Worth the Weight? Cybex Recalls Weight-Lifting Equipment For Major Injury Risks

Michael GrossmanSeptember 07, 2018 4 minutes

Most gyms may never have dangerously broken machines, and more power to them for keeping their members safe. It only takes one incident, though: For a lone weightlifter with God as his only spotter, it can be a harrowing experience if the machine malfunctions. That's the situation for 15,000 Smith machine-style weight racks that are now subject to a nationwide recall.

Who Makes This Product?

The affected machines are manufactured and distributed by Cybex International Incorporated, operating out of Owatonna, Minnesota.

The company has been around since the 1960's, mostly selling rehabilitation equipment until the mid-90's when it sold off its medical assets and switched focus to exercise machines. After a series of sales, mergers, and acquisitions, the company is now part of an international family of exercise equipment manufacturers under the Life Fitness portfolio. Other companies in this group include Life Fitness, Indoor Cycling Group, Hammer Strength, SciFIT, and InMovement.

Which Products Are Affected?

Conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the recall affects two models of Cybex "Smith" machines: The Cybex Smith Press model 5340, manufactured and distributed from 1989 through 1993, and model 5341, manufactured and distributed from 1993 through 2009.

If you are concerned you may have a defective unit, you can check the model number on the base of the machine.

A Smith machine is a barbell situated on parallel vertical tracks that allows only vertical or near-vertical movement by a user. Its primary use is for "squat" style lifting, though it can be used for other exercises. It is designed in such a way that a user can latch the bar in place at any point during the lift instead of raising it back to a set holder, like a bench press. Supposedly this negates the need for a spotter, as the lift can be stopped at any point with a twist of the user's wrists.

Smith machines have both advocates and detractors. The machine is largely bought and used by gyms on the behalf of more casual lifters who may not be interested in learning how to plan and maximize their workouts. Most experienced trainers and lifters frown on the machine for teaching bad form to novices and suggest monitored free weight training instead.

What's Wrong With The Product?

The official recall language on Cybex's website says the following:

If the weight bar on the Cybex Smith Press Models 5340 and 5341 is not fully engaged, the bar may fall and cause serious injury to users.

If I'm reading that warning correctly, it suggests that the main draw of a Smith machine--its ability to abort a lift at any point by hitching the bar to the track--may not function as intended. While the recall's language involves the bar not being "fully engaged," that sounds a little hinky.

Cybex says the defect may occur if weight lifters don't appropriately lock the bar into place on the Smith track. It seems like an attempt to blame the user for the heavy falling barbell, but if the error is all on the lifter, why issue a recall for the product itself? I'd suggest taking a good long look at the hooks on the bar and the pins inside the Smith machine that the hooks grab onto. If either or both aren't sturdy or have manufacturing flaws and don't combine correctly, they may not hold the bar where the user tries to put it.

If that weight isn't held in place, gravity may well send it crashing downward onto its former lifter. The recall says 27 related injuries have been reported, including "serious injuries of paralysis and spinal fracture." That sounds suspiciously like what would happen if a heavy bar slipped down onto an unsuspecting gym patron who believed it was properly anchored to the machine.

How Widespread is the Problem?

The recall affects roughly 15,000 units, though the material doesn't say if the issue is limited to the U.S. (Cybex markets its products in over 87 countries). The machines aren't really designed for home use and are mostly purchased by gyms and fitness facilities.

The machines sold for between $1,000 and $3,400. They were available through exercise equipment distributors, Cybex direct sales centers, and online at www.cybexintl.com from 1989 through 2009.

With twenty years of distribution and almost ten more of circulation and private sales/trading, it's going to be hard to track down all estimated 15,000 units that need either to be repaired or replaced.

What Should Owners of the Product Do?

Owners of Cybex units confirmed to be part of the recall are strongly encouraged to stop using the machines until they can be taken care of. The model 5340 Smith machine will apparently be credited or refunded for its current value by Cybex, while the company offers to repair 5341 model machines once contacted.

Cybex says it is reaching out to all known purchasers of the machines, but gym operators may do well to take initiative and call them first instead of waiting to be contacted. The company is available help via its toll-free hotline at 877-423-3253 from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central Time M-F. Concerned parties may also visit the company's support website.

How Can Such a Simple Machine Be Defective?

Cybex may have some explaining to do to about how twenty years' worth of potentially-questionable gym equipment made it off their lines and into gyms, where it sat for another nine years, before anyone said anything about how the bar could fall and paralyze someone. Unlike many other pieces I write about recalls, Cybex makes and distributes their equipment domestically in the U.S., eliminating arguments about cheap or questionable parts and labor from overseas.

I have suggested a rule for manufacturing before, and because it's always relevant I'll repeat it: The more complicated a machine is, the more quality control should take place before its release.

I bring that rule up here not because weightlifting equipment is complicated--quite the opposite--but because it suggests a similar idea: The simpler a machine is, the fewer excuses there are for dangerous defects. Smith machines are slightly more complex than free weights, but at their heart they're just a fancier way to pick heavy things up and put them down again.

Functionally speaking, there are few moving parts on a Smith machine. The bar has to slide smoothly up and down the track, and the hooks have to grab the rack pegs firmly so the lifter can let go safely. Making sure these simple elements do what they're supposed to doesn't seem that onerous. At least 27 unlucky weightlifters have already found out what can happen if the parts don't fit together right, and now that it's acknowledging the equipment may be faulty, it may owe those injured people and any more that come along compensation for their injuries.