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Smith machine leg exercises: Workout ideas to turbo-charge your hamstrings and quad gains!

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Using the Smith machine for quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves is one of the best methods for putting new muscle onto your legs. Why?

Because you can devote 100% of your effort to hammering the working muscles—no need to waste precious energy stabilising the bar, the Smith machine does it for you.

Ever wondered why so many physique athletes prefer machines to free weights?

It's because building muscle is their main goal. And with machines, they can always be sure that their prime movers (quads, hamstrings, etc.), not their stabilisers, are the limiting factor.

So, what are the best Smith machine exercises for legs?

Let's find out...

Top 7 Smith machine leg exercises

Here are the top 7 Smith machine leg exercises that will pack on muscle.

1. Front squat

Main muscles: Quads, glutes

If you want more muscular quads, then the Smith machine front squat needs to be part of your Smith machine leg day. Unlike the barbell version, you can focus purely on blasting your quads because you don't have to stabilise the bar. As a result, you won't have to worry about your upper back or spinal erectors giving out before your legs.

Step 1: Place the bar across the front of your shoulders and then cross your arms. Put each hand on its opposite shoulder—your elbows should be parallel to the floor.

Step 2: Assume a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and flare your feet out to between 15-30 degrees. Then, straighten your back and puff your chest out.

Step 3: Sit straight down (rather than sitting back, like with a regular squat) and push your knees out. Keep squatting down until you break parallel.

Step 4: Explode back up by pushing evenly through your feet until you reach full knee extension (legs locked out). You can also opt to stop just shy of full knee extension if you want to keep the tension on your quads (best reserved for high rep sets).

2. Hack squat

Main muscles: Quads, glutes

Gym doesn't have a hack squat machine? Well, your gym sucks. But don't worry—because you're not doomed to have permanently puny quads. The Smith machine hack squat has you covered. And it's remarkably knee-friendly.

Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Place the Smith bar across your back and take a step away from the machine. Then, straighten your back and look straight ahead.

Step 2: Sit back as if you were sitting in a chair (thanks, Scott Herman) and descend until your upper and lower legs form a 90-degree angle.

Step 3: Push through your heels to lift yourself back up. Only come 3/4 of the way up if you're performing high reps (15+).

Related posts

Narrow-stance Smith machine squat

Zercher squat on the Smith machine

3. Back squat

Main muscles: Quads, glutes

Some powerlifters might cringe at the thought of performing a Smith machine squat. And that's fair enough. But their opinion doesn't stop it being one of the most effective Smith machine quadriceps exercises. Because after all, your muscles are just pieces of meat—they respond to tension and tension alone. And they most certainly can't tell whether you're squatting a fixed or free weight barbell [1].

Step 1: Place the bar across your upper traps and assume a shoulder-width stance. Place your feet further away from the machine to emphasise your glutes, or keep them closer to your centre of gravity to emphasise your quads.

Step 2: Flare your feet out around 15-30 degrees and tighten your upper back by squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Step 3: Take a deep breath into your diaphragm and brace your core against your lifting belt.

Step 4: Squat down by breaking at your hips and knees together. Keep going until your upper and lower legs form a 90-degree angle.

Step 5: Explode back up by pushing through your feet evenly. You can also do a sumo squat on the Smith machine if you want to prioritise your glutes and inner thighs.

4. Lunge

Main muscles: Quads, glutes

Your knees take a serious beating during regular lunges because your joints are crashing against the ground every time you take a step. But with Smith machine lunges, you have no such problems. Since your feet remain in a fixed position, your joints aren't absorbing as much impact, which also means that your patella is spared from a harsh battering.

Step 1: Place the bar across your upper traps and then take a step forwards. Lengthen your stride to emphasise your glutes, or keep it short to maintain maximal quad tension.

Step 2: Lunge forwards until you feel a comfortable stretch in your front leg. You know that you're in the right position when your shins are vertical (when there's a 90-degree angle at your knee joint).

Step 3: Push yourself back up by pressing through your front foot. Train your weakest leg first, if possible, as this limits the development of unsightly muscle imbalances.

Other unilateral Smith machine leg exercises:

Smith machine reverse lunges

Smith machine split squat

Smith machine step ups

5. Calf raise

Main muscles: Gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior

In a chest-and-bicep-obsessed world, it's rare to find a gym (also known as a proper gym) with a standing calf raise machine. I have a theory that the lack of calf equipment is such so that people have a plentiful supply of 'skipped leg day" memes to laugh at. Whatever the case, we don't need to lose hope, because the Smith machine calf raise is a brilliant alternative.

Step 1: Centre a block of wood or a step-up platform underneath the Smith leg machine bar and then place the barbell across your back.

Step 2: Step on the elevated surface with the balls of your feet, allowing your midfoot and heels to dangle off the edge.

Step 3: Lower your heels down to the ground until you feel a deep stretch in your calves. Then, pull your heels towards your calves until you feel an intense peak contraction.

Similar calf exercise guides:

Smith machine reverse calf raises

Seated calf raise on the Smith machine

6. Sissy squat

Main muscles: Quads

Since performing a leg extension Smith machine style is virtually impossible, you need to get creative if you want to isolate your quads. After trying dozens of different Smith machine lower body exercises, I finally settled on the sissy squat as the best quad isolator. And you'll soon find out why. Here's how to perform a sissy squat on the Smith machine.

Step 1: Set the Smith bar close to the bottom of the machine. The specifics depend on your height, but the 2nd hook is usually a good starting point.

Step 2: Stand facing away from the machine with the backs of your lower legs resting against the bar.

Step 3: Squat down while keeping your torso as straight as possible. Go as low as you can, and then push yourself back up while maintaining the same upright posture.

7. Leg press

Main muscles: Quads, glutes, hamstrings

A little disclaimer: The Smith machine leg press is actually a fairly dangerous exercise unless you have a footplate attachment. Why? Well, to put it bluntly, the bar could slip off your feet and crush your abdomen. Plus, if you come too deep, then you'll also place a lot of stress on your lower back.

Nonetheless, with the proper equipment and the correct technique, it can still be a valuable part of your Smith machine leg workouts [2].

Step 1: Set the safety catches halfway up the machine and then place your midfoot against the bar.

Step 2: Lower the bar down (by flexing your knees and hips) until your thighs touch your ribcage.

Step 3: Push the weight back up until you reach full knee extension. Perform high reps only (your back will thank you).

Smith machine leg workout routines

Workout 1: Overall mass

close-up pf a bodybuilder's legs

As mentioned, performing leg exercises on Smith machine systems is a very reliable way to add mass because you don't have to stabilise the weight. So, for those of you seeking to add size to your thighs, here's the first of my Smith machine workouts for legs [3].

Back Squat: 4 x 6-8 reps

Romanian deadlift: 5 x 5-7 reps

Front squat: 3 x 10-12 reps

Reverse lunge: 3 x 10-12 reps

Standing calf raise: 4 x 12-15 reps

Workout 2: Quad emphasis

man doing leg extensions

This Smith machine legs program focuses on adding size to the quadriceps while also building up the hamstrings, glutes and calves. I've programmed a mixture of high and low reps so that both the fast and slow-twitch muscles fibres grow to their fullest potential [4].

Front squat: 4 x 6-8 reps

Hack squat: 4 x 10-12 reps

Lunge: 3 x 10-12 reps

Sissy Squat: 2 x 15 reps

Romanian deadlift: 4 x 5-7 reps

Standing calf raise: 4 x 12-15 reps

Workout 3: Hamstring focus

massive bodybuilder doing strength training while at the gym

These hand-picked Smith machine hamstring exercises will add mass to the backs of your legs and give your thighs a more three-dimensional appearance.

Romanian deadlift: 5 x 4-6 reps (here's how to Romanian deadlift on the Smith machine)

Smith machine leg curls (standing): 5 x 8-10 reps

Stiff leg deadlift: 3 x 12-15 reps

Front squat: 4 x 10-12 reps

Calf raise: 4 x 12-15 reps

You can also substitute one of the deadlift variations for the Smith machine Nordic hamstring curl or glute ham raise. Also, you can do good mornings on the Smith machine if you're training for a stronger deadlift.

Similar hamstring exercise guides:

Smith machine stiff legged deadlifts

Smith machine power clean

"Training legs means burning more calories, elevating your T-levels, boosting your big lifts, improving your mobility."
Men's Health

What's the verdict on Smith machine leg exercises?

There are so many amazing Smith machine leg exercises, that I'd need to write a dissertation to cover them all. There really are endless ways to construct an effective Smith machine leg workout these days, and I know that it can feel overwhelming at times.

So if I could give you one tip, it'd be this: train your weak muscle groups first.

I personally like starting with squats. But no law says that you have to do the same. If your calves are lagging, then train them first. If you have weak hams, start with RDLs—you get the idea.

With so many brilliant Smith machine exercises for hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves, building a well-muscled lower body has never been such an adventure. And with that said, I think it's time for me to hit the gym. So, until next time.

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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