October 21, 2021
Smith machines all too often get a bad rap, with no exceptions for bench press. It's time to turn that paradigm around. If appropriately used, Smith machine bench presses can help you break through training plateaus, strengthen the pecs and lift heavy loads without a spotter. We put this post together, so you have a good idea of the benefits, muscles worked, and how to do a Smith machine bench press. Next time you're in the gym, try one of the top 6 Smith bench press variations. We're confident you won't be disappointed with the results.
Even though the barbell bench press and Smith Machine bench press are both bench presses, you need to notice subtle differences in execution and setup.
With Smith Machine bench presses, you must be more aware of the original setup before beginning the exercise. With the traditional bench press or Olympic bench press, the rack, barbell, and bench are in a fixed position. You’ll need to set up the bench for Smith Machine presses.
Regardless of the Smith Machine bench variation you're doing; it's imperative to make sure your setup is correct before attempting to lift the bar with weights added on.
Angled vs Straight Track
Smith machines generally have two distinct styles of track that the bar will move along; straight or angled.
Some commercial gyms have completely straight, vertical tracks that don't affect how you line up for a bench press. You’ll setup the bench to match your preference on how comfortable you are un-racking the bar by pushing the bar up then flexing your wrists either forwards or backward.
Angled Smith Machines can have a pitch of 5-12 degrees, and this makes it necessary to determine which way to face the bench during the setup phase before doing the Smith Machine bench press.
Don't let the mirrors in the gym fool you; many people will set up the bench in the Smith Machine so that they're facing the mirror. Instead, you need to consider the movement of the bar and whether or not it is imitating the same natural path of doing the exercise with a barbell.
For example, when doing a regular bench press, the bar will start almost above your shoulders/ upper chest, then when lowering the bar, you bring it down towards your mid-chest/nipple line. Then you press the bar back up towards your head. If you set up the bench in the wrong way on an angled Smith Machine, you will be pressing the bar up away from your face; this could lead to injury and is less effective as you'd be pushing up unnaturally.
Always start with an empty bar before doing Smith Machine presses so that you can test the path of the bar concerning your body. The goal is to mimic the same movement pattern of whatever Smith Machine exercises you're doing to the free weight version of the same exercise. In essence, bench pressing exercises should move towards your head, not away from it.
Step One: The Setup
Check to see if the Smith Machine has a completely vertical path or an angled track to know if there's any difference from the starting position to the bottom of the press.
Wheel a bench over and place it in the middle of the Smith Machine; you can use the knurled grip of the bar to help line up where the center is.
Once the bench is set in the exact middle of the Smith Machine, lower the bar so that you'll be able to reach it while lying down on your back with your arms fully extended up towards the ceiling. You want to set it on the hooks at a level around where your wrists will be so that you have some leeway to push the bar up when un-racking it.
After the bar is at the proper height and your bench is in the middle, you should set up the safety pins on both sides, especially if you're not lifting with a spotter. You should set the safety pins at a height that allows you to lower the bar in a full range of motion, where your elbows go just past 90 degrees. If you have a spotter, the safety pins might not be necessary but rather an added precaution.
The last part of the initial setup is to make sure you have the correct body positioning so that the bar will line up with the correct path. To do this, you should lie down on the bench and try to line the bar up with your nipple line or just above it. Remember that if using a Smith machine with an angled track, the bar will be lined up with your mid to upper chest before un-racking.
Test your setup by un-racking the bar, pushing up, and flexing your wrists forward to unlock the bar. Slowly lower the bar to your chest to see where it ends up. Keep in mind that everyone is different and has slightly different body mechanics and what might be comfortable for you might not be comfortable for someone else. The key to the bar placement and setup is to make sure the bar isn't landing too high on your chest, where your shoulders will be put in a compromised position. You also don't want the bar to drop too low on the chest unless you're trying to work decline (more on that later in the post).
Perform 5-10 reps with just the bar to ensure you're set up correctly before starting your working sets. After that, you might need to make adjustments by either sliding your body up or down on the bench a little or by moving the bench itself a little more forward or back.
Step Two: The Un-Racking
Un-racking is the first portion of the Smith press. Lie down on your back, then reach up and grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip just wider than shoulder-width apart. Plant your feet on the ground and keep your chest up.
To un-rack or unlock the bar, you need to press upon the bar then flex your wrists forward or backward depending on your body positioning. For example, if you're using an angled Smith Machine, you'll press up then flex your wrists forward to unlock the bar.
Step Three: The Descent
The descent or lowering of the bar is the second action. Inhale as you slowly lower the bar towards your mid-chest with your elbows slightly tucked at 40-75 degrees to your side. You don't want your elbows to flare out to the sides or be tucked too far in towards your body. Your elbows should be in line with your wrists and the bar as it is lowered towards your chest.
Lower the bar to your chest or a few inches above your chest; this is subjective to your individual circumstances. If you lack mobility or if you have shoulder or elbow issues, you might not go as low as some people. Just try to get to a point where your elbows are bent at 90 degrees or slightly more before pressing back up.
Step Four: The Ascent
Exhale while pressing the bar upwards by contracting your pecs until your arms are fully extended. You can choose to lockout at the elbows or stop just before full lockout to increase time under tension. If you lockout, then you'll be moving through the entire range of motion while also getting a brief rest at the top of the movement.
Step Five: Re-Racking
Once you've completed your desired reps, you will need to flex your wrists in the opposite way from how you un-racked the bar. Make sure the bar is securely fastened to the hooks before taking your hands off the bar.
Poor Bench Set Up: Using the Smith Machine has some advantages when it comes to ease of use, but it also means you need to be more aware of the initial starting position. If you set the bench too far forward or backward, you will risk the chance of rendering the exercise less effective or, even worse, hurting yourself. This is why it's important that you do some practice reps with just the bar before you begin doing your working sets with weight on the bar.
Facing Wrong Way: Getting ready to do the Smith Machine bench press means that you need to recognize the type of machine you are using and whether it's vertical or angled. If it's vertical, then you have more freedom as to what way your body faces. It will come down to your preference on how you like to un-rack the bar by flexing your wrists forward or backward.
If you're using an angled machine, you should always set up the bench so that when you press up, the bar is going back up towards your head, not towards your feet.
Arms & Head Position: If you're using a Smith Machine with a vertical track, then you should be directly under the bar so that once the bar is un-racked, it is directly above your mid-chest. If you're using an angled Smith Machine, then you will start with the bar above your upper chest. Then as your lower the bar, it will end up at your mid-chest or nipple line.
Regardless of the Smith Machine used, your head and neck should remain in a neutral position.
Grip Position: To do a traditional bench press on a Smith Machine, you should be using an overhand (pronated) grip with both hands placed on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The reason for this placement is to produce the most power as your elbows are stacked directly underneath your wrists. This alignment enables a more efficient transfer of strength.
Shoulders & Upper Back: Maintain contact between your shoulders and the bench throughout the movement. Keep your shoulder blades contracted so that your upper back and shoulders remain stable throughout the pressing motion.
Elbow Position: The position of your elbows is vital to an effective, pain-free bench press. If you tuck your elbows in too much towards your torso, you might experience some elbow soreness. However, if you flare your elbows out too much, you can risk injuring your shoulders.
As you un-rack the bar, you should bring your elbows in towards your body at about a 45-degree angle. By making this adjustment, your elbows will be under the bar as you perform the Smith Machine bench press. This elbow position will allow you to push more weight in a more effective and safe way.
Forearms & Wrists: Straight alignment is an important aspect of forearm and wrist positioning during a bench press. By keeping your wrist and forearms in line with your elbows and the bar, you will be able to press more weight.
Back, Butt, Chest & Feet: Our backs have a natural arch as the spine is a slightly curved shape. You can keep a slight arch in your back when doing bench press but try to avoid a super pronounced arch in the upper back, as you might see some powerlifters do to break PRs.
Keep your chest up and your butt in contact with the bench for the entire movement.
Lastly, drive your feet into the ground to assist in providing you with a strong foundation.
The muscles worked in Smith Machine bench presses are the same as regular barbell bench presses, with one exception. When doing bench press with a Smith Machine, your stabilizer muscles don't have to work as hard to keep the bar moving in the correct path. However, regardless of the bench press or variation of it you're doing, you'll likely be using similar muscles to press the weight.
Pectoralis Major: This is the prominent muscle that makes up the majority of your chest. Commonly referred to as the "pecs," this muscle is primarily responsible for flexion, internal rotation, and flexion of the humerus. Put simply; this is the primary mover when it comes to most pressing movements, including the Smith Machine bench press.
Anterior Deltoids: Also called the front delts, the anterior deltoid sits at the front of your shoulder. This deltoid assists the pecs in pushing the weight away from your chest.
Related: 19 Best Anterior Deltoid Exercises
Triceps Brachii: The triceps isn't a primary mover in the bench press, but it is engaged in helping you press the weight. In the normal bench press, the triceps also help to stabilize the weight, but when doing Smith Machine presses, the stabilization aspect is significantly reduced.
Related: 9 Best Lateral Head Tricep Exercises
Note: These are the primary muscles used when doing Smith Machine bench presses. It's important to note that if you change up your grip, the muscles will be activated differently. A wider grip will engage your chest more while reducing the tension on the triceps and front delts. A close grip will work the triceps, front delts, and upper chest more as your elbows will be in front of the bar. A reverse grip with your palms facing towards you will emphasize the upper chest, front delts, triceps, and biceps. The angle of the bench also affects the tension placed on these muscles. With an incline Smith Machine bench press, you'll hit the upper chest, front delts, and triceps more. A decline bench press will move the emphasis to the lower part of your chest.
A regular bench press also recruits a number of stabilizer muscles to assist in the movement, but with the Smith Machine, these muscles are engaged to a much lesser degree. These stabilizing muscles include:
Lift More Weight: Performing a bench press on a Smith Machine means that many of the stabilizing muscles aren't needed as much to help press the weight up. This doesn't mean that your pecs receive any less muscle activation. This study showed that the Smith Machine bench press and regular barbell bench press resulted in similar pec activation. A big difference was noted in the reduced muscle activation of the lateral deltoids.
Reduce Risk of Injury: A common myth is that Smith Machines will lead to injuries or muscle imbalances. Just like any other piece of fitness equipment, if used incorrectly, it can lead to negative consequences. The Smith Machine ironically is used to rehabilitate injuries as it provides a smooth, stable movement.
Don't Need a Spotter: The Smith Machine allows you to lift heavy weights without the need for a spotter. The safety pins can be set at a level to protect you from possible injury if you're not able to complete a rep fully. Just make sure you set the safety pins at a height that gives you enough clearance just in case you need to bail from the bench if you're not able to get the bar back up.
Good to Exhaust the Pecs: Although Smith presses might recruit less overall upper body muscles, it can enable you to work your pecs until they're drained. This capability will help you to stay on the path of progressive overload, leading you to the promised land of muscle and strength gains.
Less Overall Muscle Activation: The Smith Machine can enable you to isolate muscles better, but there will be lower total muscle activation. As we mentioned before, when doing Smith presses, your pecs will still get a good workout, but your delts and stabilizer muscles won't work as hard, resulting in less total muscle activation.
Fixed Plane of Motion: Many people will complain about the Smith Machine because the weight moves along a fixed plane of motion that they feel isn't natural. The fixed path might not be ideal for some exercises as some movements usually deviate from a straight path. We wouldn't recommend using the Smith Machine as the foundation of your training, but we do recognize it has its pros as well.
Longer Set-Up Time: Let's assume there's no bench at the Smith Machine; this means you have to find a bench then wheel, drag, or carry it over. Finding a bench then avoiding all the obstacles in the gym before you even set it up can be a pain. This takes more time than setting up an Olympic bench before you start doing your presses.
Can Lead to Injury: Similar to any other equipment, if you don't use the Smith Machine properly, you could end up injuring yourself. For example, if you didn’t set the safety pins and you're trying to bench press for a 1RM on the Smith Machine without a spotter around; then you're unable to get the bar re-racked. The result could be tragic as you wouldn't be able to bail out if the bar came down on you.
Yes, you should do Smith Machine bench presses once in a while if you want to hone in on working your pecs to exhaustion. If you’re aware of the benefits of benching with a Smith machine then you’ll probably add this into your workout once in a while. You should use the Smith machine for bench if you’re rehabbing from an injury or if you want to lift heavy without a spotter to help you.
Both the Smith machine bench press and the barbell bench press have a common goal of improving your pushing strength by targeting the pecs. These exercises have their merits, but we would always say if you had to choose between doing one or the other, then you should opt for the free weight version to recruit more muscle fiber.
The standard bench press will engage more stabilizing muscles and is a more well-rounded exercise. However, the bench press on a Smith Machine is better than the barbell bench press in isolating and activating the pecs, allowing you to press more weight. So, both the Smith Machine bench press and the bench press have their place at the end of the day.
When programming these exercises into your workout regimen, you need to be mindful of your training goals and individual preferences.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Bench Pressing
Here are 6 effective chest press exercises using a Smith machine. Don't let anyone tell you it's not good to do Smith bench presses. If you are looking to isolate your chest and add more volume to your pushing workouts, it's perfectly acceptable to use a Smith machine. If you don't believe us, just look at the many pro bodybuilders who utilize the Smith machine for hypertrophy purposes.
We covered the Smith Machine bench press, how to do it, muscles worked, pros and cons above. Remember to follow the proper body positioning and execution cues to ensure you're getting the most out of this exercise. Don't forget that the initial setup is paramount to completing a safe and effective Smith press.
This bench press variation will follow the same cues as a regular bench press except for two points. The bar should come down on the upper chest, and the bench should be set up at a 30-45 degree incline. The incline Smith machine bench press will work your upper chest and front delts more than the flat bench.
Note: You can change hand placement to wide grip to isolate the upper chest more or close grip if you want to engage your triceps more.
The decline Smith press will employ many of the same mechanics of the standard bench press. The main differences here are how your muscles are worked, the ideal path of the lift, and the bench setup. The decline bench press will hit the lower chest or the sternocostal head. The bench should be set up around -15 to 20 degrees, and when lowering the bar, you'll be aiming for it to touch the bottom of the chest.
Note: Aim for the bar to hit your lower chest, do a few practice reps first to make sure the position of the bench relative to the bar is correct.
This version of the bench press can be done on a flat, incline, or decline bench. You can also change up your grip to a close, standard, or wide grip. With the reverse grip Smith machine press, you'll be taking some of the emphasis off your shoulders and placing it on the upper chest, triceps, and biceps. While the reverse grip bench press is known to target the triceps more than a traditional bench press, surprisingly, it drastically increases the activation of the upper chest. More specifically, this study showed the enhanced muscle activation of the biceps and clavicular region of the pec major.
Note: It usually takes a few warm-up sets to find the most comfortable place where the bar lands on the chest; just make sure it goes low enough.
You may have seen people in the gym do this exercise with dumbbells but not a Smith Machine; we're here to change that. This exercise is best done on a Smith Machine with a vertical track; we wouldn't recommend this one with an angled machine. A Smith hex allows you to get into a position that wouldn't be easy to do with most normal Olympic benches. The hex press is an excellent exercise for those with shoulder problems due to the neutral grip used. The load is also center mass which reduces the pressure on your shoulders because the external rotation is lessened. The hex press will engage your triceps and inner chest more than the traditional bench press because your elbows are tucked to your sides throughout the movement.
Note: Do a few practice reps first before adding weight on the bar to get comfortable with the movement. Be aware that un-racking and re-racking the bar might be a little tricky; you might want to ask someone to help with this.
With the wide grip Smith Machine press, you will be placing your hands at almost two times the width of your shoulders. Your elbows should be close to 90 degrees and under the bar throughout the movement. By doing this bench Smith press variation, you will be putting most of the load on your chest while reducing the amount of work on the triceps and shoulders. This version of the bench press is more difficult to execute, so start lighter than you'd think, then work your way up.
Note: Pay attention to elbow position and make sure you bring the bar down towards the bottom of your chest.
Smith Machine bars in many commercial gyms might weigh anywhere between 15-25 pounds. This means you would take away 20-30 pounds from the amount of weight you're benching because barbells generally weigh 45 pounds. You might feel much stronger when doing Smith Machine bench presses because your stabilizer muscles don't have to work as hard to keep the bar moving in a stable motion.
Note: Keep in mind that there isn't a standardized weight for a Smith machine bar; brands will use different weights.
Whether you're rehabbing an injury, training chest without a spotter, or trying to exhaust the pecs for muscle and strength gains, opt for some Smith machine bench presses. As more people get educated about the benefits the Smith machine offers when benching, we hope that they will give it a try. So next time you're at the gym and need to get some bench presses in, step up to misunderstood Smith machine and get to pressing!
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