Something You Need Know About Smith Machine Squats

smith machine

The Smith machine is a polarizing piece of gym equipment—some people love it, while others are less enthusiastic. Despite its mixed reputation, the Smith machine deserves recognition, especially when it comes to squats.

The Benefits of Smith Machine Squats

Squatting on the Smith machine offers several benefits. One key advantage is that you don’t need a spotter, making it safer to push your limits on leg day. While it may not engage your core as much as barbell squats, the stability of the machine allows you to lift heavier weights, which can lead to greater muscle gains. Additionally, the Smith machine’s fixed path lets you adjust your foot placement to target specific muscle groups more effectively.

Comparing Smith Machine Squats to Barbell Squats

Although Smith machine squats and barbell squats may seem similar, there are crucial differences:

  1. Fixed Bar Path: The Smith machine keeps the bar in a fixed path, which can feel awkward if you don't adjust your foot placement. Unlike barbell squats, where your body can shift, the Smith machine requires you to step your feet forward to maintain proper form.

  2. Core and Stabilizer Muscles: Barbell squats engage your core and stabilizer muscles more than Smith machine squats, as the machine supports the bar throughout the movement.

  3. Safety Features: The Smith machine has catches and hooks, enhancing safety. With a barbell, you may need a spotter or be confident in bailing the bar if lifting heavy.

  4. Bar Weight: The Smith machine bar usually weighs less (15-25lbs) compared to a standard 45lb barbell, but it allows you to lift heavier overall. Always check the machine’s label to know the exact weight.

Muscles Worked

Both Smith machine squats and barbell squats target similar muscles:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Adductors
  • Lower back
  • Abs

Smith machine squats also engage the gastrocnemius (calf muscle), biceps femoris (back of the thigh), and vastus medialis (inner quadriceps), though these muscles are more activated during free weight squats. Adjusting your foot placement can emphasize different muscles.

Smith Machine Squat Benefits

  1. Beginner-Friendly: The Smith machine provides stability, making it ideal for beginners who may not have strong core engagement needed for barbell squats. The ability to re-rack the bar at any point adds a safety net.

  2. Lift Heavier Weights: A 2005 study found that people could lift heavier one-rep maxes on the Smith machine compared to free weights, as they don’t need to balance the bar.

  3. Target Specific Muscles: Adjusting foot placement on the Smith machine allows you to target specific muscles. Moving feet forward emphasizes glutes and hamstrings, while keeping them under the bar focuses on quads.

How to Squat on the Smith Machine

Setting Up

  1. Adjust the bar to shoulder height and load weight plates.
  2. Position yourself with the bar resting on your upper traps, hands placed just outside your shoulders.
  3. Step your feet one step forward, wider than shoulder-width apart, with toes pointing forward or slightly outward.
  4. Lean back slightly to press your upper back into the bar.

Performing the Squat

  1. Twist the bar to unlock it.
  2. Brace your core and push your hips back to initiate the squat, keeping knees in line with toes until thighs are parallel to the floor.
  3. Maintain an upright chest, with weight through your heels and toes on the ground.
  4. Pause, then push through your feet to extend your legs, squeezing your glutes at the top.
  5. Repeat for the prescribed reps, then twist the bar to lock it back in place.

Form Tips

  • Ensure your feet are correctly positioned—neither directly under you nor too far forward.
  • Rest the bar on your traps, not your upper back.
  • Perform the movement slowly, especially during the downward phase.
  • Avoid the “butt wink” by maintaining an upright position and possibly taking a wider stance.
  • Focus on full-depth squats rather than half reps with heavier weights.

Smith Machine Squat Variations

Two effective variations of the Smith machine squat are the Smith machine split squat and the Smith machine sissy squat.

Smith Machine Split Squat

  1. Adjust the bar to chest height and position it on your upper traps.
  2. Step one foot forward and the other back, with the front foot flat and back heel raised.
  3. Unlock the bar and lower your body, bending the front knee and driving the back knee towards the floor.
  4. Push through the front foot to return to standing and repeat for prescribed reps, then switch legs.

Sissy Squat

  1. Set the bar to shoulder height and position it on your upper back.
  2. Walk your feet slightly forward, hip-width apart, and unrack the bar.
  3. Bend your knees forward, coming onto your tiptoes.
  4. Lower until your knees hover above the ground, then push through your toes to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the prescribed reps.

Despite its name, the sissy squat can significantly benefit knee health when done correctly.

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