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Smith machine front squat: 4 tips for Bigger quads

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Ask any bodybuilder what the most effective Smith machine leg exercises are, and I can guarantee that 99% of them will mention front squats.

The Smith machine front squat has been a staple in my leg workouts for years because it lets me blast my quads without worrying about stabilising the weight.

Don't get me wrong: free weight front squats are great too, especially for athletes (who need to use their whole body at once). However, from a muscle growth standpoint, the Smith-machine front squat is superior to the regular version because it ensures that your legs are always the limiting factor—not your upper back or core.

And that's to say nothing of the fact that you can lift considerably more weight on the Smith machine version...

"My main beef with barbell front squats is that in most cases it isn’t your legs that are the limiting factor — it’s your upper back, which is all but guaranteed to tire before your legs."
Alex Mullan
Accomplished Writer

Smith machine front squat exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads
  • Supporting muscles: Glutes, lower back, abs, upper back
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves, lifting belt, weightlifting shoes
  • Exercise purpose: Increase quad size

How to front squat on the Smith machine

Here's how to do a Smith-machine front squat:

  1. Place the bar just underneath shoulder height (a bit lower than you would for back squats).
  2. Squat down underneath the bar with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart (not too narrow).
  3. Raise your arms out in front of you (think front raise) until your shoulders touch the bar. There should be a 90-degree angle between your upper arm and torso.
  4. Cross your arms by placing each hand on its opposite shoulder.
  5. Flare your feet out between 15-30 degrees.
  6. Squat up to lift the bar off the hooks and ensure that your elbows are still parallel to the ground (not pointing too high and certainly not pointing to the floor).
  7. Inhale, brace your core, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and then sit straight down while pushing your knees out. Avoid breaking at the hips first as you would in a back squat, as this can cause you to lose balance.
  8. Squat until you break parallel and then explode up by pushing through your entire foot—don't just push through heels, because again, doing so can cause you to lose your balance.
  9. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-15 reps

Smith machine front squat tips

Break at your knees and hips together

big bodybuilder training his legs outside

If you break at the hips first during a Smith front squat, your torso will naturally drift forwards which, if taken to the extreme, can cause you to lose complete control of the barbell.

Instead, break at the knees and hips together. This way, you shift more of the tension onto your quads and have a much easier time remaining upright (which is the whole point of doing front squats).

Try both grips

female athlete lifting a barbell with a clean grip

For free weight front squats, the clean grip (where you rest the bar in your fingertips with your elbows in the clean position) is more secure than the cross arm grip.

However, the clean grip is immensely tough on the wrists, especially if you have small joints like me. Plus with a Smith front squat, you don't need to worry about keeping the barbell secure—the machine does it for you.

However, if you plan on doing free weight front squats in addition to the Smith machine front squat, then I recommend trying both grips to see which you prefer. Definitely wear wrist wraps if you're using the clean grip, though. Your legs can handle way more weight than your fragile wrists.

Keep your elbows high

female doing leg exercises for a photo shoot

Keeping your elbows high is an integral part of the proper front squat form. If you don't, then your shoulders will cave in, your torso will fall forwards and you might even drop the barbell—or worse, cause permanent damage to your spinal erectors.

Anway, keeping your elbows high doesn't have much to do with shoulder or arm strength. Rather, it relies on maintaining a tight core and a straight upper back.

Think about it for a second. With even a modest amount of effort, you could maintain a near-perfect 90-degree angle between your upper arm and torso. But if you lean forwards too much, your perfect elbow position counts for nothing. That's because it's your core—not your delts and arms— that keeps your elbows high (and thus keeps your form in check).

Of course, it's much easier to maintain the proper elbow position when doing front squats on Smith machine stations. But it never hurts to master the proper form.

Strengthen your back

bodybuilder showing off his muscular back

As mentioned, your upper back plays a vital role in stabilising the bar during front squats. As such, you want to do plenty of rows and face pulls to strengthen it. Not only will performing these exercise earn you a more prominent v-taper, but they'll also help you to build bigger quads by increasing your front squat strength and endurance.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine front squats

"Weightlifting shoes have a raised heel. This is a massive advantage, as it allows you to squat into a deeper position through increased ankle range of motion."
Chet Morjaria
Strength Training Coach

1. Weightlifting shoes

Since there's no moody gym manager to boss me around in my home gym, I squat in bare feet 90% of the time.

adidas powerlift weightlifting shoes

But when I'm attempting a new one-rep max or training in a commercial gym, I don't squat without my Adidas Powerlifts.

They've added around 10kg to my max front squat since I switched to them form regular gym trainers. But more importantly, I feel much more stable in them, which is extremely important when attempting a new one-rep max. Definitely worth the investment if your gym doesn't allow barefoot squatting.

2. Knee sleeves

Although I only use squat shoes occasionally, I wear my Beast Gear Knee Sleeves every single leg session.

man doing squats in his beast gear knee sleeves

When I started to realise the many benefits of knee sleeves, buying them was a no-brainer. Not only do knee sleeves give you more stability around the ever-vulnerable patella, but they also help you to recover faster by reducing inflammation and promoting blood flow to damaged muscle tissue.

They're a must-have gym accessory if you're too cheap to pay for a massage, like me.

3. Weightlifting belt

I debated over buying a weightlifting belt for years. "My core is already strong". I thought. "Why do I need a belt?"

After my powerlifting mate let me try his belt, which cost him a pretty penny, I decided right then and there that I was no longer going to squat beltless.

rdx weightlifting belt

When I realised that lifting belts aren't actually cheating (they just increase intra-abdominal pressure by about 40%—which you create yourself), investing in a lifting belt was a no-brainer for me.

I went with the RDX Powerlifting Belt.

It's much more affordable than the fancy belt that my mate has, and by reckoning as a bodybuilder, just as effective for gaining size and strength.

Smith machine front squat muscles worked

Quads

a close up of a female bodybuilder's quadriceps

Smith machine front squats work your quads harder than back squats because they enable you to maintain an upright posture, which naturally shifts the tension from your glutes to your quads.

Similarly, front squats also allow more range of motion at the knee, which provides you with a satisfyingly deep quad stretch that's bound to spark new muscle growth with a good enough diet.

Glutes

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

As I just alluded to, front squats emphasise your quads rather than your glutes because their upright biomechanics provide more movement at the knee (and therefore less range of motion at the hips).

Upper back

A muscular woman's back muscles

When you do the front squat smith machine style rather than free weighted, your upper back muscles don't have to work as hard. This is doubly beneficial for bodybuilding: your lats and traps will be fresher for back workouts, and you can also direct more focus to your legs (and thereby develop a stronger mind-muscle connection) since you don't need to worry about stabilising the bar.

Spinal erectors

bodybuilder doing pull-ups

The spinal erectors are active during any type of deep squat. And since I'm sure none of you would dream of ever doing a half squat, you'll feel your erectors working isometrically during Smith front squats. Albeit, less so than in the barbell version.

Related posts

Abs

young man performing barbell squats

As mentioned, doing your front squats Smith machine style requires less core stability than doing them with a barbell. Once again, this means that you can train harder and stimulate more quad growth because your stabiliser muscles will be fresher for your other leg exercises.

Smith machine front squat benefits

Stronger mind-muscle connection

close-up pf a bodybuilder's legs

Free weight training builds sizeable muscle mass—that's for sure. But many free weight proponents take the concept of stabiliser muscles too far.

The front squat is a great example of stabiliser muscles gone wrong. Maintaining an upright torso during free weight front squats requires considerable strength-endurance in small, fast-fatiguing muscles like the rhomboids and mid-traps.

Now, I don't know about you, but my thighs can handle much more weight than my rhomboids. So what good is it for my quad development if my back gives out before my legs?

Exactly. Your legs never get fully stimulated on free weight front squats [1].

Smith machine front squats, on the other hand, remove the balance factor from the equation and let you focus 100% of your attention on blasting your quads. Unsurprisingly, this training style comes with some rather pleasing physique benefits.

Healthier lower back

Close-up Of A Shirtless Man With His Back Pain Standing In The Gym

Although back squats certainly build muscle, they're not exactly the most spine-friendly exercise in the world. And that's putting it politely.

The truth is, far too many people turn their back squats into a good morning, and then wonder why they have back pain. Not only does squatting like this significantly reduce quad activation, but it places enormous stress on your spinal erectors [2].

Front squats, on the other hand, rely on more of your leg muscles to lift the weight. Of course, this is great for developing your quads, but it's equally useful for keeping your injury risk to a minimum, especially if you're wearing a leather weightlifting belt.

Less knee strain

man with knee pain sat down in the gym

Did you know that despite placing more tension on your quads—aka the knee extensors—front squats are actually much safer for your knees than back squats?

Aside from the fact that people tend to back squat with little regard for their form, traditional squats (by their very design) force you to lift heavier weights in order to achieve the same quad stimulus that you can get from doing lighter front squats [3].

As a result, you end up creating more knee stress for no extra muscle growth. Yet another reason to buck the trend and switch to front squats.

Textbook squat form

Young muscular man during his weightlifting workout in the gym

Although I don't recommend lifting with sloppy form, you can certainly get away with poor technique during back squats—presuming, of course, that you're ok with sacrificing quad stimulation and absolutely thrashing your lower back.

Use that same sloppy form on front squats, however, and that bar is going to make a head-turning CLANG as it crashes to the floor. And yes, this can happen on the Smith machine too.

With back squats, you can bend your torso excessively, flail your arms around like a damsel in distress—essentially act like a fool, and everything will still be kosher. But with front squats, you have to maintain an upright posture and proper elbow position if you want to get the most out of the lift.

As a result, the front squat is much more effective than back squats for ingraining the proper lifting technique.

Safer quad training

young man training inside a modern gym with fitness equipment in the background

Alright, tell me if this is you: you're doing free weight squats (without a spotter), and you're feeling pumped up like never before because you just took an explosive new pre-workout.

However, as your quads inch towards failure, you wonder if the potential embarrassment of dropping the bar is worth the extra muscle growth.

In the end, you decide your reputation is more important than your gains, and you leave a few reps in the tank—or maybe you take things a step further, by kidding yourself that you actually trained to failure, even though it felt like just another set.

Sound familiar?

I'm sure it does. But don't feel alone, because I've been there, too. However, since I started training legs on the Smith machine, I no longer need to worry about the embarrassment (or safety) that comes with the territory of training to failure.

In fact, I regularly train to grinding failure with absolute peace of mind. And even though my quads are begging me to go easy, I know that the safety catches on my Smith machine will always have my back. Plus, I can re-rack the bar at any point during the rep with a simple turn of the wrist.

It's essentially like having my own personal spotter—but without the clumsiness and cringeworthy "motivation".

Smith machine front squat alternatives

Smith machine back squat

man performing deep squats

Providing that you use proper form, the regular Smith machine squat is an excellent mass-builder. You can lift more weight than on any other quad exercise, and it's great if you enjoy powerlifting-style training.

However, from a pure bodybuilding perspective, I much prefer front squats and hack squats because I can more easily keep the tension on my quads. And yes, I do plenty of other heavy lifts for my glutes and hamstrings.

Smith machine hack squat

Young woman working out on a Smith machine in a modern gym

If you're not crazy enough (according to my wife) to buy your own hack squat machine like me, or if your gym doesn't have one, then the Smith hack squat is a fantastic replacement.

Don't get me wrong: I love using my Body Solid Leg Press/Hack Squat to smash my quads.

But now and again, I perform high rep hack squats on the Smith machine as a finisher, and boy, do my thighs feel it the next day! I'd say it's roughly equal to front squats in terms of quad stimulus, but you can lift a bit more weight on hack squats.

Barbell front squat

Muscular sportsman doing the front squat exercise in the gym at crossfit training.

If you're an athlete, Olympic weightlifter, powerlifter or just a bodybuilder stuck in the past, then the barbell front squat should be part of your lower body routine. [4] [5]

Although it places less tension on the quads than the Smith machine front squat in my experience, the barbell front squat is one of, if not the best exercise in resistance training, for developing core strength.

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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