in the Smith machine. However, other studies show that trainees were able to lift more weight and isolate some muscles better when doing bench press and/or squats in the Smith machine rather than with free weights.

Jack Barnathan, founder of NY Strength Peak Performance Consulting, explains that when using the Smith machine “the normal ‘arc’ of the squat for example, is more of a pelvic tilt / sitting motion, and clearly not a “straight” up and down path.  When one attempts to squat or shoulder press or bench with the Smith machine, it forces them into the straight range of motion, and eliminates the normal arc that is created when one respects the round nature of our joints.  This natural arc is lost, and now forces are falling upon (with the squat) the spine and knees.”

Bottom line: Switch up your workouts. Alternate between free weight exercises and machines.  If you are looking for a high intensity workout where strength and power are the goals, this will be a good day for free weight moves. If you are looking for more of a muscle endurance type of exercise routine, go for the machines.  Keep in mind that free weights and machines will tax the muscles in different ways and will also stress different muscles. Overall, this will keep challenging your muscles to avoid reaching a plateau.

However, when in doubt, Barnathan adds, “Free weights permit what I define as true functional training by permitting the athlete to develop the strength to handle the weights, even picking them up safely, and finding the normal, natural range of motion and arc in the motion of the set.”

The Smith Machine workout

(location Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa Miami Beach, clothing by Lululemon Athletica, photos by Andrew Meade Photography, Inc.)

This routine will emphasize muscle endurance so the weight to use will be moderate. The goal is to keep a steady pace which will allow you to get some cardio and muscle conditioning benefits.

-        Perform each exercise for the number of sets and reps as indicate below before moving to the next exercise.

-        Rest less than 45 s between sets and no more than 60 s between exercises.

-        The rest time is an “active rest” which means that basically you’ll use this time to set the bar and the weight for the next move.

-        The routine has been designed alternating between the lower and upper body so the muscles are not overloaded.

-        Perform 3 sets of each exercise, 15 reps each.  As for the bonus exercise pull-ups, do as many as you can. Take as much rest as you need for this last exercise.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning, coach and master trainer who is an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, combines fitness, nutrition and health  tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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