Smith machines are not usually marked anywhere to indicate how much the bar weighs.
Without knowing that, how do you keep an accurate log of your progress? When you jump on a Smith machine at another gym, you wouldn’t know for sure whether you’re lifting the same amount as before.
Here’s what you need to know
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Counter-weighting the bar
Some commercial-grade Smith machines have bars that are counter-weighted, also called counter-balanced. This includes the Titan Fitness Smith Machine and others.
This simply means the bar is made lighter with a counterweight. It’s done by use of a pretty simple counterweight, like this:
A cable goes from the Smith machine’s bar up to a pulley at the top of the machine, and a weight hangs down the other side.
This reduces the effective weight of the Smith machine bar down to about 15 lbs.
The exact amount of effective weight left for the bar varies from machine to machine, but the standard they leave to the bar is about 15 lbs.
Why 15 lbs?
They could use a heavier counterweight and reduce the bar to being effectively zero pounds, or a few pounds, but that would lead to issues with the bar floating up to the top from the momentum of just a small nudge, the same way you can toss a lightweight ball into the air with no effort.
That would lead to some major issues. It isn’t just that the bar would slam against the top of the guide loudly and cause wear. It would bounce off the top of the guide and come crashing back down on your head. No manufacturer wants the liability of a hazardous piece of exercise equipment.
If you were to always load the bar with plates, a 1 pound bar wouldn’t be an issue, but inevitably some careless or inexperienced users would push the bar up quickly and cause damage or injury
15 lbs is what manufacturers have settled on as a nice starting weight for any user, even weak beginners who are just learning the movements.
Smith bars that are not counter-weighted
A Smith bar looks much like a 7ft olympic bar that is used for freeweight use.
In that case it would be 45 lbs. But it is without a doubt a low-strength bar, because there’s no reason for them to use a high tensile strength bar when the bar is so well supported by the machine and jack up their costs for no reason. So the bar might only weigh 35-40 lbs.
The Valor BD-11 Smith machine, for example, is not counter weighted, leaving you the full weight of the bar to work with. Valor has a counter-balance they sell separately, but reports are that it’s badly designed and makes noise.
What if we want to know for sure what the bar weighs? No problem – Here’s how you find out.
How to weigh a non-counterweighted Smith bar
Obviously you can’t just pull the thing off.
Here’s how you determine the bar weight fairly accurately.
- A thin rope, about 13 ft long
- A single 25lb, 10lb, 5lb and 2.5lb plate (and 1.25lb if they have it)
You’re basically doing as shown in this pic, counterbalancing the weight yourself to see how much it takes to balance it.
- Glance around to make sure the gym staff isn’t nearby.
- Take any plates off the Smith bar.
- Tie the rope securely around the Smith bar shaft.
- Set the bar to a little above your head height and lock it in place.
- Toss the other end of the rope over the top of the machine. You want about 4 feet worth of rope sitting on the floor.
- Tie that end of the bar securely to your 25lb plate. Given the length of the rope, the tied-on plate should be sitting on the floor.
- Unlock the bar.
- Pull the bar down, then gently nudge it up and down to see if it is balanced. You will have to move it, because the rope adds a lot of friction draped over the frame above you instead of going through a pulley.
- Move the bar back above your head to lower the plates to the floor, and lock the bar in place.
- If it’s balanced, congrats! If not, repeat steps 5-8 as needed, trying on additional weight in 2.5lb increments until it balances.
By this method you ought to be able to estimate the bar’s weight within a pound or two.
Locking the bar in a high position above your head each time so that the counterweight plates you’re tying on sit on the floor will ensure you you can tie the plates while they sit on the floor so you don’t risk dropping a plate on your foot as you’re performing this scheme.
Comparing it to freeweight olympic bars
Keep in mind that a typical 7ft olympic bar at the gym weighs 45 lbs, and many people start with that weight, or more, for most exercises.
A woman’s olympic lifting bar is 35 lbs or 33 lbs (15 kg).
There are lightweight olympic bars too. Some 5ft or 6ft bars are designed to give you a starting weight of as little as 25 lbs, which is tremendously helpful given that some females or kids can’t bench press the empty 45lb bar to start with.
10lb aluminum training bars are meant for athletes training the clean-and-jerk or snatch, and even 5lb hollow steel bars are used for group cardio training classes and light fitness training.
For weight training, however, as is done on a Smith machine, 15 lbs is a reasonable starting weight.
A Smith machine is not the same as lifting a freeweight barbell
Even a well-made commercial-quality Smith machine is not the same as doing an unassisted freeweight movement on a power rack, squat rack or olympic bench press.
There are several differences.
First, understand how it moves. The bar is attached to a carriage that has bearings inside of it that slide up and down on the steel guide rods.
The bearings introduce some friction that stops you from moving the bar “too” fast, which I’ve found myself when trying to do movements on a Smith machine faster than it wants to go.
Just as important, a machine is never the same as a freeweight movement. It cuts out the requirement for you to balance the weight, which is a major part of the exercise. Balancing the weight means you have to recruit other muscle groups in your body to stabilize the weight, giving yourself more of a full workout and helping your body to get stronger as a unit. Freeweight barbell training is nothing like sliding the weight along a guide, using only your strongest muscles, with careless abandon, the way a Smith machine lets you do it.
Targeting individual muscles with limited range-of-motion machines like a Smith machine is not a good idea for the main portion of your training. Bodybuilders and certain other lifters, and people going through recovery from injuries, may use machines like the Smith machine for accessory work, but with the knowledge that they are not recruiting a large number of muscles to the extent that they would be with freeweights.
This mechanical assistance with range of motion causes the weight numbers you’re working with to be significantly off. You can’t compare your max Smith machine squat or press to your max freeweight squat or press. You will always do more on a Smith machine.