The 7 Best Smith Machine Exercises and How to do Them

This often-ridiculed piece of equipment deserves a place in your strength-training regimen.

The Smith machine may be one of the most reviled pieces of equipment in the gym — but if you’re a Smith machine troll, you may want to reconsider your position. There is a place for it in your strength-building regimen. The Smith machine is not just a thousand dollar coat rack (as it’s sometimes referred to). This piece of equipment allows for you to attempt heavy lifts without a spotter and keeps the barbell on a guided path — which is a disadvantage for some lifts but a plus for others.

Additionally, since most people discredit the Smith machine — named for its inventor, Rudy Smith— it’s more likely to be open than other areas, like the squat rack. Here, we’ll detail some of the best moves to do with the Smith machine and how to execute them properly.

Best Smith Machine Exercises

Kaz Press

You can argue with us, but you can’t argue with three-time World’s Strongest Man Bill “Kaz” Kazmaier. Kaz dominated the Strongman scene in the 1980s and at one time held the bench press world record at 661 pounds. Of course, bench pressing involves triceps strength — which he was able to build using a Smith machine exercise.

The Kaz press is a hybrid between a close-grip bench press and a tricep extension. By using the Smith machine, rather than free weights, you’re removing the instability factor and allowing for heavier weight to be used. This, in turn, helps develop the muscles needed to build up your bench press.

Benefits of the Kaz Press

  • Builds tricep and chest strength for stronger bench presses.
  • The Smith machine’s stability allows for heavy weight to be used.
  • This variation is generally easier on the elbow joint than free weight extensions.

How to Do the Kaz Press

Lie faceup on a bench under the barbell. Keeping your elbows close to your body, grab the bar at shoulder-width or a closer grip if desired. Unrack the bar at full extension and start the bar above your clavicles with arms extended — lower the bar toward your chest by bending at the elbows and allowing some movement at the shoulders. Stop about three inches off your chest, push back to the starting position.

Smith Machine Back Squat

This is a controversial take, as many lifters and strength coaches heavily advise against doing squats outside of a more traditional squat rack. They reason that the machine’s fixed vertical path doesn’t allow for variability in movement, resulting in injury.

They’re not entirely wrong. That said, when done with proper form, a Smith machine squat can result in serious gains. A 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found free weight and Smith machine squats resulted in most muscles worked by the move, except for the gastrocnemius (calf muscle), biceps femoris (the back part of the thigh), and vastus medialis (the inner part of the quadriceps), which all responded better to free weights. (1)

A 2005 study in the same journal also found the Smith machine resulted in a heavier one-rep max than free weights, partially due to a reduced need for balancing oneself during the move. (2)

The Smith machine squat is performed similar to a free weight one, except that your feet should be slightly in front of the barbell instead of directly underneath the bar. Additionally, ensure your knees don’t travel too far past your toe line — while this is OK to some length, taking it to the extreme has been proven to be detrimental to your joint health. (3)

Benefits of the Smith Machine Back Squat

  • You can load the machine up with more weight and move that weight with more overall stability.
  • Works all leg muscles, along with your core, and this fact is backed by science.
  • The squat result in more testosterone production than any other move.

How to Do the Smith Machine Back Squat

Stand at a shoulder-width stance with the bar across your shoulders and traps. Unlock the bar by lifting it up and forward. Bracing your core and keeping your head forward and spine in a neutral position, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Hold for a one count before coming back up.

Smith Machine Split Squat

Like the squat, doing split squats with a Smith machine will ensure you have more stability during the movement. That stability allows you to lengthen your stride, which in turn allows for greater hip flexion and greater stretch of the gluteus maximus. Furthermore, it allows for greater training of your weaker leg to address muscle imbalances.

To create even more muscle extension, elevate your front or back foot on a block or bench. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2017, however, did note that doing this move with a Smith machine does result in decreased muscle activation in the body’s frontal plane. (4)

Benefits of the Smith Split Squat

  • Addresses muscle imbalance and joint stability.
  • Easier on the back than back squats.
  • Strengthens all leg muscles — your hamstrings, quads, and glutes.

How to Do the Smith Machine Split Squat

Place your stronger foot on a bench or block, and place your other foot about two feet ahead of you. With the bar on your back and traps, unlock the bar from the machine. Facing forward and keeping your spine neutral, descend until your back knee reaches the floor. Now, drive yourself back up.

Behind-the-Back Shrug

This trap isolation move is great when done from the front, but when you grab the bar from behind you in a Smith machine, you’re able to move further away from the bar and move it up higher. This results in greater isolation of the traps, especially the middle of the traps responsible for shoulder stabilization.

Benefits of the Behind-the-Back Shrug

  • Isolates the trap muscle more effectively than other shrug variations.
  • It prevents your shoulders from rounding during the lift.

How to Do the Behind-the-Back Shrug

Place the bar at glute level and stand facing away from it. Grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width with an overhand grip. Shrug the bar upwards and hold it for a one count before returning to the starting position.

Smith Machine Incline Bench Press

Sensing a theme here? Instead of worrying about the bar dropping on top of your face/chest during an incline bench, all you have to do in a Smith machine is pop it back into the guides once you find yourself struggling.

The same study that found the Smith machine superior for building up a one-rep max on the squat found the opposite for bench pressing. A separate one, also in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, noted free weights and machine benches resulted in similar muscle activation for all chest muscles except for the medial deltoid (the muscle that gives your shoulder its rounded look), which responded better to free weights. (5) The point is, use this variation more for muscle-building than to gain strength.

If your upper chest is your focus, though, the Smith machine incline press allows for heavier weights to be used without fear of injury. Similar to when using free weights, be sure not to bend your wrist on the ascent.

Benefits of Smith Machine Incline Bench Press

  • Hits the upper pecs and shoulders.
  • Smith machine allows for heavier weight without concern of dropping it.
  • Great lift for improving other pressing movements.

How to Do the Smith Machine Incline Bench Press

Set a bench at a 45-degree angle. Using a closed grip, grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Raise the bar, unlock it, and lower it down to your chest while keeping your forearms vertical and making sure your elbows don’t flare out. Once the bar is at the chest, raise back up

Smith Machine Bent Over Row

This move is a must for anyone looking to develop their back muscles, and with the Smith machine, you can go heavier than if you were using a barbell. Doing it on a Smith machine takes your stabilizing muscles out of the equation due to the bar’s fixed path, which means your lats, rhomboids, and traps are better targeted than if you were doing it with a barbell.

Benefits of the Smith Machine Bent Over Row

  • Isolates lats, rhomboids, and traps by taking stabilizing muscles out of the equation.
  • This is a great move for strength and to build muscle mass.
  • Helps improve posture.

How to Do the Smith Machine Bent Over Row

Lower the bar all the way down. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and with an overhand grip. Keeping your back straight, bend slightly at the knees and pull the weight up to your body. Slowly lower it to your knees and repeat.

Inverted Row

While this is technically a bodyweight movement, what makes it so great for the Smith machine is that you can adjust the bar to your preferred height. You can technically do this in a power rack, too, but it’s just plain easier with the Smith machine. Plus, nobody wants to be the guy who’s doing these in the squat rack with a line of angry gym-goers behind him. 

Benefits of the Inverted Row

  • Builds up the back, arms, and grip strength all at once.
  • Reduce strain on the lower back as you’re in a horizontal rowing position. 
  • This is a great precursor exercise to the pull-up, making it a great move for beginners.

How to Do the Inverted Row

Set an empty bar around waist height. Lie on the floor face-up, and grab with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Bracing your core, pull yourself up until your chest reaches the bar. Slowly lower yourself back down.

Benefits of the Smith Machine

Again, many believe the Smith machine is nothing but a fancy coat rack. But that’s not true. What many see as cons — mainly, a fixed plane of motion and the ability to load more weight than what can be done one a standard bar — are also its greatest strengths.

See, not every exercise needs to be “functional” or directly related to a strength sport to be beneficial. The Smith machine’s fixed range of motion allows you to target a muscle more directly by taking stabilization out of the equation. For example, whenever you bench press, the bar needs to be set, with your feet and back firmly planted on the bench. While you should still maintain proper form while benching on the Smith machine, you don’t need to worry about dropping a loaded barbell on your face. 

Also, because you don’t have to work as hard to stabilize the weight, you can lift more on the Smith machine. This means that you can overload the target muscle with more weight than you can typically lift. And remember that your body doesn’t count plates — it only knows when a load is lighter or heavier than before. 

Lastly, it’s a self-spotting machine. To use it, turn the barbell towards you, lift, and then rotate the bar back to hook the barbell to the Smith machine. We’re not saying it’s completely safe — because you can get hurt — but it’s a heck of a lot safer than trying to bench press a one-rep max with no spotter. 

Example Workout

Now that you have some moves in your arsenal, here’s a quick Smith machine workout for you to try the next time you see one open. This is a full-body workout, so you’ll be able to hit every muscle group quickly in one session. If you don’t want your entire workout to revolve around the Smith machine, you can sub in one of these Smith machine moves for its free weight counterpart. 

  • Back Squat: Three sets of 12 reps
  • Split Squat: Three sets of 10 reps on each leg
  • Kaz Press: Four sets of six reps
  • Incline Press: Three sets of eight reps
  • Behind-the-Back Shrug: Four sets of 10 reps
  • Bent Over Row: Three sets of 10 reps
  • Inverted Row: Three sets of as many reps as possible.

References

  1. Schwanbeck, Shane; Chilibeck, Philip D; Binsted, Gordon A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 9 – p 2588-2591 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181
  2. Schick, Evan E; Coburn, Jared W; Brown, Lee E; Judelson, Daniel A; Khamoui, Andy V; Tran, Tai T; Uribe, Brandon P A Comparison of Muscle Activation Between a Smith Machine and Free Weight Bench Press, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: March 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 3 – p 779-784 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cc2237
  3. Fry AC, Smith JC, Schilling BK. Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):629-33. doi: 10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0629:eokpoh>2.0.co;2. PMID: 14636100.
  4. McCurdy, Kevin PhD Technique, Variation, and Progression of the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat, Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2017 – Volume 39 – Issue 6 – p 93-97 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000319
  5. Schick EE, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Judelson DA, Khamoui AV, Tran TT, Uribe BP. A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Mar;24(3):779-84. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cc2237. Erratum in: J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):286. PMID: 20093960.

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