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Smith machine bench press: Will this assisted chest exercise bulk up your pecs?

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 10th August 2020

If I rack my brain for long enough, I can think of literally hundreds of different Smith machine exercises. However, out of the countless Smith machine chest exercises that come to mind, none are more hotly debated the than Smith machine bench press.

In fact, the way that some people argue over its merits, you'd think that the exercise was a candidate for prime minister or something...

Muscular bodybuilder doing a bench press workout in a fitness centre

But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter whether you opt for the Smith bench press or stick to the free weight version. What matters is that you train consistently and progressively.

Now, that said, there are some crucial Smith machine vs free weight distinctions that you need to keep in mind. But, before we get into the controversy, let's take a look at how to perform the Smith-machine bench press for the fastest and best results...

Smith machine bench press exercise details

  • Main muscles: Chest, triceps, shoulders
  • Supporting muscles: Lats, rhomboids, glutes, abs, forearms
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, weight bench
  • Recommended gear: Wrist wraps, chalk, lifting belt, slingshot, bands
  • Exercise purpose: Build muscle and strength in the upper body pushing muscles

How to bench press on a Smith machine

  1. Position a weight bench under the Smith machine so that, when you lay down, the bar is hovering directly over your lower chest.
  2. Lie on the bench with your feet planted firmly on the floor.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out. Be sure to maintain a slight arch in your lower back, too.
  4. Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
  5. Tuck your elbows to a 45° angle and then unrack the bar (push it up and then away from the hooks).
  6. Inhale, and then lower the bar until it touches your lower chest.
  7. Push the barbell back up by driving your hands towards the ceiling, as if you were throwing a double-handed punch.
  8. Exhale once you've locked the weight out, and then repeat for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps if you're training for strength, and 3-6 sets 6-12 reps if your main goal is to build muscle.
"You can use the Smith machine to get a bigger chest [...] you say the word Smith machine and people go crazy they go outta their minds, "oh you're gonna hurt yourself". And there is some truth to that. If you don't use the Smith machine properly, you can hurt yourself—just like every other piece of equipment in the gym."
John Meadows
IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

Smith machine bench press tips

Rest longer

sporty man taking a rest during his workout

No, this isn't a joke—I'm actually telling you to rest longer. You see, I care about your gains, and I wouldn't want you missing out on any wonderful muscle growth.

Specifically, you should aim to rest at least 3 minutes between sets of Smith machine chest press.

But don't take my word for it—trust the scientists instead. They took ten Brazilian men and made each of them perform 5 sets of Smith machine flat bench press at 60% of their respective one-rep maxes (poor sods). The catch is that one group only got 90 seconds rest, while the other group received a full 3 minutes of recovery time. [1]

Unsurprisingly, the lads who got 3 minutes of rest were much stronger on their subsequent Smith machine barbell press sets than those who only got 90 seconds. Plus, they showed far fewer signs of fatigue. [2]

So, the moral of this scientific story is to rest at least 3 minutes while using the Smith machine for bench press. Otherwise, you're probably leaving a lot of upper body gains on the table.

Pull the bar apart

Shirtless man lifting heavy barbell on a bench

Ok, so unless you're Eddie Hall, then you probably can't pull the bar apart in a literal sense.

But you should try to. Why?

Well, let me ask you this: if you were building a big, medieval-style castle, would you rather construct it on solid foundations, or on shaky foundations?

Since you're smart enough to operate a smartphone or computer, I'm going to presume that you went with strong foundations. Am I right?

Ok, good stuff. Well, did you know that a strong foundation is just as important for the Smith-machine bench press as it is for your hypothetical castle?

If you bench without a strong foundation (tight upper back) then (1) you'll be weaker because you'll have to lower the bar further, and (2) you'll strain your rotator cuffs, because they won't have as much room in their socket to move about [3].

"If you do not feel the barbell bench press, honestly, give the Smith machine a shot [...] see if you feel it better, see if you get better contractions, see if you get a better stretch. I personally do."
Cohn Wolfe
Pro Natural Bodybuilder

But, when you actively try to pull the bar apart, something magical happens—your pressing foundation turns rock-solid.

Go on, try it! Raise your arms out in front of you as if you were gripping a barbell. Then, actively try to bend that bar in half with all of your might.

Let me guess. Your upper back got tighter, and your elbows naturally became tucked?

That—right there—is the power of proper technique. Expect your Smith machine chest press strength to go through the roof if you haven't been consciously using this cue.

Keep your wrists straight

male athlete lifting a barbell at a powerlifting competition

If you had one opportunity to punch your arch-enemy in the face with no repercussions, would you hit them with a bent wrist, or would you hit them with a straight wrist?

Now, I don't condone violence of any kind (yes, even if they stole your pencil sharpener in year 7), but I think we both know that the answer is the later—the straight wrist blow.

So, why not use the same technique for your Smith machine bench presses? After all, the exercise is essentially a two-handed punch.

Not only do you leak precious power by bending your wrists while pressing on a Smith bench machine, but you also place your wrist joints under tremendous strain. Don't do it.

Recommended training gear for Smith bench press

1. Wrist wraps

man wrapping his wrists before a workout

2. Weightlifting chalk

weightliter with chalk on his hands
  • Liquid Sports Chalk: Great for chalking up your hands on the sly if you train in a Globo gym. Dries in a few seconds and washes off easily—I use it for every workout.
  • Psychi Chalk Ball: Old school weightlifting chalk that comes with a convenient mesh covering to reduce wastage. Ideal for tight budgets.

3. Bench Sling Shot

sling shot original
  • Sling Shot Original: Keeps your shoulders healthy while encouraging you to use the proper bench press form. One-rep max increases of between 17kg-24kg are typical, and It's a must-have training accessory if you're serious about strength. Just make sure to avoid the cheap knock offs if you want the best results.

4. Resistance bands

a red bestope resistance band
  • Bestope Resistance Band: Reduces your shoulder injury risk by providing the perfect amount of resistance for rotator cuff exercises. I use it before every upper body session, and my shoulders are thankful for it.
  • Topelek Resistance Band Set: Adds variety to your warm-up and mobility routines by offering 5 different band weights. Also comes with 2 non-slip handles and newly-upgraded metal links for a safe and effective workout.

Smith machine bench press muscles worked

Whether you use a Smith machine or free weights for bench pressing, you'll still work the same muscles. So here's a list of all the muscles worked in a bench press from most active to least active:

  1. Chest
  2. Triceps
  3. Shoulders (front delts)
  4. Abs
  5. Upper back (lats, traps, rhomboids)
  6. Forearms
  7. Biceps
  8. Glutes

Smith machine bench press benefits

Safer chest training

young woman bench pressing at the gym

Performing the bench press Smith machine style is the safest ways to blast your chest without a spotter because you can re-rack the bar at any point during a rep with a simple wrist turn.

Also, being able to do the bench press on Smith machine stations is extremely helpful for beginners because there's no risk of getting pinned under a loaded barbell. Novices can learn the proper bench form with complete peace of mind, enabling them to train harder.

Faster muscle growth

close up of a Speedometer

Training to failure is one of the fastest ways to accelerate your muscle growth naturally because it recruits all of your motor units (the cells that make a muscle contract).

However, the barbell bench press isn't suited to failure training unless you have a sturdy power rack. After all, you could easily get stuck under the barbell or wreck your rotator cuffs by veering away from your initial bar path (and that's to say nothing of the pain that dropping a barbell onto your chest would cause you).

But with the Smith machine, you'll naturally develop a sculpted chest in less time because you can train to failure in complete confidence.

Can't lock out that final rep? No worries, the bar hooks—all 10 of them—are there for you.

Accidently drop the barbell? Don't panic; the safety catches have got your back.

So, as you can see, benching on Smith machine systems in not only safe but also very effective.

Immediate strength gains

athlete flipping a tire

This one's interesting. Some research shows that lifters have a higher one-rep max on the barbell bench press than on the Smith-machine bench press. However, this study only used 12 people. So who knows, maybe these lads were just used to doing free weight bench presses?

Now, this strength disparity could equally be down to the fact that the triceps become more active when you arc the bar backwards slightly during a bench press, which is another so-called best-practise. Obviously, this isn't possible unless you perform an angled Smith machine bench press, which doesn't have much of a benefit if you ask me.

How about my bench press strength?

Well, I'm personally stronger when I perform the bench press Smith machine style than I am when I do it free weighted. And I know that it's the same for a lot of other fellas, too. [4] [5]

In fact, when I first switched over to the flat bench Smith machine press, my one-rep max shot up by a full 10kg, and my chest started to fill out more. The size gains were probably due to the stronger mind-muscle connection that I always seem to get from bench press machine exercises.

Smith machine bench press negatives

Lower one-rep max

male athlete bench pressing at powerlifting competition

As mentioned, some lifters naturally have a lower one-rep max when they bench on Smith machine systems than when they bench press with barbells. Therefore, it's worth testing your strength on both exercises to see which you're more suited to.

However, just bear in mind that, if like most people, you're used to performing the barbell bench press, then you might not be able to record a true one-rep max on the Smith machine version right away. This is simply because your body isn't accustomed to the exercise. But give it a few weeks, and you'll likely see some significant strength gains.

Poor free weight carryover

Strong young man spotting another guy while he lifts a barbell at a gym

Which achievement would you most like to accomplish, developing a thick, muscular chest, or building up an impressive bench press one-rep max?

If, like me, your main goal is gaining size, then don't worry about the Smith-machine bench press's relatively poor free weight carryover. Why?

Well, if you examine the chest routines of many of the world's best bodybuilders, you'll discover that many of them don't actually perform the barbell bench press at all.

Since their sole physique aim is to get as big as humanly possible, they simply do the exercises that provide the most potent stimulation for their pecs.

Related posts

False sense of strength

man training hard at the gym with a heavy barbell

As if adding up the weight on each side of the bar wasn't difficult enough for a meathead, modern Smith machine manufactures are now forcing him to factor the bar weight into his calculations!

Figuring out the true Smith machine to free weight conversion is hard at the best of times— but it's near impossible when your Smith machine doesn't list its actual bar weight, which, in my experience can be anywhere from 3kg-25kg.

As a result, you can quickly gain a false sense of strength if you simply presume that the bar weighs 20kg, like an Olympic barbell.

This inflated confidence could then cause you to attempt the same weight on the barbell bench press and potentially injure yourself since it's unlikely that you'd have developed enough stability to create a perfect 1:1 Smith machine free weight conversion.

But don't tell our meathead friend any of this. Otherwise, the poor lad will fly into a fit of roid rage!

Smith machine bench press alternatives

Smith machine incline press

woman doing an incline press exercise

Performing the incline Smith machine press is the best way to improve a lagging upper chest because you can devote 100% of your attention to the working muscle.

Unlike the barbell version, you don't need to waste valuable energy stabilising the weight, and you most certainly don't need to burden yourself with an incompetent spotter— you simply unrack the bar and lift.

Building a big upper chest has never been easier.

Smith machine push ups

Young and muscular man during his workout on the street

If you want a fun and challenging exercise to finish off your pecs after a chest workout, then give Smith machine push ups a try. Here's what I'll typically do: I'll start out with the bar low, rep out to failure, and then keep increasing the bar height until my pecs are thoroughly pumped, or until I'm basically just pushing in a vertical position.

You can also wear a weighted vest to make this extended drop set even more effective.

Smith machine decline press

Is your chest lacking that critical mass and thickness? If so, you might want to take the decline Smith machine press for a spin and see how you like it. You can lift very heavy weights on this exercise (more than on any other bench press variation), and it's excellent for adding a foundation of muscle to your pecs. I always do a few sets of decline (at least) whenever I bench press with Smith machine systems or free weights.

Related posts

Smith machine bench press vs regular bench press

Now it's time for the ultimate fitness face-off: Smith machine vs free weight bench press—which is better and why?

Ok, let's start from the ground up. If you're a beginner—and your main goal is to gain muscle mass—then the Smith machine bench press is better than the free weight barbell bench press because you don't have to stabilise the bar. This makes it easier to learn the proper form and also enables you to lift safely without a spotter.

muscular man performing a bench press with a barbell

It's is definitely one of the biggest Smith machine bench press benefits that I can think of for a novice.

If you're an intermediate or advanced lifter whose primary goal is also to gain muscle mass, then I'd say that the Smith machine bench press is still the best choice because you can focus 100% on hammering your chest—no need to waste valuable energy on stabilising the weight [6].

Ok, now let's address the elephant in the room: which is safer?

Many people argue that the Smith-machine bench press is unsafe because it forces your body into so-called "unnatural positions". While I don't think the Smith bench press is bad for your joints, I'll definitely agree that it's unnatural. But so is every other bench press variation!

powerlifting gripping a barbell while laying on a bench

After all, what exactly is "natural" about lowering a heavy barbell over your head and chest in an attempt to grow bigger pectoral muscles for no other purpose than to impress people?

So, neither exercise is particularly natural. However, the Smith machine bench press is much safer than the barbell bench press because you can re-rack the bar at virtually any point during a set with a simple turn of the wrist. Also, you can't accidentally bring the bar too far forwards or backwards and mess up your rotator cuffs.

The only way that a free weight bench press is superior to a Smith machine chest press is if you're a powerlifter.

FAQ

Is doing the chest press Smith machine style really a good idea? What's the true Smith machine bench press conversion? I'll answer these questions—and many more—in my Smith machine and bench press FAQ.

What is the Smith machine bench press?

strong man performing the flat bench press

The Smith machine bench press is a machine-based upper body exercise that primarily works your chest, shoulders and triceps muscles.

Is the smith machine bench press bad?

image of man wincing in pain while at the gym

No, if you deploy the safety catches and use proper form, the Smith bench press machine isn't bad.

Is the Smith machine good for bench press?

man training his upper body inside the gym

Yes, there are many amazing Smith machine bench press benefits such as enhanced safety, increased muscle stretch and quicker chest development.

Is the Smith assisted bench press cheating?

a muscular man with a syringe

Some people like to think of the Smith machine flat bench press as an "assisted bench press". However, I don't personally see the exercise as an assisted bench press because you're the only person who's lifting the weight—the machine won't do it for you.

How much weight does a Smith machine take off?

Young woman lifting a barbell with help from her personal trainer

It's hard to come up with an exact Smith machine bench press equivalent because some lifters are actually stronger with free weights. Personally, though, I find that I'm about 10kg stronger while benching on a Smith machine. See above for an in-depth smith machines vs free weights comparison.

Is the Smith machine Bench press easier than a free weight bench press?

Bodybuilder Working Out Chest With Barbell

For me, yes. However, if you're used to free weight bench pressing, then there's a very high chance that you'll be stronger on the barbell version. Check out my Smith machine vs bench press weight comparison above for more info.

What's the Smith machine bench press equivalent in free weights?

weight lifting bar on the rack in a fitness centre

I'd say that the ratio is roughly 1:1 for most people. So if you can lift 100kg on the Smith machine, then you can probably lift 100kg with free weights, +/- about 5%. So no need to use a fancy Smith machine bench press calculator (if one exists) or anything like that.

Is the Smith machine Bench press good for bodybuilding?

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

When you consider the Smith machine bench press bodybuilding wise, it's one of the most effective chest builders out there because it enables you to focus purely on the working muscle.

What's the proper Smith machine bench press grip?

male athlete lifting a barbell at a powerlifting competition

Slightly wider than shoulder-width is the optimal bench press grip if it's chest development that you're after—but don't go any wider than that. Because studies show that gripping wider than 1.5x shoulder-width can increase your injury risk—and then you won't be doing any bench pressing [7].

What's the optimal Smith machine bench press angle?

man performing the bench press in a gym

When I'm performing the bench press Smith machine style, I like to use a horizontal angle or a slight incline (about 15°). These angles enable me to keep the majority of the tension on my chest and prevent my shoulders from taking over the movement.

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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