October 07, 2021
For those who regularly lift, a Smith machine squat is an intense subject of controversy. Compared to free-weight squats, smith squats are entirely different.
Not appreciating that difference is one way you can injure yourself.
To address this topic, we plan on going through the proper form, technique, alternatives, and variants of smith squats. By the end of this article, you'll have an idea of how (and if) you should integrate them into your workout schedule.
Thing first thing to note is that a smith machine squat is not like a free weight squat. Yes, you are squatting, but the form must be different due to the smith machine having a fixed bar path.
Put simply, you need to place your feet a little forward in front of your body. Just far enough so that when you squat down, your knees aren't going past your toes.
Your feet will not be directly under the bar like with a free weight barbell squat. A lot of people get under a smith bar and position their feet in line with the bar, as they would a free weight barbell squat, but this is a mistake.
You can think of the smith machine squat like a hybrid between a free barbell squat and a hack squat. Your feet will be about 3-6 inches forward from what they are with a barbell squat.
So, the first thing you should do is find your correct foot placement with an empty bar. Again, that's about 3-6 inches forward. There's a happy medium between too far forward and too far back, so find it.
If you position your feet correctly, then the common "smith machine squats are dangerous" statement is untrue...or better yet, it's the same risk as it is for any exercise. Any exercise done with poor form can lead to injury.
Smith machine squats are only bad if you try to do them like you would a free weight squat. This is because it puts too much pressure on your joints, particularly your knees and spine. If you place your feet forward, you don't run this risk. Be that as it may, there are other things to debate about the benefits and disadvantages of smith machine squats, but we will get to that later on in this article after we run through correct form and common mistakes...
Angled vs Straight Smith Machines
Another thing to note is some smith machines have an angled bar path while others are perfectly straight up and down.
Angled smith machines are usually 7-12 degrees inclined, which is still very up and down, of course, but having this slight incline of the bar path will allow you to have a more natural squat bar path. Nevertheless, your feet will still need to be a little forward, just not as much as with a straight bar path smith machine.
An angled smith machine is best, and thankfully most commercial gyms have angled bar paths as it has become the standard. Again, the angled bar path allows for more natural movement for exercises like squats and presses.
One thing to note about the angled smith machine is that you need to face a specific way, whereas with a straight smith machine, it doesn't matter. With an angled smith machine, your body should be facing away from where the bar is angled. So, when coming up from the squat, the bar is moving up and back.
Now, let us walk you through the form step by step.
Generally speaking, you can go heavy with smith machine squats. Also, a Smith squat targets the muscles differently (more emphasis on the quads). Which is why many advanced lifters use them in addition to barbell squats.
In any case, when first starting out, go light to get the form down.
Step One: Setup the Smith Machine
Before you start squatting, you'll want to be sure that the Smith machine is ready. This begins with the bar.
Your Smith bar should be level with shoulders, not your neck. The best position would be for your barbell to be located on your upper traps and rear delt when standing. So, it'll have to be set a little lower than that. That way you can lift it without needing to come up on your tip toes.
You'll also need to be sure that the safety bar is set at knee level. The safety catch being at this level gives you enough room to work with and remain safe.
After that, you can load the bar with plates. But again, start light.
Step Two: Starting Position
Get under the bar. The bar should be resting on your traps and rear delts, not your neck.
Position your hands at about shoulder width on the bar. You can adjust a little to find what's comfortable for you.
Now, step your feet forward a little (approximately 3-6 inches forward from a normal squat stance). Your feet will be out in front of your knees with your legs straight. However, you can adjust this a little to find what position is best for you.
Remember, start with an empty bar to find your foot placement. The goal is to keep your knees behind your toes when squatting and your back more upright (no rounding of the low back). Your knees and toes will be just about aligned at the bottom of the squat.
As with a regular squat, your feet can be hip to shoulder width apart, and your toes can be straight forward or slightly pointed outward. Having your toes flared out may offer you a better range of motion.
The best stance is the one that is comfortable for you and that you can feel your quads really working. Everyone is built a little different.
Your elbows should be aligned with your torso, but pointed back a bit.
Now, unhooking the bar will require you to lift up a little and rotate your wrists back. Make sure the hooks are out of the way (they will stay unhooked so long as you don't rotate your wrists forward).
Once the bar is unhooked, it's time to inhale and descend.
Step Three: The Descent
As you descend, you'll want to push your hips back a little as you perform knee flexion (bend at the knees).
Keep your chest up, shoulder blades retracted, and your head facing forward. This will ensure safety of your spine.
As for how low you should go, ideally you want to have your butt about in line with your calves at the bottom, so a little past parallel. This will give you great stretching tension in your quads (and glutes), which is an essential aspect of building muscle and strength.
The only exception is if you lack the mobility, in which case, go as low as you can and work on hip and ankle mobility in the meantime.
There is a happy medium between to little range of motion and too much, so don't go TOO low. Again, a little past parallel is ideal, but parallel (thighs parallel with the floor) is also fine.
Your knees should be about in line with your toes.
Feet flat on the ground.
No arch in your back.
Step Four: The Ascent
Exhale and drive up from the heels of your feet.
Do not forget to keep your spine straight, your elbows pointed, and your core engaged during this.
At the top, your hips will come to neutral, but your knees will not fully lock out. Meaning, keep a slight bend in your knee when standing.
Best Rep Range:
Depending on your goal, you may want to focus on strength, hypertrophy or endurance.
Strength: 3-8 reps
Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps
Endurance: 12-15+ reps
Reps mean nothing without consideration for load. But rather than tell you a % of your 1 rep max, we will just say that the load should challenge you in the given rep range. Meaning you are coming close to failure (i.e. 1-3 reps left in the tank).
Related: How to Progressive Overload
When performing Smith squats, form is vital. Below are five of the more common form mistakes you can make when squatting on this machine.
Form Mistake #1: Setting Up Like It's A Free Weight Barbell Squat
The biggest mistake we see is that people try to do a smith squat like a regular squat. As mentioned, your feet need to be forward, not your heel under the bar like with a free barbell squat.
This is just how it is with a smith machine due to the bar path.
Form Mistake #2: Performing Your Movement Too Fast
The most common mistake that newbies make with any squat is performing the exercise too fast. If this is your first time performing the squat, staying precise and focused will enable you to focus on engaging your muscles.
This becomes more important on the descent, where your ability to control your movement down is an exercise alone.
When rising, do so at a steady rate. It's ok to explode a little but you don't want to do so in a way that has the bar coming up off your traps or that locks your knees out.
Form Mistake #3: Rounding Your Spine
Regardless of what type of squat you do, curving your spine is a mistake. This is an easy way to hurt yourself.
Always keep your back straight. Keeping your upper-back muscles engaged through scapula retraction and your chest up will enable you to prevent injury.
Also, getting your foot placement right from the start and not going to low at the bottom of your squat will help you to avoid any rounding of the back.
Form Mistake #4: Allowing Knees to Cave In
When performing a Smith squat, do not let your knees to cave in.
Pointing your knees outward or inward is one way to cause a knee injury.
To avoid this, actively press your knees out as you squat up. Of course, this doesn't mean let your knees flare out, but the force should keep them in line with the direction of your toes.
Form Mistake #5: Leaning Forward
Leaning forward happens when you let your hips move faster than your knees.
To stop yourself from leaning forward, practice slow and controlled movement. While many exercises benefit from an explosive finish, Smith squats aren't usually on that list.
Form Mistake #6: Pushing From the Balls of Your Feet or Coming Up On Toes
When you push from the balls of your feet, it puts strain on tendons and joints. To avoid this, you'll want to keep your toes down and focus on driving force from the heels of your feet on the ascent.
Form Mistake #7: Shortcutting Your Range of Motion
The size of the load is less important than form when squatting. Studies have shown that deep squats are more effective than low range of motion heavy squats.
So, achieving a full range of motion comes first, then adding more weight.
If you are looking for bigger muscles on your legs, make your squats deeper. When you have shallow squats, that shortcut won't help your legs.
Smith machines work the same muscles as barbell squats, just the emphasis is different.
The primary movers are your:
We bolded the quads because they are the main muscle group targeted with a smith squat.
Smith machines are compound movements, so supporting muscles are also in use:
HOWEVER, the stabilizer muscles, such as your abs and calves are working to a much lesser degree than with free weight barbell squats due to the bar being fixed. Essentially, you don't need to worry about balance and stabilizing the bar, so your supporting muscles are not nearly as activated.
This study show that the stabilizing muscles are around 43% less engaged with Smith machine squats compared to free weight barbell squats.
Basically, the smith machine squat really hones in on the primary movers (quads, and glutes to a degree).
There are variations of smith squats that you can do to alter the muscles emphasized. We will show you several good variations of squats for a smith machine and what muscles are emphasized later on in this article. For the standard smith squat, it's your quadriceps that are most targeted.
Here is how Smith machines target these muscle groups:
With your feet being forward on a smith squat, your quads will be more activated than with a free weight barbell squat, which more evenly spreads the work across your legs (which is why it is a more complete strength exercise).
Your quads will also be more activated with a narrower stance. That doesn't mean you have to go super narrow, but if you notice your quads aren't being activated well, it's probably because your feet are too far apart, causing the movement to be more abductor.
Also, the deeper you go, the more your quads will be stretched. Stretching tension is essential for hypertrophy.
The wider your stance, the more your hip abductors will work, which includes your glutes.
However, with a normal stance, your glutes are still activated quite well, especially if you have a full range of motion.
The hip adductors are going to be most engaged when the hips are flexed, which means at the lower portion of the lift.
So, the lower you go, the more your hip adductor will be activated.
Lower Back Muscles
Traditional squats are an excellent method to increase lower back strength. Smith machines aren't more effective than conventional squats in this sense, but the exercise can still help.
It is natural to feel a bit of soreness if you don't regularly work out this muscle group. Be sure not to start with a heavier weight to avoid back injuries.
Spinal Erectors (Secondary)
Spinal erectors enable you to keep your back straight and engaged. However, Smith machines are an ineffective way to work out your erectors.
Much of this comes from your erectors being worked by the need to stabilize during regular squats. You don't have this worry with smith squats. However, your erector spinae muscles will still be activated to keep your back straight.
Oversall, smith squats allow for better engagement of your quads with less for your erectors and core.
Free weight heavy squats are good for your core because your core must work to stabilize your movement. With smith machines, this demand is removed. Because of that, your core will be working to a much less (approximately 40-50% less).
Either way, even with barbell squats, you still should be doing some ab/core specific exercises. Squats are not enough regardless for full ab and core development. Your core takes on many roles, so you need to work it through all movements (extension, flexion, anti-rotation, rotation, etc.).
The point is, while barbell squats are great for developing overall core strength, if you want to work your abs and other core muscles fully, you'll need to implement some core-specific exercises.
Because squats are a big compound exercise that targets your legs, beginners assume squats will cover everything below the waist. However, the hamstrings do not receive enough attention with squats, with or without a Smith machine.
Hamstrings are never fully engaged during the lowest or highest part of your squats. So, some hamstring focused exercises must be included, regardless of whether you use a smith machine or a squat rack.
Related: Best Hamstring Exercises
The calves work in two ways with squats, during ankle flexion and for stabilization. As you don't need much in the way of stabilization with a smith machine, your calves will really only be working based on the ankle's movement.
So, the heavier you go, and the lower you go, the more your calves will be activated.
Nevertheless, like with a barbell squat, if you want to build up your calves, you'll need to do some calf specific exercises like calf raises in addition to your squats. The good thing is you can use a smith machine to hit your calves with standing calf raises!
Related: Best Gastrocnemius Exercises
A Smith Assisted Squat machine comes with many potential benefits. Below are some of the most common reasons why you should consider this machine.
Benefit #1: Increases Muscle Isolation
Placing your feet in front of the Smith machine enables you to focus on your quads and glutes. If you want even more emphasis on your quads, keep your feet closer together.
While there are other exercises for the quads, Smith machines are very effective at isolating the quads and glutes due to the ability to change body position and not worry about stabilization. There are also many variations so you can hone in on other muscles.
This is why even pro bodybuilders use the Smith machine for squats.
It's basically a compound exercise with isolation characteristics, or in other words, it's a great assistance/accessory lift.
Benefit #2: You Do Not Need a Spotter
The bottom of every Smith machine has a catch system. This catch system acts as a sort of replacement for a spotter.
Basically, you can rerack the weight at any moment using the available hooks.
That said, it's not usually recommended to go to failure with squats. This is how a lot of people get injured. They think, "well i can train to failure with a Smith machine since i can always rack the weight mid-rep", but unless you are very experienced in which case you know your limits and how your body feels, we don't recommend it.
Nevertheless, it's good to know you have that line of safety when pushing yourself on leg day.
Benefit #3: Experienced Lifters Can Lift More
Smith machines remove much of the need to stabilize. For experienced lifters, this means more weight and/or volume, and therefore, more significant gains.
Benefit #4: Reduced Chance of Injury
Your chances of injuries are reduced because of a lifter's ability to focus on form and the catch system. However, this of course does not translate to a zero percent chance of injuries. Like any exercise, you need good form and technique.
While there are many benefits to those who can use this machine properly, Smith machines are also a hotly debated topic.
Depending on who you ask, you may be told that you should avoid Smith machines at all costs. Josh Henkin, a 20-year fitness industry veteran, has been quoted with the following:
"My biggest problem with the Smith Machine is that people are convinced they are still doing free weight movements when they perform exercises on the Smith Machine." - Josh Henkin, Bodybuilding.com
Mr. Henkin makes an excellent point; you should not treat Smith machines as equivalent to free weight exercise.
Think of the Smith machine like you would a leg press machine, a hack squat machine, or any other machine.
For most people, especially experienced lifters, the Smith machine i just another tool in their arsenal. It's an assistance/accessory exercise to be done in addition to free weight training.
Make sure your choice of exercise and machine is suited to your goals. If you are looking for increased quad and glute mass, Smith machines are convenient.
If you only have access to a Smith machine, then you'll need to do additional exercises. You can do bodyweight squats holding on to plates to grease the natural groove of a squat. If you have dumbbells, there are tons of good dumbbell squat exercises you can do. With that, you can have a pretty well-rounded workout routine with Smith squats included.
Overall, there is no "all or nothing" approach when it comes to exercise. Provided you do it safely and change out your use of the machine; you will be fine.
When it comes to only using a Smith machine for squats, there are a few problems. Here are something you should keep an eye out for:
Disadvantage #1: Unnatural Movement & Lack of Stabilization Strength
Only squatting with a Smith machine could train your body into performing unnatural movements. Again, a Smith squat is not like a normal squat.
However, if you do not treat Smith machines as your only solution, this is a non-issue.
Another thing to note about Smith machines is the lack of immediate feedback. You could be performing incorrect movements for months and not know anything is wrong.
Moreover, the lack of demand for stability means you aren't strengthening important muscles needed for free weight squats.
You'll notice this big time when you switch to free-weight squats.
All that said, the same argument on natural movement could be made using many exercise machines, such as leg press machines. Practicing free movement with weights should be an integral part of your exercise routine, but it doesn't mean it has to be the only part.
Disadvantage #2: There is Evidence To Free Weights Being More Effective
Regardless of someone's take on the Smith machine, studies do tell us free weights are better.
A free weight squat will train many more muscles and much of those muscles to a significantly higher degree.
That said, you can use the Smith machine to hone in on a certain muscle group for increased activation compared to a free weight squats. This is because free weight squats are more evenly and wide spread in terms of the muscles involved.
With Smith squats, you will see a high activation for the quads, but ~40% less for all of the stabilizing muscles involved in a squat.
The point is, for getting in some more muscle-specific work and increasing volume, the Smith is effective. Just do not rely solely on Smith machines for your workout routine. You need free, natural movement too.
Yes, they are great to do in addition to free weight barbell squats. A lot of average lifters hate on the smith machine, but ask any pro and they will tell you it has its place, even with squats. It's a good accessory exercise for the quads, just like hack squats or leg presses are.
As for doing ONLY smith machine squats (likely because all you have access to is a smith machine), well then we'd say it is ok. You just need to make sure you are doing other exercises for your legs. You'll need a posterior exercise for your hamstrings and glutes, such as stiff leg deadlifts or RDLs and hip thrusts. You will also need to work on free movement squats (you can do this with your bodyweight, plates or dumbbells) and your core.
When comparing Smith squats to barbell squats, the primary difference comes from your feet position. With a Smith machine, you can bring your feet our in front of the bar to accommodate the bar path.
Barbell squats are free-weight squats. Having free weights means you have no bar supporting your stabilization. It is entirely up to you to keep the bar and your body balanced.
When it comes down to it, a barbell squat is a natural, primal movement pattern and an overall strength exercise, whereas a Smith squat is an accessory compound lift that's more muscle specific.
Nevertheless, you'll of course find many similarities.
Depending on who you subscribe to, you will find reasons to love both forms of exercise. Given that the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tells us that there are benefits to the greater leg control in Smith machine use, it's best to use both in your exercise routine.
By alternating between barbell squats and Smith squats, you'll have solid strength and muscle confusion.
For clarification, here are some facts and myths about Smith Squats:
Because of the versatility of Smith machines, you'll find that there are numerous forms you can choose. Below, we will go through these forms so you might understand how they benefit you differently.
Smith Machine Front Squat
Comparing to the free weight barbell front squat, the front squat on a Smith machine is very effective for honing in on the legs, particularly the quads. This is because there is significantly less demand on the core so it's easier to focus your effort on the legs.
It's also a good way to learn the movement itself.
Here are the steps you can take to perform these squats.
How to do a Smith front squat:
Note: You also have other options for gripping the barbell or positioning your arms...
Smith Machine Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat is similar to a front squat but different because the load position. This alters how your muscles a stressed a bit.
Nevertheless, it is a more quad specific exercise too.
The benefit of a zercher squat is that it's easier to keep your torso upright and you can go really deep, thus maximizing stretch tension.
Bodybuilders and powerlifters who use the Zercher Squat swear by its usefulness. Here are the steps you need to take to perform it:
How to do a Smith Zercher squat
Smith Machine Hack Squat
The hack squat is another quad specific exercise, but it does a good job of hitting the hamstrings and glutes too. It's benefit, besides emphasizing the quads more than traditional squat, is that there is less pressure on your joints. This is because the barbell is not placed on your back, and thus spine.
We recommend this one for more experienced lifters who need more volume for the quads after squats or for people with joint pain or issues with back pain when squatting. It's also a good way to learn the movement before moving to a free barbell.
How to do a Smith hack squat:
Smith Machine Chair Squat (Feet Forward)
The chair squat is essentially the same as a hack squat but the bar is on your back. In terms of your legs, the muscles worked is pretty much exactly the same.
You'll need to find the right foot placement, so practice without weight. Too far forward and you'll get that feeling like you are going to slide out when squatting down. Too close to center and you're not getting the same effect as a hack squat.
In essence, you want it to feel like you are actually sitting down, but there's no chair to sit on.
You can only do this kind of squat with a smith machine, as you can lean back into the bar. The hack squat machine, which you should use rather than this if your gym has one, puts your body in a very similar position.
Among quad exercises, Hack Squats are some of the more advanced options. Until you master the traditional squat, you ideally should avoid.
How to do a Smith chair squat:
Smith Machine Sumo Squat
There is the Smith Machine Sumo Squat in cases where you want a squat that focuses on your glutes and hamstrings more. The difference between a sumo squat and a regular squat is the position of your feet.
Any sumo squat requires you to have your feet placed outside of your shoulder width. The wider feet placement enables you to dip lower in your squat, focusing on the glutes.
Otherwise, all other steps in this process match your general steps for using a Smith machine:
You also want to be sure your knees point the same way as your toes.
You'll know your sumo squat has proper form when your upper legs are parallel with the floor (flat).
Smith Machine Box Squat
The box squat is meant to provide more work on your glutes.
When you squat down, you come to a complete rest on the box or bench, and then drive up to a standing position while focusing on glute activation.
Smith Machine Split Squat
The split squat is a good option for the smith machine as it allows you to focus more on your legs rather than balancing, which a lot of people have trouble with.
As a unilateral exercise, you can fix muscle imbalances and asymmetries. Plus, the body positioning is great for hone in on your quads and glutes.
You can also do Bulgarian squats on a smith machine to turn up the difficulty level...
Smith Machine Leg Press
In the case of leg presses, you'll find that their use with Smith equipment is situational. The use of a smith machine for leg presses pretty much comes down to limited access to leg press machines.
That said, it hits the muscles a little different than a leg press due to the angle.
Overall, the Smith machine is an alternative option if you don't have access to an effective leg press method (like a leg press machine).
It almost goes without saying, using a Smith machine to leg press is more "dangerous" than with a leg press machine, but if you set the safety bars up, you'll be fine.
In regards to muscles worked, leg presses are more effective at training hamstrings and quads. Typically, they are less effective at activating the glutes.
You'll also still want to combine this with some form of squat. Squats are known to activate more muscles than leg presses, so you do not want to remove squats from your routine.
How to do a Smith Machine Leg Press (Reverse Squat):
To perform a smith machine leg place, you'll want to start by removing the bar from the locks and setting the right weight. As always, start with smaller weights if this is your first time.
There is no safety bar during this workout, meaning this workout can crush you. So stick to the regular leg press machine if possible.
Once the desired weight is up, and the bar is a comfortable reaching distance from the floor, you can lay down. Position yourself so you can look up and quickly place the balls of your feet on the bar.
Start by inhaling and driving the way up using your quads. Exhale while you push the weight up and inhale as you bring the weight down.
One rep happens when your weight reaches its lowest point (the safety bar). Go for three reps of ten, going up to 20 if you are working towards endurance.
When it comes to squat exercises, Smith machine squats can be incredibly effective when used correctly. Like all exercises, it is essential to include them in your rotation.
However, how you include, it will depend on your goals. Remember that the best use of Smith machine squats is the growth of quads and glutes.
Smith machines will secondarily challenge other muscle groups. However, it does not act as an adequate replacement for standard squats.
We hope this guide helps you out. If it does, consider sharing it with your friends. Here is a quick wrap-up of additional tips to keep in mind:
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