It's awesome being friends with Group Fitness instructors because sometimes they bring in their "toys" and they let you play with them. In this case my instructor friend happened to win a Les Mills Smart Bar and Smart Step set.
Last Saturday I got to complete an entire BodyPump class with it - WHOOP WHOOP!
So how does the SmartTech compare with traditional Don Oliver / Australian Barbell set commonly seen in Group Fitness classes?
1. WEIGHT LOADING TIMES
SmartTech wins this race hands down. You pull back a release and the weights simply slide on and off. Compare to the regular weight set where you have to take off the clip then load your weights then put the clip back on. Unlucky if your gym hasn't upgraded in a million years and you have those clips where you have to use hand strength to be able to pull off the clip.
Having said that, I can imagine the Smart Tech weight set becoming really difficult to load as it becomes subject to wear-and-tear.
2. WEIGHT SELECTION
The Don Oliver set at my friend's studio is a lot more flexible because the increments range from 1kg, 1.25kg, 2.5kg, 5kg and 10kg. You can fit four or five weights at the end of your bar depending the weights you choose. It's also easier to overcome mind games with your body when you can load an extra 1kg at the end of you bar instead of 1.25kg. With SmartTech, you're restricted to 1.25kg, 2.5kg, 5kg and 10kg and you're restricted to a maximum of three weights at the end of each bar. Which probably isn't too bad if you consider that most "hardcore" participants squat around 20kg (10kg x1 on each side). But too bad if your personal best for squats is 35kg and you wanted to try to play mind games with your body - you're stuck with loading 40kg on your bar.
3. AS HAND WEIGHTS
These days, a lot of BodyPump sections require the use of weight plates as hand plates. So if your gym hasn't upgraded their equipment to use "smiley" weight plates, petition your Group Fitness Manager to do something about it! (OMG).
Anyway, SmartTech plates become handweights too, but I think I prefer the Australia Barbell version because of the larger grip. I found that I had to really grip the SmartTech plates harder than I normally would otherwise they would rotate in my hands. Grip it hard enough and you end up having a nice "LesMills" temporary branded on your palm.
My regular plate curl weight is 3.75kg (2.5kg + 1.25kg) on each side (because 5kg is way too heavy for me unless the bicep track is really short). I found it somewhat awkward to grip a 2.5kg and 1.25kg SmartTech plate in one hand. Maybe because the grip was smaller in comparison. I guess it's just something that needs getting used to.
4. FOR CLEAN AND PRESS / POWER PRESSES
Another category that the SmartBar wins. Traditional barbells usually make a lot of rattling noises and sometimes the weights rotate as you flip it over your head - which I find distracting sometimes. But the SmartBar was SMOOTH as.
5. SMARTBAR VS. REGULAR BAR
The SmartBar was short - shorter than most regular class weight bars. This didn't really bother me that much because I'm a short person and my arms don't span that wide when I hold the bar on my back. I suppose it would make a difference if you had longer arms and liked to hold the bar wide when you do squats.
6. SMART STEP VS. REGULAR STEP
We didn't do tricep presses against a step, but I've heard that it's a lot easier to use the SmartStep because of the circular design. It's also a lot easier to move because the risers stay in place when you lift up the step. I don't do step classes, so I can't really make a comparison, but I've heard it takes some getting used to.
7. BELLS AND WHISTLES
Some other nice features with the SmartBar:
(1) There are marked sections on the bar which help guide users on where their hands should be gripping the bar. I found this really helpful for the bicep track because sometimes my grip is either too close or a tad too far apart.
(2) Since SmartTech weights are square, they won't roll away from you. Probably something only instructors would benefit from.
CONCLUSION: SmartTech equipment had some really nice features. But the real downside is PRICE. SmartTech equipment is INSANELY expensive and there's no clear advantage to using it over traditional barbell sets.