Last updated on November 3rd, 2022 at 05:35 pm
It’s a question I see asked time-and-time again, “Should You Use The Smith Machine For Squats?”
If I’m being completely honest this really does come down to personal preference.
I’m not saying that you can’t use the Smith machine to squat, it’s just something that I will no longer do.
In fact, the field is fairly evenly split when it comes to the pros and cons of squatting in the Smith machine.
However, I’d like to explain why I think you shouldn’t.
Table of Contents
Should You Use The Smith Machine For Squats?
Smith machine squats will not work the exact same muscles as the traditional squat. They also force the body into unnatural positions, which can lead to injury. Smith machine squats won’t provide a perfect transition into the barbell squat, plus there are far better quad-dominant exercises to use.
1. You Are Not Working the Same Muscles With the Smith Machine
I think most people forget that the Smith machine is in fact a “machine”.
The clue is in the name, but still this fact often falls between the cracks.
I guess the confusion stems from there being an Olympic bar attached to the Smith machine.
However, plain and simple, it’s a machine.
I’m pretty sure that most of you know that there are major differences between performing an exercise with free weights and the machine version.
The same can be said for the Smith machine squat and the barbell back squat.
Whenever we squat we know that the primary muscle being worked are the quads.
And this doesn’t change whether you’re using a barbell or the Smith machine.
However, with a barbell back squat many other muscles come into play.
Firstly, the antagonist muscles are made to work hard.
These are the muscles that work against the primary muscle, so the hamstrings in this case.
You also have secondary muscles that are also worked hard during barbell squats, e.g. glutes and adductors
And finally there are a vast array of stabilizer muscles at work when you squat with a barbell.
Basically, whenever you perform ANY exercise with free weights there is always some form of instability.
So, this means that even for the most basic of isolation exercises, e.g. bicep curls, there are still stabilizing muscles at work.
Machines Remove the Need For “Stabilizers”
The Smith machine provides all the stability you need when it comes to squats.
So, in effect, the many tiny muscles that are at work when you have a loaded barbell on your back are now redundant.
I will also say that the antagonist muscles (the hamstrings) and the secondary muscles (glutes and adductors) will have far less to do.
Basically, the squat has now become less effective.
I know there are many people who would argue that they still feel the glutes, adductors, and even the hamstrings during Smith machine squats.
However, the impact has been greatly reduced.
Plus, you can’t take away from the fact that the stabilizing muscles are no longer doing their “job”.
2. The Body is Forced Into An Unnatural Position
The main thing I don’t like about Smith machine squats is that the bar travels in a fixed path.
This does not perfectly mimic the movement with free weights.
In fact, I would go as far to say that we as humans typically never replicate the exact same movements or muscle patterns with anything we do.
So, even if you’ve performed a certain everyday movement more than one million times in your life, it’s unlikely you’ve done this EXACTLY the same way each time.
Let’s take this principle into the gym now.
I would say that it’s unlikely when you perform a set of 10 barbell squats that EVERY squat is EXACTLY the same.
This is just how it is.
Plus, this is where the stabilizing muscles come into the movement.
The Potential For Injury
However, when you squat with the Smith machine you follow the exact same movement pattern with every rep.
Now some people may look upon this as a good thing, but I don’t agree.
We should always move as naturally as possible.
And if this means making certain (barely noticeable) tweaks now and then, so be it.
I’ll also add that I fear for people’s health when I watch their feet position when squatting in the Smith machine.
Unfortunately, you just can’t exactly replicate the stance you use for the barbell back squat.
I either see people with their feet too far forward, which typically sees them leaning backwards slightly when squatting.
I cannot begin to tell you how much stress this puts on the lower back.
This is just a spinal disc injury waiting to happen.
Then there is the problem of having the feet too far back.
This generally involves the knees shooting too far forward at the bottom of the movement, as well as the heels potentially coming off the floor.
This just spells knee injury followed by a back injury to me.
I’ll also say that I hardly ever see the lower back in a neutral position with Smith machine squats.
It always tends to be overly arched.
For me, there’s just too much that goes wrong in terms how the body should naturally be when performing a squat.
Reasons to Avoid Smith Machine Squats
3. Smith Machine Squats Don’t Transfer Well Into Traditional Squats
If you’re using Smith machine squats to lead up to barbell squats you’re going to be in for a shock.
Due to all the reasons I’ve mentioned thus far, one movement doesn’t transfer well to the other.
So, if you’ve been performing sets of Smith machine squats with 100kg, using the same weight with a barbell across your back is going to feel a hell of a lot harder.
As I say, this is mainly due to what I’ve already spoken about.
Firstly, all the stabilizer muscles will come into play with a loaded barbell on your back.
Then you have to look at the additional forces being applied to the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors.
So, let’s say that you squat 100kg for 10 reps with the Smith machine, you could potentially struggle to get more than 5 reps with a loaded barbell.
For me, it’s just not the same exercise, irrespective of the movement pattern.
I’m not saying that Smith machine squats won’t build muscle and strength, but just not in the same way as with a barbell.
4. There Are Better Quad-Dominant Exercises to Perform
I know that many people ask whether they should use the Smith machine for squats because their gym doesn’t have any barbells.
I won’t go down the route of the many answers you’ll come across on various forums and online communities, i.e. “It’s time to change gyms”.
If your gym doesn’t have barbells there are still many exercises that you can perform.
I know of gyms that simply have dumbbells and a number of machines, including the Smith machine.
However, I would much rather prefer to perform Bulgarian split squats, goblets squats, reverse lunges, and step ups.
These in my mind are far better exercises than Smith machine squats.
In fact, even if you do have access to barbells, these exercises could provide just as much (if not more) lower body stimulation.
Plus, I’m a great believer in changing things up every 6-8 weeks.
So, even dumping the barbell for a while and using these exercises and others could stimulate new growth.
35 Lower Body Exercises With Dumbbells
Whether you should use the Smith machine for squats is really a matter of personal opinion.
There are many coaches who think it’s a great idea and just as many who disagree.
I am firmly in the camp of not using the Smith machine for squats.
I just don’t think it transfers well to the traditional barbell squat.
Plus, it doesn’t work exactly the same muscles and there is also the potential for injury.
I also believe there are far better quad-dominant exercises you could be doing rather than Smith machine squats.
Next, I have also discussed whether you should use the smith machine for deadlifts.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.