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Smith machine lunges: Do them weighted for wonderful legs

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

When it comes to developing your quads and glutes, without hurting your knees, lunges are one of the safest and most effective Smith machine leg exercises that you can do.

You see, regular lunges are what physios would call an open kinetic chain exercise, meaning that your foot and knee are moving towards the ground. This causes significant joint stress every time you step forwards. Add external resistance into the equation via dumbbells or a barbell, and it's clear to see why traditional lunges have a reputation for causing and worsening knee pain.

sportswoman doing a lunge exercise

Smith machine lunges, on the other hand, are a closed kinetic chain exercise. This means that your foot stays in contact with the floor the entire time. Obviously, this kind of fixed leg exercise is better for people with knee pain because there's less joint impact with each rep.

In fact, when you think about it, Smith machine lunges aren't really lunges at all. Your foot is fixed. So by definition, you can't lunge forwards—you can only squat up and down. In the end, you're essentially just performing a one-legged squat, which makes it a brilliant exercise for reducing your muscle imbalances.

Smith machine lunge exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads, glutes
  • Supporting muscles: Hamstrings, lower back
  • Exercise type: Unilateral
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, bar pad
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves, cross trainer shoes, foam roller
  • Exercise purpose: Isolate the quads and/or glutes via unilateral training and reduce muscular imbalances.

How to do lunges on the Smith machine

  1. Set the bar to shoulder height and stand directly underneath it so that the barbell is resting across your upper traps.
  2. Grab the bar with a wide grip and then squeeze your shoulder blades together. You should feel your back muscles bunch up, effectively creating a "shelf" for the bar to rest on.
  3. Step forwards until there's a modest gap between your front and back leg. Use a longer stride to emphasise your glutes, or go with a shorter stride to focus on your quads.
  4. Line your legs up with their respective shoulder and ensure that your back leg is pivoting on the ball of your foot, rather than on your heel.
  5. Descend by driving your back knee down to the floor.
  6. Squat down until your back knee touches the floor. Your shins should be vertical at the bottom of the rep, making roughly a 90-degree with your upper leg.
  7. Push yourself up by pressing your heels and midfoot through the ground—repeat for 3-5 sets of anywhere between 8-20 reps.

Smith machine lunges workout tips

Only come 3/4 of the way up

Back view of sporty woman in sportswear doing lunges exercise with barbell on her shoulders

Despite the Smith machine lunge being widely considered a "light" or a "secondary" exercise, you can actually load them up with a lot of weight. After all, they're essentially just a single-leg squat, remember?

However, my favourite way to utilise Smith lunges is to use them as a finisher, to burn out my quads and/or glutes after performing other heavy leg exercises. The trick is to use high reps (15-25) and to only come 3/4 of the way up in order to maximise your pump (or scientifically speaking, the metabolic stress) within your legs.

My outer quad sweep has grown significantly since I started performing weighted Smith machine lunges. Sure, I've always done my heavy squats and Romanian deadlifts. But it wasn't until I began to isolate each leg and push them to failure that my quads really started to develop.

Shorten your step

sportswoman performing lunges

Most people, I reckon, do the single leg Smith machine lunge for their quads. But if you don't, then I recommend performing reverse lunges, since they target the glutes better while stressing the knees less.

Anyway, to maximally work your quads during the Smith machine one leg lunge, you want to shorten your step by bringing your foot closer to your centre of gravity. This positioning increases the range of motion at your knee joint, enabling you to achieve a deeper, more growth-stimulating stretch in your quadriceps.

However, don't take it to the extreme. If your knee is travelling too far over your toes, then you should probably lengthen your stride—unless, of course, you have iron patella. As a rule of thumb, your shins should be roughly vertical at the bottom of each rep (which is to say aim for a 90-degree angle at the knee joint).

Train your weakest leg first

close up of a woman's quadricep muscles

Maybe it's because I played football as a kid; perhaps it's because I have a stronger mind-muscle connection with my right leg, or maybe it's just because I'm right-footed—who knows? Whatever the cause is, I have muscle imbalances. My right leg is just over an inch larger in circumference in my left leg.

So naturally, I always train my weaker leg first, which is doubly beneficial.

Let me tell you why.

Obviously, it's best to train your weakest leg first when you're at your freshest and strongest. That way, you can give it the most attention. And attention, especially in the form of a strong mind-muscle connection, is especially important when it comes to bringing up weak body parts.

However, this training style is doubly beneficial because your second set, with your dominant leg, feels ridiculously easy.

So, not only are you evening out your muscle imbalances (and thereby creating a more proportional physique), but you're also making your leg training—which is notoriously difficult— seem much less challenging.

If you have significant muscle imbalances, like me, then I don't see why you can't make Smith machine stationary lunges, or another unilateral leg exercise, your main lower body movement. Yes, despite what personal trainers might tell you, there's nothing magical about two-legged squats—lunges can just as easily be your bread and butter.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine lunges

1. Cross trainer shoes

adidas havoc trainers

Since I train at home, I always perform my squats and lunges barefoot.

However, I realise that many gyms don't allow this. I've also found, through expensive trial and error, that weightlifting shoes are pretty terrible for lunges because of the heel, which encourages your knees to travel over your toes.

white converse trainers

I've found that simple cross training shoes, for lack of a better term, are much more useful for lunges (and deadlifts) than pricey weightlifting shoes. I personally wear the Adidas Havoc Aq3325 Multisport Indoor Shoes whenever I'm training in a commercial gym.

But I've also had great success with simple Converse Trainers.

The Converse Hitops are my favourite, but it's the flat, stable sole that makes the most difference. So just go for whichever matches your style the best. My wife doesn't do lunges on Smith machine stations (or with free weights) without her Converse, even though she could train barefoot!

"The compression increases the blood flow and the receptive input from the knee, helping an athlete perform more controlled and stable movements."
Rehband
Company With Over 60 Years Medical Science Experience

2. Knee sleeves

As much as possible, I like to train without assistance. It makes me feel like I'm the one doing the work, rather than some fancy gym accessory.

red and black beast gear knee sleeves

However, after realising the benefits of knee protection about 18 months ago, I never lunge or squat without my Beast Gear Knee Sleeves.

When I found out that more than 4 million Americans have artificial knees—not counting the millions more with knee pain—I decided to inform myself, and my fellow Brits, by seeking out the best knee sleeves to keep my joints healthy and out of harm's way.

My Beast Gear knee sleeves naturally stabilise my patella, which definitely gives me the confidence to train harder, knowing that my knee cap won't suddenly detach from its tendon. However, my knee sleeves have also noticeably sped up my recovery because they promote blood flow to damaged muscle tissue, which reduces uncomfortable inflammation.

Definitely worth the investment if you don't skip leg day.

"My personal experience with foam rolling has actually been quite positive. I've found that if I go into a session and I'm feeling a little bit sore, just foam rolling out that area does help to reduce that [soreness]."
Jeff Nippard
Drug-Free Bodybuilder with over 1 Million YouTube Subscribers

3. Foam roller

I won't sugar coat it. Foam rolling is not fun to do at first. It feels like you're getting a massage from a heavy-handed strongman. Eddie Hall, anyone?

Anyway, I've stuck with it for the past 6 months and not only has the pain mostly subsided, but I actually find foam rolling relaxing. It's as if relieving my muscular tension also relives my mental stresses. Who knew therapy was this cheap?

fit beast foam roller set

I've been using this Foam Roller 4 Piece Set, which is made from non-toxic materials and contains all kinds of massage goodies. You get a foam roller for easing day-to-day inflammation, but the bundle also comes with a 300kg-resistant foam roller for real, hands-on deep tissue work.

Overall, it's much cheaper than a professional massage and definitely more effective than any of the so-called "recovery supplements" that I've tried.

Smith machine lunges muscles worked

Quadriceps

a bodybuilder with massive quads

As mentioned, you can emphasise your quads during the Smith machine stationary lunge by shortening your stride length. This positioning places your foot closer to your centre of gravity, which in turn enables more knee flexion and a deeper quadriceps stretch. Just don't exaggerate your stride. Otherwise, you might run into knee pain.

Glutes

woman performing glute exercises with a hip circle by the pool

Take a longer step during the Smith machine split lunge if you want to build bigger glutes (who doesn't?). This hip-focused setup stretches the gluteus maximus—more so than squats—so it naturally builds a lot of visible mass (with the addition a high-protein diet, of course).

Spinal erectors

Shirtless athletic man turned back on white background.

The longer your stride, the higher the spinal erector activation. This is because your knee joint is in a weaker position, and, therefore, your lower back has to pick up the slack.

However, compared to traditional back squats, lunges are far more spine friendly. This is mostly because you're using less weight. But it's also because it's easy to maintain an upright torso during lunges, which places more stress on your legs, and less strain on your back.

Abs

woman doing crunches on an exercise ball

The awesome benefits of doing the lunge Smith machine style is that it requires much less stabilisation. This setup removes much of the balance factor from the lunge equation, meaning that you can devote 100% of your attention to hammering your legs and making them grow.

Hamstrings

bodybuider training his hamstrings

Like the glutes, your hamstrings extend the hip joint. So naturally, a longer stride length will put them at a great stretch and increase their activation.

However, since the hamstrings are a biarticulate muscle—meaning that they cross two joints—they can't contribute much to hip extension while the knee is bent, which is their other function.

This anatomical limitation is great for building your glutes because it means that your gluteus maximus has to do most of the work. However, it also means that you'll need to throw in some leg curls and stiff-leg deads to beef up your hams.

Smith machine lunges benefits

Here are 3 amazing benefits to doing your lunges Smith machine style:

Improved quad isolation

man doing leg extensions

The Smith machine lunge is static movement, which means that you can focus purely on working your quad by maintaining an upright torso while squatting down. This static nature arguably makes the exercise less "functional", whatever that really means. But from a muscle growth perspective, few exercises work the quads as intensely as Smith machine lunge squats.

Reduced lower back strain

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

Unlike bilateral squats, unilateral exercises, such as Smith machine lunges, enable you to maintain an upright torso (since you have your back leg for support), which in turn allows you to place more of the tension on the quads, rather than on your vulnerable lower back [1].

Stronger squat

man performing deep squats

Research shows that squat strength and lunge strength are highly correlated. However, this isn't particularly groundbreaking considering that the lunge is essentially just an a single-leg squat [2].

Still, if you can rectify your muscle imbalances by doing lunges and other unilateral leg work, then it's extremely likely that your squat strength will increase.

Smith machine lunges alternatives

Smith machine reverse lunge

The Smith machine reverse lunge activates more of the gluteal muscle fibres than regular lunges because you're naturally bending more at the waist, which puts the hips into a higher degree of flexion.

Of course, more hip flexion means less knee flexion, and less knee flexion means less knee pain. So if you've got dodgy knees, then definitely give reverse lunges a shot. Just be sure to wear some kind of knee sleeve to keep your patella stable.

Smith machine split squat

Doing a Bulgarian split squat on the smith machine is a clever way to deeply stretch your quads and glutes without suffering from balance issues, which is a common side effect of the free weight version.

Bulgarian split squats are basically Smith machine elevated lunges, but with a more exotic name. They offer a larger range of motion than lunges but are also considerably more complicated to set up. And, even on the Smith machine, they require a modest amount of stabilisation. So you'll have to go light at first.

Smith machine step up

Smith machine step ups are effectively the less knee-friendly version of the Smith machine lunge. The actual biomechanics of the exercise—torso position, knee bend, hip angle—are strikingly similar. However, since your foot isn't static, step ups tend to be quite harsh on the knees. So it's probably best to wear some protective knee sleeves or not take the risk at all.

FAQ

What is a Smith machine lunge?

young man and woman working out in the gym

A Smith machine lunge is a unilateral (single-leg) lower body exercise that mainly targets the quadriceps and glutes. It also works the hamstrings, calves and spinal erectors. Albeit, to a much lesser degree.

Are Smith machine lunges good for glutes?

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

Smith machine lunges are an excellent exercise for training the glutes if you lengthen your step because doing so puts the actual gluteus maximus muscle at a greater stretch [3].

Are Smith machine lunges good for quads?

close up of a woman's quadricep muscles

Yes, Smith machine lunges are great for training the quads because they enable you to keep your foot close to your centre of gravity, which in turn, allows you to achieve a deeper stretch in your quadriceps [4].

Are Curtsy lunges on the Smith machine any good?

runner with knee pain

No, the Smith machine curtsy lunge puts your knees in a very vulnerable position and is much less effective at targeting the glutes and quads than regular lunges because you can't lift as much weight [5].

Some people argue that curtsy lunges work the hip adductors (aka, the gluteus medius)—and they'd be correct. However, curtsy lunges are far from the best gluteus medius exercise. You're much better off performing seated hip abductions with a good hip circle because it better isolates the gluteus medius.

Are Smith machine pulse lunges effective?

thinking women with question mark on white background

Yes, performing constant tension or "pulse" lunges using Smith machine stations is a very effective method for building your quads and glutes. Pulse lunges are especially effective when performed for high reps because it gives the metabolic stress plenty of time to build up within your legs.

Can you compare walking lunges vs Smith machine lunges?

man doing lunges on a step up box

Walking lunges are an open-chain exercise, meaning that your foot position isn't stationary. In other words, you can plant your feet wherever you want. However, this freedom of movement comes at the expense of joint health because your knees are taking significant impact every time your foot hits the ground [6].

Conversely, Smith machine lunges are a closed chain exercise, which means that your foot remains in a fixed position throughout the entire set. Besides making your balance easier, the Smith machine lunge variation significantly reduces knee strain because your foot isn't smashing into the ground with every step.

Will a Smith machine static lunge develop my legs?

a close up of a female bodybuilder's quadriceps

If you eat enough calories, consume enough high-quality protein and use proper form, then yes, Smith machine lunge exercises will develop your legs.

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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