The gym that I am a member of does not have any barbell free weight equipment, only dumbbells and the bar in the Smith machine (as well as other equipment such as cable machines, machines for specific exercises, etc). I realize that the advantage of using free weights over machines is greater use of stabilizing muscles, but I also realize that some lifts are much different when performed with dumbbells vs a barbell.

My question is this: Since no loose barbells are available, is it better to perform lifts like chest presses, dead lifts, etc with the Smith machine or with dumbbells? I already use the Smith machine for squats, but it seems very awkward for a lot of other lifts, and if it's not giving me the advantage of using stabilizing muscles, I'd just as soon use either a specific machine or dumbbells (both of which are in much less demand).

TL;DR: Which is more advantageous, the ability to use heavier weights in a Smith machine, or the added stabilizing needed for dumbbells?

  • 3
    Maybe time to join a new gym! :-X
    – G__
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 23:16
  • It didn't even occur to me to check for barbells when I joined as I've never seen a gym without them!
    – SourDoh
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 23:34
  • If you're just beginning to lift you might want to stick to dumbbells. The stabilizing part of the exercise is very important to develop good form from the start. Once you feel confident, though, I'd add in the smith machine for strength development besides the more functional dumbbell movements. This way you'll improve your total strength without (hopefully) form degrading too much. That is, if you should be unable to find another gym that actually provides the most basic gym equipment...
    – user8119
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 7:49

3 Answers 3


Dumbbells are an excellent choice for bench and overhead pressing. For deadlifts they're kind of not great, because it gets awkward as soon as it gets heavy. I'd do lots of Romanian dumbbell deadlifts, or dumbbell power cleans, instead.

For squats, I'd do lunges with dumbbells before I'd do the Smith machine. That his is just not right.

  • So you'd recommend the modified dumbbell deadlifts and cleans over Smith machine deadlifts?
    – SourDoh
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 23:01
  • 2
    I would, yeah. The mechanics are going to be wonky either way, but the Smith machine...ech. Commented May 22, 2014 at 7:04

The Smith Machine is a controversial device. It offers several advantages, as well as the more well-known disadvantages:


  • Self-spotting
  • Balance & stability
  • Provides a transition to free weights for some
  • Confidence
  • Constant tension
  • Muscle isolation
  • (Limited) range of motion (good for some specific situations)

Disadvantages & Limitations

  • Fixed plane of motion
  • Lack of stabilization muscle activation
  • Does not improve coordination and balance
  • Minimal transfer of skills

The Smith Machine should only be used as an adjunct to free weight training, behind barbells, dumbbells and cables. Common arguments concerning issues with squatting or pressing in the Smith Machine can often be nullified by slight derivations in setup or performance--if no other free weight or cable alternatives are available. It's also a very useful device for rehab, in certain situations.

As always, keep an open mind to the possibilities of all training devices, systems, and methodologies. The astute and successful weight trainer knows when to use each as part of a holistic system over a lifetime.


Author of The Complete Smith Machine: Exercises and Workouts


Well, it all depends on what you are trying to emphasize during your workout.

For example, a Bicep Workout can be completed in fine fashion using dumbbells. Single/Double Dumbbell Curls as well as variations of this base workout are great (for example, changing up the grip or adding something like Fat Gripz so as to thicken the bar and emphasize forearms).

However the calves (for example) can be worked very easily and effectively using the Smith Machine. Simply place a platform under the barbell and lift up using your heels for a great isolationist workout. I would post a link, but I can't post more than 2 in my answer. You can find the article on the site I linked to previously.

Finally, if you are concerned about doing a barbell deadlift using the Smith Machine, then check out this article explaining how it is done using the machine and decide if that looks like something you can do, because it is a great workout when proper form is used.

I hope that I have addressed some of your concerns and I wish you the best with your personal fitness.

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