The Smith machine is one of the most polarizing pieces of strength training equipment in the gym. People who have an appreciation for how to use a Smith machine and how to do Smith machine workouts love the ability to perform Smith machine exercises without a spotter while still being safe.
Novice lifters who do not know how to use a Smith machine often feel intimidated by this piece of equipment and seek alternative ways to strength train.
However, once you learn how to use a Smith machine and how to perform Smith machine exercises, you can get a great Smith machine workout on your own without needing to rely on other buddies at the gym, even if you want to max out your lifts.
So, what are the best Smith machine exercises? What are the best Smith machine workouts for increasing strength and size? How do you perform Smith machine squats?
In this article, we will discuss how to use a Smith machine, the benefits of using a Smith machine in your strength training program, and give you step-by-step instructions for the following Smith machine exercises to target all of the major muscles in your body:
- Smith Machine Back Squats
- Smith Machine Split Squats
- Smith Machine Romanian Deadlifts
- Smith Machine Calf Raises
- Smith Machine Seated Shoulder Presses
- Smith Machine Shrugs
- Smith Machine Bent-Over Rows
- Smith Machine Inverted Rows
Let’s jump in!
What Is a Smith Machine?
A Smith machine is a piece of strength training equipment that looks somewhat like a squat rack or a power cage, but it has a built-in barbell.
Benefits of the Smith Machine
The Smith machine barbell follows a guided path along a track in the machine, which means that it is safer to attempt heavy lifts on your own without the need for a spotter.
If you are struggling to complete a rep, all you have to do is rotate the bar back into the guides.
There are also other safety features, such as safety bar handles for weight lifters who want to attempt maximal lifts on their own.
The other benefit of Smith machine workouts is that because the barbell is moving in a fixed plane, you can generally use more weight for exercises like Smith machine squats or Smith machine presses than when you are lifting in an open power cage.
The machine helps stabilize the barbell so that you do not have to worry about balancing or activating as many stabilizer muscles as you perform a movement, which generally means that you can lift heavier weights while still maintaining control of the barbell.
This can help you maximize your strength gains because you are able to put your muscles under heavier loads.
Additionally, Smith machine exercises are particularly great for beginners. Each rep is much more consistent, and you do not have to worry as much about the nuances of your technique since the barbell is guided along the machine.
However, although Smith machines offer the benefit of being able to train safely on your own and lift more weight, there are downsides.
Because the barbell follows along a fixed plane of motion, Smith machine exercises are typically considered to be less “functional” than exercises performed in a standard power cage or squat rack, wherein you have to control the path of the barbell on your own.
How to Use a Smith Machine
A Smith machine can be used for most of the same exercises that you can perform with a squat rack or a power cage. The primary difference is that the barbell is affixed to the Smith machine and follows along a designated path.
To use a Smith machine, step into the cage. Rotate the barbell towards your body to unhook it.
After you perform your lift, you will rotate the bar back away from you to re-hook it to the machine.
There are holes along the length of the uprights so that you can position the barbell at the appropriate height for the exercise you are doing.
There are also often spotter hooks, which you can place along the uprights at an appropriate height to help catch the barbell should you not be able to complete a lift or easily rotate the barbell into the next available hole voluntarily.
The Ultimate Smith Machine Workout for Big Gains
Here are some of the best exercises for the ultimate Smith machine workout:
#1: Smith Machine Back Squats
The Smith machine squat is one of the most popular Smith machine exercises because the design of the machine allows you to squat heavy loads without the need for a spotter.
However, it is important to note that some strength training coaches advise against doing Smith machine squats.
The reasons most typically cited are the fact that because the Smith machine dictates a fixed path of motion, there is an increased risk of overuse injuries since there is essentially zero variability in the Smith machine squat from rep to rep.
Ultimately, while this is a valid precaution, as long as you are not doing exclusively Smith machine squats, and you are performing squats on a traditional squat rack or with dumbbells, and not doing an extreme number of sets and reps of Smith machine squats, these risks are likely minimal.
Furthermore, studies have found that Smith machine squats can be highly effective at increasing strength and result in a higher one-rep max than when performing squats with free weights.
There is even evidence to suggest that Smith machine squats actually activate more muscles than free-weight squats.
With that said, Smith machine squats have been shown to reduce the workload on the calf muscles, biceps femoris (the back part of the thigh), and vastus medialis (the inner part of the quadriceps) relative to squats with free weights.
In general, you should consider trying to incorporate squats with different types of resistance training equipment into your strength training program to maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides of each.
To perform the Smith machine back squat, follow a standard back squat procedure except that instead of having your feet directly under the bar, place your feet slightly in front of the barbell.
#2: Smith Machine Split Squats
One of the best Smith machine exercises is the split squat.
The Smith machine gives you more stability so that you can load up your split squat with heavier weights without risking losing your balance.
Here is how to do this Smith machine exercise:
- Stagger your feet with one foot about 3-4 feet in front of the other. Your front foot should be far enough in front of your body that when you drop down into a lunge, your front knee does not extend forward beyond your toes.
- Place the bar on the upper portion of your traps, and rotate it to unlock.
- Keeping your shoulders back and core tight, bend your front knee to drop down into a split squat until the thigh of your front leg is parallel to the ground, and your knee is bent 90° degrees.
- Then, press through your heel on the foot in front to return to the standing position.
#3: Smith Machine Romanian Deadlifts
This is a must-have exercise in your Smith machine workouts as it targets all of the muscles of the posterior chain.
One tip is to only lower the bar to about mid-shin level before returning to the standing position because this keeps constant tension in your glutes and hamstrings to maximize the workload.
Here are the steps for performing this exercise in your Smith machine workouts:
- Set the bar so that it is at mid-shin height, with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your back straight, hinge at your hips and grip the bar with your palms facing down.
- Unlatch the bar as you brace your core. Keeping your chest up and shoulders down, press through your heels, using your glutes and hamstrings to pull your body upright into a standing position.
- Keeping your core tight and back straight, hinge at the hips to lower the bar back down to mid-shin level.
#4: Smith Machine Calf Raises
Many people who take on a self-guided Smith Machine workout fail to include this Smith machine exercise, though it is great for building size and strength in your calf muscles.
Here are the steps for the Smith machine exercise:
- Place a sturdy box or a platform that you can step on into the weight machine and stand on it with the balls of your feet such that your heels are hanging off the back.
- Place the bar at shoulder height and rest it along your upper back, gripping it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Unlock the bar and press up so that you are standing on your tiptoes, pausing at the top, and then slowly lowering down until your heels are dropped down below the level of the box as far as you can stretch.
#5: Smith Machine Seated Shoulder Presses
This is a great Smith machine exercise for your deltoids.
Sitting down helps isolate your shoulders and minimizes any potential assistance that your lower body and core might provide to the movement.
Here are the steps for this Smith machine exercise:
- Place a weight bench in the vertical seated position in the Smith machine with the back about 10 inches behind the bar. The bar should be slightly higher than your shoulders while seated.
- Sit down and grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Unhook the bar and press it straight up overhead until your arms are fully extended.
- Slowly lower the bar back down.
#6: Smith Machine Shrugs
This is a great Smith machine exercise for your traps, and the positioning with Smith machine shrugs with the bar behind your back helps prevent your shoulders from rounding forward.
Here are the steps to perform this Smith machine exercise:
- Set the bar just below hip level and stand with it behind you so that you are facing away.
- Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip so that your palms are facing down.
- Release the bar by twisting it and lifting it upward, and then shrug your shoulders, squeezing your traps and shoulders at the top position for a full breath before slowly lowering back down.
#7: Smith Machine Bent-Over Rows
This is a great exercise for Smith machine workouts because it allows you to build your back muscles since you can use heavier loads than with a regular barbell.
Moreover, since a Smith machine bar is stabilized in one plane, there is less recruitment of stabilizer muscles, which helps isolate your traps, lats, and rhomboids to help develop your back.
Here is how to do a bent-over row on a Smith machine:
- Lower the bar all the way down and grasp it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip with your palms facing the floor. Allow your knees to bend slightly so that they are not locked out.
- Keeping your back perfectly straight and hinging at the hips, pull the weight up towards your stomach and then slowly lower it back down until your arms are extended (shin level).
#8: Smith Machine Inverted Rows
You can take advantage of the stability of the bar locked in a Smith machine to do inverted bodyweight rows, which strengthen your biceps, lats, traps, and core.
Here is how to do this exercise on a Smith machine:
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip, with the bar locked in place around hip height.
- Take several steps forward, leaning your entire body back so that you are a stiff board with your weight on your heels and your toes pointing toward the ceiling.
- Contract your biceps and lats to lift your body up, keeping the barbell locked in place.
- When your chest touches the bar, slowly extend your elbows to lower your body back down.
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