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Smith machine squat: Can it Really grow your legs as much as the barbell version?

By Lee Thomas

Last Updated on

Without a shadow of a doubt, the Smith squat is one of the most controversial Smith machine leg exercises that a lifter can do. In fact, in some gyms, it has more stigma than curling in the squat rack and leaving sweat on the machines combined.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It's still one of the most effective Smith machine exercises out there.

In fact, done right, a Smith machine squat will add serious muscle to your quads and glutes. And in some cases, you'll achieve faster results than with the barbell version, especially if muscle growth is your primary goal.

Smith machine squat exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads, glutes
  • Supporting muscles: Spinal erectors, abs, hamstrings, calves
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves, lifting shoes, lifting belt, hip circle
  • Exercise purpose: Develop overall lower body muscle and strength

How to do Squats on a Smith machine

Here's the proper way to do squats on Smith machine stations:

Step 1 — the setup

two girls working out
  1. Set the Smith bar to shoulder height and then stand underneath it with a shoulder-width stance so that the barbell is resting on your upper traps.
  2. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and then bring your hands in a bit closer as you squeeze your upper back muscles (helps you to maintain proper core tightness).
  3. Unrack the bar by extending your hips and then flare your feet out around 15-30 degrees. The longer your legs, the more foot flare you'll want.
  4. Place your feet out in front of the Smith machine to activate more glutes, or keep them closer to your entre of gravity to put more tension on your quads.
  5. Ensure that your spine is in neutral and that your eyes are gazing straight ahead [1].
  6. Point your elbows slightly back rather than straight down, as this prevents the resistance from travelling directly through your joints. Now you're ready to squat.

Step 2 — the descent

man squatting in a gym
  1. Inhale deeply by breathing into your diaphragm and then bracing your core against your lifting belt.
  2. Descend by breaking at your hips and knees together and then push your knees out slightly as you lower yourself towards the ground [2].
  3. Squat as deeply as you comfortably can while maintaining a neutral spine and grounded heels.

Step 3 — the ascent

strong man training his legs in a gym
  1. Finish the rep by pushing your feet into the ground (as if you were trying to leg press the gym floor).
  2. Hold your breath until you're about 2/3 of the way up (helps you to overcome the sticking point).
  3. Repeat for 3-6 sets of anywhere between 5-20 reps.

Smith machine squat mistakes

Do NOT make these 4 terrible mistakes while performing the squat Smith machine style.

Shortcutting the range of motion

athletic woman exercising her legs

Doing a Smith machine half squat with all the weight plates in the gym might well give you a temporary ego boost, but it won't do much for your legs. In fact, research shows that deep squatting, where your hips break parallel, leads to 7% extra muscle growth in just 12 weeks [3].

Better still, squatting deeply is no worse for your knees than squatting to parallel or above.

But do you know what is bad for your knees?

Allowing too much forward knee travel

close up of a bodybuilder's quadriceps

Some forward knee travel is inevitable during any quad-focused Smith machine back squat. However, don't take it to the extreme. Forcing your knees over your toes in an attempt to eke out more range of motion or quad stimulation is suicide for your long term knee health [4].

Instead, increase the range of motion at your hips by taking a step away from the Smith machine and only allowing a moderate amount of forward knee travel. You'll be much stronger this way, and your knees will thank you for it.

Rounding your lower back

man training his legs in a gym rack

If I had a pound for every time I saw someone squatting with a rounded back; I'd be sipping protein shakes under a Thai palm tree after my daily beach workout.

When you're using the Smith machine for squats, rounding your back is just about the worst mistake that you can make. Not only does it take virtually all the tension off your quads, but it turns your squat into a weird sort of good morning that cripples your spine in the process.

That said, some "butt wink" is fine, especially if you squat deep. Butt wink (in case you don't know) is essentially when your pelvis tilts forwards (and thus makes your lower back round slightly) at the bottom of a squat. It's natural and harmless according to most fitness professionals.

Letting your knees cave in

runner with knee pain

Despite there being more squat technique guides and videos than ever before, the knee valgus epidemic is spreading like wildfire.

And by knee valgus, I mean internally rotated knees. It's a common side effect of squatting in Smith machine systems with too much weight. Your knees can't handle the stress, and so they literally buckle under the pressure and cave in like a roof built from Lego bricks.

The end result isn't pretty. Best case scenario you have knee pain, worst case scenario you need a knee replacement (I'm not joking).

Thankfully, by opening up your hips and flaring your feet out around 15-30 degrees, you can sidestep this issue for the most part. Just make sure to wear some knee sleeves if you're going to do Smith machine back squats regularly, because they add a lot of stability to your patella.

Recommended training gear for Smith squats

1. Knee sleeves

Stability is the name of the game when it comes to Smith squats. If your knee joint is shaking like a leaf as you lift, not only will you be weaker, but you'll also open yourself up to a whole host of injuries.

man doing squats in his beast gear knee sleeves

Investing in some reliable knee protection like the proven Beast Gear Sleeves is an excellent insurance policy against knee pain. While these sleeves won't prevent you from getting injured—only the proper form can do that—they will help you recover faster, both from training and injuries, by increasing blood flow and reducing swelling.

This Knee Support Brace is also a good option if you're on a budget because it comes with a money-back guarantee. If you pick the wrong size, then you can simply send your sleeves back and get another pair. But best of all, they provide noticeable, immediate pain relief, which makes a big difference if you squat twice a week like me.

2. Weightlifting shoes

I love squatting barefoot. But my gym doesn't allow it. So I spent a lot of time researching solutions, trying many different weightlifting shoes in the process.

adidas powerlift weightlifting shoes

The best squat shoes I found were the Addidas Powerlifts.

They help me to generate more powerful leg drive by providing extra stability around my ankles, and I'd estimate that they've put around 10kg on my squat since I switched over from regular trainers. I also like the 2.8cm heels because they enable me to consistently hit depth without putting my knees through the wringer on each rep.

You can get Men's Addidas Powerlift shoes as well as Women's Addidas Powerlift shoes.

Me and my wife use them every leg day, and we have no complaints 18 months on.

3. Weightlifting belt

rdx weightlifting belt

Admittedly, I wasn't a big believer in lifting belts until my powerlifting friend let me try his. But I kid you not, my one rep max shot up by 7.5kg in one session, which is a lot for someone who's been training as long as me.

Ultimately, I went with RDX Powerlifting Belt because it's made from durable, thick leather and also comes with a money-back guarantee. I didn't tell my friend this, but my core strength feels just as dependable with this belt as it does with his "special" weightlifting belt, which cost him a pretty penny.

4. Hip circle

woman doing hip thrusts while weaing a band around her knees

Personally, I don't squat without my Mark Bell Hip Circle.

This genius glute-building invention warms up my hips like nothing else, and it's by far the best gym accessory for building bigger, firmer glutes. My wife got me into it and let's just say her results speak for themselves.

Smith machine squat muscles worked

Glutes

Illustration of the gluteus maximus anatomy

The great thing about using Smith assisted squat machines is that you can preferentially target your glutes or quads by changing your foot position.

For maximum glute activation, place your feet out in front of you and perform a wide stance Smith machine squat. This positioning increases the range of motion at your hips and simultaneously takes the pressure off your knees, meaning that you're much less likely to get injured.

Just be sure to squat deeply, as research shows that this also emphasis the glutes [5].

Quads

Illustration of the quadriceps anatomy

The proper way to do squats on a Smith machine for quads is to keep your feet close to your centre of gravity. Doing so increases the range of motion at your knee joint, which in turn leads to a deeper, more satisfying stretch in the muscle fibres of your quadriceps.

Keep this up, and your quads will grow faster than they otherwise would from the free weight version because you're getting pure muscle isolation (and a whole lot less back strain).

Erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

The spinal erectors become more active the deeper you squat. However, they're much less active during Smith squats than in free weight squats because the machine takes care of most of the stabilisation for you. Obviously, this is great for building muscle, because it allows you to focus purely on working your legs.

Hamstrings

Illustration of the hamstring anatomy

A lot of people think that squats are a good hamstring exercise—they're not. You see, for a muscle grow, it needs to be either maximally lengthened (like the glutes during a squat) or maximally shortened (like the glutes during a hip thrust).

But since the hamstrings are a biarticulate muscle, meaning that they cross two joints—the knee and the hip—they never get fully shortened or lengthened during a squat.

Here's what I mean: as you descend, the hamstrings contract at the knee, but then simultaneously lengthen at the hip. And as you come up, they lengthen at the knee and contract at the hip.

The net result is that they stay roughly the same length throughout the entire squat and don't get exposed to any meaningful amounts of tension. So no, despite what some gurus say, the squat isn't a good hamstring exercise. You can't defy basic anatomy!

Calves

calves anatomy illustration

Although you won't get huge calves from Smith squats (unless they're genetically gifted), they still play an essential stability role, and as such, you'll definitely feel them working when you go heavy.

Related posts

Abs

Illustration of the abdominal anatomy

As with the hamstrings, a lot of people erroneously believe that squats are some magical torso-sculpting exercise that negates the need for any direct ab work. Again, they're not.

Even overhead squats, which activate all kinds of stabiliser muscles, are utterly useless for developing your abs. And that's not just my option; research proves that squats suck for ab training [6].

Why?

Simply put, with squats, your abs are only getting isometric contractions when it's dynamic contractions (where the muscles get repeatedly stretched and contracted) that they actually need to grow.

Smith machine squat benefits

Fewer injuries

man with knee pain sitting on the floor at the gym

Performing your squats on Smith machine systems is a brilliant tactic to reduce your injury risk (especially when coupled with a good pair of knee sleeves).

Unlike with barbell squats, you can re-rack the bar at any point during the rep with a simple turn of the wrist when you're squatting on a Smith machine. As a result, it's almost impossible to get pinned under the bar, which definitely gives you the confidence to push yourself harder in my experience.

Better muscle stimulation

sporty woman doing back squats

With regular squats, you can't change your foot position without falling over. Sure, you can move your feet closer or wider, but you can't actually bring them forwards or backwards without losing your balance.

As a result, targeting the specific muscles that you want to work is an extremely frustrating task, which is why many people dump squats in favour of leg presses, where they can easily emphasise different muscles with a quick change of foot position.

In this sense, Smiths machine squats are much the same as leg presses, except that you can get way more range of motion (providing that you have good mobility, of course).

Unlike free weight squats, Smith squats enable you to place your legs out in front to focus on your glutes or keep your feet closer to your body to put more tension on your quads.

Naturally, squatting on the Smith machine enables you to hit your legs from different angles, unlike regular squats, which leads to faster muscle growth and a more varied workout regime.

More confidence

an athletic man and woman stood in the gym weight room

Of course, developing a muscular set of legs does indeed give you more confidence— especially when you're wearing shorts. But the kind of confidence that I'm talking about here is the confidence to push yourself to the limit, and thus, build muscle faster.

You see, squatting with Smith machine systems lets you train safely in the knowledge that the spotter catches have always got your back. What this means to you is that you can push yourself harder and sculpt more developed legs because you know that you can re-rack the barbell in a matter of seconds.

Smith machine squat alternatives

Performing your squats Smith machine style is great for emphasizing specific leg muscles. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't some equally amazing alternatives.

Smith machine leg press

The Smith machine leg press is a quirky exercise that was popularised by bodybuilders who didn't have access to a vertical leg press machine. Arnold used to do it, so it's got that old school appeal, but frankly, I think that it's an extremely overrated and downright dangerous exercise—one slip and that bar's falling straight on top of you.

Smith machine front squat

The Smith-machine front squat is, in my opinion, one of the best leg exercises in existence for developing your quads because your mind doesn't have to worry about stabilising the weight. As a result, you can devote all of your attention to hammering your quads, which enables you to build muscle mass faster.

Smith machine hack squat

Doing a hack squat on the Smith machine is one of the best (and safest) ways to work your outer squad sweep. Unlike a regular hack squat machine, the Smith version enables you to re-rack the bar at absolutely any point during a rep, which definitely encourages you to test your limits more often.

Overall, it's a great Smith machine squat alternative. It's definitely better than the close stance Smith machine squat (unless you have iron knees).

How does it Compare?

Smith machine squats vs leg press

A Smith machine barbell squat is very similar to a leg press in that you can freely change your foot position to emphasise specific muscles groups.

man using a leg press in the gym

Obviously, a leg press allows you to lift much more weight than any type of squat (even half squats!), and more weight usually means more muscle growth.

However, the typical leg press machine offers much less range of motion than the Smith machine squat. And as we know, getting a full range of motion (i.e. using good form) is just as, if not more important for muscle growth than lifting heavy weights.

So overall I'd say things are pretty equal. The leg press definitely provides more back support, but it also engages less of your core muscles. I recommend giving both a try to see which provides the best muscle stimulation and the least amount of joint discomfort.

Smith machine squat vs free weight squat

When it comes to Smith machine squats vs regular squats debate, there are a few facts that we can't deny. For one, a free weight squat activates more stabiliser muscles.

female doing barbell squats

According to one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a free weight squat activates 26% more hamstrings, 34% more calves and a whopping 49% more inner quads than Smith machine squats. There was no difference in outer quad activation [7].

However, it's important to note that higher muscle activation doesn't automatically mean more muscle growth. I could squeeze my quads really hard with zero weight, and I'd probably register more muscle activation than I would on a set of regular squats. But would I build any muscle doing that?

Absolutely not.

man training his legs intensely

As for strength differences in the Smith machine squat vs barbell squat case, the jury's still out. Research shows that women are around 28kg stronger on Smith squats than regular squats. But the same study showed than men were stronger with free weights [8].

Perhaps the women simply felt more confident attempting a one-rep max on the Smith machine than with free weights?

On the safety side of things, researchers actually recommend the Smith machine squat for those with knee problems and for rehabilitation because you can decrease stress on your patella by putting your knees out in front of you [9].

Overall, both variations have their pros and cons. But if I had to go for one, it'd probably be the free weight squat because it carries over so well to all of the other free weight leg exercises that I do.

FAQ

What is a Smith machine squat?

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

A Smith machine squat is a type of squat that allows you to effectively target your leg muscles because the machine stabilises the weight for you.

Are Smith machine squats bad?

Man working out his legs

No. Smith machine squats are very effective for building muscle and developing strength. In fact, many bodybuilders squat with Smith machine systems exclusively, and they have huge legs.

So are Smith machine squats safe?

young woman doing squats in the gym

Yes, Smith squats are safe, providing that you use the proper form and only lift a weight that you can handle.

What's the proper Smith machine squat form?

man performing deep squats

Check out our how to squat on a Smith machine section for the full details. But in short, you essentially want to put the bar across your upper traps and then break at your hips and knees until you feel a deep stretch in your legs. Then, you simply push yourself back up to the starting position.

Is the Smith squat good for bodybuilding?

bodybuilder flexing upper body muscles

The Smith squat machine is particularly useful for bodybuilding because you can preferentially target specific muscles by changing your foot position. This enables you to hit your muscle fibres from different angles and achieve more growth.

What rep range is optimal for squats on the Smith machine?

people at an exercise class

I recommend using sets of 8-12 because it enables you to stimulate your legs without getting too out of breath (common with high reps) and loading excessively heavy weight onto your knees (low rep problem).

Is the assisted squat machine cheating?

woman working out her lower body

No, absolutely not. Although the assisted squat machine doesn't require any stabilisation, the only "thing" moving the weight up and down is your muscles.

Should I use a bar pad for Smith squats?

reehut bar pad

It depends on how heavy you're lifting. If you're just starting out, then no, there's no need to use a bar pad because the weight won't be heavy enough to hurt your back.

However, once you start getting stronger on the Smith machine squat, investing in your own thick bar pad is an excellent idea because it means that your legs will always be the limiting factor—not the pain in your neck and/or back.

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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