August 19, 2021
The Smith machine gets a lot of hate in the fitness industry, but is it warranted? There must be a reason why you'll see professional bodybuilders using them, right?
Read on to find out how you can use the Smith machine to build muscle. We will provide you with 11 of the best Smith machine exercises that you can incorporate into your workout routine plus the pros and cons so that you have a more complete picture of one of the most misunderstood pieces of equipment in the gym.
The Smith machine is another creation from the godfather of fitness, Jack LaLanne. It is comprised of a fixed barbell that runs along vertical steel rails with incremental levels where the user can set up safety hooks so that the barbell will stop at a certain level if desired. The hooks act as a self-spotter as the user can turn their wrists to lock the barbell in at a certain height instead of re-racking a barbell.
Now you may be asking, “how did the Smith machine get its name if it was created by Jack LaLanne?”. After LaLanne created the first Smith machine in the 1950’s, his friend Rudy Smith, who was a bath house manager saw this idea and then asked someone named Paul Martin to improve it. Smith then brought this new machine to a gym he was managing in Los Angeles called Vic Tanny’s. Smith ending up becoming an executive in Tanny’s gym chain by the late 1950’s and the newly dubbed Smith machine became more popular in gyms across the US.
If you ask this question to multiple trainers in the fitness industry you’ll probably get a mixture of responses. The truth about using a Smith machine is much like many pieces of equipment you’ll find in a gym; they serve a purpose for certain people and circumstances. In general, Smith machines should actually be used by intermediate and advanced lifters that know how to get the most out of it. The Smith machine shouldn’t be used as a learning apparatus for beginners. Those new to working out should learn the fundamentals using free weights before trying to maximize the benefits from the Smith machine.
Believe if or not there are multiple benefits of using the Smith machine even though it’s often dismissed by many people in the fitness industry. There is a reason why you’ve seen professional bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Cutler incorporating the Smith machine into their workouts. Here are a few benefits of the Smith machine.
No Spotter Needed: One of the main reasons LaLanne came up with the Smith machine was so he could do heavy squats and bench presses without the need for a spotter. The Smith machine solves this problem by enabling the user to lock out the weight by turning the wrists. You might be able to challenge yourself a little more when using a Smith machine compared to using free weights if working out alone.
More Controlled Movements: The Smith machine only allows the barbell to move up and down in a vertical motion therefore it provides greater control. For example, while doing front squats some people might have the tendency to lean forward. This tarnishes the proper alignment of the movement and makes the lifter focus on balance and lifting rather than on just lifting the weight.
Variety: Even though the Smith machine catches a lot of hate you can think of it as another piece of equipment to mix in with your workouts to keep things fresh. Some exercises that we’ll detail below can be improved through use of the Smith machine; so that’s a double benefit of adding some variety and effectiveness. The Smith machine can also apply stress on the muscles in new ways which can help seasoned lifters break through plateaus.
Reduce Risk of Injury: One of the limitations of the Smith machine is also a strength. The fixed plane of motion means that exercises can be performed with consistent form which can reduce the risk of injury to the joints. When lifting with free weights your stabilizing muscles are activated to keep the weight balanced whereas the Smith machine enables you to do exercises with proper form and alignment without the need to stabilize the weight.
Work Muscles Longer: The Smith machine can be good for hypertrophy training as you can really push the weights and reps until your muscles are absolutely blasted from fatigue. The constant tension plus the heightened isolation of the muscles can lead to some serious gains, especially if your goal is hypertrophy.
The are some valid reasons why the Smith machine is hated on so much. Below are a few reasons why the Smith machine might not be a good choice for some people or for some situations.
Fixed Plane of Motion: The fixed plane movement of the Smith machine can be uncomfortable for some people as there are subtle differences in many people’s bodies. Whereas free weights allow for more range of motion where a lifter can move through a plane of motion that suits their particular body mechanics.
Potential Safety Concerns: With regards to safety the Smith machine also has a disadvantage because of how it’s constructed. If you’re doing a lift like bench press without a spotter and you go for a final rep that you’re unable to complete, then you can't turn your wrists to lock out the bar then you could potentially get trapped under the bar without a means of escaping.
Less Muscle Activation: One common complaint you’ll hear about the Smith machine is that the muscles aren’t engaged as much compared with free weights. With modern day science it has been proven that this idea isn’t hearsay. This study tested muscle activation with EMG sensors on participants who performed 8 reps of squats with free weights and the Smith machine. The results showed much more muscle activation in the gastrocnemius, biceps femoris and vastus medialis during the free weight squats. There was a 43% higher overall muscle activation when doing free weight squats compared with the Smith machine.
This study compared muscle activation during bench press using the Smith machine and free weights. Participants performed bench press at two intensities; 70% of 1RM and 90% 1RM. The results of the EMG showed that there was more muscle activation in the front and medial deltoid during the free weight bench press. This is because the deltoid muscles are needed to help stabilize the weight when doing bench press with free weights.
No, the Smith machine is like any other piece of workout equipment in the gym. If used improperly then it can lead to injury or other negative outcomes but if used correctly it can be another weapon in your workout arsenal.
Yes, the Smith machine can be good for a variety of exercises if you know how and when to use it properly. However, the Smith machine shouldn’t be used as crutch to avoid the major compound lifts with free weights. Think of the Smith machine as a tool to enhance your current workout routine not as the foundation to your lifting sessions.
From our own experience and from elite professionals we put together a list of 11 of the best Smith machine exercises that you should consider adding to your repertoire. There are more beneficial exercises that can be done with the Smith machine but we wanted to give you an idea of how it can be effective.
You should definitely be doing free weight bench presses but you can mix in some Smith bench presses as well if you don’t have a spotter or want to switch it up a bit, like doing an exercise called bench press throws described below. Although you will get more muscle activation by doing bench press with free weights, doing bench press with the Smith machine can allow you to focus more on the pecs doing the work taking some stress off of the stabilizing muscles like the deltoids.
Note: Don't take your eye off the bar and make sure your hands are in a position to safely catch the bar on the way down.
As previously mentioned, traditional squats on the Smith machine don’t activate muscles as much but doing variations of squats like front squats or these hack squats with the Smith machine make it possible to really focus on specific muscles of the legs. When doing these hack squats, the quadriceps are engaged more because the foot placement.
Note: Make sure to concentrate on contracting your quadriceps in this exercise and let your toes/knees point slightly out if more comfortable.
Front squats with the Smith machine can be beneficial especially as you progress through your workout session so that even if fatigued you can focus on working your larger leg muscles instead of the smaller stabilizer muscles and the core. You can also take some stress off your wrists when doing front squats on the Smith machine because the bar is stabilized.
Note: Keep core engaged throughout the movement.
One of the better exercises to do with the Smith machine, the hip thrust can really blast the glutes. Hip thrusts isolate the glutes well so if you want to build your backside then you should be adding this exercise to your workout routine.
Note: Try not to hyperextend your back at the top of the movement and keep your chin tucked (not looking at the ceiling).
To build big traps shrugs are a must-do exercise. Doing shrugs on a Smith machine allow you to load up heavier weight than you’d be able to lift with dumbbells. You can also do various Smith shrugs apart from the one depicted below. Other variations include the one arm Smith shrug where you stand to the side of the bar then perform shrugs one arm at a time.
Note: Don’t roll your shoulders, you can also try using a mixed grip with one hand overhand the other underhand grip. You can do reverse Smith shrugs by facing away from the bar.
The Smith machine is great for split squats because it provides more stability throughout the movement. With the added stability you can focus on the actual exercise and lengthen your stance to create more hip flexion and stretch in the gluteus maximus.
Note: Keep a neutral spine throughout the movement. Start with a lighter weight to focus on form.
Bent over rows are a great exercise to build a strong back. Using the Smith machine, you should be able to go heavier because you aren’t using your stabilizing muscles like you would be when doing rows with free weights. Let your traps, lats and rhomboids do all the heavy lifting!
Note: Try not to rock, keep your body in a fixed position throughout the movement.
Related: 7 Best Bent Over Row Variations
The stiff leg deadlift is a fantastic exercise to work the hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae but it can be even better when performing it unilaterally as a single leg deadlift. By executing this movement with the Smith machine, the larger muscles can focus harder on lifting the weight as the smaller stabilizing muscles are mostly taken out of the equation here.
Note: Keep your core engaged throughout the movement with a neutral spine.
Some people have skinny calves and are always looking for ways to build bigger, strong calves, that’s where the Smith machine can help. If your gym doesn’t have a calf raise station, using the Smith machine, you can effectively do standing and seated calf raises so you can get your calf training in at one place.
Note: You can point your toes inwards/outwards to hit various heads of the calf muscle.
Even though the inverted row is a bodyweight exercise the Smith machine is the optimal piece of equipment for them. You can adjust the height of the bar easily so it doesn’t matter how long or short your arms are.
Note: Keep your body in a straight line the entire time.
The overhead press is one of the core compound lifts that can add some serious size and strength to the front delts. When performing this exercise on the Smith machine you don't need to use your stabilizer muscles to keep the bar under control therefor you can push heavier weight to stimulate muscle growth.
Note: Try to avoid leaning your head back and push through your elbows.
Can You Build Muscle With A Smith Machine?
Yes, you can perform a number of exercises with the Smith machine that can build muscle. The constant tension placed on your muscles through a range of motion allowing progressive overload to take place, leading to strength and/or muscle gains.
How Much Does The Smith Machine Bar Weigh?
The bar on a Smith machine usually ranges from 15-25 pounds depending on the brand. The bar might look like a normal Olympic barbell but it is usually lighter than the standard 45-pound bar. The fact that the bar is affixed to tracks also helps to make the bar seem even lighter as the stabilizing muscles aren’t needed much to perform various lifts.
Can I Deadlift On A Smith Machine?
The Smith machine isn’t the best tool to perform deadlifts on. When the bar is at the lowest point you still won’t be starting the movement from the ground. Therefore, you would need a platform to stand on to simulate a more natural deadlift starting position. We included the single leg deadlift as good Smith machine exercise if you want to specifically target the hamstrings by removing the need for stabilizing muscles to help support the lift.
Are Smith Machine Squats Bad?
Smith machine squats aren’t inherently bad. We do recommend that you focus on free weight squats but some people might have hip flexibility issues or muscle/tendon tightness which might make free weight squats uncomfortable. A great feature of Smith machines for squats is that you can change foot position to target various areas of the legs, as you saw in the hack squat above. Overall Smith machine squats are definitely better than no squats at all.
How Much Do Smith Machines Cost?
Depending on the make and model you can expect to pay anywhere in the neighborhood of $1,500-$3,000 for a well-built Smith machine.
The Smith machine has its merits so the next time someone tells you that they are worthless use of space in a gym you can ask them why. Most likely they’ll say; “the fixed movement of the bar is unnatural and stabilizer muscles aren’t engaged properly when using the Smith machine”. These are two points are valid but you can actually turn these disadvantages into positives with the right exercises and with the right purpose. We gave you 11 of the best exercises to perform on the Smith machine but there are plenty more, you just need to get creative on how you can turn its negatives into positives.
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