First, let’s address the elephant in the weight room: the supposed worthlessness of the Smith machine. Its detractors deem it the epitome of un-functional training due to the Smith’s fixed path of motion that does little to challenge a lifter’s balance and core stabilization. Valid point? Yes. But is the machine totally worthless? Absolutely not.
“The Smith machine is a very useful piece of equipment that has its place in any well-rounded training program,” says Jim Ryno, a personal trainer and owner of luxury home-gym design firm Iron House in Alpine, New Jersey (Iron-House.co). “A few reasons it’s so useful: safety [because] it’s a ‘self-spotting’ machine that allows you to load up the weight with less risk of injury; the ability to perform an exercise at a slightly different angle while maintaining constant tension on the muscles; and the option of doing ballistic barbell exercises, which are extremely dangerous with an [un-fixed] Olympic bar.”
There are countless exercises that can be done with the Smith machine. Here are five of our favorites:
1. Quad-Focused (Feet Forward) Squat
Unlike standard barbell squats, with a Smith machine you can move your feet well forward of the bar to better target the quads. Ryno describes it as similar to a loaded sissy squat.
How-To: Position the bar across your upper traps as you normally would when squatting. Unlatch the bar and carefully shift your feet six inches or so in front of the bar, shoulder-width apart, toes forward. Keeping your core tight and chest lifted, squat down until your thighs reach parallel or just below, then press through your heels to return to standing.
2. Neutral-Grip Inverted Row
You’re not limited to an overhand or underhand grip with Smith machine inverted rows: Mimic ring rows by using D-handle cable attachments.
How-To: Attach a pair of nylon D handles to the bar by looping them through themselves and pulling tight. Place the bar at a height at which your torso hovers just above the floor when your arms are fully extended at the bottom of the row. Hold the handles with a neutral grip and lift your hips so your head, hips and heels are in line, body stiff. Drive your elbows down and back to pull yourself upward until your lower chest touches the bar, then lower slowly to the start.
3. Seated Shoulder Press
With dumbbell presses, you waste energy simply getting the weights up to the start position, and with barbell shoulder presses, you need a spotter. With a Smith machine, you have neither of these issues.
How-To: Place a low-back seat or adjustable bench (set one click back from fully vertical) in the center of the machine. Take an overhand grip on the bar (which is overhead) just outside shoulder-width and unlatch the hooks. Lower the bar slowly to just below chin level, then press back up to just shy of full elbow extension.
4. Ballistic Bench Press
“Ballistic barbell exercises like this can only be done on a Smith machine,” says Ryno. “The explosiveness allows you to focus on the fast-twitch muscle fibers, those with the greatest potential for growth.”
How-To: Position a flat bench directly in the middle of the machine and set the bar midway up the columns. Set the safety levers above chest level when you’re lying on the bench to prevent the bar from landing on you in the event you don’t catch it cleanly. Lie on the bench, take an overhand grip on the bar just outside shoulder width and unlatch the hooks. Slowly lower the bar to your chest, then explosively press it upward, using enough force that it leaves your hands briefly at the top. Catch it as it descends and decelerate it, then repeat.
Note: Use light weight — no more than 50 percent of your estimated one-rep max — and stop well short of failure in the three- to eight-rep range.
5. Drag Curl
This novel curling movement produces an intense contraction of the biceps and is best performed on a Smith machine, due to its smoother path of motion than free weights.
How-To: Stand in the middle of the machine and take a shoulder-width, underhand grip on the bar. Begin with the bar against your thighs, arms fully extended, then contract your biceps by driving your elbows backward, pulling the bar straight up along your body as high as possible. Pause, then slowly lower to the start.