Q: I always (or usually, anyway) train alone in my home. For chest, I always bench inside my smith machine for safety because I don’t have a spotter. I’m well aware that top body builders don’t get big using machines, so could you recommend any changes that could increase the effectiveness of my pec workouts while keeping them safe?
Charles Staley: Before I answer your question, I have to first say that the Smith machine isn’t completely foolproof! It IS possible to get stuck in one, because you can’t always hook the bar onto the pins. If this happens, you’re REALLY stuck! I strongly recommend using a spotter anytime you use this device.
Getting back to your question: I happen to train my clients (and often, myself) myself in private settings. This being the case, I am often in the same boat as you. Although implementing a training partner is superior for safety and motivation, I realize it is not always a reality, so I do have a few suggestions.
First of all, I would not necessarily look at machine exercises as inferior. As a matter of fact, machines often allow you to reach a higher level of exhaustion without fearing for your personal safety. In my mind, machines are only inferior when you use them exclusively. Relying only on machines is likely to minimize results because prime mover (the muscles primarily targeted) development is limited by your body’s ability to stabilize yourself during the exercise (this is why you can always bench more with your feet on the floor than on the bench).
Luckily, you don’t have to be an unstable person to incorporate unstable movements into your pec workout! Dumbbells are an excellent way to accomplish this. Try exhausting the stabilizers with a dumbbell bench press or flye as your first exercise. Having a greater tolerance to the unstable nature of this exercise, your prime movers (the pectorals in this case) will not exhaust as quickly as the muscles stabilizing your body during the exercise; therefore, when you cannot continue pressing the dumbbells due to the fatigued stabilizers, you will be able to maintain the same intensity for more sets, picking up with the Smith machine bench press where you left off with your dumbbell bench press. At this point, your Smith machine becomes a great tool for optimal exhaustion.
Most home multi-gym gym devices have an attachment for dips. Dips are probably the most effective pec exercise that can be performed without the aid of a spotter (if you have any know shoulder problems, I’d talk with a competent orthopedist who understands strength training first, however). Start the exercise from a sturdy block or support set high enough to easily return your feet to. Should you misjudge your ability to complete a set, you can maneuver your feet to the block and remove the tension on the pecs (and more importantly, shoulders). For more advanced trainees, the dip can create a safe environment for eccentric training. To perform an eccentric dip, you must again place a block below your feet, starting with the arms extended and lower yourself in a controlled fashion. As you descend to the end of your normal range of motion, place your feet on the block, assist yourself to the starting position, remove the tension on your feet, and continue until the set is complete. Particular attention must be paid to safety and control during the flexion of the elbow during dips. Note: it is preferable to position the block so that the feet are always above the block when not assisting in the movement.
Finally, I must point out that the bench press can be safely performed alone through the use of safety spotters, a device which can be set to catch a bar just past your normal range of motion, allowing you just enough room to remove yourself from a failed attempt. Using a power rack with safety pins can also be used for the same purpose. Either way, NEVER bench without a spotter!!! EVER! And one last point while we’re talking about safety – even though it feels better to have your thumbs on the same side of the bar as the rest of your fingers, never do so. One slip is all it takes, and the consequences are disastrous. It’ll only take a handful of workouts to get used to the new grip, and who knows – you might be eligible for lower life insurance premiums!