Smith Machine Squats Aren't as Bad as Some Say — Here's Why Beginners and Bodybuilders Alike Should Give Them a Try

Performing Smith machine squats can help you perfect your back squat form.
Image Credit: Michael Edwards/iStock/GettyImages

The Smith machine squat is one of the most controversial strength-training exercises out there. The Smith machine, a metal rack with a bar that travels along a fixed path, is used by beginner lifters and bodybuilders alike for squats and bench press variations.

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It's also scoffed at by many and called "useless," "not functional," and just plain bad. But while the machine does have its drawbacks, it's unfair to say it's always a bad idea.

In fact, there are ways and reasons to do Smith machine squats safely and effectively. Let's outline the benefits and drawbacks and how you can do a Smith machine squat to learn perfect squat form and build stronger quads.

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  • What is a Smith machine squat?​ A Smith machine squat is a weightlifting exercise using a Smith machine, which looks a lot like a squat rack but has a barbell that travels on a fixed track. The lifter puts the barbell on their shoulders, then lowers it by bending their knees before standing back up.
  • Is it OK to squat on a Smith machine?​ Yes. So, what's wrong with the Smith machine? It became a bit of a gym pariah in the early 2000s after a very small (only six people) December 2009 study in the ​Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research​ found that muscle activation was 43 percent lower when doing squats on the Smith machine versus using free weights. It was a small study, and other research (like a July 2020 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research) have had different results, but people really clung to it.
  • What muscles does a Smith machine squat work?​ Basically everything a regular barbell squat works: primarily, quads and glutes. To a lesser extent, it also works the calves and core.
  • Who can squat on a Smith machine?​ Basically anyone! It's particularly good for beginner lifters who need a little extra support while learning proper form.

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Why Is It Called a Smith Machine?

The Smith machine was developed in the 1950s by Rudy Smith, then the manager of a Los Angeles gym called Vic Tanny’s, according to his 2010 obituary. The idea for the machine was actually created by Smith’s friend, legendary TV host Jack LaLanne, before being built by Smith.

How to Do a Smith Machine Squat

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Type Strength
Region Lower Body
  1. Adjust the bar of the machine so that it’s around shoulder height.
  2. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart directly under the bar, the bar resting on your trapezius muscles — your “shrugging” muscles — not on the bones of your neck. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing out).
  3. Twist the bar back to unlock it and set your feet at a width and angle that’s comfortable for you. Your feet can be slightly turned out or closer to straight forward. If you don’t know where you’re comfortable, play with your foot placement in some light, warm-up reps.
  4. Brace your core and maintain a tight, vertical torso throughout the movement, a natural arch in your low back. This is the starting position.
  5. Keep your weight in your heels and push your hips back to initiate the squat.
  6. Bend your knees to descend until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, keeping your chest up, weight in your heels and toes on the ground.
  7. Press back to standing.
  8. When you’re finished with all your reps, twist the bar forward to lock it in place.

Watch the Full Tutorial Here

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How Much Does the Bar Weigh on a Smith Machine?

There’s no single answer. Different machines have different bar weights. But they’re all usually lighter than the standard free weight barbell, which is 45 pounds. Chances are, the Smith machine squat weight you can lift will be more than what you can lift with free weights, since the machine takes much of the balance work out of the equation.

3 Smith Machine Squat Benefits

1. Great for Beginners

Part of what people consider a Smith machine ​con​ is also a check in the ​pros​ column. The machine does most of the stabilization work for you, which can make the move a little easier to execute. You don't need as much core strength to do the lift properly with good form.

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If you're not comfortable squatting with a free-weight barbell on your back or you don't have access to a squat rack, the Smith machine can be a safer way to squat without worrying about tipping over. This allows you to practice your squat form, get comfortable and graduate to free-weight squats eventually (if you want to).

2. Builds Leg Muscle and Strength

Because free-weight squats require more stabilizing muscles to balance, they're almost universally preferred for sports and powerlifting training: Moving a free weight like a barbell is closer to what you'll do in sport.

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But if your goal is to build bigger quads, as bodybuilders do, losing the balance requirement means you can concentrate on driving the bar up and squeezing the muscles you want to build.

According to the July 2020 study mentioned above, weight machines — including the Smith machine — allow people to build the same amount of muscle and strength as lifting free weights.

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3. Helps You Squat Deeper

Because you don't have to balance the bar, the Smith machine lets you do squats not just with your feet directly under the bar but a little further forward, leaning slightly back. Some bodybuilders claim this helps them target their quads more.

But for Brandon Lirio, CPT, director of BattleGround Fitness and professional bodybuilder, it's an alternative way to train what many lifters are getting from lifted-heel or slant board squats: deeper squats without leaning forward too much.

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"Step out by about a foot, and then lean back on the Smith machine bar," he says. "Then perform the squat." You'll be able to squat deeper, and because you're leaning back, you'll be forced to keep the weight in your heels, not forward onto your toes. That's helpful, as lifting your heels without proper squat form can lead to lower back pain or injury.

Why Shouldn’t You Use a Smith Machine?

Because every body is different. Some in the anti-Smith camp argue that the Smith machine's fixed path was designed for one specific body — and that if your body isn't that size, your legs won't move along the "correct" path.

Basically, in this argument, the Smith machine provides train tracks, and your train's wheels might not fit on those tracks. People believe that this can cause you to contort your legs to fit the track — a forced form that can lead to injury.

Research, like this March 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Science, backs this up: Because of the Smith machine's support, squatters can put their knees and backs into extreme positions that they wouldn't be able to with a free-weight barbell.

Some research has also found that the Smith machine doesn’t tax your muscles quite as hard, and because you don’t have to balance, doesn’t train the smaller, stabilizing muscles you’d be working with a free-weight squat.

This lack of stabilization arguably makes the Smith squat "less functional," meaning it doesn't translate to real-world use of strength as much. In the real world, you'd use the big muscles ​and​ those stabilizing muscles to squat down and stand up.

5 Tips for the Smith Machine Squat

1. Keep Your Chest Up

As with all squats, you want an upright torso when doing a Smith machine squat. Just because the bar is fixed doesn't mean you can't round forward. To avoid that, think about having a "proud chest" at the start and stay proud through each rep.

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One way to help: As you set up with your hands on the bar, narrow your grip by about an inch on each side if you can. This will help you naturally keep your chest up.

2. Rest the Bar on Your Trapezius Muscles, Not Your Neck

If the bar is too high on your neck before you twist it to unrack, the barbell and all of the weight will be resting on the vertebra in your neck. This can cause bruising, pain and injury. Make sure the bar is set up on your shrugging muscles, or trapezius, before you unrack it.

3. Descend Until Your Thighs Are at Least Parallel to the Floor

You can go deeper if you'd like — and train to do so by moving your feet forward slightly before starting. But to get the benefits of a squat for your glutes, make sure you descend until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

4. Your Shins and Back Should Be About Parallel

When you descend in any squat, the angle of your shins and your back should be just about parallel, meaning they're at approximately the same angle. This will ensure you're keeping your torso up and putting the weight in your heels. If you can peek in a mirror or take a video while you squat, make sure these angles are the same at the bottom of the move.

5. Set the Safety Stops

If you're not used to squatting in a Smith machine, set the safety stops. These stoppers along the weight track can be set so that if you fall or lose control, the bar won't come crashing down on top of you. This is an added security in addition to the track to keep you safe and comfortable while squatting.

Which Way Should You Face When Squatting on a Smith Machine?

Most lifters face out of the Smith machine while squatting, so the bulk of the machine is behind them. If the machine you're working on travels straight up and down, you could face either way — if you want to face a mirror to check your form, for instance.Some Smith machines are slanted to supposedly make it easier to achieve a natural range of motion. If you're using an angled or slanted Smith machine to squat, you'll want to face away from the machine to save your knees.

Smith Machine Squat Modification

1. Smith Machine Squat With Feet Forward

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Region Lower Body
  1. Adjust the bar of the machine so that it’s around shoulder height.
  2. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart 6 to 12 inches in front of the bar, leaning back slightly with the bar resting on your trapezius muscles — your “shrugging” muscles — not on the bones of your neck.
  3. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you).
  4. Twist the bar back to unlock it and set your feet at a width and angle that’s comfortable for you. Your feet can be slightly turned out or closer to straight forward. If you don’t know where you’re comfortable, play with your foot placement in some light, warm-up reps.
  5. Brace your core and maintain a tight, vertical torso throughout the movement, a natural arch in your low back.
  6. Keep your weight in your heels and push your hips back to initiate the squat.
  7. Bend your knees to descend until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, keeping your chest up, weight on your heels and your toes on the ground.
  8. Keep the weight of your body in your heels and press back to standing.
  9. When you’re finished with all your reps, twist the bar forward to lock it in place.

Tip

This version will let you squat slightly deeper. If you want to squat deeper on regular, free-weight squats, this can be a good teaching tool.

2 Variations to Make the Smith Machine Squat Harder

1. Smith Machine Front Squat

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Region Lower Body
  1. Adjust the bar of the machine so that it’s around chest height.
  2. Set up in the machine with your feet about shoulder-width apart and rest the bar on the front of your shoulders. You can grab the bar with a “catch” grip (elbows forward and palms facing up) or cross your arms in front of you so that your right hand is on your left shoulder and your left hand is on your right shoulder. As you prepare to unlock the bar, it should be barely touching your neck in the front.
  3. Twist the bar back to unlock it and set your feet at a width and angle that’s comfortable for you. Your feet can be slightly turned out or closer to straight forward. If you don’t know where you’re comfortable, play with your foot placement in some light, warm-up sets.
  4. Brace your core. Maintain a tight, vertical torso throughout the movement, a natural arch in your low back.
  5. Keep your weight in your heels and push your hips back to initiate the squat.
  6. Bend your knees to descend until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, keeping your chest up, weight in your heels and toes on the floor.
  7. Keep the weight of your body in your heels and press back to standing.
  8. When you’re finished with all your reps, twist the bar forward to lock it in place.

Tip

Bodybuilders swear by this version, saying it works their quads harder than back squats or Smith machine back squats.

2. Smith Machine Split Squat

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Region Lower Body
  1. Adjust the bar of the machine so that it’s around chest height.
  2. Set up in the machine with the bar resting on your trapezius muscles — your “shrugging” muscles — not on the bones of your neck.
  3. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing forward).
  4. Move your right foot forward and your left foot back so that your right leg is 2 to 3 feet in front or your left. Your front foot should be flat, and your back foot should be up on the toe. The bar should be over your center of gravity.
  5. Twist the bar to unlock it.
  6. Keep your torso upright and slowly lower your body until your knees form 90-degree angles. Don’t let your knee touch the ground; keep it hovering above the ground.
  7. Push yourself back up to standing.
  8. Once you finish all your reps on the right side, do an equal number with your left foot forward.
  9. Twist the bar forward to lock it before stepping out of the machine.

Tip

Split squats let you train one leg at a time. Using a Smith machine for this move lets you concentrate on the working leg without worrying about balance, so you can use slightly more weight than you would for a dumbbell split squat.

Smith Machine Squat Alternative

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

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Region Lower Body
  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest vertically. Your hands should cup the head of a dumbbell — like you’re holding a goblet.
  3. Set your feet at a width and angle that’s comfortable for you: Your feet can be pointed slightly out or closer to straight forward. If you don’t know where you’re comfortable, play with your foot placement in some light, warm-up sets.
  4. Brace your core and maintain a tight, vertical torso throughout the movement, a natural arch in your low back.
  5. Push your hips back to initiate the squat.
  6. Bend your knees to descend until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, keeping your chest up, weight in your heels and toes on the ground.
  7. Keep the weight of your body in your heels as you press back to standing.

Tip

The goblet squat is a good Smith machine squat alternative if your gym doesn’t have a barbell, but you want to start doing free-weight squats. The goblet squat can help you keep your balance: The dumbbell held in front provides a good counterweight so you can lean back into your heels.

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