The Ultimate Smith Machine Workout Guide
Push past plateaus, generate power and train safely — with a machine! Here’s why the Smith machine may be your new best friend in the gym.
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.
TARGET: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes
START: 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.
ACTION: 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.
POWER POINTER: 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.