When I resumed weight training at the age of 46 — after a 20 year layoff — all I had at my disposal for workout space was a fairly standard, one-car, UK garage. Such garages are small. They may fit a car in them, just, but if you parked anything but the tiniest car in there the garages are so narrow you'd struggle to open the doors and get out of the car.
A power cage was immediately off the menu because of the height, so I set about looking for alternatives. I needed to be able to train safely on my own and wanted the ability to do free-weight exercises from time-to-time too so, by degrees, I ended up with the Body-Solid Series 7 Smith Master System. This combines a Smith machine, high/low pulley system with a weight stack, pec deck, preacher curl attachment, leg extension/leg curl attachment, bench and a free bar gun rack with spotter arms.
The instructions aren't the best I've seen. They consist of a lot of exploded views of various parts of the system and what seems to be a direct translation from Chinese. Nevertheless, I managed to assemble it on my own in about 5 hours. I'd recommend having a second person available if possible because that would definitely have made my job easier.
Over All Construction
The kit lives up to its name and is indeed solid. It's tough and will stand up to the punishment of many workouts. I used mine for three or four days a week, 60+ minutes a time for five years and it survived well in a dusty garage. I'm sure it would have stood another ten years without any problem. It worked faultlessly for me the whole time.
You're going to need a minimum of 8ft width and 10ft depth to fit this in and get around it to load plates and such. In practice you'll probably want more than that for your workout area so you can do some free-standing exercises outside of the Series 7. It should fit the height of most standard-size UK houses and garages — it needs about 7ft of height.
The official dimensions are:
- height: 211cm, 83 inches, 6ft 11,
- depth: 168cm, 66 inches, 5ft 6 (but the bench extends this depth by about 4ft),
- width: 213.5cm, 84 inches, 7ft (including the bar).
The Smith Machine
The Smith machines has a seven degree reverse angle on it, which just means that in the bench press position, for example, it moves away from your chest, towards your head by seven degrees as you perform the exercise. There is much argument about whether a seven degree pitch is better or worse than a Smith machine that doesn't pitch at all and just travels vertically, but I'm not sure I buy into these arguments either way. Maybe a pitched Smith machine targets a muscle ever so slightly differently than a non-pitched, vertical one but so what? It is a Smith machine and you're not going to use the same number of stabilising muscles you'd use with free weights, so who cares if you're targeting a muscle ever so slightly differently? Really, I think this much of a muchness and I'm happy to use either a pitched or non-pitched Smith machine.
If I was forced to state a preference I'd say a pitched Smith machine feels ever so slightly better for flat bench presses and decline bench presses, and a non-pitched Smith machine feels ever so slightly better for incline bench presses, shoulder presses and squats. But it really isn't worth worrying about in my opinion.
The Smith machine is fairly smooth and operates well. I used it mainly for bench pressing (flat, incline and decline), shoulder presses (both to the front and behind the neck), squats, bent over rows, upright rows and rack pulls. You just twist the bar to unlock it and then twist it the other way to lock it back in again. There are some safeties for the Smith machine as a backup if you get into so much trouble you can even lock the bar back in again.
My only really criticism is that the lockout holes, which are also used by the safeties, are a little bit too far apart. I found that when I set up the safeties for a heavy bench press, the ideal spot would have been between a position that was just too high, and therefore meant the bar wouldn't touch my chest, and a position that was just too low, which meant that the bar would crush me before the safeties could save me. I fixed this by getting a piece of wood about an inch thick on which I'd stand the bench for heavy bench presses.
Over all, though, this is a pretty good Smith machine. The Smith bar itself weighs 10 kg (22 lbs).
The Pulley System
The pulley systems uses a weight stack at the back of the machine. This weight stack goes up to 210 lbs (95 kg) in 10 lb (4.54 kg) increments and there are also prongs on it so you can add to the weight stack with free-weight plates. Annoyingly the weight prongs are sized for standard weights rather than Olympic weights, but they'll take both.
I think it's a smooth pulley and it works well. I used it for lat pulldowns, triceps pressdowns, cable rows and cable curls.
The Pec Deck
I've read criticisms of the Body-Solid pec deck before but I've never had any issues with it myself. It feels like most other pec decks I've used and is fairly smooth. I could personally live without a pec deck as I much prefer dumbbell flyes but I used it every few weeks or so for variation and it worked fine.
I tend to work out to a routine based heavily around what I consider to be the five primary exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, bent over rows and shoulder presses. I'd use the Smith machine for these exercises one week in three and free weights for the rest of the time, so I used the gun rack and free weight spotting bars quite a lot.
I had the same problem getting the spotting bars to the correct height as I've previously mentioned with the Smith machine and used the same solution, which was placing a one inch thick board under the bench.
Other than that I've had no problems using the Body-Solid Series 7 for free weights. Sure, a power cage would be better for free weight exercises but the Series 7 is a fine alternative if you can't have a power cage for some reason. The spotting arms are plenty big enough and they've saved me a few times. But be sure to take your time and set these up correctly for whatever lift you're doing. You really don't want any accidents if you're moving heavy free weights.
It's a fairly standard FID (flat, incline, decline) bench with a slot for attachments on the front and an adjustable seat. My series 7 came with a leg attachment, for leg curls and leg extensions, and a preacher curl attachment, both of which work fine.
Of course you can also use the bench for dumbbell work and I have no complaints about the bench.
The Body-Solid Series 7 Smith Master System served me well for five years or so. It put up with heavy punishment admirably and the only reason I got rid of it was because I was moving to a place without a garage to keep it in, and it was just too big for the bedroom that was to become my new workout space.
It's worth pointing out that I went for the full monty with the Series 7 Master System. It's also possible just to buy the Smith machine (without pec deck, pulley system and such), which would be much cheaper.