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February 11, 2022 12 min read

Squats have evolved and become a mainstay of many workout routines today. 

This strength-training compound exercise easily targets many significant muscle groups and can be modified to suit your fitness goals.

There is a never-ending list of squat variations, and one of them is the Smith Machine squat. This excellent squat variation is top of the list of our must-do exercise routines. Any idea where to start? We have compiled tips and tricks to help you along the way.

Bodybuilder doing squats in Smith Machine in gym

What Is The Smith Machine Squat?

The saying ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’ directly applies to conventional squats. From the front squat, Prisoner squat, to the Zercher squat, squats have proven to be versatile enough to suit your needs. If the basic squat is beginning to wear you out, there are many  squat variations to add spice to your routine. One of such variations is the Smith machine squat.

Like many other squat variations, the Smith machine squat is an ideal tool for muscle endurance training and muscle hypertrophy stimulation.

The Smith squat is not so different from the traditional squat. The only difference between the two is the use of the Smith machine.

What is the Smith machine, anyway?

The Smith machine is a weight-training machine that consists of a barbell fixed within steel rails. The Smith machine offers a limited vertical range of motion and can be used for many exercises other than the squat.

The Smith machine can weigh between 6 to 45 pounds, but on average, however, a Smith machine barbell weighs 15lbs to 25lbs. This wonder machine might be an everyday gym necessity now, but it dates as far back as 1950. Invented by an American man named Jack LaLanne, the Smith machine has received mixed reviews since it became mainstream equipment in every commercial gym.

The bar on a Smith machine is beginner-friendly and easy to master but might as well get you stuck on a fitness plateau. Without switching the weight for a heavier one, if you choose to use the Smith machine, you will be stuck working in the same weight at every workout session.

The Smith machine does not allow a change of plane of motion from the set vertical range of the machine.

This leaves little to no room for implementing different exercises that change planes of motion. The Smith machine squat is a regular squat done using the Smith machine.

This is similar to a fixed barbell squat but in a tighter and more limited range of motion.

With the lightweight Smith machine bar clutched across your shoulders, you can focus on your form instead of the heavyweight that would be the case in using a regular free-weight dumbbell.

The Smith machine is great for beginners still working on perfecting their conventional squat.

This would help you integrate smoothly into the world of heavier weighted equipment. Think of the Smith machine as a personal trainer who is helping you to perfect your form. This personal trainer would allow you to spot the lags in your form and, therefore, drastically reduce the risk of injuries.

Muscles Worked

While the Smith machine squat remains much of a controversy, it is admirable to see that this simple exercise works the same muscles as the conventional barbell squat.

The Smith machine works the quads, the glutes for a firmer butt, and the calf muscles for toned legs. 

The abdominal, stabilizer muscles and core muscles are all activated when you execute the Smith machine squat in proper form.

The exercise primarily works your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and hip adductors, engaging all other muscle groups as support muscles to aid movement.

Quadriceps

The Smith machine squat works the quads, which comprises four muscles, namely the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.

The quad is a sizeable fleshy muscle that spans the entire length of the front and sides of the thighs. They attach to the knee and help with movements that involve the use of the legs like standing, walking, running, climbing, and jumping. The degree of activation of your quads during the Smith machine squat, or any other muscle group for that matter- depends on your stance.

With a narrower feet stance and toes turned out slightly, you will put more of your weight in your legs, leading your quads to be better engaged.

This will help to tone and strengthen your quads in the long run, a welcome trait as leg strength is an essential factor in the gym.

Hip Abductors

The Smith machine squat also activates your hip abductors. The hip abductors muscles include the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae. Located on the lateral side of the thighs, these muscles work together to support your pelvis when erect and move or rotate your legs away from the body. 

Glutes

The glutes help with balance, gait, and stability. The tensor fasciae latae, on the other hand, is connected to the pelvis and helps with walking, control, and the general abduction of the legs. These muscles activated in the Smith machine squat are rarely targeted during other exercises.

The wider your stance during this exercise, the more your glutes and TFL are activated. 

Hip Adductors

The Smith machine squats also activate the hip adductors, a group of five muscles that help in contrasting the work of the abductors by bringing the legs back to the midline.

They are activated during the lowering phase of the squat. The lower you go, the more the adductors are started. 

Abdominals and Spinae Erectors

Compared to the free-weight squat, your abdominal muscles are engaged to a lesser degree in the Smith machine squat. Due to the machine's structure, the demand on your core muscles for stability is taken away. Regardless, your core and muscles are engaged to an extent. Although your back is straight and engaged, your lower back muscle and spinae erectors are activated to a lesser degree.

The demand placed on your lower back muscles is decreased, and the pressure is insufficient to work the erectors, used for stability during the traditional free-weight squat. 

Calves 

Because the Smith machine squat is still a compound exercise at heart, your hams and calf muscles which include the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, are equally engaged due to the load and ankle flexion.

Like the traditional squat, Smith machine squats do not affect the hams, and your calves are only activated due to muscle movement. 

Essentially, the Smith machine squat is a better choice for the effects on the quads and abductor muscles than any other muscle group.

How To Do The Smith Machine Squat

How does the Smith Machine squat work?

If you are familiar with the conventional squat, the Smith machine squat should be a walk in the park.

If not, the Smith machine squat is easy to learn and even easier to perfect. Like the conventional squat, the machine squat works based on a perfect form. It must be executed in the ideal form to get the most out of your workout.

To do the smith machine squat:

  1. Adjust the bar on the Smith machine to align with your shoulders. Leaving it too high or too low will put unnecessary strain on your shoulders.
  2. Load the bar to your preferred weight.
  3. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and your toes slightly angled outward.
  4. Keep your feet under the barbell and not too far from the bar.
  5. Hold the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
  6. Keep your back straight and chest proud.
  7. Grab the bar with a solid overhand grip.
  8. Step in front of the bar so that it now rests between your neck and upper back, directly on your traps.
  9. Inhale and contract your core by pulling your abdomen inwards.
  10. Exhale and unrack the bar by lifting it upward and forward with your wrists. Be careful, so it doesn't rest on the support pins.
  11. Shift your weight backward into your heels.
  12. Lower into a squat by hinging at your hip and knees. Keep your back and neck neutral as you drop as if sitting in an imaginary chair.
  13. Your knees should be folded at about a 90-degree angle and your thighs perpendicular to the floor.
  14. Keep your chest proud, and your lower back arched naturally. 
  15. Keep your body weight spread evenly on your legs. 
  16. Hold this position for one second.
  17. Holding your form, drive through your lower extremities, and come back to a sitting position. Ensure that you squeeze your glutes on the way up.
  18. This is one rep.
  19. Complete as many repetitions as you can fit into a set.

The Smith machine squat can be modified to suit your needs. As long as you are doing it right, feel free to switch your stance.

Benefits Of Smith Machine Squats

While the Smith machine squat might not provide the effects that a traditional barbell squat promises, there are still several advantages of this squat variation.

  1. Eliminates the need for a spotter: The Smith machine is easier to use than free weights. The fixed, stable path of the bar takes away the need for balance and the effort needed to maintain a perfect form. As an added plus, the catch system of the machine, which includes the hooks and pins, acts as a form of a spotter. These hooks and pins enable you to rack and unrack the bar any time during your training. The availability of this support system lowers the risks of an injury. The free-weight barbell squat leaves no room for mistakes in your form as stance is a priority. The Smith machine assists you in aligning your body in a more controlled environment.
  2. It is safer: Any mistakes in your form during a conventional barbell squat might result in the activation of the wrong muscles and the likelihood of the occurrence of muscle injury. Using the Smith machine, on the other hand, leaves room for form improvement. Although  exercise machines have a reputation of being dangerous to an extent, as long as you stick to the rules when using the Smith machine, you are safe.
  3. Beginner-friendly: The Smith machine squat is a building block and foundational exercise to prepare you for more difficult squat variations. If you have no prior experience with a barbell squat or haven't been taught how to do the squat, the Smith machine squat is a splendid way to test out the waters. It is slightly different from the conventional barbell squat with a lower intensity and a less-demanding method. If you are looking to get used to squatting with a load on your back, the Smith machine squat is a great way to start.
  4. Can be modified: Thanks to the reduced demand for balance, you can experiment with various grips and hand placement when doing Smith machine squats. You can practice with multiple body positions, switch up or tune down the intensity of the squat. This also enables you to increase the contraction on different muscles and switch the muscles you engage. 

Drawbacks of The Smith Machine Squat

The Smith machine squat is both beneficial and detrimental in different ways. While many newbies appreciate the safety guaranteed by the machine, it is scoffed at by more experienced weightlifters. 

When performing a free-weight barbell squat, the weight of the barbell coupled with gravity places pressure on your body, forcing you to work muscles to remain stable by adapting to your center of gravity.

This is both what stops you from an embarrassing faceplant and stimulates the primary muscle groups, causing them to respond to the stress. It is equally what causes you to pay attention to your form.

When you use the Smith machine, this demand is taken away. While the bodybuilders favor the free-weight squat for muscle growth and better muscle definition, the Smith machine squat is preferred for training or rehabilitation of the muscles after an injury. 

Many supporters strongly believe that the Smith machine works the knee flexors, but this opinion is incorrect.

In fact, free-weight squats are better for strengthening the knee flexors.

The Smith machine squat works the quads more than the knee flexors. The degree of the activation of the quads in contrast to the knee flexors depends on the stance assumed during the exercise.

The more upright your torso remains in the squat position, the more activated the quads. Compared to the free-weight barbell squat, using the Smith machine enables you to squat in positions outside the regular squat’s doctrine. This, however, is not recommended. Essentially, depending on your current fitness state and goals, you can go with the Smith machine or the free weights.

Tips To Help You Get Your Smith Squat Right

While the Smith machine squat allows for a little bit of freestyle, be sure that any exaggeration of your form is doing more good than harm. While it is a great idea to help you discover what works for you, ensure that you are not compromising your safety when you do so.

Here are some things to keep in mind when doing Smith machine squats:

  1. Practice the squat: Although the Smith machine squat is a beginner-level exercise that is supposed to prepare you for even more difficult squat variations, there is no point in starting this exercise without getting your basic squat stance in check. Before making your way towards the first Smith machine that you come across, first practice weightless squats. This teaches you the proper way to do the squat and enables you to adapt to using a Smith machine easily. Baby steps are, after all, the beginning of big movements. It also helps that practice makes perfect, and perfection in the gym would drastically reduce the risks of sore joints and other injuries.
  2. Focus on your feet: Exaggerating the feet placement is a common mistake when doing the Smith machine squat. Placing your feet slightly forward is acceptable but putting your feet farther out during the squat is not. It does not automatically increase the activation of your quad muscles and is not an optimal position for targeting the knee flexors. It however is a recipe for disaster and pain in the lower back.
  3. Recovery is essential: To a lesser intensity, the Smith machine squat is demanding in the muscles, especially the quads. It breaks down the muscle fibers to rebuild stronger and healthier muscles. Without adequate recovery, your hours of exercise are for nothing. Take time off between and after activities to help the torn muscle fibers. Sufficient sleep is necessary for healthy muscle growth. For the best results, add RESTED-AF  to your nightly routine for deeper sleep.

Smith Machine Squat Variations

The Smith machine can be used to achieve different muscle responses. To tweak the primary smith machine squat, change your grip or stance to optimize strength and better performance. Some Smith machine squat variations include:

1. Smith Machine Front Squat


 

The Smith machine front squat is an opposite variant of the essential Smith machine exercise. The difference is in the hand position and position of the barbell.

The Smith machine front squat targets the glutes and quads primarily while chipping in on the arms, pecs, core, hip flexors, and calves.

To do this variation:

  • Adjust the machine and position the bar to slightly lower than shoulder height.
  • Step underneath the bar and face it so that it sits between your neck and on top of your shoulders.
  • Keep your feet hip-width apart.
  • Stand straight with your back straight and your shoulder blades pulled back.
  • Maintain a proud chest.
  • Place your right hand over your left shoulder and your left hand over your right shoulder as if crossing your heart. This would help you stabilize the bar.
  • Keep your neck neutral and your gaze straight ahead.
  • Engage your core.
  • Once comfortable and in position, exhale and unrack the bar.
  • Sit back on your hips to lower your hips between your legs. 
  • Go as low as you can manage so that your thighs are parallel to the floor and your knees are at a 90-degree angle with the floor.
  • Hold this position.
  • Inhale and drive through your legs to return to the starting position.
  • Complete as many repetitions as you can.

2. Smith Machine Sissy Squat (No Weights)


The Smith machine sissy squat is a complex variation of the smith machine squat. Its movement is very different from the normal range of motion of other squat variations. It is a variation that is often left to more daring gym enthusiasts. The Smith machine sissy squat works the quads, glutes, hams, abs, and spinal erectors.

To do this variation:

  • Adjust the Smith machine and place the bar close to the bottom level of the machine. 
  • Stand erect, facing away from the machine.
  • Keep your legs hip-width apart.
  • Your legs should rest against the bar.
  • Lower yourself into the squat position keeping your torso upright and your spine straight. It would help if you looked like you were sitting on a chair.
  • Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, reverse the motion by driving up through your legs.
  • Don't stand to your full erect height. Keep your knees flexed and the tension in your quads.
  • That is one rep. Complete as many Re's as you can fit in a set.

3. Smith Machine Sissy Squats (With Weights)


This is another sissy squat version of the Smith machine squat. Unlike its predecessor, it requires the lifting of the bar throughout the range of motion.

To do this variation:

  • Set the bar to shoulder height.
  • Stand facing away, so it rests on your shoulders.
  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your back straight, neck neutral, and gaze forward.
  • Maintain hip-width feet apart stance.
  • Engage your core.
  • Exhale and drive your knees forward as you lower yourself.
  • Lift your heels to compensate for your knees.
  • Keep your back and hip straight and aligned throughout the movement. Let your legs do the work.
  • Reverse the movement by pushing through your legs and lowering your heels. 
  • Return to the starting position.
  • That is one rep. Complete as many repetitions as you can.

There are other Smith machine squat variations to explore. Before dabbling in different variations, endure that you are comfortable performing the basic Smith squat variation.

Getting Your Smith Squat Right

The Smith machine squat is a brilliant alternative to the basic squat exercise. It is easy to learn and provides equally good muscle results. It is, however, essential to ensure that your form is perfect during your routine. The Smith machine squat is a wonderful addition to your keg day routine.

Coupled with other  compound barbell exercises, the Smith machine squat can prove an excellent tool to improve full-body strength.