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Smith machine exercises and gym workouts: How to use for rapid results

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Is there any piece of gym equipment that's more controversial than the Smith machine?

If there is, then I certainly haven't seen it. Because throughout my 10+ year lifting career, I've heard more Smith machine jokes than I have "your mum" jokes.

sporty woman doing back squats

And no, I don't find either of them funny. Such jokes are nothing more than a childish method for gaining attention. But that doesn't stop people parroting back false fitness information regarding the Smith machine, does it?

What people fail to realise is that the Smith machine is simply a muscle-building tool. And, like all muscle-building tools, It's how you use the equipment that determines the quality and speed of your results.

So, before I dive into the most effective Smith machine exercises, which are guaranteed to turbo-charge your results when performed properly, let's look at a few quick safety measures that'll keep you well out of harm's way (and put you closer to the gains).

How to use Smith machine systems safely

fitness equipment for strength training at a gym

How do you use a Smith machine? It's one of our most frequently asked questions. And even after years of training, people still manage to get it wrong. So, to keep you safe and speed up your results, I wrote this quick guide.

Here's how to use Smith machine stations the right way:

1. Perform a few sets of the exercise with just the empty bar.

2. Take note of the lowest position that the bar travels to during the movement.

3. Set the safety catches to just below this position.

4. Load the barbell evenly.

5. Grab with the bar with an appropriate grip for the specific exercise.

6. Lift the barbell upwards first, and then rotate your wrists away from the hooks to unrack it.

7. Perform your set and then rotate your wrists in the opposite direction (to line the bar up with the hooks). Then finish by lowering the bar onto the hooks.

Top 9 best Smith machine exercises

Now that you know how to use a smith machine, it's time to start pumping iron. Here are the top 9 Smith machine weight lifting exercises to level up your physique:

1. Squat

Main muscles: Quads, glutes, spinal erectors

Want muscular legs fast? Then you, my friend, need to try the scientifically-proven Smith machine squat. Unlike the barbell version, you can safely change your foot position to emphasize certain regions of your legs. Place your feet further forwards to work your glutes, or keep them close to your centre of gravity for more quad emphasis.

Step 1: Set the bar to collarbone height and grab it with a shoulder-width grip.

Step 2: Unrack the bar and take a small step forwards while maintaining a neutral spine and forward eye gaze (don’t look up or down basically).

Step 3: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and flare them out around 15-30 degrees.

Step 4: Take a deep breath into your diaphragm and descend towards the ground by breaking at your hips and knees together.

Step 5: Squat down until your hips break parallel with the ground and then explode back up by pushing evenly through your feet. Repeat for 3-5 stets of anywhere between 6-25 reps (yeah, squats are versatile).

2. Bench press

Main muscles: Chest, triceps, front delts

Think that the Smith machine bench press is easy? Something that you'd only do as an "accessory" lift? Well then, you might be surprised to hear that research actually shows that the Smith machine bench press is harder than its barbell brother [1]. So if you want to challenge your chest and create new growth, then definitely don't skip this killer mass building exercise.

Step 1: Lie on a bench so that your lower chest is in line with the barbell.

Step 2: Squeeze your shoulder blades together, stick your chest out and arch your lower back slightly.

Step 3: Grab the bar a little wider than shoulder-width and lower it until your elbows descend just below your chest.

Step 4: Push the bar up by driving your elbows towards the sky. Or, as I like to think of it—as if you're throwing a two-handed punch.

Step 5: Fully lock out your elbows and repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.

3. Deadlift

Main muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, lats, traps, spinal erectors, forearms

Thicken your back grow your glutes without spending your session awkwardly bending over a barbell. The Smith machine deadlift might not be a particularly popular exercise, but it's undeniably useful for saving masses of time. Simply load weight discs onto the Smith bar—pull— and watch your back get bigger (protein required).

Step 1: Set the Smith bar to the lowest position and stand half an inch away from it with a closer than shoulder-width stance.

Step 2: Descend towards the bar by sticking your hips as far back as they'll go. Then, allow your knees to come forwards slightly to get even closer to the bar.

Step 3: Grab the bar as tightly as possible at shoulder width. Your hands should be roughly one inch outside of your shins.

Step 4: Keep your chest up and engage your lats, as if you were holding the contracted part of a pulldown.

Step 5: Explode up with the bar by first, pushing your feet into the ground, and then, once the bar gets to your knees, thrusting your hips forwards while driving your chest up.

Step 6: Squeeze your glutes to lock the rep out and then lower the bar by reversing the setup—hips back first and then bend your knees. Repeat for 1-5 reps if you're training for strength, and 5-10 reps if you're shooting for size.

4. Shoulder press

Main muscles: Shoulders, triceps

Cannonball delts can take a physique from scrawny to brawny by widening the v-taper. There's no such thing as shoulders that are "too broad", and everyone wants to grow their delts.

But you can get ahead of the pack by performing the Smith machine shoulder press. This upper-body mass-builder keeps more of the tension on your shoulder muscles than the barbell version because you don't have to stabilise the weight. Plus, as my rotator cuffs were glad to discover, unracking the bar is infinitely safer on a Smith machine.

Step 1: Set an adjustable bench to the highest angle and grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip.

Step 2: Squeeze your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out.

Step 3: Unrack the bar and lower it to just below chin level. Then, forcefully press the weight back up until your elbows are just shy of lockout—repeat for 6-15 reps.

5. Upright row

Main muscles: Shoulders, traps

If you want your shoulders to look like they have shoulders of their own, then you need to give the Smith machine upright row a try. It's a controversial exercise, but it works like gangbusters for building a broad upper body. And you'll soon learn why.

Step 1: Set the bar to just above knee height and then grab it slightly outside shoulder-width.

Step 2: Row the bar upwards by explosively driving your elbows towards the ceiling and shrugging your shoulders.

Step 3: Stop once the bar reaches nipple level, and then lower it under control. Perform 2-4 sets of 8-20 reps for the best results.

6. Reverse-grip row

Main muscles: Lats, traps, biceps

Widen your back without sabotaging your spine by performing the reverse-grip Smith machine row. This exercise is a vital part of my Smith machine workout plan because it's much more joint-friendly than the barbell version. Plus, it enables me to build a bigger back in less time since my stabiliser muscles never fatigue before my lats.

Step 1: Set the Smith gym machine bar to knee height and grab it with an underhand grip, just outside shoulder-width.

Step 2: Stick your hips back and keep your chest up as your row the bar into your lower abs by driving your elbows behind your torso.

Step 3: Hold the contraction for a split second and then lower the bar under control by stretching your lats. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-15 reps.

7. Bicep curl

Main muscles: Biceps, Brachioradialis, forearm flexors

Whether you perform Smith machine training, free weight lifting or a combination of both, the bicep curl is a must-do exercise if you want to build attention-demanding arms. It's easily one of the most effective Smith machine bicep exercises because it provides an intense pump by enabling you to keep constant tension on the working muscle.

Step 1: Grab the bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip.

Step 2: Curl your palms towards your upper body while keeping your shoulders as still as possible. Your forearms should come past 90 degrees.

Step 3: Squeeze your biceps and then lower the bar until you reach full elbow extension—repeat for 2-4 sets of 8-20 reps.

8. Hip thrust

Main muscles: Gluteus maximus

Admit it. You want a bigger bum. And after all, why wouldn't you? Firm glutes are the prime symbol of athleticism, and they're one of the first body parts that other people notice. So do yourself a favour, and give the Smith machine hip thrust a try. I personally like it even better than the barbell version. And there's a good chance that you will too.

Step 1: Place a bench or step up platform at the entrance of a Smith machine and attach a protective pad to the bar.

Step 2: Position your upper back firmly against the bench and centre the bar over your hips.

Step 3: Place your feet shoulder-width apart and flare them out around 15 degrees.

Step 4: Hold the bar away from the hooks (so that it doesn't crash into them while you're thrusting).

Step 5: Push the bar upwards explosively by squeezing your glutes. Curl your pelvis (or tailbone) up as you lock out each rep to intensify the glute contraction.

Step 6: Hold the contraction for a second and then lower the Smith bar by stretching your glutes. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 8-30 reps (hip thrusts rock at all rep ranges).

9. Leg press

Main muscles: Quads, glutes, hamstrings

I've saved this one until last because, although useful, using Smith machine stations for leg presses can be extremely dangerous unless you have a footplate attachment. But, presuming that you have the proper equipment, the Smith machine leg press is a fantastic way to add variety to your lower body workouts.

Step 1: Set the safety stops about halfway down the machine.

Step 2: Lay on the floor and place your midfoot under the bar.

Step 3: Unrack the bar and lower it until your thighs touch your ribcage.

Step 4: Push the weight back up until your knees are almost (but not quite) fully extended. Repeat for 12-20 reps and only attempt if you have a footplate attachment.

Smith machine workouts

Try these 6 killer (in a good way) smith machine workouts if you want to build muscle while staying injury-free.

Abs

fitness model flexing his upper body muscles

I've hand-picked the 5 most effective Smith machine ab exercises for getting a six-pack safely, yet quickly. If you haven't done weighted ab training in a while, then your core is going be on fire after just 1-2 sets.

Reverse crunch: 4 x 10-12 reps

Hanging leg raise: 3 x 10-12 reps

Oblique side bend: 3 x 15-20 reps

Crunch: 4 x 8-10 reps

Bent knee hip raise: 2 x 20 reps

You can also combine this routine with a quality fat burner for even faster results. However, don't think that a thermogenic will do the hard work for you because a healthy diet and consistency in the gym are by far the most critical factors for developing a six-pack.

Arms

man flexing his arms

This superset arm workout will add serious mass and definition to your biceps and triceps.

We start off heavy to fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibres and then get into some pump work to finish the demolition job on our arms. If you want to fill your sleeves to their maximum capacity, then this workout is for you.

1A: Close grip bench press 3 x 6-8 reps

1B: Bicep curl 3 x 6-8 reps

2A: Skull Crushers 3 x 10-12 reps

2B: Drag curls 3 x 10-12 reps

3: Triceps ladder 1 round

4: Biceps Ladder 1 round

You can check out my Smith machine tricep exercises page if you want to discover the benefits of "ladder" style training.

Also, you can perform some of these exercises with Fat Gripz if your forearms could use more size. I've personally increased my forearm circumference by half an inch in 8 weeks while using them.

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Back

bodybuilder showing off his back and arm muscles

This back workout will widen your lats and thicken your traps while sparing your spinal erectors from excessive strain. It focuses on building overall mass, but you can also use it while cutting to maintain your size. See my Smith machine back exercises page for more info.

Deadlift: 3 x 5-7 reps

Pull up: 4 x 6-8 reps

Reverse-grip row: 3 x 8-10 reps

Inverted row: 3 x 12-15 reps

Shrug: 3 x 15-20 reps

You can wear a weighted vest during pull-ups and inverted rows to add even more mass to your back. It's by far the most comfortable way to add external resistance.

Chest

ripped bodybuilder flexing his huge muscles

It wouldn't be a proper Smith machine exercise guide without a killer chest workout, would it?

This routine will broaden your chest like nothing else because it focuses on stretching and contracting the pecs to the max. With good enough nutrition, your chest will have virtually no choice but to get bigger. My Smith machine chest exercises page explains each exercise in more detail, in case you’re curious about the finer points [2].

Flat bench press: 5 x 6-8 reps

Incline press: 4 x 8-10 reps

Reverse-grip bench press: 3 x 12-15 reps

Push up ladder: 1 round

Yeah, only 4 exercises. But trust me, that's all you need to grow. Your chest will be in bits the day after this workout, so make sure that you consume plenty of high-quality protein to make the most of the training stimulus.

Glutes

woman performing lower body resistance training on the gym floor

Since nobody ever wrote a song about a small bum, here are the most effective Smith machine exercises for glutes—combined into one evidence-based routine.

Kneeling squat: 2 x 15-20 reps (pre-activation)

Hip thrust: 4 x 10-12 reps (glute mass)

Reverse lunge: 4 x 10-12 reps (glute mass)

Donkey kicks: 3 x 12-15 reps (glute symmetry)

Hip abductions: 3 x 20-30 reps (hip health & glute pump)

I always recommend warming up with the hip circle before any glute or leg workout. It keeps your hips healthy and also makes it easier to feel your glutes working during hip thrusts and squats—I don't know why I didn't start using it years ago.

Legs

athletic woman training her legs in the gym

This balanced lower body workout takes all the most proven Smith machine leg exercises and combines them into one mass-building routine. If you thought that training legs on the Smith machine was easy, then you're going to be in for a surprise (and a whole load of DOMS).

Squat (feet out in front): 4 x 8-10 reps

Front squat: 4 x 8-10 reps

Romanian deadlift: 5 x 10-12 reps

Standing calf raise: 5 x 12-15 reps

No, this routine isn't full of fancy training techniques like drop sets and supersets. And you certainly won't see it on the front of magazine covers anytime soon. But you will see the results in your legs—that I can guarantee.

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FAQ

What muscles does the Smith machine work?

young man performing barbell squats

The gym Smith machine works all the major muscles: quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, chest, back, shoulders and arms.

What are the best Smith machine exercises for women?

woman training inside a modern gym

What kind of physique do you want? In general, hip thrusts, squats and reverse lunges are the most effective Smith machine fitness exercises for women (presuming that your main goal is to firm up your bum). Of course, you might have different goals. In which case, the question becomes "what's the best exercise for XYZ muscle group" (you can check out my body part-specific guides to learn the answer). [3]

Where can I get a Smith machine workout poster?

thinking women with question mark on white background

I don't think that you can get a Smith machine exercise chart unless you actually buy a machine. However, I've found this book—The Complete Smith Machine: Exercises & Workouts—very helpful because it has 85+ illustrated exercise demonstrations.

How do I set the Smith machine safety stops?

Man working out his legs

Before using a Smith machine, you simply place the safety stops on the bar hooks at your desired height. Many safety hooks have a small dent in them to make the positioning obvious.

How do you unlock a Smith machine?

woman training her legs inside the gym

Firstly, lift the Smith bar upwards to disengage it, and then rotate your wrists away from the hooks. That’s all there is to it.

Can you do Starting Strength on a Smith machine?

weight lifting bar on the rack in a fitness centre

It's better than nothing. But it defeats the purpose of the program since it's a free weight-based routine [4].

Can you do 5x5 on a Smith machine?

weight liter picking up a bar with weights

Performing 5 sets of 5 reps is totally possible on a Smith machine. However, as far as the actual 5x5 program goes, I would advise against doing it on a Smith machine because it's free weight-based routine [5].

Should you use uneven weights on a Smith machine?

two girls working out

In general, no. However, using slightly uneven weights is actually a great way to microload the resistance, which enables you to increase your strength quicker.

Which way do I face on an angled Smith machine?

sportswoman performing lunges

Always face away from the machine (which is to say stand inside it).

How many calories does the Smith machine burn?

Slim young woman measuring her thin waist with a tape measur

Calorie burn depends on many things: bodyweight, age, resistance, exercise intensity. However, on squats, for example, an 80kg person could burn around 300 calories in 30 minutes. Note, that this is 30 minutes of intense, continuous exercise. Of course, you can split this up into one-minute intervals or whatever, but it doesn't factor in rest periods [6].

Smith machine exercises: The bottom line

So, you now know the best Smith machine exercise to build muscle fast. You have all the tools to create the body of your dreams, and the only thing standing in your way is good form, consistency and a proper workout program. Oh, and enough protein.

Get these 3 things right, and you'll blow 99% of lifters away.

And with that said, I hope that you got some good ideas for your next Smith machine workout routine. Feel free to let me know what your favourite Smith machine exercises are for building muscle and strength.

Thanks for reading. Now get out there and make some gains!

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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