When fitness legend Jack LaLanne passed away at age 96 in January, one of his greatest accomplishments was missing from his obituaries. In the ’50s, LaLanne invented the sliding apparatus that, after his friend Rudy Smith modified it, became the Smith machine. And thus was born much confusion about how to best use a device that locks the bar into a straight up-and-down path.
A Smith machine’s greatest strength is safety. The ability to bail on a stalled rep by racking at a lower level allows you to go to failure on chest presses without a spotter. There are, however, five advantages that are less obvious. We highlight them and suggest a quintet of valuable but seldom-performed exercises that are ideal for a LaLanne, er, Smith machine.
1. KEEP YOUR BALANCE
First, the bad news: Squatting on a Smith machine fails to work stabilizing muscles the way free-weight squatting does. The good news is, because you don’t need to steady the bar while Smith-squatting, you can place your feet in front of your hips. This, in turn, focuses more on your glutes and hamstrings and less on your quads, which is neither good nor bad but is different from your typical squat. Plant your heels 18 inches in front of the bar and you have a new exercise: glute/ham squats. Studies show using this positioning directs virtually all the tension to these rear areas.
2. DRAG THE BAR
Because a Smith locks you in to a strict up-and-down path, most people shy away from using it for exercises that typically travel through an arc, like curls. However, this linear rigidity is ideal for performing a valuable biceps exercise: drag curls. Keep your shoulders steady, and instead of bringing the bar out as you curl it, bring your elbows back while literally dragging the bar against you as it rises. This increases focus on the biceps’ long (outer) head, which builds the peak.
3. THROW THE BAR
The Smith’s safety benefit lets you focus on boosting your bench press. By setting the stops, you can do partial reps, targeting the lockouts where so many presses fail. The Smith is also ideal for executing bench presses with throws. Press the bar up with enough force that you throw it out of your hands a short distance at the top of your reps and catch it again. The Smith’s same-route-every-time motion will make it a cinch to snatch the bar on every rep of this power-generating exercise.
4. LOSE THE LEVER
Whether on a standing, seated or donkey machine, there is always a lever between your calves and the weight. Leave it to the Smith to cut out the middleman and work your calves with the weight directly above them. Stand on a block under the bar and hold the bar on your shoulders. Then rise up and down as far as possible. Smith machine calf raises may be the direct stimulation your lower legs were waiting for.
5. USE ONLY ONE ARM
A Smith bar is forever parallel to the floor, and this balancing opens up a new category of exercises: one-arm barbell lifts, including bench presses, shoulder presses, rows, shrugs and upright rows. The latter is performed by grabbing the bar with one hand positioned about four inches outside your thigh. Let your elbow travel straight out as you lift the bar to chest level. This unique exercise will target your middle deltoids, expanding shoulder width.