February 16, 2022 12 min read
One of the most controversial pieces of equipment in the gym is the Smith Machine. Since it provides more stability than a free weight barbell can, some lifters deem it as not as effective or even cheating.
The truth is, the Smith Machine is a great tool to use for hypertrophy, movement variety, support, and more.
A lot of exercises that you do with a barbell can be done with the Smith Machine to help produce similar benefits, as well as benefits of their own.
It's often believed that Smith Machines are only useful for beginners, but more advanced lifters may not realize what this machine could do to help build muscle and improve overall performance.
Since the barbell is secured to the power rack, it can eliminate the need for a spotter for exercises like the bench press or back squat. This means that even if your workout partner cancels, you do still have a heavy lift. If the lift doesn't go as planned, you can safely place the bar back on the rack without fear of dropping it or injuring yourself. It's important to note that there are safety pins that can be set on the machine to help catch the weight if you experience a failed rep.
The bar travels in a straight path on the Smith Machine, which can help prevent the bar from moving out of safe or proper range. Having the extra support of a fixed path can be beneficial with exercises like the overhead press. Although there is more support and stability, it's still important to know how to do the exercise properly to help prevent an ineffective, dangerous lift.
Having the extra stability from the Smith Machine may seem like a downfall, but it can actually be beneficial for building muscle. Eliminating the need for extra help from the stabilizing muscles, a lifter can focus on the bigger muscle primarily targeted. Such as in a bench press, the emphasis is put on the chest instead of the triceps or shoulders, making it closer to an isolation exercise. Studies suggest that isolation exercises can help produce more muscle mass than compound exercises.
A built-in spotter isn't the only reason you may be able to lift heavier with a Smith Machine. Studies suggest that performing unstable resistance exercises, such as the barbell overhead press, can require more energy just to balance and stabilize the bar. Since the Smith Machine offers the stability that the other surrounding muscles would have done with a free weight, this study showed that a lifter can then prioritize force production over stability.
The Smith Machine can be used for the lower body and upper body, helping you to create a full-body workout routine. Check out the 10 best exercises below to get the most out of your Smith Machine workout.
One of the best exercises you can do for upper body strength and mass is the bench press. It recruits the pecs, triceps, and deltoids to produce a great amount of force to be able to push an immense amount of weight up. It's beneficial for building upper body muscle mass, and studies suggest it can even be a predictor of upper body strength.
The triceps help with the final phase, or lockout phase, of the lift, and the deltoids act as stabilizers. Since the Smith Machine provides extra stability, the pecs can produce more force and be targeted more than the surrounding muscles. Bodybuilders, powerlifters and anyone looking to build a large chest can benefit from the Smith Machine bench press.
How to Do the Smith Machine Bench Press:
The quadriceps are the muscles used whenever you walk, run, kick, jump, or squat. The hack squat can be done either with a hack squat machine or a Smith Machine, but because of the angle, it can't be done without some extra support. The Smith Machine hack squat helps target the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, but they are able to target the quads more than a regular back squat. The quads not only assist in physical activities, but they also help stabilize the knee, so it comes as no surprise why we want these muscles strong.
For the hack squat, your feet are farther out in front of you, and when you squat, it mimics how you would sit down in a chair. You may feel like you're going to fall over during the reps, but luckily, that's what the Smith Machine is there for. It provides the support that free weights can't to help you build a stronger lower body.
How to Do the Smith Machine Hack Squat:
The Kaz press, named after Bill "Kaz" Kazmaier who set a world record in the 80s for bench pressing 661 pounds, is a mix between the close grip bench press and tricep extension. It's intended to help build triceps strength, which can be important in the lockout phase of overhead lifts. This can be a beneficial exercise for bodybuilders or lifters trying to build arm mass because the triceps make up about 2/3 of the upper arm.
The Smith Machine helps eliminate the need for extra stability, so you can use a heavier weight than you normally might for tricep extensions. Not to mention, it can be easier on the elbow joint than dumbbell or barbell extensions are.
How to Do the Kaz Press:
The largest muscles in your body are the glutes. They're made up of the gluteus medius, minimus, and maximus, all of which are recruited in the Smith Machine hip thrust. Having strong glutes can help improve athletic performance and your quality of life.
Studies suggest the hip thrust produces the most glute activation compared to the squat or deadlift. The Smith Machine is a great tool to use for this exercise because it can help target your glutes more than the stabilizing muscles, and it can help you lift heavier weight because of the extra stability provided. If you're a beginner, the hip thrust may be intimidating, but using the Smith Machine can help guide you through the range of motion.
How to Do the Smith Machine Hip Thrust:
Unilateral exercises can help build strength and mass on equal sides of the body, which can help correct muscle imbalances. The Bulgarian split squat, which is similar to a lunge, can be difficult and even dreaded, but it's a great way to target the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Studies suggest that this squat variation can help produce a greater activation in these three lower body muscles versus the conventional squat.
Since you're balancing on one foot with the other elevated behind you, the possibility of losing your balance may be higher. Add dumbbells or a barbell, and you'll be working hard to stabilize yourself. The Smith Machine helps eliminate the need for extra stability and can be easier on the knee joints.
How to Do the Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squat:
Building your back muscles can help improve posture, reduce your risk of pain or injury, and assist in other exercises. The bent-over row is the ultimate back strengthening exercise because it isolates the muscles in your back. And if you want to do even more to build strength in your back muscles, try our RIPPED STACK formula.
Exercises like the deadlift rely on a strong back, otherwise, it can be harder to lift the weight and easier to injure yourself.
Your lats, rhomboids, and traps are recruited during the Smith Machine bent-over row, which are all muscles that help to stabilize the neck and spine. With the added stability of the Smith Machine, you can load heavier weight onto the bar than you may be able to for the barbell row.
How to Do the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row:
Some of the muscles that are often neglected in the gym are the calf muscles. They are made up of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Weak calf muscles can increase your risk of injury and shin splints, and they can affect your daily mobility and range of motion.
Studies suggest that training the calves can help improve walking performance, as well as speed and endurance.
The standing calf raise helps to isolate the calf muscles, the Smith Machine can help a lifter control and balance the weight better. It also can be easier to add more weight onto the bar since it's secured into position.
How to Do the Smith Machine Calf Raise:
Although the inverted row is more of a bodyweight exercise, the Smith Machine makes a convenient apparatus to perform it on. Similar to the bent-over row, the inverted row targets multiple muscle groups like the lats, traps, and rhomboids, as well as the biceps, forearms, and abdominals.
It has the ability to improve your grip strength, which studies suggest is associated with all-cause mortality.
The inverted row can help take the strain off your lower back while helping to strengthen it. If you haven't mastered the pull-up yet, this row variation acts as a progression exercise since the pulling motion resembles that of a pull-up, and it works the muscles needed for them.
How to Do the Smith Machine Inverted Row:
The traps are the muscles in your upper back that help support your spine and your neck. Studies suggest that athletes like football and soccer players who are more susceptible to head injuries should perform neck strengthening exercises to help prevent concussions. The shrug helps strengthen the traps, which can help protect the neck from injuries. It's also a great exercise for building mass in the upper back.
Using a Smith Machine can help make it simpler to rack and unrack the bar, as well as help, control the bar as it moves in a fixed path up and down. You don't have to just be an athlete or a bro to do shrugs because strengthening the traps can help improve your posture and upper-body mobility.
How to Do Smith Machine Shrugs:
Also known as the shoulder press, the overhead press helps build the muscles in your shoulders and triceps. Shoulder stability is crucial for your quality of life in and outside the gym. Any time you reach overhead, throw a ball, or even open a door, you rely on your shoulder stability to help protect you from an injury.
The deltoids are the main muscles worked in the overhead press, and these muscles help to stabilize the shoulder and protect the rotator cuff. By strengthening the rotator cuff with an exercise like the overhead press, studies suggest it can help reduce your risk of an injury. The Smith Machine helps to stabilize the barbell and allows your deltoids to work harder since the stabilizing muscles aren't as involved.
How to Do Smith Machine Overhead Press:
Although the Smith Machine can be useful, it's not perfect. If you're not used to doing a Smith Machine workout, it may feel uncomfortable since the bar only moves on one path. This may be the most noticeable in exercises like the squat and bench press. Some lifters may find the lack of movability inconvenient and even annoying. It does take some getting used to if you're used to a conventional squat rack.
Since the bar moves only in a fixed path, you have to be extra cautious of your form in exercises like the squat and deadlift. To help prevent uncomfortable positioning or even injury, you have to be able to work around what the barbell can do, not the other way around.
The barbell is secured on the rack, so it's not as versatile as a free weight barbell. Olympic lifters or CrossFitters might avoid the Smith Machine exactly for this reason because the popular clean and jerk or the snatch aren't possible on this machine.
By now, you know the bar moves on one path and one path only, so that can be disadvantageous for athletes who are looking to perform exercises that mimic real-world movement patterns. The exercises done on the Smith Machine may not transfer to the field or the court because athletes need to train for balance and stability, which is something this machine does for you.
All in all, there are disadvantages to the Smith Machine, but when used properly, there can be a time and a place for it.
One of the great things about strength training is how versatile it can be. The Smith Machine is just one piece of gym equipment that can provide multiple benefits. Despite popular belief, it's not just made for beginners. Anyone with the proper knowledge can find it useful. Like with any exercise, it's crucial to understand why you're doing it and how to do it. If you're unsure, consult with a knowledgeable personal trainer or find a seasoned gym buddy.
Don't forget that we also live in a day and age where almost anything can be found on the internet. Watch YouTube videos, follow well-informed fitness influencers, and take notes. Know that the mirrors in the gym are not just there for gym selfies, but they're there to help you. Watch the video and watch yourself in the gym to make sure your form is on point. The Smith Machine is there for support, but it can't do everything. Be aware of your form, and next time you're making your workout routine, try adding some of these Smith Machine exercises in to see the benefits for yourself.