Perhaps the most controversial piece of exercise equipment in the gym is the Smith machine. If you’re unfamiliar, the Smith machine is an apparatus with a barbell attached to vertical steel rails.
In one camp you have casual lifters who find it less intimidating and thus replace free barbell movements with Smith machine variations. In another camp you have gym hard-os who think the Smith machine has no place in any program, and is best used as a place to hang your sweatshirt in between sets. However, there is a middle ground. The Smith machine is a tool that, when used properly, offers up unique benefits that can enhance your workout.
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Tidy Up Your Form
A barbell squat is one of the most butchered exercises in the gym. People often don’t set up properly, squat down deep enough, or stay balanced. Now if a Smith machine fixed all these problems, I’d include it in every program I wrote. But no machine is that good. However, two things the Smith machine is really good at fixing are: bar path and staying vertical in the squat.
Exercises like the squat, that require a straight bar path, meaning the bar travels in a perpendicular line to the ground on the ascent and descent, are well suited for some Smith machine supplementations.
When doing a free barbell squat, If you find that the bar travels forward, or corkscrews as you come out of your squat, adding in some Smith machine squats makes sense.
How to do a Smith Machine Squat
- To perform a Smith machine squat, place the bar from where you’d like to un-rack it, then load the bar.
- Set up as you would a normal squat.
- Center the bar and make sure it’s sitting on your shoulders, which are tucked under the bar.
- Un-rack the bar, then unlock your knees and hips at the same rate as you descend to your fullest range of motion.
- Rise back up by pushing the ground down and your shoulders straight up into the bar.
- You should not feel the bar grinding forward into the Smith machine.
However, the Smith Machine isn’t good for tidying up all exercises. For example, a proper bench press requires more of an elliptical bar path, so benching on a Smith machine may, in fact, hurt your form.
Isolate Specific Muscles
Since the Smith machine removes the element of stabilizing a bar, it allows us to change the mechanics of whatever movement we are doing in order to trigger specific muscles that we want to adapt.
For example, think of the Smith machine squat mentioned earlier. If we were to move our feet slightly forward, we would put more stress onto our quads. In this way, the Smith machine becomes more of a hack squat. If your gym doesn’t have a hack squat machine, the Smith machine makes a great substitute.
The Smith machine can also provide advantages for the classic hip thrust. The classic hip thrust is a glute exercise in which you sit on the ground with your shoulders propped up against a bench, and a barbell on your lap. Usually, this is done with some padding on the bar to protect your fun bits.
You then extend your hips into the air in what is maybe the most awkward exercise in the gym, but what is also one of the best glute workouts on the planet. Just try not to make eye contact with anyone as you’re doing your reps.
How to do a Smith Machine Hip Thrust
The hip thrust is usually done with a free barbell, but doing it on a Smith machine has a couple upsides. When performing a hip thrust on a Smith machine, it allows us to get deeper hip flexion, meaning more cake gains.
- Place a bench in front of the Smith machine.
- Position yourself beneath the bar so it’s resting on your hips.
- Grip the bar, then push the bar up using your glutes making sure your heels are planted firmly in the ground.
- Squeeze the glutes and hamstrings at the top of the rep, and hold for a few seconds before descending.
Reduce Overtraining and Fatigue
Barbell exercises are great, but usually, they come at a cost. Bigger benefits usually mean bigger recovery times. For example, a deadlift will help put a lot of muscle on your frame, but it will also take a while, sometimes over a week depending on how strong you are. So if fatiguing and overtraining is an issue for you, throwing some Smith machine exercises into your program may be a great idea.
If you have, let’s say three deadlift movements in a week: barbell deadlift, barbell Romanian deadlifts (RDL), and rack pulls, but you find yourself not feeling recovered, or chronically fatigued from your workouts, replacing the barbell RDL with a Smith machine RDL might be a good idea. You might not be able to do as much weight, but you’ll stimulate the same muscles and recover faster, meaning you’ll be fresher for your next workout.
How to do a Smith Machine Deadlift
- To do a Smith machine RDL, start with the bar at about hip height.
- Un-rack the bar and begin lowering it to the ground by putting your hips into extension, i.e. your hips move backwards backwards while your knees stay still.
- Imagine that everything from your knees down is stuck in cement and the only way to lower the weight down is to stick your butt back as far as you can.
When it comes to the Smith machine debate, the answer is not as black or white as some would have you believe. The Smith machine is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used properly, or it can be misused. A hammer is great, but not if you’re using it as a screwdriver.