Can You Build Muscle With a Smith Machine?
It’s no secret that barbell back squats are great for overall body development.
It’s a complex movement that takes a lot of body awareness to perform properly. Squatting heavy with great form, though, will skyrocket your muscle growth and build a nice set of legs, too.
You utilize every muscle in your body to perform a squat. It’s a pretty technical exercise. It’s funny because many babies and toddlers perform perfect deep squat stance because it feels natural.
As our lifestyles dictate the shape or our bodies, a once-natural movement has become an issue.
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While a barbell squat is dynamic, using a Smith machine to squat is not. It is quite literally on rails in a fixed path. That is unless your gym has the fancy free-moving squat machines. Those are better but still doesn’t compare.
For this article, when I refer to a Smith machine, I am talking about the good old-fashioned towel rack in the corner of your gym with a fixed path.
The Smith machine has its ups and downs, but one great thing about them is your feet placement — you don’t have to have your feet directly under the bar. This means you can involve more of your hamstrings.
A study in 2002 was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and they reported the further your feet were positioned in front of the Smith machine bar, the less quad involvement and more hamstring and glute involvement. While the feet were directly under the bar, your hamstrings and glutes received less involvement while your quads got all of the focus.
They also found when your feet were about one foot in front of the bar, your quads, hamstrings, and glutes were all evenly emphasized. They also found 18 inches to be the sweet spot for maximum hamstring and glute involvement.
If you’ve ever heard someone say they can squat more on the Smith machine, they were probably right.
Due to not needing the balance and coordination for balancing a weighted barbell on your back, you can focus more effort on moving the weight. Researchers from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa found when 32 trained lifters tested their one-rep max for the Smith machine; they were about 5% stronger than their free weight squat.
So Can You Build Muscle With a Smith Machine?
Should you use a Smith machine to replace a barbell squat? No. Should you do all of your exercises on there? No.
Incorporating the use of a Smith machine in your routine great — just know its role and how to get the most out of it.
So now that I’ve basically demonized the Smith machine, here are exercises you can do with a Smith machine that will get you closer to your goals.
Like I said above, placing your feet 18” in front of the squat machine bar works your hamstrings and glutes most, 12” in front targets your quads, hamstrings, and glutes evenly, and under the bar is mostly quads.
Aim for three sets of 12 reps for two different variations. Take 60 seconds of rest between sets.
For split squats, you’re going to need to steal a bench from somewhere. Put the bench about a foot behind the bar. Stand under the bar and place one foot behind you on the bench. Next, perform a squat — your form should basically look like a walking lunge.
Perform two sets of 10 reps for each leg, alternating between sets. Aim to rest for about 30 seconds between sets.
Personally, I preferred to perform pressing exercises on the Smith machine over leg exercises.
Grab a bench again — adjustable just means more exercises you can perform. Similar to a squat, using a Smith machine to press means you are losing a lot of natural movement. Treat these exercises more like a last set finisher rather than a full-blown love affair with it.
Lie on the bench and make sure you get it where it is comfortable and going to allow you to press with good form. Keep your feet flat on the floor and perform the exercise. A wider hand placement will emphasize your chest, while a narrower grip emphasizes the triceps.
An adjustable bench means you can now do those variations for an incline and possibly decline position. Don’t forget overhead presses.
Pick a couple of exercises and perform 2 sets of 12 for each exercise. Keep the rest to 30 seconds.
If you have a hard time doing push-ups or regular push-ups are easy, the Smith machine can help you both.
Locking the Smith machine bar at the bottom will allow you to perform push-ups with less force needed to perform them. This why doing push-ups on your knees is easier than on your toes.
If you need more of a challenge, performing decline push-ups works your entire body — especially your core. Lock the bar at your desired height, get on the floor, and hook your feet on the bar. Keep your body tight and lower yourself to the floor and press up.
Perform two or three sets of 12 to 15 reps. If you can, keep rest to 45 seconds between sets.
I love back training and inverted rows are great. Place the bar as low as possible but still giving yourself enough room to lie underneath the bar and stretch your arms out to grab it.
You’ll hold the bar with an overhand grip as if you were about to bench press it, keep your heels on the floor, and form a straight line with your body from your head to your heels. Your body will be slightly suspended.
Tighten your core and retract your shoulder blades while you pull your chest up towards the bar. This is a great lat workout and I invite you to spend your time getting quality reps in.