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Narrow-stance smith machine squat: We are not responsible for putting out the fire in your quads

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020
young woman doing squats in the gym

Nothing says "I squat" like a well developed outer-quad sweep. You can have the biggest chest in the world, but if you don't possess equally impressive legs, your credibility as a lifer (and a man) is bound to be called into question.

By the same token, nothing screams weak like a puny set of thighs. In fact, having slender quads might actually cause people to think that you skip leg day—even if you don't.

So in this article, I'm going to explain the best practises when it comes to using the Smith machine for quads. And in particular, how to reap the rewards of the narrow-stance Smith machine squat.

Narrow stance Smith machine squat exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads
  • Supporting muscles: Glutes
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves/knee wraps, squat shoes
  • Exercise purpose: Build a bigger outer quad sweep

How to do a close stance Smith machine squat

  1. Set the bar to shoulder height and stand under it with a hip-width stance. There's no need to actually put your feet together (you'll soon learn why).
  2. Place the barbell across your upper traps.
  3. Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and then turn your wrists to unrack it.
  4. Inhale and brace your core. Your eyes should be looking straight ahead as you begin the descent by breaking at your knees and hips together.
  5. Descend to just below parallel or until you feel your lower back start to round.
  6. Complete the rep by pushing through your heels and coming 80% of the way back up (keeps constant tension on your quads). Repeat for sets of 12-20 reps.

Narrow stance squat workout tips

Break parallel

man performing deep squats

For some strange reason, many lifters assume that using a narrow stance is a hall pass to perform half reps.

It's not.

While constant tension training has its place, it's not an excuse to only squat down halfway. You need to break parallel to enjoy the full benefits of any Smith squat variation. And that most certainly includes narrow squats.

And please, spare me the "deep squatting is bad for your knees" nonsense. The peak tension of a squat occurs at roughly parallel—not below it [1]. Plus, going below 90 degrees stretches your quads more, which leads to a bigger outer sweep in the long run.

"Provided that technique is learned accurately under expert supervision and with progressive training loads, the deep squat presents an effective training exercise for protection against injuries and strengthening of the lower extremity."
Hartmann et al

Don't exaggerate your stance

sporty girls doing squats at the gym

Despite what the name suggests, performing Smith machine narrow squats doesn't mean that you should squat with your feet together.

Not only does squatting with your feet together significantly reduce your range of motion (and thereby quad growth), but it also puts a criminal amount of pressure onto your knees [2].

And contrary to conventional wisdom, you shouldn't force your knees over your toes while close squatting. Instead, you should flare your knees out and open up your hips, which enables you to attain a bigger quad stretch while simultaneously sparing your joints from unnecessary strain [3].

"In order to avoid injury, special care should be taken in extreme positions (narrow stand-42° and wide stance-0°) where large knee and hips joint moments were observed."
Lorenzetti et al
BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation

Maintain constant tension

athletic woman exercising her legs

Smith machine narrow stance squats aren't designed to be loaded up with your one-rep max. They're one and only purpose from a physique athlete's point of view is to develop that coveted outer quad sweep. And you certainly don't do that by maxing out.

What you should do is this: lighten the weight and perform sets of 12-20 reps. But don't fully lock out your knees. Make your quads work by only coming 80% of the way up. Don't stop squatting until the pump becomes unbearable.

Your quads will flood with lactic acid, and they'll have no choice but to grow. We call this metabolic stress, and it's a key driver of muscular development [4] [5].

Recommended training gear for Narrow stance squats

1. Knee sleeves

close up of beast gear knee sleeves

I've been using the Beast Gear Knee Sleeves for over a year now, and even though I was sceptical at first, I'm really pleased with the extra recovery they've given me. I'm pretty sure that this expedited recovery is because knee sleeves promote blood flow and reduce swelling, which are critical for muscle repair.

Whatever the case may be, I'm a very satisfied customer. The 5mm thick Tech-Blend provides plenty of support. Yet it also enables me to move around without feeling restricted.

Definitely worth the investment if you train legs twice a week like I do.

2. Knee wraps

rdx knee wraps

In all honesty, I'm not a big fan of knee wraps. I find them really uncomfortable, and they're extremely fiddly to put on.

Nonetheless, when I'm attempting a new squat one-rep max in the Smith machine, I bite the bullet and wear them.

I use these 80" knee wraps, and while they're not a game-changer, they do add about 5kg to my max squat, which is pretty decent considering how long I've been lifting.

3. Squat shoes

I love squatting barefoot. It feels primal, and my quads just love it. But it turns out that many gym managers just don't share my love for back-to-nature leg training.

adidas powerlift weightlifting shoes

So I decided to look into weightlifting shoes. And after trying a few less-than-impressive pairs, I finally stumbled across the Addidas Powerlifts.

While nothing compares to lifting barefoot, these squat shoes make a big difference compared to trainers. Not only do I feel more stable, but I can actually generate more power off the floor by recruiting my major lower body muscles.

Again, not a game-changer, but they're worth it if you have some extra cash.

Narrow stance squat muscles worked

Quads

Illustration of the quadriceps anatomy

As we established a minute ago, the close stance Smith machine squat is crazy effective for pumping up your quads. But as far as actual muscle activation goes, it seems that both wide and close stance squats are equally effective for stimulating the quadriceps.

However, muscle activation measured in a laboratory and real-life muscle growth created in the gym are two very different things. So if quads are your main goal, then I wouldn't jump ship to wide squats anytime soon [6].

Glutes

Illustration of the gluteus maximus anatomy

It's a well-established fact that wide-stance Smith squats work the glutes better than close-stance Smith squats. So if you're looking to achieve complete leg development, then I recommend including both variations in your workout routine. Nobody likes a pancake ass!

Erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

The erectors help to stabilise your spine during narrow stance Smith machine squats, which in turn enables you to remain more upright and keep the majority of the tension on your quads.

Narrow stance squat benefits

Bigger Quads

close-up pf a bodybuilder's legs

Quads are the new abs. At least that's what I've been telling people for years.

Anyone can get abs by restricting their calories. But it takes a special kind of individual to sculpt attention-demanding quadriceps that beg people to ask "excuse me sir, are you a rugby player?".

No, I'm not. But I sure can squat like one.

And as any bodybuilder will tell you, there's no better way to sculpt stella quads than with narrow squats. If you've never done them or haven't included them in your program for a while then prepare to grow like a new lifter.

Less glute activation

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

Now, I'm not condoning skimping on glute training. After all, the glutes are arguably the ultimate symbol of strength and athleticism. Have you ever seen a sprinter with weak glutes?

Exactly. You haven't.

However, you can't train every muscle group with every exercise. When you're trying to isolate or emphasise a particular body part, your other muscle groups naturally have to take a back seat.

You can't prioritise every body part, and you can easily train your glutes after hammering your quads—wide squats, reverse lunges and hip thrusts will always be there.

Plus if you have overdeveloped glutes, performing the narrow stance Smith machine squat is an excellent technique for building proportional legs. Unless, of course, you're actually aiming to have disproportionally large glutes.

Better pump

man doing leg extensions

The Smith machine squat close stance is naturally suited to constant tension training since you can easily re-rack the bar at any time during the set with a simple turn of the wrist. Obviously, this brutal training style creates a massive pump in your quads.

And as I mentioned earlier, the pump isn't just a weirdly pleasurable feeling—it leads to highly visible muscle growth.

Narrow stance squat alternatives

Smith machine leg press

Besides maybe the guillotine press, performing a vertical leg press on the Smith machine is just about the most dangerous exercise that you can do in the gym. I wrote a guide on how to make it safer. But the way that most people do it sends chills down my spine. Suffice to say that as someone who values their own life, I don't recommend it.

Smith machine back squat

The regular Smith squat is a great exercise if you want to emphasise your glutes and quads equally. It also enables you to lift more weight than on narrow stance squats, hence why it's the go-to exercise for those seeking overall leg mass.

Smith machine front squat

Performing front squats on the Smith machine is a brilliant way to smash your quads without your upper back and core being the limiting factor (as they so often are with the free weight version). Front squats are also incredibly knee-friendly because they provide the same muscle stimulation as back squats, but with lighter weights.

Smith machine sumo squat

The wide stance Smith machine squat is the narrow Smith squat's non-identical twin. It emphasises your glutes, adductors and inner quads, and is especially effective for those who've got knee issues, but who still want to enjoy the benefits of squatting.

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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