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If you’re looking to build strong and muscular legs with a unilateral exercise, the Smith machine split squat is an excellent choice. Not only does it help assist you in balancing the weight, it can help guide you as you go through the reps, ensuring you target the right muscles.
If you’ve never used or seen a Smith machine, it’s a machine with a barbell on a fixed track. This fixed track helps in a number of ways when performing a split squat. The question is, how do you do a Smith machine split squat?
To do the Smith machine split squat, start by setting up the bar at a height even with your shoulders. Get under it and place it on your upper back, and set your feet like you would for a lunge. Next, drop your back knee down towards the ground, stopping an inch or two from it, then drive back up to a standing position.
Using the Smith machine for split squats sounds straightforward, but to maximize the effectiveness of it, it's important to know what to look out for when performing them and how to best utilize this exercise in your overall training program.
In this article, I’ll discuss:
- The muscles worked during Smith machine split squats
- How to do the Smith machine split squat
- Benefits of Smith machine split squats
- Drawbacks of Smith machine split squats
- Smith machine split squat mistakes to avoid
- Who should do Smith machine split squats
- Who should not do Smith machine split squats
- How to program Smith machine split squats
- Other gear and equipment to use when doing Smith machine split squats
- Smith machine split squat alternatives
Muscles Worked During Smith Machine Split Squat
The Smith machine split squat targets several lower body muscles. Depending on how you perform the exercise, you can emphasize one part over others. For example, staying more upright will put more emphasis on the quadriceps as opposed to the glutes. However, if you add a forward lean, you could target the glutes more.
The quadriceps muscles on the front side of your thigh are the primary muscle used when performing split squats. They help to extend or straighten the knee and flex the hip.
During a smith machine split squat, they will be the main driver pushing your body up from the ground.
The quadriceps are comprised of four distinct muscle bellies:
- Rectus femoris – This runs down the middle of the leg from the hip to your knee cap.
- Vastus lateralis – This runs on the outside of the leg from your hip to the outside of your knee.
- Vastus medialis – This starts at the top of your leg by the hip joint and runs down and to the inside of the knee cap. This forms the teardrop muscle you see on muscular quads.
- Vastus intermedius – This runs down the middle of the leg, under the rectus femoris, from the top of the leg to the outside of the knee cap.
The glutes, also known as your butt muscles, make up the largest muscle in the body. This group of muscles is primarily responsible for hip extension during the Smith machine split squat, and as hip abductors, they keep the knee on the front leg from caving in. This allows you to keep the best alignment possible when doing the split squat on a Smith machine.
The glutes are comprised of:
- Gluteus maximus – The largest muscle belly of the group, it makes up most of what we know to be our butt. It runs from the pelvis and tailbone all the way to the femur and covers a big area.
- Gluteus medius – The middle child of the three gluteal muscles, it sits from the top of the pelvis, or ilium, and travels to the top of the femur.
- Gluteus minimus – The smallest of the three gluteal muscles, it's also the deepest of the three, as it sits below the gluteus medius. It runs from the outside of your pelvis to the top of your femur.
Learn more about how squat variations work your glutes in Do Squats Make Your Butt Bigger? (Science-Backed).
The hamstrings, or the muscles on the back of your thigh, work differently than the other muscles during a Smith machine split squat. They work more as a stabilizer than pushing the weight.
This group of muscles is comprised of three muscle bellies:
- Semimembranosus – The most medial or closest to the middle of your body, it runs from your hip to the inside of your tibia or lower leg bone.
- Semitendinosus – In between the other two hamstring muscles, it runs from the pelvis to the inside surface of your tibia.
- Biceps femoris – the most lateral or closest to the outside of your body, it runs from your hip all the way to the outside of your fibula, just below the knee.
The adductors are a large group of muscles in the inner thigh that run from your pelvis to various points on your upper leg. They work together to bring your leg in towards the middle of your body.
When performing a Smith machine split lunge, their main role is stabilizing the pelvis. They can also act on hip extension at the bottom of the movement.
The group of adductors consists of the adductor longus, adductor brevis, and adductor magnus, as well as other smaller muscles.
They make up what you would call your groin muscles. If you’ve ever had a spasm there during a split squat or lunge, you know you worked them.
The calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, stabilize your feet and ankle joint while performing the split squat. Their other functions include plantar flexing and dorsiflexing the foot, or pointing your foot up and down.
Core and Erector Spinae
Your core muscles are more than your 6-pack ab muscles. Your core is a 360-degree view of the muscles of the trunk. So it includes not only your front ab muscles but also the sides and lower back muscles.
The core and erector muscles' main role is to keep you upright and avoid the upper body collapsing during the Smith machine split squat.
Smith Machine Split Squat: How To
Step One: Set the height of the Smith machine bar and load weight
Adjust the height of the bar by unracking it and putting it at a height that is even with your shoulders. Load the bar with your desired weight.
Step Two: Get the bar into position on your upper back
Place the bar on your upper back, set your hands, then turn the bar to unrack it out of the Smith machine.
Step Three: Adjust your stance so that you’re in a split stance
Place your front foot under the bar, and step back with the opposite foot.
Step Four: Bend both knees at the same time
Bend both knees, lowering your back knee towards the ground and keeping weight on the front leg.
Step Five: Lower until your front thigh is parallel to the floor or your back knee touches the ground
Lower yourself down until your front knee hits 90 degrees or just before your back knee hits the floor.
Step Six: Drive through the floor with your front foot to stand back up
Push through the floor with your front foot to stand back up.
Benefits of Smith Machine Split Squats
1. More Balance Support
Performing a Smith machine single-leg squat gives you more balance support because the bar is on a fixed track, so you don’t have to worry about falling over as you squat.
2. Less Stabilizer Muscle Demand, More Leg Muscle Demand
Since the Smith machine is on a fixed path, it makes it easier to balance, which allows you to maximize the amount of force you use with your legs. This lets you increase the load without worrying about the limiting factor of balance throwing you off.
3. Work on Strength Imbalances
Have you ever noticed that one side of your body can handle more weight or reps than the other? Most of us have one side that is stronger than the other, which is okay.
Doing a single-leg squat on the Smith machine allows you to concentrate on each leg in isolation, which can help bring the muscles as close to equal as possible.
4. Less Low Back Stress
An exercise like a barbell squat can put stress on your lower back due to the high load placed on it.
Looking for other types of squats you can do on a Smith machine? Check out 9 Smith Machine Squat Variations (With Pictures).
Drawbacks of Smith Machine Split Squats
1. Limited Range of Motion
The Smith machine restricts your movement to a fixed vertical plane, which can limit your range of motion. With this limited and restricted range of motion, it can feel uncomfortable or awkward for some lifters.
2. Less Stabilizer/Core Muscle Demand
I know, I just listed this as a benefit of the Smith machine split squat, so how could it also be a drawback?
Since the bar is in a fixed path of movement, there is less need to balance the weight, which means your core muscles don’t have to do as much work compared to performing a barbell split squat.
Smith Machine Split Squat Mistakes to Avoid
Foot Placement Width
One of the biggest mistakes with the Smith machine split squat and split squats, in general, is setting up your feet in the wrong position.
If you set them too close to each other, your range of motion feels cramped. If the distance between your feet, or your stride, is too far apart, you won’t be able to maximize the exercise and the force you can produce.
Having a longer stride might feel good, as you’ll certainly feel a stretch on the back leg, but it won’t do anything to increase leg strength or the effectiveness of the exercise.
Front Knee Going Past the Toes
While the knees going over the toes isn’t inherently dangerous, it can show that your technique is lacking in that you’re not keeping the load in line with your hips. It could mean that you’re leaning too far forward into the split squat.
Slamming Back Knee Into the Ground
This is an issue for two reasons.
First, you could injure your knee if you repeatedly hit it into the ground.
Second, it can show that you’re not controlling the descent of the split squat, which means you’re not using the correct muscles to do the exercise and relying more on momentum.
It is okay if the knee gently taps the ground to ensure you’re getting full range of motion, but you still want to maintain control.
Too Much Weight Too Soon
This is a classic mistake for every exercise you can do. You start out with a weight that's potentially too heavy for you to do effectively, and you end up compromising on your form. This decreases the effectiveness of the exercise and can increase the risk of an injury.
Start off with a lighter weight and then gradually increase as you become more competent and confident with the Smith machine split squat.
Who Should Do Smith Machine Split Squats?
Smith machine split squats are great for a lot of people, but there are a few targeted populations that would do really well with putting them into their training programs.
- Athletes – Athletes in most sports rely on having strong lower bodies to perform at their best. As we’ve seen, the Smith machine split squat is great for developing lower body strength and power, which translates well into whatever sport you play.
- General lifters – Most people that go to the gym want to be in shape, get stronger, and add some muscle. Split squats on the smith machine can improve those lower body aesthetics as it builds muscle, increases strength, and can give the legs an overall muscular look.
- Those who suffer from knee pain – One would think that split squats for those with knee pain are a no-no. However, studies have shown that if you can increase the strength of your quadriceps, you can improve knee pain.
Who Should Not Do Smith Machine Split Squats?
Smith machine split squats, while a great lower body exercise, may not be suitable for everyone. In some cases, you may need to modify them or avoid them altogether.
- Individuals with hip or ankle injuries – The Smith machine split squat can place stress on the lower body joints, namely the hips and ankles. If you have a past or current injury, this exercise may aggravate those areas.
- Those with balance issues – Even though the bar is locked into a fixed motion, it can still present a challenge if you have difficulty balancing. If you find it hard to maintain balance standing in a split position without a load, it might be best to skip this exercise.
- Beginners – While you can control the amount of weight you use for the Smith machine split squat, it might be prudent to start with a bodyweight variation if you’re new to this exercise or new to exercise in general. With a bodyweight variation, you can learn proper technique before adding weight.
- Those with limited mobility – Some degree of flexibility and mobility is needed to perform the Smith machine split squat. If you lack the mobility in the quads and hips to get a full range of motion, you could skip this or find ways to modify it by placing an Airex pad (or two) under your back knee.
How To Program Smith Machine Split Squats
To add Smith machine split squats into your training program, it's important to know your goal. Whether it’s strength, muscle building, or endurance, you want to be able to put the right sets and reps in place so that it’s the most effective.
Knowing what the goal is will also help to inform where the exercise will go in our training program.
If you’re looking to build maximum strength, you want to do this exercise first. This way, your muscles are fresh and at 100%.
Keeping reps between 3 and 6 will help build maximum strength. Aim for sets in the 3-6 range, depending on how fatigued you get.
You have to effectively load your leg muscles to get them to adapt and grow. This means loading with around 70-75% of our 1 rep max weight and aiming for at least 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
When your aim is hypertrophy or muscle building, these exercises can come first, or you can place the exercise in the middle of your workout after your main lift.
To make your lower body muscles more resilient to endurance training, you want to build up your tolerance to loads over long periods of time.
When using the Smith machine split squat for more endurance-type training, do it at the end of your workout for at least 3 sets of 10 or more reps.
Recommended Gear to Use for Smith Machine Split Squats
If you are in that beginner or intermediate group of exercisers, using gear to do Smith machine split squats isn’t necessary. However, there may be cases where some equipment could come in handy to get more out of the exercise.
With the Smith machine split squat being a quad-centric exercise, it stands to reason that the muscle will feel tight at one point or another. This could lead to a decrease in performance due to mobility restrictions.
You can use a foam roller to reduce muscle tension, which will aid in your ability to perform the exercise.
If you need assistance bracing your core when the weight gets really heavy, you can use a lifting belt to make sure you protect your spine.
However, a belt is better suited for advanced lifters.
Check out some of our favorite lifting belts in Best Powerlifting Belt: In-Depth Guide & Review.
If you find that you have achy knees when doing any lower body exercise, especially ones where you have to bend your knees, knee sleeves might be worth investing in. These sleeves can help bring more blood flow to the area, keep the joint warm, and give it more support as you perform the Smith machine split squat.
While it won’t necessarily keep you from getting injured, it can help improve your performance.
5 Smith Machine Split Squat Alternatives
There are several ways to change how you perform a Smith machine split squat, like changing the equipment you use or taking the bar from your back and loading it in front of you like a front squat.
These alternatives to the Smith machine split squat will give you more ways to train your lower body in your next workout.
Bodyweight Split Squat
This alternative is a great place to start if you’ve never done any kind of split squat before. Using your body weight will help you learn the exercise technique, especially if you are a beginner.
Resistance Band Split Squat
If bodyweight has become too easy and you want to add a challenge, you can use resistance bands to provide a load to the exercise.
The interesting thing about using a band is that the resistance will change as you move through the movement. As you lower down into the split squat, the tension on the band eases a bit. As you stand up, the band is stretched more, adding more resistance to the exercise.
Barbell Split Squat
The setup for this exercise is similar to the Smith machine split squat, as the bar is loaded on your upper back. However, there is more stability demand due to it not being on a fixed track.
This will require more stability and core strength to perform properly and could take some getting used to if you’re not used to using free weights for split squats.
Dumbbell Split Squat
If you want to do split squats but don't like the feeling of a bar on your back, you can use dumbbells and perform the same exercise.
Hold the dumbbells at your sides as you get into a split squat position, then lower your knee down, like the Smith machine split squat.
Using dumbbells creates a stability challenge, which makes it a harder squat variation.
Smith Machine Single-Leg Squat
Circling back to using the Smith machine for a different unilateral exercise, the Smith machine single-leg squat is a variation where instead of putting one foot behind you, you keep it off the ground and purely use the front leg for the exercise.
This can be a more effective exercise, as you only use one leg to go up and down. However, it comes with an increased challenge on your balance and stability.
The single-leg squat on the Smith machine is best suited for those with a good base of lower body strength.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Smith Machine Split Squats Good?
Smith machine split squats are a great exercise if you want to build size and strength in your leg muscles, specifically in your quads. They also challenge you to work on muscle imbalances and require more balance and coordination.
What Muscles Do Smith Machine Split Squats Work?
The Smith machine split squat primarily works your quadriceps and glutes while secondarily targeting your adductors, calves, and core muscles.
How Do You Do a Bulgarian Split Squat on the Smith Machine?
To do a Bulgarian split squat on a Smith machine, you would set it up in the same manner as the regular Smith machine split squat, with one exception. When you take that step back with the back leg, you’ll place it on a bench or other elevated surface instead of keeping it on the floor.
The Smith machine split squat is a great exercise to build strength and size in your lower body muscles, especially the quadriceps. Using the Smith machine has benefits, like challenging your stability and balance more. However, it also comes with drawbacks, like being locked into a specific vertical plane of motion, which leads to less freedom of movement.
In all, the Smith machine split squat can be a useful tool for most lifters, especially ones who have experience performing other variations of split squats and single-leg exercises.
If you are starting out with the split squat, there are other variations you can use to build your confidence and competence before you tackle the Smith machine variation.
About The Author
Chris Cooper is a certified personal trainer through the NSCA and a massage therapist in New York. He has over 17 years experience blending the two worlds to work with clients in their pursuit to get stronger and move pain-free as they return from injury. He runs his coaching services through CoachChrisCooper.com.