The Smith machine is that thing in your gym that looks like a squat rack, but with a barbell that slides in a fixed track. It has been called a lot of things: “crap,” “not functional,” and “headgear for your body.”
The Smith machine is the Guy Fieri of gym equipment—it’s an easy and amusing target of insult. But it didn’t earn its level of widespread recognition by being a total hack.
We spoke with CPT and 2016 NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year Nick Tumminello to lay out the merits of the afflicted apparatus.
Why the Smith Machine Gets Hate
The primary reason why some lifters write off the Smith machine is that it’s not functional. You’re not balancing the weight, which, according to naysayers, kills the benefit. “The typical [critique] is that it’s guided. That it’s a straight line. That you might as well do a regular squat, a regular split squat, or a regular bench press because it’s a free weight. It allows you to move more,” Tumminello says. “The standard idea is that somehow it has less benefit. Or it’s not beneficial because of those criteria.”
With a fixed barbell and a wide footprint, the Smith machine isn’t perfect for everything, Tumminello says. “Nobody has to have a Smith machine. If I’m trying to open a gym, and I have minimal space and budget, the Smith machine is definitely not something I think is a must-have,” he explains. “But that’s not the idea here. If you have access to a Smith machine, the idea that it’s a waste of time is not helpful whatsoever.”
Let Aaptiv’s top trainers guide you through strength training workouts to get you in tip-top shape.
The Smith Machine Workout
If your gym does have a Smith machine, here are Tumminello’s top three exercises to perform.
A conventional barbell back squat works both the glutes and quadriceps in each repetition. But the balance required to perform the movement means the muscle groups must do a relatively similar amount of work to avoid tipping forward or backward. As they’re on the back side of your legs, the glutes and hamstrings essentially perform an opposite function to the quadriceps on the front. “Your hamstrings and glutes are really big drivers of acceleration,” Tumminello says. “And your quads are big contributors to deceleration.” If you picture an NFL receiver running a route, the glutes and hamstrings help get him off the line and propel him forward. But the quads are responsible for helping him pivot for a quick turn.
Whether you’re an athlete or you simply want more quadricep definition, quad-dominant squats help you tweak the traditional back squat to activate the front leg muscles. “Because you can lean [back] against the bar, because the machine isn’t going to tip over, you can get your feet in front of you in a different stance than if you’re doing a regular barbell squat,” Tumminello says. “Free weights have a center of mass over the base of support. But the machine means you can get your feet out in front and focus on your quads more.” Try the quad-dominant front squat by assuming a normal back squat position on the Smith machine. But step forward slightly so that your shins are perpendicular to the floor at the bottom of the movement.
If you’re working up to a full on-ground push-up, the incremental barbell heights on the Smith machine can help you start high (for less resistance) and work downward as you get stronger. “You can be stricter with consistent height and set a marker you need to reach,” Tumminello says. Start at a height where you can perform quality reps, lowering your chest to the bar. Take note of the bar setting. Once that height gets easy, lower the bar to the next rung, and continue the process.
The rationale here is similar to that of incline push-ups. Except, instead of positioning yourself over the bar, you’re pulling yourself upward from underneath it. “I use a barbell pad, where I have [clients] pull the bar toward the chest,” Tumminello says. The pad creates a buffer between your chest and the bar. This keeps the shoulders from rolling inward, which isn’t the goal of the movement. Again, start at a height where you can hit decent reps. Work down the rungs as you master the movement.
Now that you’re ready for the smith machine, pair it with workouts from Aaptiv. We release new classes every week. Download the app and check out the strength training section today.