The Smith machine is a controversial gym machine. On the one hand, using one for exercises like squats and bench presses means you can train alone and in relative safety. If you are unable to complete a rep, you can just flip the safety hooks and escape from under the bar unscathed.
Also, the weights are guided on rods, so you don’t have to worry about balancing the load. This leaves you free to focus on pushing your muscles to failure.
On the downside, and this is something most detractors are very quick to point out, exercises done of a Smith machine are not functional. After all, weights don’t move on rods in nature.
However, in a lot of ways, that point of view is irrelevant, as it’s a criticism that can be leveled at almost every type of resistance machine. And while there is a time and a place for so-called functional exercises, Smith machines are very effective for building muscle.
Smith machine squats are a very popular exercise. Emphasizing your quadriceps, they allow you to train hard and heavy, building bigger thighs in the process. Will the Smith machine machine squat help you run faster or jump higher? Probably not. But if you are a bodybuilder, that’s not really a concern.
On the downside, if all you do is Smith machine squats, your progress may soon grind to a halt. Your body will get used to them. Also, some lifters don’t have access to a Smith machine and can’t use one even if they want to.
The good news is there are lots of exercises you can do instead of Smith machine squats, and in this article, we reveal 12 of the very best!
- Smith Machine Squats Muscles Worked
- Top Smith Machine Squat Alternatives & Substitutes
- Smith Machine Squat Alternatives – Wrapping Up
Smith Machine Squats Muscles Worked
For any exercise to be an alternative to Smith machine squats, it needs to work the same muscles, albeit using a different movement pattern or training apparatus. The main muscles involved in Smith machine squats are:
Quadriceps – known as the quads for short, these muscles are the main muscles trained during Smith machines, and the reason most people tend to do this exercise. The four quadriceps are rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. The four quads extend your knees while the rectus femoris also flexes your hip.
Gluteus maximus – Smith machine squats involve a lot of gluteus maximus engagement. Known as the glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human body. If you want a bigger, more muscular butt, Smith machine squats can help. The glutes extend your hips.
Hamstrings – your hamstrings work with your glutes to extend your hips. Located on the back of your thighs, the three hamstring muscles are semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.
Core – because the weight is guided on rods, your core won’t be as active during Smith machine squats as it is during the freeweight version. However, you’ll still need to use your core to stabilize your lumbar spine when you do this exercise. The muscles that make up your core include rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae.
Top Smith Machine Squat Alternatives & Substitutes
Whether you are ready to make your workouts more varied or functional, or your gym doesn’t have a Smith machine, these are the best alternatives!
1. Goblet squat
Smith machine squats are popular with beginners because they require minimal balance or coordination. Once mastered, you may want to move your training on to a more challenging exercise. Goblet squats are an excellent choice because they aren’t too tricky to learn, you can drop the weight if you get into trouble, and they teach you to squat with good form, i.e., chest up, shoulders down and back, and with a neutral spine. You can do goblet squats with a kettlebell or a single dumbbell as preferred.
Learn how to do goblet squats here.
2. Stability ball wall squat
In a lot of cases, doing any exercise with a stability ball makes it harder. In contrast, stability ball wall squats are actually a little easier than freestanding squats because the ball helps support and guide your movements. Like Smith machine squats, stability ball wall squats emphasize your quadriceps.
How to do it:
- Place a medium-sized stability ball between your back and a smooth wall. Place the ball in your lumbar curve. Move your feet slightly out in front of you, between shoulder and hip-width apart.
- Keeping the ball between your back and the wall, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- Make this exercise harder by holding dumbbells in your hands. You can also do this exercise using one leg at a time.
3. Barbell back and front squat
Barbell back and front squats are quite a step up from Smith machine squats. They both involve more balance and coordination, you’ll need to engage your core more, and your glutes and hamstrings are more involved. That said, if you want to get stronger or improve your sports performance, front and back squats are usually better than Smith machine squats. Front and back squats are popular with bodybuilders, too, as they’re an excellent hypertrophy exercise.
Read all about front and back squats in our in-depth guide.
4. Leg press
Like Smith machine squats, leg presses are often described as being non-functional. After all, they involve pressing a weight up while you are seated or semi-reclined, which is something you probably will never do in a natural setting. However, like Smith machine squats, leg presses leave you free to focus on lifting and lowering the weight, which means they’re useful for hypertrophy.
Find out how to do leg presses here.
5. Leg extension
Of all the muscles involved in Smith machine squats, your quadriceps do most of the work. If you really want to hammer your quads, leg extensions could be a better choice. With leg extensions, your quads are the only major muscle working, and your hamstrings and glutes are entirely removed from the movement. Try leg extension drop sets or 21s to really push your quads to their limit!
Learn how to do leg extensions here.
6. Cable machine squat
Cable machine squats work your quads like Smith machine squats but also provide a more intense workout for your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. However, because the weight is guided on rods, it’s a straightforward exercise that’s easy to learn and very safe if you are training on your own.
How to do it:
- Attach a straight bar to a low pulley. Hold the handle with an overhand grip. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, arms straight. Take 1-2 steps back and lean backward slightly. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your knees and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Take care not to round your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise with resistance bands.
7. Zercher squat
Zercher squats were invented by St. Louis powerlifter Ed Zercher who wanted to do squats but didn’t have a suitable squat rack to train with. While this is not the most comfortable Smith machine squat alternative, it’s an excellent exercise for building stronger, more muscular legs. Your upper body gets a good workout, too. Take the pain out of Zercher squats by placing a folded exercise mat between the bar and your bent elbows or wearing neoprene elbow sleeves.
Find out how to do Zercher squats here.
8. Jefferson deadlift
The Jefferson deadlift is a cross between conventional deadlifts, squats, and lunges. Done with a barbell, this old-school exercise doesn’t need a squat rack, so it’s ideal for home lifters. It’s a little tricky to master, but you’ll definitely feel this exercise working all your major leg muscles.
Check out our Jefferson squat guide to learn how to do this unique exercise.
9. Bulgarian split squat
It’s not clear why this exercise is called the Bulgarian split squat. In fact, some people call it the rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS) instead. Whatever you call it, this exercise works your quads like Smith machine squats, but you’ll be training one leg at a time. Unilateral exercises like this are ideal for identifying and fixing the left to right leg strength imbalances that can be caused by Smith machine squats. Bulgarian are MUCH more functional than Smith machine squats!
Learn all there is to know about Bulgarian split squats with our in-depth guide.
10. Pistol squat
Pistol squats are a challenging one-legged squat exercise. They’re good for developing balance and coordination, as well as mobility. Initially, you’ll probably find that you don’t need any extra weight to do this exercise. However, with practice, you should be able to work up to using some impressive weights, building muscular legs in the process.
Find out how to do pistol squats here.
11. Hack squat
Hack squats were invented by old-school wrestler and strongman George Hackenschmidt. Originally done using a barbell, the hack squat is now better known as a type of lower body workout machine. Hack squats are a lot like leg presses and Smith machine squats in that the weight is guided on rods. Like leg presses, the hack squat machine supports your spine. This leaves you free to focus on lifting and lowering the weight.
12. Wall sit
When you do Smith machine squats, you sit back into the movement, which emphasizes your quads. Because of this, some people refer to Smith machine squats as chair squats. Wall sits are an isometric or stationary version of this exercise and are a great way to finish any lower body exercise. They’re also easy on your joints and ideal for anyone who suffers from knee pain.
Learn how to do wall sits here.
More Squat Alternative Exercises:
- Front Squat Alternatives for Mass, Strength
- Hack Squat Alternative for Bigger, Stronger Legs
- Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives for Stronger, More Athletic Legs
- Home Squat Alternatives for Strong, Sculpted Legs
Smith Machine Squat Alternatives – Wrapping Up
Contrary to what some naysayers believe, Smith machine squats aren’t evil, pointless, or dangerous. Your knees won’t explode when you do them, and nor will your lumbar spine. Instead, they’re just one of a long list of lower body exercises you can use to develop bigger, more muscular legs.
Are they “functional?” No, they’re not. But not that’s no reason not to include them in your workouts, especially if your primary goal is muscle hypertrophy. If you want to run faster or jump higher, there are better exercises to use. But, if you’re a bodybuilder looking to build mass, the Smith machine squat can help.
That said, there are plenty of other exercises that you can do that are just as effective. So, while it’s okay to enjoy doing Smith machine squats, there is no need to do them all the time.
Keep your workouts fresh and productive with these 12 Smith machine squat alternatives.