Legs

Discover 4 Best Tips On How To Do Smith Machine Squats

how to do smith machine squats

There’s no doubt about it, barbell squats are in a league of their own when it comes to firing up pretty much every muscle group in your body building strength and packing on muscle.  

But there’s an age-old debate of whether or not free-weight squats are better than smith squats.  


Recommended Reading – 9 Best Barbell Back Squat Alternatives For Strength


Stick around as in this article we’re going to be going over the differences, common mistakes, and some other squat variations along with how to do smith machine squats.  

With this knowledge, you can then decide for yourself if the smith machine squat can ever replace the much-loved free-weight squat or if it can sit alongside it as a great alternative for your leg workouts.  

What’s The Difference Between A Smith Machine Squat And A Rack Squat

Both the smith machine and the squat rack are going to give you a platform for performing squats but what sets them apart?  

Let’s look in more detail at the main differences between the smith machine squat and the free weight squat using a squat rack.  

woman squatting in smith machine

The key difference between a smith machine squat and regular squat is that a smith machine guides the barbell along a fixed path.  

This fixed bar path can limit your range of motion and reduce the recruitment of your stabilizer muscles.  

On the other hand, when squatting from a squat rack, proper form gives you complete freedom of movement allowing for a more natural squat movement based on your anatomy.  

Some of the best smith machines include built-in safety features like a safety bar, j-hooks and bar catchers which can be adjusted to catch the bar in case of a failed lift.  

This could be a safer option for beginner lifters when compared to squatting with free weights.  

While some squat racks do offer these features, when performing traditional squats you may need a spotter on hand, especially if you’re squatting with heavy weight.  

When you’ve unracked the barbell, to execute the squat with proper form, you’ll recruit your core muscles much more than you would if squatting on a smith machine.  

This is because more control is needed through the movement.  

Squatting with the use of a smith machine will put more emphasis on certain lower body muscles including your quads and glutes but with much less emphasis on your stabilizer muscles.  

On the other hand, the conventional squat recruits a wider range of muscles, including your core, lower back, and stabilizer muscles as they have to work hard to help you maintain balance and control.  

While smith machines are manufactured in different ways, they’ll tend to have limited variability in squatting angles and may not accommodate individual biomechanics or preferences for how you like to squat.  

This is different to the squat rack which is more versatile giving you a wider variety of movements.  

This can include things like being able to alter your foot placement, the position of the bar, and allowing for deep squats.  

While smith machine squats can still help you to develop lower body strength and muscle hypertrophy, they’re often deemed controversial (especially amongst advanced lifters) as not being able to squat to a full range of motion limits the functional transfer to real-life movements.  

When it comes to back squats, these are much more likely to mimic natural movement patterns, making them more conducive to the development of functional strength which in turn transfers to common daily activities.  

Smith Machine Squats Muscles Worked

As the Smith machine squat is a compound exercise that means is going to be working several muscle groups at once making it a great way of building your lower body strength and stability.  

Let’s take a closer look at the key muscles involved and how they contribute to the movement.

Below are the main muscles of the lower body that are recruited when doing a smith machine squat. 

Your quads are a muscle group made up of the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and the vastus intermedius and they’re all recruited during the exercise.  

Located to the front of your upper legs, they’re one of the primary muscles worked during the upward phase of the Smith machine squat as they help to extend at the knee joint.  

Muscular-Quadriceps

As you push through your heels, the quads engage to straighten your legs as you rise back to a standing position.

The glutes are heavily activated, especially during the ascent of the Smith machine squat, as they work to extend your hips.  

This engagement contributes to the overall power and strength of the squat.  

As well as your glute max (the largest of the glute muscles) the other gluteal muscles, including the gluteus medius and minimus also engage but to a lesser degree.  

The erector spinae muscles help maintain an upright torso position, providing crucial support to the lower back during the squat.  

These long thin muscle fibers run either side of your spine and are often recruited during other heavy-weight compound exercises like the deadlift.  

When you develop these muscles, as well as improving your squat form you can also encourage better posture and overall back health.  

Secondary Muscles Worked During Smith Machine Squats

Now let’s look at the supporting muscles that work with the prime movers in assisting with completing a smith machine squat.  

The hamstrings act as synergists to the glutes, supporting the movement by assisting the glutes in hip extension.

They also play an important role in controlling the descent of the body as you squat down.

hamstring muscles

The adductors help stabilize the movement by keeping your legs properly aligned.  

They’re recruited during both the ascent and descent of the squat.  

When these muscles are strong and well developed, they also help to prevent your knees from caving inwards.  

The calf muscles contribute to a smith machine squat, especially during the extension of the ankle joint as you push through the ground.  

While they play an important role in providing stability, they’re worked much less when compared to a traditional barbell squat due to the fixed bar path.

Your core muscles play a stabilizing role, helping you to maintain balance and control throughout the movement.

They engage to prevent excessive forward or backward lean and essentially help with good form.  

 Your trapezius muscles, particularly the upper traps, assist in stabilizing your upper back and shoulder blades, contributing to overall posture and correct form during the squat.

muscular upper trap muscles

How To Do Smith Machine Squats

If it’s your first time doing a smith machine (and even if it’s not), the set up and starting position are all key for proper technique.  

Setting Up

Start by setting the bar at shoulder height.

This allows you to get under the bar easily without having to squat too low or get on your tiptoes to unrack the bar.  

Make sure the safety catch is set at the right height.

They should be just below your lowest squat depth to catch the bar just in case you fail the squat. 

Step-by-Step Execution

Stand in the middle of the Smith machine with your feet around shoulder-width apart.

You can alter this stance depending on your mobility and whether or not you find it comfortable.

Some prefer a slightly wider stance, like sumo squats, for a more powerlifting-oriented squat which is also a great way of working more of your glutes.

Duck under the bar so it rests comfortably across the back of your shoulders.  

Avoid placing it on your neck as this could cause injury.

Grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip keeping them at wider than shoulder-width, and make sure your grip feels secure.

With your core braced and your spine in a neutral position, twist the bar to unlock it from the rack.

Take a deep breath in and prepare to squat.

Begin by bending at the knees and hips, and pushing your glutes back as though you’re about to sit down on a chair.  

Ensure your knees stay in line with your feet and don’t bow inward.

Strong hip flexors will help your knees stay in the correct position.  

Descend until your thighs are parallel to the ground or lower.  

How low you squat will depend on your flexibility, mobility, and, of course, your preference.

Pause briefly at the bottom for maximum muscle contraction then push through your heels, engaging your glutes, quads, and hamstrings to drive back up to the starting position.

Exhale as you ascend and use explosive power to stand upright. 

At the top of the movement, stabilize your stance, then twist the bar back into the rack position with controlled motion.

Ensure the bar is securely locked before letting go.

Pro Tips for Best Performance

Keep your chest up and your back straight throughout the exercise.

Avoid rounding your lower back or leaning too far forward as this could lead to poor form and injury.

Activate your abdominal muscles during the squat to protect your lumbar spine and improve your stability.

Adjusting your foot position can target different muscle groups.

A wider stance activates the inner thighs and glutes more, whereas a more narrow foot position focuses more on the quads.

Inhale on the way down and exhale on the push-up.

Proper breathing helps maintain intra-abdominal pressure, which supports the spine and helps you to maintain proper form.

Are Smith Machine Squats Better For Your Lower Back 

The Smith machine, with its fixed bar path offers a unique advantage when compared to free weight squats and that’s stability.

This stability is crucial for those of you who may have lower back issues meaning that smith machine squats could be a more back friendly alternative.

Unlike traditional squats, which require a considerable of core strength and stability to maintain proper form, the Smith machine provides a guided motion.  

smith machine squat

This reduces the need to have to balance the weight, so you can focus more of your attention on the squat form itself. 

What’s more, use of the smith machine when squatting allows you to keep more of an upright posture and neutral spine.  

This can help to prevent you from leaning too far forward which could also strain your lower back.  

It’s important to point out that while smith squats can be better for your lower back, you should make sure to include plenty of exercises that work to improve your core strength.  

Because you won’t be recruiting these muscles as much when compared to a free weight squat this could mean you’ll miss out on those core-strengthening benefits so don’t become overly reliant on smith machine squats.  

Are Smith Machine Squats Easier On The Knees

With the fixed barbell track of smith machine squats, it initially seems that they could put much less stress on your knees making them a good choice if you’re looking to protect your joints.  

As the machine allows for a more controlled squat, in theory, this should reduce how much stress is put on the knee joints.  

This is because the vertical track of the smith machine helps to guide your form, which could potentially help to keep your knees aligned over your toes and preventing them from caving inwards – which is a common mistake made with regular squats.  

What’s more, you can set your pace without having to worry about balancing and stabilizing the weight meaning you can concentrate on proper form further reducing the risk of knee strain.

However, it’s important to consider a couple of things that could impact squat form and thereby increasing the risk of knee injury. 

The very nature of the Smith machine’s fixed path can also be a drawback.

Real-life movements are rarely perfectly vertical, and the Smith machine’s fixed path can force the knees into an unnatural alignment, potentially increasing rather than decreasing knee stress.

When you perform a squat, there’s normally a slight natural curve in the movement path which differs from person to person based on their anatomy and biomechanics.  

But the smith machine reduces this natural movement which again can exacerbate knee strain.  

In a nutshell, smith machine squats can be easier on the knees if the machine is used correctly and as part of a balanced training program.

While they offer a controlled movement for squatting that may benefit those with existing knee issues, reliance on the Smith machine alone is not recommended. 

How Much Does The Bar Weigh On A Smith Machine

The smith machine bar weight can vary anywhere from 15lbs (7kg) up to 45lbs (20kg).  

The difference in the smith bar weight will depend on the manufacturer of the smith machine.  

Let’s have a look at some of the more common smith machines you can find in many commercial gyms along with the weight of the smith machine barbell. 

Smith Machine Brand & TypeBar Weight lbsBar Weight kgs
Life Fitness Signature Series Smith Machine209
Gym Gear Elite Series Smith Machine4420
Hammer Strength Smith Machine3013.6
Nautilus Counter Balance Smith Machine157
Primal Pro Series Olympic Smith Machine4420
Hoist Fitness MiSmith Dual Action Smith Machine3013.6
Panatta Power Smith Machine Dual System209
Matrix Smith Machine2511.3

What’s Better For Squatting, The Straight Or Angled Smith Machine

Both the straight and angled smith machine can effectively be used for your squat work, but which one is better?  Let’s take a look. 

The guiding rods on the straight smith machine are at a 90-degree angle to the floor and because they’re perpendicular they move in a completely vertical path.  

This means whichever way you face will have no impact on your squat form nor will it affect how your muscles are worked.  

While there’s no wrong way to face when using a straight bar smith machine, most people tend to find that re-racking the smith machine bar is easier with wrist flexion (to move the wrists forward) as opposed to wrist extension (to move the wrists backwards).  

In which case standing in the smith machine and facing outwards would be more comfortable.  

The vertical movement of the straight smith machine could be a better option for anyone new to squatting.  

However, the straight Smith machine requires careful attention to form, especially regarding foot placement, to ensure a natural squatting motion without undue stress on the knees and lower back.

The angled smith machine introduces a slight slant in the barbell’s path so as well as moving vertically it also moves horizontally.  

This angled path can be better to mimic the body’s natural squatting motion, potentially reducing the risk of injury by allowing a more natural hip back and down movement during squat exercises.  

Using an angled smith machine might also feel more intuitive for some, as it allows for a motion that more closely resembles the arc that you see in free-weight squats, engaging the muscles in a way that feels more natural to the body’s mechanics.

It’s also worth pointing out that which way you face on an angled smith machine can impact how the muscles work.  

If you stand facing the smith machine so that the bar path runs down and behind you, then you can push your hips back more (hip extension) allowing you to put more emphasis on your glutes.  

On the other hand, if you stand facing out with your feet forward slightly, this allows for greater knee flexion so you work more of your quads.  

Wrapping Up

The Smith machine offers a unique and effective platform for enhancing your squat routine, whether you’re a novice looking to perfect your form or an experienced lifter looking to intensify your workouts.

Choosing between a traditional barbell squat or a smith machine squat is not about right or wrong; it’s about what aligns best with your fitness goals, biomechanics, and personal preference.

Remember, incorporating Smith machine squats into your training routine can lead to significant gains in strength, stability, and muscle development.  

By paying careful attention to your form, listening to your body, and consistently challenging yourself, you can leverage the Smith machine to achieve great results.

Before we go, let’s not forget the importance of diversity in your workout routine.

While the Smith machine is a great tool for squats, complementing these with free weights and other strength training equipment means that all muscle groups are engage, keeping your body balanced and strong.  

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