Hardcore bodybuilding is all about slinging big weights and making serious gains. There’s a reason that most physique athletes favor the barbell or cable tree — Pumping Iron isn’t chock full of clips of Schwarzenegger doing his workouts in the Smith machine.
The Smith catches a bad rap in some fitness circles. Some say its restrictive design makes it ineffectual for building muscle, while others believe working out with the Smith tantamount to character assassination in the weight room. If you want to make real gains, you’ve got to head to the free weights. Right?
Wrong. Sculptors don’t discriminate between the hammer and the chisel — they’re only concerned with the works of art these tools allow them to produce. You need to apply that same perspective to the gym if you want to build a truly impressive physique.
Here’s how to make the Smith machine work for you on your muscle-building journey.
- Benefits of the Smith Machine
- Drawbacks of the Smith Machine
- When to Use the Smith Machine
- Best Smith Machine Exercises
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Equipment Selection for Bodybuilding
The gym is your toolbox. From resistance bands to the dumbbell rack, anything and everything in sight is a tool for building muscle. Some of the old-school, macho-man weight room dogma may decry the Smith machine as “soft” since it doesn’t require you to stabilize the implement as you move it.
However, this is no different from a Hammer Strength chest press machine or the pec deck station, and bodybuilders don’t seem allergic to those.
As long as the equipment you’re working with is safe, loadable, and at least somewhat convenient, it’s fair game for making gains. This is the lens through which you must view the Smith — and everything else on the gym floor. What matters most is context.
If the Smith had nothing going for it, you wouldn’t find it in gyms all over the world. The design is straightforward and user-friendly, which makes it a no-brainer for the average gymgoing population. That does beg the question, though — what is its relevance for bodybuilding specifically?
Training for stability can make you a more effective athlete and improve your overall athleticism. However, energy spent on controlling your own body or a free weight in space could be better directed towards achieving a more intense muscular contraction or amping up your total load.
The Smith bar glides across a fixed rail, meaning you never have to worry about it falling out of position due to weak stabilizing muscles or a lapse in focus. Some research even indicates that reducing stability demands as much as possible with equipment like the Smith machine leads to better gains in strength or size. (1)
As a bodybuilder, this affords you the confidence to put as much effort into every single rep as you can.
There are plenty of great barbell exercises for building muscle. If you’re getting started on your physique journey, a free bar might be a bit intimidating. For neophyte lifters, the rigid movement of the Smith can actually be a huge asset.
It may not allow you to personalize your range of motion to your specific body type in every single case, but the design of the Smith allows you to practice foundational movement patterns like the press, squat, or row without worrying about taking a tumble or missing the lift in a dangerous way.
The Smith can be a wonderful teaching tool that allows you to progress toward more challenging movements at your own pace.
Bodybuilding workouts can be labyrinthine. Your routine might call for several types of equipment scattered across the far reaches of a (potentially) large and busy gym. Once you secure some real estate for your next movement, the last thing you want is for it to take up even more of your valuable time.
The Smith is easy to work with and, more importantly, even easier to load. Most stations also come with plate branches on them, so a 45-pounder is never out of arm’s reach.
While you may be stuck waiting for a squat rack to open up if you want to do something as simple as a bent-over row, the Smith is ready and waiting. Slap the plates on and go to work, no fuss.
Unfortunately, the Smith isn’t the endgame of exercise. No single machine or tool is. Beyond that, it may not necessarily be the best way to grow every muscle on your body. Before turning your workout routine into a one-dog show, you need to consider where the Smith might fall short.
Perhaps the biggest thing working against the Smith machine is its inflexibility. The human body isn’t perfectly symmetrical — more importantly, few exercises actually operate in a perfectly straight line.
The major advantage of free weights is in how they move with you. The Smith forces you to move with it. This singular factor is likely why certain exercises feel like garbage in the Smith machine and fantastic with a pair of dumbbells.
Low Secondary Stimulation
Since the Smith machine can only move in one direction, many of your auxiliary tissues don’t have to work as hard to control the weight. While this can definitely be an asset for inducing targeted muscle growth, you may not want to be so isolated with your exercises.
It’s been well-backed scientifically that free weights do more for secondary muscle groups than machines like the Smith. (2) If you want your training to stimulate as many different areas as possible, you may want to steer away from the Smith machine.
Bodybuilding is inherently intuitive. You may need to judge the merits of an exercise based on factors like “feel” rather than how well it aligns with a certain percentage of your 1-rep max.
The Smith machine’s fixed plane of motion may make it unwieldy for assessing how effective it is at taxing your muscles. Some literature has corroborated this effect, suggesting that you may receive better tactile feedback from other types of equipment. (3)
The answer isn’t “always,” but it also isn’t “never.” Like just about everything in fitness, the answer comes down to “sometimes.” Knowing when the Smith is appropriate for your goals — and when it isn’t — is paramount to getting the most value out of it.
As a Beginner
Smith machine work is a tried-and-true way to acclimate yourself to the physical nature of lifting weights. It also serves as a great bridge between exercise machines and the barbell itself.
If you’re worried about falling on your butt while you’re learning the back squat, there’s no shame in spending a couple of weeks working in the Smith to adjust to the movement pattern.
However, be wary of spending too much time learning to lift with the Smith. Your body and brain are excellent at adapting to incoming sensory information, but you might find it difficult to perform certain free-weight lifts properly if you leave the training wheels on for too long.
To Switch Things Up
After you’ve been in the gym for a few years, it’s perfectly normal for your routine to start feeling like a slog. It can be hard to get adequately hyped up for yet another set of shrugs. If you’re smart about it, you can swap out certain movements for their Smith counterpart and reinvigorate your training with some much-needed novelty.
When You’re Short on Time
You may not be one of the blessed few with infinite time to work out every day. If you rush to the gym first thing in the morning, or have an hour after you leave the office, your workouts need to be appropriately time-efficient.
Not having to change stations even once during your session will save you more time than you realize. Here’s a sample upper body push workout that you can do entirely in the Smith machine:
- Smith Machine Floor Press: 3×8
- Smith Machine Incline Bench Press: 3×8
- Smith Bar Dip: 2×12
- Smith Bar Incline Push-Up: 2×12
- Smith Bar Lateral Raise: 2×15
If You’re Working Around an Injury
Injuries are no fun at all but they don’t have to be a roadblock to your muscle gains. If you’re in significant pain, under no circumstances should you attempt to circumvent the recovery process by using an “easier” piece of equipment like the Smith.
That said, you might be able to get around a sore muscle or nagging pain here and there simply by slightly altering your technique or the tool you’re using. The Smith machine may be a safe alternative in some cases due to its low stability demands.
It may not be the end-all, be-all of bodybuilding, but the Smith machine can serve an effective niche in your training. What it comes down to is knowing which movements suit the design of the machine and how to perform them properly.
However, the path the barbell takes in the hip thrust is nearly vertical. This makes the Smith machine an excellent option if you’re short on time or don’t have access to all the equipment you need to set it up.
Bench press stations all taken? Bummer. Fortunately, there are alternatives available. The floor press is not only a staple exercise for improving your strength and performance if you dabble in powerlifting, it’s also more than decent at torching your triceps and front delts.
Furthermore, the floor press can be a bit of a drag to set up if you want to do it with a free bar. You may not want to occupy one of the few squat racks in your gym just for that. You can set the fixed bar to the exact right starting height and bang your sets out cleanly in the Smith machine instead.
Building beastly traps takes a lot of weight. Your trapezius muscles are extremely strong and effective movers since shoulder elevation is generally a small range of motion.
Barbell shrugs are wonderful for putting tremendous tension on the traps and, luckily, the exercise works just as well in the Smith machine if you don’t have access to a free bar.
Leg workouts are, regrettably, one area where the Smith machine falls short for bodybuilders. Your unique hip anatomy and the dynamic movement of most lower-body exercises make the Smith incompatible with optimal leg training.
However, the fixed Smith bar is actually a half-decent substitute if your gym lacks a Hack squat machine. It’s one of the few ways a stationary rail can work to your benefit and is worth a shot if you want to smash your quads.
Despite its convenient loading potential, the Smith bar is actually also a great tool for bodyweight training. Since you can manually adjust and fix the height of the bar, it’s easy to tweak your setup for calisthenics exercises.
The inverted row is a seriously-underrated back builder. With your feet up on an elevated surface in front of the machine, you can conveniently turn the difficulty up (or down) simply by setting the bar such that your torso is closer to parallel with the ground.
Become a Musclesmith
If you want to be a bodybuilder, you need to see yourself as an artist. Your physique is the canvas, and the equipment in your gym are your brushes. Sometimes you need to paint with broad strokes, while other situations might require a more delicate touch.
Think of the Smith machine as but another option at your disposal for achieving your goals. It’s straightforward, friendly for beginners, easy to load and even easier to use.
It may not bring with it the skin-tearing contractions of cables or the strength-gain potential of the barbell, but the versatility alone speaks for itself. Give some Smith machine work a shot in your next workout — you might just like it more than you think.
1. Saeterbakken, A. H., Olsen, A., Behm, D. G., Bardstu, H. B., & Andersen, V. (2019). The short- and long-term effects of resistance training with different stability requirements. PloS one, 14(4), e0214302.
2. Schick, Evan E; Coburn, Jared W; Brown, Lee E; Judelson, Daniel A; Khamoui, Andy V; Tran, Tai; Uribe, Brandon P; Reyes, Christian A Comparison Of Muscle Activation Between A Smith Machine And Free Weight Bench Press, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue – p 1
3. Migliaccio, G. M., Dello Iacono, A., Ardigò, L. P., Samozino, P., Iuliano, E., Grgantov, Z., & Padulo, J. (2018). Leg Press vs. Smith Machine: Quadriceps Activation and Overall Perceived Effort Profiles. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 1481.
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