By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Photos of IFBB Pro & Team BSN Athlete Brandon Curry by Gregory James
Loaded barbells, dumbbells at the right end of the rack, plates no smaller than 45s, chalk and the power rack are the currency of hardcore bodybuilders whose testosterone levels seem to drop at the mere mention of the word “machine.” But the very reasons why your gym’s resident “expert” preaches so strongly against the use of the Smith machine are actually the exact reasons why you should be using it. Don’t fall for the “There’s nothing on a Smith machine that you can’t do with a free-weight barbell” line — it’s rubbish. It’s just that you need to know how and when the best times are to use the Smith in your workout.
We confess right off the bat that we’re not suggesting that you abandon free-weight moves, because they’re the bedrock of all of your long-term gains in size and strength, but we are stressing that the advantages provided by the Smith machine are invaluable and actually impossible to do with barbells and dumbbells. Here’s a complete rundown on what advantages (and limitations) afforded by the Smith machine.
1) One, Big Overload Machine.
Arguably the number one strength of the Smith machine is that it balances the weight for you. With dumbbells and barbells, a portion of the energy used (and lost) in the process is in incorporating stabilizers to balance the weight along with your own body as you perform each repetition. With the Smith however, you can completely focus all of your attention on either pressing or pulling the weight. And because your stabilizers aren’t tirelessly at work to support stability, they can assist the major movers to their fullest, which means you can load up on the plates. Your squats, rows, and presses can all afford more weight than you’d otherwise even attempt with a free-weight bar.
2) Strength Techniques & Growth Tactics.
As an avid bodybuilder, you’re well aware that any gym tool at your disposal that can help take your training to the next level should be learned and used. Simply stated, there’s no other tool in any corner of your gym that allows you as many strength and growth options as the Smith.
Similar to the power rack, the Smith affords you the benefit of techniques such as partial reps, where you work through a short range of motion; angle-specific isometrics, in which you press or pull against an immovable load at as many angles as the machine will allow; and reverse movements, during which you initiate the exercise at the bottom of the rep (like you would during a deadlift) without the help of the negative energy built up during the eccentric component of the repetition. It’s also easier and safer to perform a number of other techniques such as rest-pause and negatives with the Smith over the free-weight counterpart, meaning in all you’re left with a number of ways to boost your muscle gains.
3) Power with Ballistics.
Ballistic training is often lost with a standard barbell, but not with the Smith machine. Research shows that ballistic-type exercises can increase power and strength, which translates into more meaty muscle in the long run. Fortunately, you can incorporate barbell ballistic moves safely and effectively with the Smith machine.
In a traditional repetition, you typically accelerate the weight during only the first third of the positive portion of the rep. In the other two thirds you’re naturally decelerating so the bar or weight doesn’t leave your hands. The Smith, however, allows you to power all the way through the full range of motion and allows you to safely let go of the bar at the top where you reach full extension. By generating such acceleration you engage more fast-twitch muscle fibers on each and every rep, and those fibers are the ones most responsible for size and strength. Try bench press throws and ballistic barbell curls in which you powerfully explode through the positive portion and let the bar leave your hands and then you catch it going into the negative rep. Again, don’t try this with free weights.
4) Confidence & Safety.
This last one isn’t a stretch of the imagination by any means, because the Smith machine can actually give you a mental edge. The safety features that it provides over and above free weights can’t be underestimated. The Smith provides safety catches that you can adjust to different heights along the vertical columns. You can either set the pins as close to the bottom of your selected range of motion or you can set limits to the ROM and apply any of the various techniques mentioned above.
Because you don’t have to worry about balance or the weight crashing down upon you, it gives you a legitimate sense of confidence as your body is able to experience how certain poundages feel in your hands. That not only provides an elusive mental boost, but it transfers to your neuromuscular system and ultimately to your muscle bellies in adaptation in size and strength.
The short list of exercises we’ve selected is by no means exhaustive, as there are countless moves you can test on the Smith machine; all of which allow you to enjoy each and every one of the aforementioned benefits. But at the start of your next weekly split, be sure to scribble a plan to involve the Smith with 1–2 moves per bodypart after you’ve bombarded it with free-weight exercises. (Being harder and requiring more stabilizers, do your free-weight moves first.) We’re confident the load of positive aspects equals the load of extra weight you’ll be able to lift.
Not all Smith machines run straight up and down
While most Smith machines allow the bar to travel in a vertical plane, not all Smith machines are made the same way. One important difference among manufacturers is that some use an angled path, so it travels not just straight up and down but up and back. Depending on your orientation to the bar, which could be up and toward you or up and away from you. Placing your body in the right direction, becomes a key element for safety and effectiveness. For example, when doing a bench press on the Smith machine, the bar goes just straight up. When doing the same exercise with a free-weight barbell, the natural motion is to press up and back toward your face. If you use an angled Smith machine to do your bench presses, you’d want to be positioned such that the path mimics the free-weight version, pressing it up and back over you.
If the Smith goes straight up and down, it doesn’t matter which way you position your body within the machine, but with an angled Smith machine you always want to consider the natural path of the bar. If you’re not sure, start with an empty bar, which allows you to test your body position in relation to the bar and its path. The movement should never pull your body out of a safe position, which could put your joints at risk. Being familiar with free-weight counterparts to Smith-machine moves will help you assess if you’re facing the proper direction.
Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes
Stand inside a Smith machine with the bar across your front delts and upper chest. Your feet should be just slightly in front of you, toes pointed out slightly and your knees unlocked. Cross your arms to build a shelf for the bar. Rotate the bar and unhook it from the safety bars. Keep your chest up and abs tight, eyes focused forward.
With your back flat, bend your knees and hips as if sitting in a chair until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Reverse the motion by driving through your heels and pressing your hips forward to return to the start position. Squeeze your quads, hams and glutes for a count before beginning the next rep.
Research has shown that you’re slightly stronger on Smith squats than standard squats, probably because of the reduced need for balance and that you can press both up and back against the bar. Be sure to keep your elbows up high to engage the “shelf” for the bar; if you drop your arms down, you’ll collapse at the chest and lower back. You’ll not only be weaker but it could cause injury. Also, don’t try to squat in standard fashion. Because the bar is on a fixed vertical path, you won’t be able to shift your hips back. For that reason, your torso should remain upright to a greater extent and your hips will remain “under” your shoulders to a greater degree.
Seated Overhead Press
All three delt heads with emphasis on front and middle heads
Sit on a low-back bench placed inside the machine with your feet flat on the floor and shoulder width apart. Grasp the bar with a wide, palms-forward grip. Keep your head straight and eyes forward.
Rotate the bar to unrack it and hold it at shoulder level. Powerfully press the bar directly overhead, squeezing your shoulders at the top. Slowly lower to the start position.
Adjust the seat slightly forward or backward based on your shoulder comfort, an aspect the Smith allows over the free-weight version. If you have a pre-existing injury, the Smith helps you work around it. You can also move your hands inward or outward along the bar to lessen or increase your triceps involvement.
Both long and short biceps heads with emphasis on the long head (peak)
Stand erect inside a Smith machine holding the bar in front of your upper thighs, with your chest up, shoulders back and eyes focused forward.
Pull your elbows back as you curl the bar toward your upper abs/lower chest. As the name suggests, actually drag the bar up your torso as high as possible, keeping your elbows behind you — not by your sides as during standard curls. Slowly return the bar along the same path.
During the standard curl, there’s a natural arc to the motion, which hits both the biceps and even the front delts to a certain degree. The Smith drag curl eliminates that arc completely because the bar is locked in the vertical plane, as well as any deltoid involvement from the equation. The elbows travel backward as the bar drags its way straight up the body. Because of that, it won’t travel any higher than your upper abs at the top of the move.
All three delt heads with emphasis on front and middle heads
With your feet shoulder width apart, stand erect holding a barbell in front of your thighs with a wide, pronated (overhand) grip. Keep your knees unlocked and your head straight and abs tight.
Flex your shoulders and pull the bar straight up toward your chin, bringing your elbows high. Keep the bar close to your body during the entire movement. Maintain the natural curve in your spine while keeping your torso erect throughout the exercise. At the top position, your elbows will be high and pointing out to your sides. Hold for a count before lowering to the start.
One nifty aspect of this move is that you can actually change your biomechanics within each rep. You can move your chest away from the bar as you bring the bar upward or lean into the bar at any point during the ROM. If you’ve been avoiding the standard version due to discomfort, try a wide grip on the Smith and work your way around the pain.
Upper lats, middle traps, rhomboids
Stand erect with your feet shoulder width apart, grasp the bar with a wide, overhand grip. Rotate and unrack the bar. Keeping your knees slightly bent, lean forward at your waist until your torso is just above parallel with the floor. The bar should hang straight down in front of your shins. Lock a slight bend in your lower back so that it doesn’t round.
Without raising your upper body, pull the bar into your abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a count, then slowly lower to full-arm extension.
Stand on a platform if you bottom out at the bottom short of full-arm extension. Also, you can vary the target of your back slightly by shifting your feet forward or back. As you move your feet away from the bar, you’ll be pulling the bar higher on your torso and hitting more of the upper lats and middle traps (because your elbows are flaring out wider). Shifting your feet closer to the bar brings the bar into your lower abs, causing you to hit the lower lats to a greater degree.
Stand directly in front of the bar with your feet about shoulder width apart. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip and your hands just outside of your hips.
Rotate the bar to unrack it. Keeping your arms straight, chest up, knees unlocked and eyes facing forward, shrug your shoulders upward, lifting your delts toward your ears. Hold the peak contraction and squeeze for a count before lowering the bar to the start.
Unlike the barbell version, the Smith version allows you to bypass your butt by allowing you to adjust your footing so that your glutes don’t hinder the path of the bar. Focus on raising your shoulders to your ears, but try to avoid jerking your head and chin forward to increase the range of motion. That can put serious undue stress on your delicate cervical spine. Rather, keep your chest high and your head neutral and squarely atop your shoulders.
Close-Grip Bench Press
All three triceps heads with emphasis on lateral head
Lie back on a flat bench placed inside a Smith machine with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip just inside shoulder width. Rotate and press the bar up slightly to unrack it and hold the bar above your chest with your arms extended.
Lower the bar to your lower chest, keeping your elbows close to your sides. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest, but rather when the bar approaches an inch or so away from your body, pause and press the bar back up to full-arm extension, squeezing your triceps and chest at the top.
You don’t need to bring your hands dramatically too close together; many guys make the common mistake of going so narrow that they actually do themselves more harm (putting undue stress on your wrists and elbows while actually lessening the involvement on the target triceps) than good.
Reverse-Grip Bench Press
Lie back on a flat bench placed inside a Smith machine with your feet wide and flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell with a very wide, reverse (underhand grip).
Rotate and press the bar up slightly to unrack it and hold the bar above your chest with your arms extended. Lower the bar to your chest then press the bar upward to full-arm extension. At the end of the set, simply rotate the handles to rack the bar.
For most of us, the upper chest is by far the weakest portion of our pecs. According to research, the reverse-grip bench press can increase the muscle activity of your upper pecs by 30% over that of the standard flat bench press. Reason is, the reverse grip helps keep your elbows in and your upper arms parallel to your torso, increasing the load on the upper pec fibers. Because the Smith bar is in a fixed path, you can overload the stingy upper chest much like you can during incline presses. However, be sure to wrap your thumbs around the bar even if you’ve raised the safeties.
5 Ways the Smith Can Boost Your Intensity
No matter which bodypart you’re training, the Smith machine affords you the luxury of implementing virtually any intensity technique or tactic at your disposal. Here’s a snapshot of some of the best muscle- and strength-enhancing weapons you can begin using right now.
1) Drop Sets.
After completing your reps with a heavy weight, quickly strip an equal amount of weight from each side of the bar. Continue repping until you fail, then strip off more weight to complete even more reps.
2) Forced Reps.
You’ll need a training partner to assist you with reps at the end of a set to help you work past the point of muscular failure. Your training partner should help lift the bar with only the force necessary for you to keep moving and get past the sticking point.
3) Partial Reps.
Do reps over only a partial range of motion — at the top, in the middle or at the bottom — of a movement.
Take very brief rest periods during a set of a given exercise to squeeze out more reps. Using a weight you can lift for about six reps, do just three, then rest up to 20 seconds, then try for another 2–3 reps. Rest again briefly, then try for as many reps as you can handle, and repeat once more. In all, you’ll be doing far more reps with a very heavy weight than you would’ve been able to generate without these brief rest segments.
Resist the downward motion of a very heavy weight, taking as long as five seconds on the eccentric motion. For example, on the Smith close-grip bench press, use a weight that’s 15%–25% heavier than you can typically handle, and fight the negative as you slowly lower the bar to your chest. Your partner should help you raise the bar after each negative.