You’re at the gym for leg day, and you’re supposed to hit squats, but all the power racks are taken. You start getting frustrated until you look to the corner and see the Smith machine. But there’s one problem — you’ve never done a Smith machine squat before.
So how do you do a Smith machine squat? To do a Smith machine squat, face away from the machine, and stand straight with the bar resting on your upper back. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly in front of you with your hands holding the bar. When ready, rotate your wrists to unhook the bar from the safety stops and do a squat.
Knowing how to do a Smith machine squat properly is crucial because it will help you get the most out of the movement. If you don’t do it correctly, you can get injured or won’t be able to see the results you want.
In this article, I will discuss:
- The differences between a Smith machine squat and a barbell squat
- The benefits and drawbacks of Smith machine squats
- How to do squats on a Smith machine
- How to implement them
- Who should use them
- What makes them controversial
4 Differences Between a Smith Machine Squat and a Barbell Squat
Before trying to do a Smith machine squat, you should understand the differences between it and a barbell squat.
1. Safety Measures
One of the more obvious aspects of the Smith machine is that the bar is attached to the rack and is fixed to a vertical or semi-vertical movement. This guarantees the Smith machine bar will not harm anyone by falling off its stops.
Also, the weights don’t need to be clipped on, as the bar will never tilt to one side.
Because of its free motion, a barbell squat can tilt from side to side, depending on the quality of the lift. Thus, it needs safety clips in case the plates start moving.
Other safety aspects of the Smith machine are its safety stops and rotational lock. As the bar is fixed to the machine, it will have a locking attachment on both ends that can clip onto one of the many safety stops on the machine.
In practice, you must rotate the bar off its stops to begin your exercise. If you fail your squat at any point, you rotate the bar again to catch one of the safety stops below.
Barbell squats are much more dangerous in this regard, as you tend to only have two places you can set the bar: the starting hooks where the squat will start and end, or the safety bars you might have placed below your squat range.
2. Bar Path
As alluded to earlier, the bar path on a Smith machine squat is fixed, whereas with a barbell, it is completely free moving. This is a huge difference to adjust to, as it forces you to move differently to complete your squat.
With a barbell squat, the bar moves with you, and you’ll know if you’re squatting incorrectly because it will feel awkward.
During a Smith machine squat, the bar does not adjust to you and how you move. Instead, you must squat in a way that allows the bar to go up and down smoothly.
Due to the fixed bar path, you’ll have to adjust your squat stance to do a proper Smith machine squat.
If you think about a barbell squat, you position your feet around shoulder-width apart, with toes pointed out. As you squat, the weight will distribute throughout both of your feet as your knees push forward over your toes.
With a Smith machine squat, the heels of your feet should be about where your knees are, if not in front of them, so the motion of the bar doesn’t affect you.
Learn more about finding the right squat stance in How Far Apart Should Feet Be For Squats? (Stance Breakdown).
4. Muscle Recruitment
Smith machine squats do a great job of helping you focus on simply moving the weight up and down without worrying about balancing during the movement.
While this makes it easier to perform from a balance standpoint, the Smith machine squat takes the stress off the stabilizer muscles that benefit from free-weight training and is less practical for real-life use.
Smith Machine Squat: Muscles Worked
A Smith machine squat will hit all the same muscles as a barbell squat but will emphasize the load differently. The fixed bar path of the Smith machine and the adjustment you have to make in your stance to squat correctly doesn’t change what muscles are worked. However, it does change the level of intensity at which each muscle trains.
Primary muscles worked include:
- Quadriceps – With feet further forward and a narrower stance, the quads can stretch to their full range of motion.
- Glutes – With a wider stance, the glutes reach a full stretch and are targeted more directly.
- Calves – Different stances will affect ankle flexion to various degrees, with feet narrower and more central leading to greater stretches in the calves.
Secondary muscles worked include:
- Hamstrings – Working as the antagonist to the quads, the hamstrings stretch and contract but with little tension.
- Erector spinae (muscles which all help you move and rotate your torso) – Normally focused on keeping you upright, these stabilizer muscles don’t have to work as hard during Smith machine squats.
- Hips – The hip flexors will engage the most at the bottom of the squat when they are most contracted.
- Abdominals – They are active but not fully engaged, as the Smith machine takes away their stabilizing task.
How to Do Smith Machine Squats
If you’re unsure how to squat on a Smith machine, follow the steps below. Some machines are more angled than others. Doing an angled Smith machine squat is largely the same, but you may have to change the direction you face.
Step One: Adjust the setting of the bar height
Set up the bar so that it is below shoulder level. This will ensure the bar rests on your upper back.
Step Two: Stand inside the Smith machine
Step into the Smith machine like you would a barbell squat with your back facing away from the machine. If it is an angled Smith machine, face whichever way allows for a smooth descent.
Step Three: Set up underneath the bar
Grip the bar with your hands in a comfortable position, place the bar on your upper back, and set your feet so that your heels are in front of your knees.
Step Four: Rotate the bar off the safety stop and descend into a squat
Rotate the bar off of its safety stop and begin your descent. Go as low as you can under control and notice how the movement will feel different from a normal squat. Try to keep your torso vertical.
Step Five: Push through your feet to stand back up
When you hit your bottom position, raise back up by pushing through your feet and contracting your quads and glutes to get you up.
Step Six: Complete all reps, then rotate the bar again to lock it on one of the safety stops
When you finish, rotate the bar again so that it locks on one of the safety stops, and exit the Smith machine. Congratulations! You completed a Smith machine squat.
Why Is the Smith Machine Controversial?
The use of a weighted squat machine like a Smith machine remains a controversial subject with fierce arguments from supporters and opponents alike. The only other controversy that can rival it regarding lower body development is that of the leg press vs the squat.
What is most important to understand is that, like any exercise, the Smith machine has its proper and improper uses.
Opponents of the Smith machine argue that the fixed bar path makes any exercise completed with it impractical when thinking of real-life usage.
From an athlete’s perspective, real life has no support beams, and the athlete is responsible for balancing themselves. The best athletes are the ones who train and perfect game-like scenarios. Being fixed to a plane of movement is not a situation that ever occurs in games or competitions and is thus not transferable to most sports.
Another flaw of the Smith machine is that it almost eliminates the development of the stabilizer muscles. Those muscles may not grow or strengthen if you rely solely on the Smith machine for your lower body training.
4 Benefits of Smith Machine Squats
1. No Spotter Is Necessary
The most obvious benefit of the Smith machine back squat is that it is a safer option when lifting alone. The Smith machine is designed with so many safety features that you can feel comfortable using it whenever and however you want.
Now, it’s still on you to use this piece of equipment responsibly because injuries are still possible. But the injuries that follow Smith machine usage tend to be from those who ignore warning signs and don’t practice proper Smith machine squat form or try to take advantage of the extra safety mechanisms to attempt more egregious Smith machine squat variations.
2. Muscular Isolation
With the added support from the Smith machine, tension is removed from the stabilizer muscles, like the abdominals and erector spinae muscles.
If your goal is to solely focus on the quads, for example, the Smith machine does a great job of making sure you can hit the quads without worrying about failing because of another body part/muscle group. You would hate to go after a muscle pump and fail to reach it because your back couldn’t handle the weight that your legs could.
Barbell front squats and various front squat alternatives are great examples of exercises that more often fail due to other muscle groups rather than the legs themselves. Where your legs might be strong enough to carry the weight, your upper body and core simply can’t handle the same stress as easily.
The rehabilitation process benefits massively from muscular isolation. Even without the use of a Smith machine, injuries or significant weaknesses in people are treated with them receiving some assistance, usually balance-based, to help rebuild the injured muscle.
The Smith machine does this by removing the need for stabilizer muscles and helps keep the focus on the weak muscle, making it easier to see progress in that muscle over time.
4. Lift More Weight
Lifting more weight comes with a caveat, as a Smith machine squat is not representative of how strong you are in the squat movement. Nevertheless, it is often true that you can lift more weight because you don’t have to worry about spending energy stabilizing yourself since the Smith machine does it for you.
Though it’s not representative of your true squat strength, doing a Smith machine squat with heavier weight could be interpreted differently with a focus on how individually strong the quads are, for example. Without interference from other muscle groups, we can see what the isolated muscle group is fully capable of on its own from a strength perspective.
4 Drawbacks of Smith Machine Squats
1. Gym Space Required
A drawback for those who own gyms or are looking to build their home gyms is that Smith machines take up a lot of space. Smith machines tend to be bigger than many squat racks or power racks because they must include the fixed bar and safety measures.
Power racks that are bigger than the Smith machine still come out ahead, as they can be more efficient with their space, often having attachments or extra hooks to add more equipment if desired.
2. Cost of Equipment
Adding to the woes of gym owners is the price of Smith machines. Average squat racks have to be sturdy, but they are simple pieces of equipment. Because of this, squat racks will generally be cheaper than the average Smith machine, which needs to include all the extra safety features it promises.
When you start thinking about your gym, it becomes more enticing to buy a cheaper but good quality squat rack and encourage your gym members to build a community of support so they can help spot each other. You save money and foster relationships at the same time.
3. Lower Muscular Activation
It seems counterintuitive, as one of the main benefits of Smith machine squats is to isolate the prime mover muscles in the legs. The conclusion here is that isolation doesn’t necessarily mean greater tension and strain on the muscle — it just means that muscle is the only one focused.
Similarly, muscular force production is lower in Smith machine squats than barbell squats. In the same vein as lower muscular activation, the muscle fibers active in Smith machine squats are not activated as intensely as they might be during a free weight squat.
4. Lower Real-World Application
Maybe the most important downside to the Smith machine squat is its lack of transferability to the real world. After all, we live in a world with variables and environments constantly changing around us. We are never perfectly balanced, so it only makes sense to learn how to balance without assistance.
Aside from the few, small niche reasons of why you would use a Smith machine to squat, the vast majority of us could see better benefits from a traditional barbell squat.
Smith Machine Squat Mistakes to Avoid
If you’ve never used a Smith machine before, it can be intimidating when you first try it. All the new features and different ways you have to move your body are hard to understand at first, and you’re bound to forget something.
Here is a list of common mistakes I see when people do Smith machine squats for the first time so that you know what to avoid.
Setting the Bar Too High
The first common mistake is setting the bar too high on your back before attempting to squat. Those new to squatting will tend to think that they need to be fully straight up and standing as they get underneath the bar. Some go as far as being up on their tip-toes, like they’re doing a calf raise, to un-rack and re-rack the weight.
This is rather dangerous, as it means that the bar is not resting properly on your back at the start, and you will have to reset your feet with all the weight on top of you in an unbalanced position.
Setting the bar height properly includes having it rest below your neck on your upper traps and shoulders. At that point, you can get under it by doing a tiny quarter-squat so you have more control to lift it and can rack the weight in a safe position as well.
Squatting Like You Would With a Barbell
The hardest adjustment to make when transitioning from barbell squats to back squats on the Smith machine is the different squatting stance. You may have done variations like front squats, Zercher squats, and sumo squats that all have different stances and squatting patterns, but they all share similarity in how the weight is lowered during the squat.
Barbell squatting involves you lowering the weight centrally on yourself, almost cutting yourself into a front and back half with how the bar moves. With a Smith machine squat, the stance you have to take puts the weight further behind you and your feet further forward. The fixed bar path on the Smith machine will also keep your weight and center of balance back.
Completing Reps Too Quickly
This is not a Smith machine exclusive issue, but it is a common one due to the assistance that Smith machines provide.
Typically, when barbell squatting with heavy weights, everyone will take some extra time during the lowering and raising phases because they want to make sure they are not pushing themselves off-balance. That feeling will purposely slow you down and force you to consider your squat form more.
When you set up your Smith machine squat correctly, you should never feel off-balance during the exercise. This could give you a false sense of security and desire to speed up your reps. It is your responsibility at that point to control your pace during the lift.
Hunching Over During Reps
Hunching while Smith machine squatting comes back to you not knowing how to do Smith machine squats properly.
An easy way to avoid this mistake is by asking someone to watch your form or recording yourself doing a few reps and making adjustments to the technique before adding weight.
In the same way you might squat with just the barbell to warm up and make sure everything feels right, do that with the Smith machine and pay attention to your form before loading the bar with weight.
Who Should Do Smith Machine Squats?
The Smith machine squat is a very specific exercise, but it’s suitable for many people. Here are some examples of populations who would benefit from implementing Smith machine squats.
Those With Poor Balancing Ability
If you have significant balancing issues because of old age or some lower body condition that makes balancing difficult, Smith machine squats are a good option.
Strength training is effective because you are able to push the muscles to do full-range movements. But if your lack of balancing prevents you from ever using the full range of motion on free-weight exercises, using a machine like the Smith machine can help.
Those Who Are Injured or Rehabilitating an Injury
If you are injured at the knee or ankle, free-weight squatting can be dangerous. However, the Smith machine squat can help you train your quads and calves in a way that takes stress off the knee and ankle.
Bodybuilders dedicate themselves to sculpting their body in a particular way and thinking about exercises from a point of view that many of us might not. They must take proportions into account.
Free-weight squats are great for quads, but they also engage the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and back to an extent. This could very easily throw off the proportions of the body.
While compound exercises like squats, bench, and deadlift are important, isolation exercises are as important to the bodybuilder who may need to focus on growing one muscle or muscle group. Smith machine squats can help target the quads without engaging many other muscles that might be active during a free-weight squat.
There is also a time and place for powerlifters to do isolation exercises. Learn more in Do Powerlifters Do Isolation Exercises? (Yes, Here’s How).
New Lifters or Those Who Work Out Alone
If you are a beginner and don’t know how to do a proper barbell squat yet, or you don’t have somebody who can spot you and help correct your form, you can also benefit from doing Smith machine squats.
As a beginner, you shouldn’t worry about making rapid strength progress, anyway. That will come, but the most important thing for you is to learn how to lift weights correctly, and the Smith machine can help with that.
Who Should Not Do Smith Machine Squats?
Given that the Smith machine squat is very specific, it is not useful for everyone.
Here are examples of people who would not benefit from Smith machine squatting.
The carryover of Smith machine squats to most sports is little to nothing. Athletes are not building muscle per se and are never isolated when playing so they should rarely, if ever, use a Smith machine to squat.
If you’re an athlete without access to a barbell, I would recommend squatting with dumbbells or kettlebells over squatting on a Smith machine.
Similarly, powerlifters must perfect a specific range of motion and be as strong as possible in that range of motion. Not only does the Smith machine squat not compare to a barbell squat in terms of bar path, but as discussed earlier, the muscular activation and force production is lower than free-weight alternatives.
For someone who needs to maximize their time in strength building, Smith machine squats are a waste of time.
Those Looking to Gain Strength Fast
Maybe you want to get stronger but are not competing in a sport or powerlifting. Even for you, Smith machine squats are not efficient enough to warrant doing them if you have the option for alternative ways to squat.
Those Who Have Access To a Squat Rack
If you are not part of the group I mentioned that would benefit from Smith machine squats, you should always choose other squat variations over Smith machine squats if you have access to a squat rack and a barbell. I would even say to do goblet squats and other free-weight variations first.
This advice doubles for the hack squat, a similar machine-based movement as the Smith machine squat. There is other equipment that can provide better alternatives to either of these machines.
Check out our top hack squat alternatives if you’re looking for more squat variations.
How to Program Smith Machine Squats
If you are curious about adding Smith machine squats to your routine, here’s a way to do it that makes sense and can help you progress in your goals.
The Smith machine squat should be executed as an accessory exercise rather than a main lift. If you treat it as an accessory, the benefits you gain from it are far greater.
When adding the Smith machine squat as an accessory, it should be placed in the middle of your workout, ideally right after your main squat lift.
Because you would have already free-weight squatted at this point, the weight should be a little lighter with the Smith machine squat so that you can focus on form more than anything else.
Start with assuming your Smith machine squat capability is around 60-80% of what your free-weight squat is. It should act as an additional boost to the prime movers of the free-weight squat, so it should not be as taxing as your main lift.
The ideal rep range changes based on what your goals are, but here are some options of what’s acceptable for each goal.
- Strength: 3 – 5 sets of 4 – 8 reps
- Hypertrophy: 4 – 5 sets of 10 – 20 reps
- Rehabilitation: 3 sets of 8 – 12 reps
3 Smith Machine Squat Variations
When we say Smith machine squat, we assume that it’s a Smith machine version of a barbell back squat. While true, it doesn’t explain the other types of squats we are capable of doing with a Smith machine. The bar may be fixed, but that doesn’t mean our minds have to be.
Smith Machine Front Squat
The front squat variation on the Smith machine can be a more effective version of the back squat when it comes to quad development. The barbell front squat is already touted as a better quad developer than the barbell back squat, so the carryover to the Smith machine makes sense.
The reason the Smith machine front squat is a better version for this goal is because of the weight placement on the front side of your body rather than your backside. This will help overload the quads and not let the hamstrings and glutes help out as much.
When Smith machine front squatting, you have to be mindful of a few things. You may find yourself tipping forward, so you will need to adjust your stance and how you descend. This could mean placing your feet even further forward, with your torso straight under the bar as you perform the lift.
Also, if you hold the bar in a clean position you may find it tricky to rotate the bar to lock and unlock from the safety stops. A cross grip might suit you better.
Smith Machine Zercher Squat
Zercher squats are great for athletes and for helping develop torso strength under load. The Smith machine Zercher squat is more torso-focused than the normal Smith machine squat. With the added assistance, it can be a good starting point for lifters new to learning the barbell Zercher squat.
Same as the Smith machine front squat, be mindful that it will be tricky to rotate the bar into a safety stop since the bar will be in the crooks of your elbows.
Another common issue with barbell Zercher squats is hunching over during the lift, so pay attention to that as well when doing the Smith machine version.
Smith Machine Sumo Squat
The Smith machine sumo squat may be one of the few ways to hit your squat stabilizer muscles well with a Smith machine. Free-weight sumo squats keep you more vertical and are designed to hit your adductors (groin) and glutes much more effectively than traditional free-weight squats.
The Smith machine sumo squat doesn’t have as many pitfalls as other Smith machine squat variations so long as the stance is wide and the torso is vertical.
3 Smith Machine Squat Alternatives
Like the free weight alternatives that exist for barbell squatting, there are also several Smith machine squat variations. They work similar muscles but in different ways with different movement patterns.
Smith Machine Split Squat
Like the Bulgarian split squat, the Smith machine split squat requires a bench or box for you to rest one foot on. This is a good alternative to the Smith machine squat because it adds more stress and muscular isolation on each leg separately.
While the weight will not be as high as a normal Smith machine squat, the focus on the muscles used will be more intense.
Smith Machine Leg Press
Weird-looking as it may be, this is a legitimate exercise when done right. Lying on your back with your legs pushing up on the bar simulates the machine version of the leg press very well.
It is also a good alternative exercise because of the added benefit of forcing you to brace your torso while on the ground. If you start raising your back off the ground, you lose the benefits of proper bracing that you can get from this exercise on top of the traditional leg press benefits.
Smith Machine Reverse Lunges
Completing any exercise moving backward is difficult, as we are made to look forwards. Doing Smith machine reverse lunges helps avoid the balancing difficulty with this exercise and allows you to focus on form much more.
Smith machine reverse lunges are a good alternative to Smith machine squats because they can hit the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves in a more distributed manner.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Smith Machine Split Squats Good?
Smith machine squats can be good or bad. If you want to focus on isolating the quads, hamstrings, and glutes without worrying about balance, it’s a good exercise. If you want to train the stabilizer muscles or train for real-world applications, a free-weight version is better.
What Muscles Do Smith Machine Split Squats Work?
Smith machine split squats work the same muscles as a normal split squat but with heavier emphasis on the prime movers and very little effect on the stabilizers. Smith machine split squats work the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Because it’s an off-balance exercise, it will also work the core muscles.
How Do You Do a Bulgarian Split Squat on the Smith Machine?
To do a Bulgarian split squat on the Smith machine, set up a box or a bench to rest one leg behind you. Get underneath the Smith machine bar, rotate it to get it off the safety locks, and squat down. Be mindful of the added difficulty in balancing on one leg.
Smith machine squats and slanted Smith machine squats are controversial exercises largely out of misunderstanding and a lack of experience.
They provide quite a few benefits, like being a self-spotting device and helping those who struggle with balance. But they also have their flaws in that they don’t activate the muscles as much and are not as applicable to real-life scenarios as free-weight squats.
When considering implementing a Smith machine squat into your program, make sure there's a reason for it. Plenty of alternatives, like goblet squats, kettlebell squats, and barbell squats, achieve the same or better results.
About The Author
Mikel Clark-Arroniz is a strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer, currently residing
in Chicago. He has 15+ years of martial arts experience and 10+ years of team sports
experience. Ever the athlete, and student, Mikel now trains for triathlons and is looking to learn
about endurance sports. You can connect with him on his website, Instagram, or LinkedIn.