Smith Machines: Worth the Strength Training Hype?

Key Points

  • Smith machines are valuable tools for controlled, safe strength training.

  • Smith machines facilitate various exercises to develop total body strength and stability.

  • Using a Smith machine requires careful consideration of weight limit and proper form to avoid injury and maximize results.

Whether you're new to the fitness game or a seasoned gym rat, the Smith machine is one piece of equipment you must acquaint yourself with. This versatile workout machine targets different muscle groups to develop leg strength, total body strength, and coordination.

While often associated with exercises that primarily work the lower body, like squats and lunges, the Smith machine also trains the upper body and core. By incorporating exercises that engage multiple muscle groups and challenging the body with different variations and strength options, the Smith machine helps you build whole-body strength and enhance your overall fitness.

What Is a Smith Machine?

Smith machine is a solid piece of gym equipment that consists of a barbell fixed to a vertical track. The barbell secures at various heights along the track, allowing you to perform different exercises. The track and barbell typically counterbalance each other, which makes it easier to control weight and maintain good form during movement.

The barrel moves in a guided path, which assists individuals in maintaining proper alignment and reduces the risk of injury. Smith machines are popular in commercial and home gyms and are commonly used for exercises such as lunges, squats, bench presses, and shoulder presses.

Parts of a Smith Machine

A standard Smith machine has several parts, each with a unique function. Altogether, they comprise a powerful way to yield whole-body results and improve physical fitness.

Smith machine

Vertical Track

A Smith machine's vertical track is the barbell's main support structure. Consisting of two vertical pillars connected at the top by a horizontal rack, the barbell adjusts to different heights using holes or slots placed at regular intervals.


The barbell is a long, straight, weighted bar that moves up and down the vertical track, usually made of metal. Use it alone for weight training or fortified with weight plates for even better workout results.

Safety Hooks

The safety hooks are also made of sturdy metal. Position them at different heights along the vertical track to prevent the barbell from falling or dropping too low in case of muscle failure, accidents, or other workout mishaps.

Counterbalance System

The counterbalance system is a set of weights that attach to the barbell on the opposite side of the lifter. Counterbalance weights make the barbell easier to control and balance during any exercise.

Weight Plates

Depending on how you view your workouts, weight plates are the best or worst part of a Smith machine. These round metal plates load onto the barbell. Add and remove them to customize your weight preferences and yield more efficient results during strength training sessions.


The footplate is a flat surface at the base of a vertical track. It provides a more stable, secure platform for you, the lifter, to stand while performing exercises. All these parts work together to provide a safer, more secure workout environment for weight training.

Different Types of Smith Machines

Not all Smith machines are created equal, nor do they all look and perform the same. Each has unique features and benefits that target different muscles and provide variations to a typical workout. Here are some of the most common Smith machine types used in commercial and home gyms.

Squatting on Smith machine

Traditional Smith Machine

Traditional Smith machines have a fixed vertical track, with a barbell that moves in a straight line up and down the track. Suitable for a wide range of exercises, it's perfect for gym environments with limited space.

Half Rack

The half rack is a hybrid of a Smith machine and a power rack. With a smaller footprint and frame than a traditional power rack, it still provides the safety and versatility of a Smith machine for about half the price.

Multi-Function Smith Machine

Nothing provides versatility better than the multi-function Smith machine. With extra bells and whistles, such as a cable machine, pull-up bar, and dip station, it is a one-stop shop for dramatic full-body results.

Olympic Smith Machine

Olympic Smith machines cater to aspiring beefcakes and those serious about building all-over strength and muscle tone. Comprised of heavy, professional-grade materials, the Olympic variation of the Smith is designed to be used with heavy-load Olympic weight plates.

Cable Smith Machine

A cable Smith machine uses a cable and pulley system instead of a fixed barbell. Providing a greater range of motion for most exercises, it's a safer option for those who can't accommodate the weight of barbells and weight plates.

Smith Machine With Linear Bearings

Smith machines with linear bearings have smoother, more controlled movements than traditional ones. Linear bearings guide the barbell along its vertical track, reducing friction and allowing for precise, controlled movements.

The type of Smith machine you choose depends on your budget, fitness goals, and personal preferences. Consult a fitness professional to help you craft strength training goals and gain clarity on the best equipment choice for you and your home.

Smith Machine Benefits

While some fitness enthusiasts embrace free weight as the only method of strength training for ultimate results, the Smith machine provides some features that benefit newbies and seasoned fitness professionals alike.

Safety Features

Smith machines excel at providing effective workouts for users.

Safety features include:

  • Safety hooks

  • Counterbalance system

  • Guided path

  • Footplate

  • Weight limitations

  • Maintenance

These features work together to give you a workout that yields upper and lower body results.

Controlled Range of Motion

A controlled range of motion reduces the risk of injury while targeting specific muscle groups. This isolation develops muscles, resulting in more effective workouts. Because your motion is stable, tracking your progress over time is easier. You'll be able to gradually increase the weight or the number of repetitions, ensuring that you make progress on your fitness goals.

Squatting on squat rack

Exercise Versatility

A Smith machine improves exercise versatility by allowing for a wide range of exercises, such as lunges, squats, bench presses, and shoulder work. This exceptional piece of equipment targets multiple muscle groups and provides a thorough, full-body workout.

Some Smith machines include bar variations such as tricep, straight, and curl bars. Different grips provide unique positions for exercises that zero in on large and small muscle groups.

Smith machines are suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. Adjustable weight and safety features make it an excellent tool for improving exercise efficiency and yielding impressive results.

Unilateral Training Options

Smith machines facilitate unilateral training by providing a stable environment for single-leg exercises such as lunges and split squats. The guided path of a Smith machine ensures that all movements are controlled and properly aligned, which reduces your risk of injury and improves overall performance.

Check out the following unilateral exercises to perform on a Smith machine.

Single-Leg Split Squat

Stand away from the Smith machine with one foot resting on a bench or block behind you. Hold the barbell across your shoulders and squat down with your front leg, keeping your back foot elevated on the bench. Perform your desired number of repetitions on one leg before switching to the other foot.

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Face the Smith machine with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold the barbell with both hands in front of your thighs. Lift one leg off the ground, hinging forward at your hips, lowering the barbell toward the floor while keeping your back straight. Return to the starting position and complete your desired number of reps.

Single-Arm Shoulder Press

Adjust the Smith machine barbell to a comfortable height and stand facing it. Hold the barbell with one hand and press overhead, keeping the core engaged and your back straight. Lower the barbell back down and repeat 10 to 15 times on each leg.

Best Exercises for Smith Machines

Consider challenging your opinion if you're a Smith machine troll who thinks it's nothing more than a thousand-dollar coat rack. Using this versatile machine gives you several advantages, including a greater ability to attempt heavy lifts without a spotter and the added security of a guided path for specific exercises.

The Smith machine's perceived inferior status may work in your favor, as this area of the gym typically isn't as crowded as others. Blast through these exercises with the magic of the Smith machine.

Workout using Smith machine

Kaz Press

Three-time World's Strongest Man Bill "Kaz" Kazmaier was a formidable presence in the Strongman scene during the 80s, holding the bench press world record at a whopping 661 pounds. He credits the Smith machine for building his triceps, which helped him significantly improve his bench press performance.

His belief in the importance of strength training also revolutionized how the fitness industry prioritized it. "For me, the most phenomenal thing I did was realize where my power comes from and what it is. And if I could channel it and use it for the right things, then I'll have infinite power." Bill's example of tenacity and determination set the "bar" much higher for fitness professionals after his rise to fame.

The Kaz press is unique in that it combines the close-grip bench press and tricep extension movements. Using a Smith machine reduces the instability you'd experience using free weights, allowing for a heavier weight and leading to more efficient muscle development.

To perform the Kaz press, lie face up on a bench and grab the barbell at shoulder-width, keeping your elbows close to your body. Unrack the bar at full extension and start with the bar above your collarbone with arms extended. Lower the bar toward your chest by bending at the elbows while allowing some shoulder movement. Stop about three inches from your chest, then push back up to a starting position.

Smith Machine Back Squat

Some think performing squats on a Smith machine is highly controversial. Many lifters and coaches advise against it, citing that the machine's fixed vertical path is a potential cause for injury. However, a Smith machine squat leads to significant gains when done with proper form.

According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the Smith machine square and free-weight squats work most of the muscles involved in the move.

To perform a Smith machine back squat, stand with the barbell across your shoulders and traps in a shoulder-width stance, then unlock the bar by lifting it up and forward. Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, hold for one breath, then return to a legs fully-extended position.

Split Squat

Performing split squats with a Smith machine provides greater movement stability than free weights. Extra stability gives you a longer stride, which improves hip flexion and glute strength.

Elevate one foot on a block or bench for an extra boost of muscle extension. The split squat targets all major muscle groups in the leg.

To perform a split squat, place your stronger foot on a bench or block and position your other foot about two feet in front of you. Unlock the bar from the machine and place it across your upper shoulders. Facing forward and keeping your spine neutral, lower your body until your back knee touches the floor (or as close as possible), then drive yourself back up, pushing through the heel of your supporting foot.

Behind-the-Back Shrug

When it comes to isolating the traps, front shrugs are effective, but using a Smith machine to add a behind-the-back flair takes things to the next level. Grabbing the bar from behind allows you to move further away from it and raise it higher, resulting in more emphasis on the middle traps, which stabilize and strengthen the shoulders.

To perform the behind-the-back shrug, set the bar at hip level and stand facing away from it. With an overhand grip, grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Shrug the bar upwards, hold for a count of two, then return to a starting position, keeping a firm grasp on the bar the whole time.

Incline Bench Press

A Smith machine provides a safer alternative to the traditional incline bench press, eliminating the risk of dropping a heavy bar on the chest or face. Some prefer using free weights for an incline press because they provide a greater range of motion. Still, the Smith machine is an effective tool for improving strength and stability.

Set the bench at a 45-degree angle to perform the incline bench press. Grab the bar with a closed grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Unlock the bar and lower it to your chest while keeping your forearms vertical and preventing your elbows from flaring out. Lift the bar back up to a starting position, and perform reps as needed.

Bent-Over Row

The Smith machine variation of the bent-over row is an essential exercise for isolating the upper back muscles. Lift heavier weights with ease and isolate lats, rhomboids, and traps by taking your stabilizing muscles out of the equation with the bar's fixed pathway.

Start by lowering the bar all the way down. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend slightly at the knees and pull your barbell up toward your body, keeping your back straight. Then slowly lower to your knees and repeat.

Inverted Row

Though the inverted row is typically a bodyweight exercise, the use of a Smith machine makes it more convenient because of the barbell's adjustability. The inverted row blasts the back, arms, and grip strength simultaneously while building additional upper body strength needed for pull-ups and push-ups.

To perform an inverted row, set the bar at waist height. Lie on the floor facing the ceiling and grab the bar with an overhand grip just slightly wider than the shoulders. Engage your core and pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar, keeping your body extended and as straight as possible. Slowly lower yourself back down, then repeat as needed.

Seated Shoulder Press

The Smith machine's fixed bar path and adjustable range of motion make a seated shoulder press easier to learn and master. It's also a great alternative if you experience discomfort with traditional presses.

To complete a shoulder press round, place the weight bench with back support behind the Smith machine bar, ensuring enough room for the bar to pass in front of your face. Set the bar higher than shoulder level while seated. Grasp the bar while sitting with an overhand grip at your preferred width. Unlatch the bar and press it straight up to full extension. Lower the bar slowly to the starting position.

Man using squat rack

Hip Thrust

The hip thrust is an effective exercise for building strength and size in the glutes and hamstrings. A Smith machine makes setup easier and allows you to use heavier weights with additional stabilization. Improved glute strength also enhances core and pelvic strength and stabilizes the lower back.

To perform a hip thrust, place a bench behind the barbell and attach a pad for comfort. Lie with your upper back on the bench and the bar over your pelvic bone. Position your feet slightly wider than your hips. Use an overhand grip to hold the bar and unlatch it by extending your hips. Lower the hips toward the floor by folding them. Once your glutes are close to the floor, push the bar back up forcefully to return it to its starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, reset, then repeat.

Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift provides constant tension on the glutes and hamstrings, a perfect isolating exercise for the lower body. Benefits of the Romanian deadlift include improved upper and lower back strength, more significant hypertrophy of the hamstrings and glutes, and the option of heavier weights due to isolated movement.

To perform a Romanian deadlift, set the Smith machine bar to mid-shin level. Stand with your feet as wide as your hips, hinging down to grip the bar with an overhand grip. Unlatch the bar and brace your core, keeping the chest up and shoulders down. Use your hamstrings and glutes to pull yourself back up to a standing position.

One-Arm Negative Bench Press

The eccentric phase of any lift occurs when a muscle lengthens rather than contracts. You demonstrate additional strength during the upward phase of a tricep extension and the downward phase of bicep curls and squats.

The Smith machine one-arm negative bench press eliminates the need for a spotter. By lowering with one hand and lifting with both, you overload the chest and triceps and iron out muscle imbalances on both sides of the body.

To perform a one-arm negative bench press, set up the Smith machine as you would for a bench press. Grip the bar with both hands and press up to unlatch the bar. Take one hand off the bar at the full extension, then slightly lower the bar to your chest with one arm. Place the other hand back on the bar and press up to lockout. Reset and repeat on your other arm.

Gym or Home Use

The cost of a Smith machine varies depending on the brand, model, and features included. Expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to over a few thousand dollars for a Smith machine, with additional accessories and attachments adding to the overall cost.

Man at gym doing workout

A Smith machine may not be needed if you're a loyal fan of resistance bands and free weights. However, this is a valuable addition to your home gym if you want to build overall strength and stability using a more guided, stable movement pattern. Great options exist for purchase on sites such as Amazon and Fitness Factory, with variations that cater to fitness needs, style, and budget.

Lining up at your local gym for a turn on the Smith machine is likely to be more enjoyable now that you know how to use it and maintain proper form during exercise.

Better Health, One Workout at a Time

Working with a Smith machine yields tangible results in strength and muscle development. Regardless of your current fitness status, it's possible to use and benefit from this comprehensive approach to strength training. Implement a new, exciting habit into your health and fitness routine, and experience a renewed passion for setting and reaching workout goals.

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