Rest Day Rantings: Why Am I Not STRONG????

Posted: August 4, 2012 by Admin in Random Thoughts

Recently, a new CrossFit member who has worked out “for years” came to me frustrated.

“How is it that I am SOOOOOO WEEEEAAAAAKKKKKKK?!?!?!” What prompted her to say this was her inability to squat more than 65 pounds once when women, smaller than her, were squatting in upwards of 165 pounds for reps.

After some of my sensitive, touchy-feeling questions, I finally got her to outline her past experiences with “strength training.”

DISCLAIMER: What I’m about to write could potentially tick off many people, but please make no mistake – working out in ANY way is better than sitting at home doing bicep curls to your mouth and working on that all important “thumb reflex” on the remote. I’m just answering the lady’s question.

Her past experience included isolation machines and Smith-machine squats. When I say “isolation machines” I’m talking about equipment that focuses on (usually) one muscle to the exclusion of all the others. A classic example is the biceps curl machine. With that machine, you are primarily making only the biceps work that, in theory, will supposedly make the muscle stronger.

Well, I believe that, when compared to nothing, such approaches will make you stronger. But the problem is how well does this “strength” generalize to your everyday life? You see, your life demands capacity and ability with functional, compound movements. How well can you pick up that 50 pound bag of dog food with only your biceps? If your 100 pound child fell limp to the ground, would you only rely on one set of muscles to pick him or her up? What if, while running from a hungry bear, you come upon a heavy tree limb that’s in your way? How well do those machines prepare you to avoid becoming bear chow?

Now, I’ve been pretty nice and domesticated up until this point, but now I am going to rage on this one. Get ready.

Are you ready?

Are you sure?

You are now entering….THE JUDGEMENT ZONE


First of all, let’s take the word “squat” out of this term. As of yet, I still haven’t determined exactly what movement happens on this machine, but it ain’t a squat.

Let’s list my accusations against the Smith Machine Curtsy

1. The machine locks the body into the machine’s motion, and prevents the body from determining a natural motion with an external load.

I actually think this is a problem with MOST machines. The machines are made to fit around you for “maximum comfort” and supposedly “maximum safety.” The problem is, this isn’t how the real physical world works. When my life demands me to move heavy furniture when I move, I never think, “wow this 10,000 pound couch sure is comfortable to move down this twisty staircase.” With barbell lifting, you are forced to learn how your body moves best to manipulate a very tangible, very real stimulus. The translation of this training into your everyday life is pretty obvious, but email me ( if you’d like to discuss it further. That straight up and down rigid motion that a Smith Machine forces doesn’t really emulate any kind of natural motion you’ll see in your everyday life.

2. If you stand with your feet pretty much underneath the bar, knee flexion will be exaggerated, and, as such stress there exaggerated too.

In other words, SMITH MACHINE SQUATTING is bad for your knees. Correct, Mark Rippetoe-endorsed, barbell squatting STRENGTHENS the knee and also teaches you how to integrate your legs with your core to move a load. Again, obvious life application.

3. If you put your feet forward, to reduce knee flexion, the lower back is put in a weak position, with rounding of the lower back likely. In addition, there is additional stress on the knees as the feet want to slide forward but don’t because of the friction produced from the floor

When I see this in the gym, I throw up in my mouth a little. People lean into the bar with their back and really do NOTHING for their posterior chain. At best, they are putting their back at risk for a whole host of calamity down the road. Somehow the barbell squat gets the bad rap that the Smith Machine has rightfully earned.

All in all, the Smith machine squat may give an illusion of safety relative to the barbell squat, but, in reality, it’s a really bad exercise. Sure there are degrees of “bad” depending on the specific form used, and the individual, but it’s still a bad exercise. In cased you missed it, it’s a really bad exercise that, if you continue to do, will result in your experiencing a horrible, flaming, chodent-filled death!!!! Or you might just get hurt and miss out on the most important exercise of your life: the family of barbell squats.  Rather than try to minimize the problems with a bad exercise, why not just stick to exercises that have far better potential? Of course, even the “safe” alternatives can be ruinous if not done properly, but best to stick with movements that have good potential.

For some reason, this picture always makes me laugh. Spotting on a Smith Machine. Classic Weak Sauce.

In other words, find a good coach who can teach you how to squat properly and then start a progressive program to build strength in this movement and all its derivatives. Like Coach Rip says, when done correctly, this movement is perfectly safe for your knees and one of the most important overall strength movements you should be doing.

You say you want to get strong? Learn multi-joint (compound) lifts such as the back squat, deadlift, clean and jerk, and snatch and you will get SUPPAA POWWWWAAASSS. Well, not really, but you’ll definitely get strong in a way that translates to your everyday life.

Ditch the machines. Your body is the only “machine” you need.

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