No Squat Rack? Here Are 5 Leg Exercises to Perform In a Smith Machine

Stop hating on the smith machine. It's simply a tool that can be used for progressing strength.

Barbell squats, deadlifts, and lunges are staples of any leg day. But what happens when you find yourself with only a Smith machine? The Smith machine, while not truly a free weight movement, can offer an opportunity to build serious muscle mass and leg development.

In this article we will discuss:

  • What is a Smith Machine?
  • 5 Smith Machine Leg Exercises for Leg MASS and Development
  • Sets, Reps, and Movement Guidelines
  • Sample Smith Machine Leg Day Workout

What is a Smith Machine?

A Smith machine is a power rack that has a bar on a fixed, guided rod system. Named after Rudy Smith, the inventor of the Smith machine, this rack allows for vertical movement of the weight only, as it is on a fixed path. There are stoppers and safety hooks along the track to as well.

Smith Machine
Photo By Jasminko Ibrakovic / Shutterstock

5 Smith Machine Leg Exercises for MASS

Below are five (5) leg and/or glute exercises that can be done on a Smith machine to build leg strength, increase muscle hypertrophy, and enhance unilateral fitness. It is important to remember that while free weights are often regarded as top movements to gain muscle and strength, using Smith machines can result in high amounts of muscle growth and strength.

Note, that if you are to perform these movements on the Smith machine, it is key to set the safety racks and properly understand movements mechanics with free weights as well. This will help optimize strength, movement, and increase overall performance.

1. Smith Machine Back Squat

The Smith machine back squat can be done to increase quadriceps development by maintaining an upright, vertical torso and squatting to full depth. To perform this exercise, stand underneath the squat bar that is on the track, and squat, making sure the feet stay flat and the hips and knees move freely.

Often, lifters will cut depth and use too much load during this exercise, which can result in back and knee injury. Instead, work with the Smith machine squat using moderate to heavy loads and smooth, full range of motion repetitions.

Muscle Worked

Like most squats, the Smith machine back squat targets the quadriceps and glutes. Assuming a lifter maintains an upright torso position in the squat, the quadriceps will be used the most.

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes

Movement Tips

Set yourself up in the Smith machine by facing the same direction as the hooks lock. This is for safety purposes. You may need to place your feet slightly in front of you to ensure proper positioning in the squat.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Guidelines

Unlike the barbell squat, the Smith machine squat should not be trained with very heavy loads relative to overall strength. This should be reserved for the free motion squatting (barbell).

For general strength and muscle hypertrophy purposes, it is recommended to perform 3-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions using slow and controlled repetitions. Repetitions should be done to full depth to improve hypertrophy. Using tempos and partial repetitions like 1 ½ reps are great way to do this.

2. Smith Machine Front Squat

Like the barbell front squat, the Smith machine front squat can be done to increase quadriceps strength and hypertrophy. It is suggested to use the arms crossed technique here rather than the standard front squat/clean grip used with a barbell.

Muscle Worked

Similar to the barbell front squat, the Smith machine front squat targets the quadriceps and anterior core. It is important to note that the back strength needed in the free weight front squat may be slightly less needed than the Smith machine front squat due to the bar being on tracks (less need for midline stability and upper body muscle coordination).

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core and Back

Movement Tips

It is recommended that lifters use the arms crossed position to rack the bar on the front of the shoulders, rather than rely on the front rack/clean grip.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Guidelines

Similar to the Smith machine back squat, it is not recommended that a lifter to use heavy loads relative to their best front squat, but rather use the be guided squat variation to increase muscle growth and coordination. Start by performing 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions for general strength and muscle hypertrophy training.

3. Smith Machine Split Squats

Split squats are a great unilateral exercise to increase muscle hypertrophy, address movement asymmetries, and correct muscle imbalances. Additionally, unilateral training can be used to increase strength in more experienced lifters.

Using the Smith machine for unilateral exercises helps minimize the stability needed, which can then allow a lifter to focus on moving heavier loads or training to fatigue without being limited by balance.

Author’s Note: Balance should be addressed, however sometimes a lifter can emphasis unilateral strength and muscle hypertrophy and let balance and movement coordination take a back seat using the Smith machine.

Muscle Worked

Depending on the stance, the split squat can target slightly different muscle groups. A wider stance will increase hip flexion and therefore target the glutes and hamstrings slightly more than the quadriceps. A narrower stance will emphasis greater quadriceps development due to higher degrees of knee flexion.

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes

Movement Tips

Adjust your stance to emphasize various muscle groups more than others. This can be done using both the split squat and the Bulgarain split squat variations.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Guidelines

Unilateral exercises are often done in moderate to high repetition ranges, as training in the very low repetitions range can increase injury risks. That said, using the Smith machine can help improve balance and increase a lifter’s ability to stabilize heavier loads while training unilaterally.

For unilateral strength, lifters can perform 3-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions. If the goal is muscle growth and/or endurance, higher options ranges of 10-20 can be performed using moderate to lighter loads.

4. Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a hamstring and glute exercise than can be done to increase hamstring and glute strength, muscle hypertrophy, and performance. Using the Smith machine can help minimize hip shifting as the bar is set on tracks, offering a guided variation of the barbell Romanian deadlift.

Muscle Worked

The Smith machine Romanian deadlift targets the hamstrings and glutes, with additional lower back and lat training involved due to maintain a neutral spine (isometric strength).

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Spinal Erectors

Movement Tips

For best results, be sure to place your feet in a position that allows the bar to be close to the body as it descends. Additionally, be sure to not hyperextend the lower back as you complete every repetition.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Guidelines

For strength, lifters can perform 3-5 sets of 4-8 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads, making sure to load the hamstrings and minimize lumbar flexion. Using more moderate repetition ranges of 8-12 repetitions per set can be used to increase muscle growth and development of the hamstrings and glutes.

5. Smith Machine Hip Thrusts

The Smith machine hip thrust is done similarly to the barbell hip thrust, with the exception that the bar is on a guided track rather than free weights. Many lifters will prefer the Smith machine hip thrust as it helps keep the bar from rolling off the hips and in place.

Muscle Worked

The hip thrust is a glute exercise, specifically targeting the gluteus maximus. This exercise emphasizes hip extension and is a great movement to build lockout strength, improve squat strength, and enhance glute engagement.

Movement Tips

Set the bar in the hip crease with the back supported on a bench. This hip thrust variation (as opposed to the barbell hip thrust) can be useful for keeping the barbell in the hip crease and isolating the gluteus maximus.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Guidelines

This can be done for higher repetitions to induce muscle growth (10-20 repetitions) or for glute strength using heavier loads (5-10 repetitions). The key during all of these should be to use the glutes to extend the hips rather than rely on the lower back going into hyperextension.

Sample Smith Machine Leg Day Workout

Below is a sample leg day workout you can do using only a Smith machine!

  • Smith Machine TEMPO 2200 Back Squat – 2 light sets of 15 repetitions, then 4 sets of 8-10 repetitions
  • Smith Machine Pause Romanian Deadlift – 4 sets of 8-10 repetitions, with heavy loads (pause at the bottom of every repetition for 2-3 seconds)
  • Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squat – 4 sets of 8-10 repetitions
  • Smith Machine Hip Thrust – 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions, with a slight pause at the top of every repetition

More Leg Training Articles

Check out the below squats, deadlift, and lower body training articles to gain leg strength and mass!

Feature image By Vladimir Sukhachev / Shutterstock

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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