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Updated On: February 19, 2024
A creation from the godfather of fitness, Jack LaLanne, the Smith machine gets a lot of hate. But, we believe there is a place for this piece of gym equipment in every lifter's program, and when used correctly, it can go a long way to helping you build muscle.
Comprised of a fixed barbell that runs along vertical steel rails, the Smith machine has incremental levels where you can set up safety hooks. This leads us to two key benefits of using the Smith machine (we'll talk about these in detail later on), which are that you can lift heavy and you don't need a spotter.
Read on to find out how you can use the Smith machine to build muscle. We will provide you with the 11 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.
Table of Contents:
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.
The 11 best Smith exercises are:
You should definitely be doing free weight bench presses, but you can mix in some Smith bench presses or perform bench press throws.
Although you will get more muscle activation by doing a bench press with free weights, doing a bench press with the Smith machine can allow you to focus more on the pecs, taking some stress off of the stabilizing muscles like the deltoids.
And for more great variations, check out our article on the Smith Machine Bench Press.
How to do Smith machine bench press throws:
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.
In fact, the hack squat is so effective that we've included it in our Ultimate Smith Machine Leg Workouts! When doing these hack squats, the quadriceps are engaged more because the foot placement.
How to do the Smith machine hack squat:
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 you're 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.
How to do Smith machine front squats:
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.
How to do a Smith machine hip thrust:
Note: Try not to hyperextend your back at the top of the movement and keep your chin tucked (not looking at the ceiling).
For more great glute moves, check out our article: 8 Undeniably Effective Exercises For Your Gluteus Maximus.
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 shown in the picture. Another variation includes the one arm Smith shrug where you stand to the side of the bar then perform shrugs one arm at a time.
How to do Smith machine shrugs:
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.
Tip: To make this move even more challenging, turn it into a Smith machine reverse lunge.
How to do the Smith machine split lunge:
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!
How to do Smith machine bent over rows:
Note: Try not to rock, keep your body in a fixed position throughout the movement.
For more great takes on the bent over row, check out the 7 Best Bent Over Row Variations.
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.
How to do Smith machine single leg deadlifts:
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, and that’s where a Smith machine calf raise can help. If your gym doesn’t have a calf raise station, you can effectively do standing and seated calf raises so you can get your calf training in at one place.
How to do the smith machine calf raise:
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, making this an excellent exercise to perform on the Smith machine.
How to do the inverted row:
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, meaning you can push heavier weight to stimulate muscle growth.
How to do the seated Smith overhead press:
Note: Try to avoid leaning your head back and push through your elbows.
If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, you should include at least 1-2 Smith machine exercises in your routine. Now, if you ask this question to multiple trainers in the fitness industry, you’ll probably get a mixture of responses. The truth about performing Smith machine exercises is much like many pieces of equipment you’ll find in a gym; they serve a purpose for certain people and circumstances.
Intermediate and advanced lifters will know how to get the most out of the Switch machine. 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.
Even though it’s often dismissed by many people in the fitness industry, there are multiple benefits of using the Smith machine. 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.
Below are a few reasons why the Smith machine might not be a good choice for some people or for some situations.
machine1. 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.
You can learn even more about the Smith machine's pros and cons in our article that compares the Smith machine vs free weights.
Let's answer some frequently asked Smith machine questions.
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.
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.
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 a good Smith machine exercise if you want to specifically target the hamstrings, because it removes the need for stabilizing muscles to help support the lift.
For more information, check out our article detailing How to Deadlift Using A Smith Machine.
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 a Smith machine squat 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.
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. Check out the Best Smith Machines available today if you want to learn what options there are.
No, the Smith machine is like any other piece of workout equipment in the gym and using it correctly is not bad. 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. Read more about this in our article: Are Smith Machines Bad?
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 a 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.
For more information on the Smich machine bar, check out our article: How Much Does A Smith Machine Bar Weigh?
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.
The Smith machine can be a valuable asset to your training program when used correctly. And as we just gave you 11 of the best exercises to perform on the Smith machine, you now know how to use it to optimize your workout program and build serious muscle.
For even more Smith machine exercises, check out this Ultimate Smith Machine Leg Workout.
Interested in adding a Smith machine to your home gym? Here are the 6 Best Smith Machines.
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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