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February 16, 2022 8 min read

Imagine you show up to the gym, and you're ready to crush your bench press PR. You're pumped up and ready until you sit on the bench and realize you don't have a spotter.

The Smith Machine is a great substitute to a spotter.

That's because the barbell is secured to the machine, making the dangers of a heavy lift less likely. This piece of equipment looks almost identical to a squat rack, but the bar is fixed to the rack. Smith Machine exercises can be looked down upon, but there are several reasons they shouldn't be overlooked.  

Although the free weight barbell bench press should not be replaced, using a Smith Machine can provide similar benefits with the added safety and guidance from the machine.  

What's So Pressing about the Bench Press?

The King of all upper body exercises is the bench press, and for good reason. It's a compound exercise, meaning it recruits multiple muscle groups in the body for ultimate upper body muscle activation. It targets not just the chest, but the shoulders and the triceps, and it has the ability to improve other pressing movements, such as the overhead press or even tricep dips.

Likely the most popular variation is the barbell bench press because you can lift some serious weight. It's also one of the movements used in powerlifting competitions alongside the squat and the deadlift. Although it's the most popular, it's not the only way to perform this exercise. Lifters can also perform similar chest exercises like the dumbbell chest press or the Smith Machine bench press. 

Despite popular belief, the Smith Machine is not only great for beginners, but more advanced lifters can benefit from it as well. It can help you get a full range of motion and helps you maintain proper form as the bar moves in a straight path up and down. 

Whether you're a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or anything in between, the Smith Machine bench press definitely has a place in your program. 

Muscles Worked by the Smith Machine Bench Press

The bench press is notorious for building strength and mass in the upper body, but let's talk about the main muscles targeted.  

Strong Chest

Pectorals

Commonly referred to as the pecs, the pectorals are located on each side of your chest, and they are responsible for arm flexion, adduction, and internal rotation. When exercised regularly, they also have the ability to grow large, contributing to the beach bod aesthetic. The pecs are made up of the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor; the pectoralis major is the muscle giving the chest that puffed up look. 

Exercising the chest is important for helping maintain good posture, improving range of motion, and reducing neck and upper back pain. The bench press is one of the best ways to strengthen the pecs and the entire upper body. 

Deltoids

The deltoid is the largest muscle in the shoulder, and it's made up of three parts: the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids. They are responsible for arm abduction, flexion, and extension, as well as helping to prevent dislocation and compensating for rotator cuff injuries. If your shoulders are weak, you can be at a greater risk of injury not just in the gym, but anytime you lift or reach for anything overhead. It can also negatively affect your posture and range of motion.   

The bench press targets the anterior deltoids, but the medial and rear delts assist. However you angle the bench can also affect which areas in the shoulder are targeted more. It's important to know that the Smith Machine bench press does work the shoulders, but since they are stabilizing muscles, they may not be recruited as much as a regular bench press. 

Triceps 

In a bench press, the top of the lift is called the lockout phase, and this is where your triceps come in.

The triceps are located in the back of the arm and are made up of three heads:

  • The medial
  • Lateral
  • Long head

Together, their main responsibility is elbow extension. 

If your triceps are weak, your bench press will suffer, especially at the top of the lift. Aside from a struggling lift, weak triceps can cause shoulder pain, limited range of motion, and potential long-term shoulder issues. The triceps act as stabilizing muscles in the bench press and can help strengthen them, but it's important to note this may be limited with the Smith Machine because of the extra support provided. 

Benefits of the Smith Machine Bench Press 

The Smith Machine bench press does more than just pump up your chest. It may help you lift heavier weight on the bench and in other areas.   

Lift Heavier Weight 

The barbell is secured to the Smith Machine, which provides more stability to the movement. In a conventional bench press, stabilizing the bar is part of the work, but the Smith Machine eliminates that. This can help you lift a heavy weight, and not have to spend the energy simply trying to balance the bar. In addition to incorporating the Smith Machine Bench Press into your workout, you can build muscle using our Ripped Stack which will ultimately help you lift heavier weight.

Focus is on the Pecs

With the stabilizing muscles not playing as big of a role with the Smith Machine bench press, it may seem like a downfall, however, it could mean that the pecs get more work in.

Studies suggest that since the Smith Machine doesn't rely as much on the stabilizing muscles, the pectoralis major is greater recruited to produce more force. Focusing on the pecs helps build more mass and strength in that area.   

Predictor of Upper Body Strength 

The bench press can help improve your overhead lifts, but you may not know that it may be able to predict your upper body strength.

A study found that a one-rep max of the bench press was correlated with the load of the barbell biceps curl, hammer curl, overhead triceps extension, and dumbbell shoulder press.

This is not only neat information, but it could help prevent injuries from lifting too heavy of a weight.  

Bench Without a Spotter 

Maybe your gym buddy canceled on bench press day, and you need a spotter. The Smith Machine can provide the security of a spotter when the safety pins are securely in place. Not to say that this piece of equipment should replace your workout buddy, but it's there as a great option for a safer lift, especially when benching heavy weight.   

How to Do the Smith Machine Bench Press

Having the Smith Machine for support can be helpful during the bench press, but it can still be ineffective or dangerous if done improperly.

Follow the step-by-step guide to performing this exercise properly. 

  1. Setting up your station is important for an effective lift. You'll want to place a flat bench in the middle of the Smith Machine. Position the bar, so that your arms need to fully extend to reach it from the bench. Set the safety pins, especially if you're not using a spotter, so if you fail a rep, you can place the bar safety back on the rack.
  2. Once your station is set, lie flat on the bench so that the middle of your chest lines up with the barbell. 
  3. Grab the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and press the bar to un-rack it. 
  4. Slowly lower the bar, keeping your elbows slightly tucked in to avoid putting too much strain on your shoulders. 
  5. Stop when the bar is at your chest or a few inches above, depending on your mobility, but your elbows should bend to about 90 degrees. 
  6. Press the bar all the way back up until your arms are fully extended, and your elbows are locked out. Slowly lower back down in the same path to the starting position.  

Common Mistakes 

Doing the bench press improperly could put you at serious risk of an injury, so you'll want to avoid these common mistakes. 

You're Flaring Your Elbows

One of the most common mistakes lifters make when benching is flaring their elbows directly parallel to their shoulders as they lower and press. This can put unnecessary strain on your shoulders and may be the reason you're not lifting as heavy. For a safer and more effective lift, tuck your elbows down slightly, so that from your elbows to your ribs makes about a 45-degree angle.

You're Not Arching Your Back 

In the majority of exercises, arching your back is something to be avoided, but in the bench press, you can actually benefit from it. Since your lower back has a natural curvature, it can be better to arch your back during this lift because it can prevent your shoulders from rolling forward. It can be more beneficial for your form, but it can also help you push a heavier weight by decreasing the range of motion and helping increase shoulder stability. 

Your Feet Aren't on the Floor

You may see lifters putting their feet up on the bench while benching, but this can create an unstable structure for you to press from. If you're unstable, you can put yourself at a greater risk of not lifting as heavy or worse, an injury. When you're pushing a heavy weight, you want as much force as possible. Pressing your feet into the floor can help provide the extra force needed to get to the top.       

Smith Machine Bench Press Variations 

This chest exercise can come in several different forms, each of which provide benefits of their own. Check out some variations below.  

Smith Machine Incline Bench Press 

The incline bench press is exactly what it sounds like; you're benching pressing with the bench angled slightly to about 15-30 degrees. This variation can help target more of your upper chest and shoulders. You may not be able to lift as heavy of a weight, but it can help your conventional bench press, improve your overhead pressing movements, and isolate your chest more to help build muscle mass. 

Smith Machine Decline Bench Press

One of the less popular variations is the Smith Machine decline bench press. With the bench angled down, you can target your lower chest and triceps more. It also helps reduce the stress on your back and shoulders, so if those are problem areas for you, this is a good option instead of the regular bench press. One of the dangers of the decline press is the greater chance of the barbell falling on your face, but with the Smith Machine securing the bar, you won't have to worry about that. 

Smith Machine Close Grip Bench Press

You can change up your typical bench press routine by throwing in the close grip bench press. It resembles the regular lift closely, but you're tucking your elbows into your sides. This can help target the triceps more, and if your lockout is weak, it's a variation you should be doing. It can help build muscle and strength in your triceps, all the while taking the stress off of your shoulders. 

Dumbbell Chest Press

Working with dumbbells is a great way to work on stability and ensure you're getting an equal amount of work on each side.

With the dumbbell chest press, you can work all the same muscles as the bench press while also helping improve your range of motion. This variation more closely simulates real-world movements, which can help improve your life in and outside the gym.  

Push Ups

Push Ups

One of the best bodyweight exercises you can do is the push up.

It mimics the movement of the bench press, but you're pushing your own weight up. It looks simple, but still so many people struggle with it. The push up is not your standard strength training move, but it still has the ability to build strength and muscle in your chest, shoulders, triceps, core, and back. When done properly, it can be a fast and effective way to help improve your overall health. 

Final Word 

The bench press is one of the more popular exercises you'll see in the gym, and it's probably clear now as to why. The Smith Machine can be of great use for a move like the bench press because it helps eliminate the need for a spotter, helps you focus on your chest over the other stabilizing muscles, and provides similar benefits to that of a conventional press. Next time you're in the gym, think twice about ignoring the Smith Machine. Load up some heavy weight and start busting out those reps.