The Smith machine is an effective way to increase strength and build muscle. While it won’t prevent all exercise-related injuries, Smith machines can help increase the safety and stability of weight training sessions.
Smith machines — those hefty pieces of weight equipment with a barbell fixed into a rack of steel rails — can be intimidating. But these nifty strength training machines are actually pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it! They can also help take your workouts to the next level, especially if you lift alone.
Keep reading for the inside scoop on how to use a Smith machine safely and effectively.
Imagine a tall rack that’s specially designed to hold a barbell in place on a vertical plane. The frame even includes pegs to lock the bar into place if lifters need to pause and take a breather mid-press. That, friends, is a Smith machine!
Folks use Smith machines to work all the major muscle groups. They’re popular for a few reasons:
- more effective muscle isolation
- safer solo lifting (the rack acts as a spotter!)
- increased stability during resistance training
- potentially lifting heavier weights while maintaining body control
Here’s how to complete this classic move on a Smith machine:
- Place the bar — bare or preloaded with weight — at shoulder height.
- Grip the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Step slightly in front of the rack, feet hip-distance apart, to allow the bar to rest gently on the back of your shoulders.
- Push upward to lift the bar out of its locked position.
- Engage your core muscles as you slowly squat until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Be sure to keep your head in an excellent neutral position!
- Hold for a second or two.
- Push down through your heels to stand back up, squeezing your butt as you reach a standing position.
Rear-foot elevated split squat
Wanna take your squats to the next level? Try a Smith-spotted split squat. Just know that research suggests extra stabilization from equipment can decrease your body’s frontal plane muscle activation.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Position the top of your back foot on a bench or block behind you.
- Place your other foot in front of your torso so that you’re poised for a forward lunge.
- Rest the bar on your upper back and unlock it from the machine.
- As you keep your spine neutral and your core engaged, bend your front knee until your back knee touches the floor.
- Use your quads and hammies to drive back up into the starting position.
If you’re already a pro at bodyweight hip thrusts, it might be time to add some weight. The Smith machine is a great way to do this.
- Position the bench so that it’s behind you and parallel to the Smith bar.
- Lower yourself onto the bench so that the bottom of your shoulders are on the edge of the bench. Gotta support that upper back!
- Unlock the bar and rest it across your hips.
- Spread your feet shoulder-width apart and squeeze your glutes as you position them just above the floor.
- Squeeze your butt as you raise your hips so that your thighs are parallel with the floor.
- Hold this top position for a second, then slowly lower back to the start.
Closed-grip bench press
- Lay flat on a bench underneath the bar.
- With your hands 6–8 inches apart, grab the bar and push upward until your arms are straight.
- Keep your elbows close to your sides as you slowly lower the bar until it hovers just an inch above your chest.
- Hold for a second or two.
- Push back up into the starting position.
Let’s work those deltoids! Just remember to keep your back as flat against the bench back as possible.
- Adjust your bench into an upright, 90-degree position under the bar.
- Sit on the bench and adjust the machine so the bar will come down just in front of your face.
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Unlock the bar and slowly lower it toward your upper chest.
- Pause for a moment as the bar reaches your chin, then press it back upward until your arms are straight (but don’t lock your elbows!).
Almost any type of lifting exercise can be performed with a Smith machine. The main drawback is that having a machine stabilize moves into one plane means your body’s stabilizer muscles don’t have to work so hard.
Safer? Absolutely. But using a Smith machine for all your lifting could make it easy to slack on your body control.
A Smith machine can increase safety and stability, but that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. Avoid making mistakes on the Smith machine.
- Bad foot placement. When you use a Smith machine, your barbell is locked into place. The weight can’t move, but you can! For squats and split-squats in particular, pay careful attention to foot alignment. Check for a 90-degree knee bent, and never let your knees cross in front of your toes.
- Ignoring proper form. This can be an issue with all Smith machine moves, including presses, squats, and thrusts. Good form is just as crucial on a Smith machine as in a free weight session. Don’t assume that using a fixed-plane machine will protect you from injury.
- Facing the wrong way. Some Smith machines are angled. If yours isn’t 100 percent vertical, pay attention to the way you face, especially with presses. Always ensure that your movement works with your joints, not against them.
- Rounding your back. This squat no-no is easy to do on a Smith machine. Be sure to keep your back upright and in a nice neutral line. Just because it’s easy to slump doesn’t mean you should!
Weight training with or without a Smith machine comes with a risk of injury. A recent year-long study of U.S. Army soldiers found that approximately 4.5 percent of the men and 0.6% of the women experienced a lifting-related injury.
Fortunately, training with a Smith machine tends to reduce the risk of injury. A Smith machine is a spotter for solo lifters and helps keep heavy weights from wrenching your shoulders or joints if you lose your balance or control mid-move.
Some say a Smith machine is like working out with training wheels. Fair enough, except the comparison shouldn’t lead you to believe that lifting with a Smith machine won’t get results. Research suggests that chest-press training with a Smith machine vs. free weights vs. a medicine ball leads to essentially the same thing: Improved strength! 💪
tl;dr: Beginning weight lifters can use a Smith machine. So can pro athletes. The one time you might wanna forgo a Smith machine is if you’re training for an event that’ll test your body’s stability. A machine offers extra stability, so training with one might trick you into thinking your stabilizing muscles are stronger than they are.
A Smith machine is a weight training machine that features a barbell between rails so that the weight can only move on a vertical plane. Lifting with a Smith machine boosts stability and safety, especially during solo workouts.
Smith machines can help you work a wide range of muscles and perform a variety of moves. However, it can decrease your body’s engagement of stabilizing muscles.
While Smith machines are great for beginning weightlifters, they also have their place among experienced gym rats. If safety and stability are priorities (and they should be!), a Smith machine can help.