Commonly criticized for not being a freeweight squat, Smith machine squats deserve more respect for what they offer in the way of overall leg development. So what if you don’t have to balance a barbell… machines are very useful training tools and even superior in some ways. Most of the best athletes in the world incorporate machine training because they understand it allows them to train hard and heavy while minimizing risk of injuries and preserving energy.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the advantages of Smith machine squats, proper movement technique, benefits, variations, and programming for huge gains!
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Lower body
- Type: Strength, hypertrophy
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Smith machine
- Difficulty: Beginner, intermediate, advanced
How To Do Smith Machine Squats
A user-friendly total-body exercise, Smith machine squats are a viable alternative to the conventional freeweight version. But keep in mind, not much changes other than using a bar locked in between two rails. Below we’ve included a step-by-step breakdown of proper squat form with a video demonstration.
Step 1: Finding the right bar height
The first thing you want to do especially before adding weight is place the Smith machine bar at the right height so that you can un-rack it in an efficient manner. That means not too high and not too low. The bar should be roughly at upper chest/lower delts level but we do recommend you physically get under the bar in your normal squat stance and do a few practice reps. Then you can hook the bar in position near the top portion of the squat but leave enough room to where you can un-rack the bar and untwist the hooks from the pegs without having to raise up on your toes.
Pro tip: You should be able to un-rack the bar from a high/quarter squat position so that you can comfortably lift it off the pegs without having to use too much energy or having to lift your heels to push the bar up and twist the safety hooks back.
Step 2: Form and bar position
Now you can set up for the squat.
- Grab the bar evenly on both sides palms facing forward, dip underneath it and position yourself so that the bar is sitting on the middle portion of your trapezius muscles in a comfortable spot, not too high or low. Bring your feet forward and a few inches in front of your body with a roughly shoulder width space in between. Point the feet slightly outward to ensure your feet track in the same path as your knees. Keep your torso upright and head up looking straight ahead.
Step 3: Squat!
Now you’re ready to perform Smith machine squats.
- Tense your core muscles hard then drive through your midfoot and heels to lift the bar up and twist the hooks off the pegs. Sit your butt straight down by bending your hips and knees until your legs are slightly below or roughly 90 degrees. Push your feet down into the floor until you’re standing straight up in the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Check out the following video tutorial for a demonstration and explanation of proper Smith machine squat for and execution.
Let’s go over some common Smith machine squat mistakes.
1. Too low/high bar height
Just like the bench press, when you’re setting up for the Smith machine squat, the bar should be at the right height so you can comfortably un-rack it without exerting too much effort. You don’t want to have to start in a deep squat position and if you set the bar too high you’ll have to get o your tip toes to un-rack it which is dangerous and pretty much impossible with very heavy poundages.
Typically, a good height is when you can get under the bar as if you were going to un-rack it and your upper thighs are slightly above 90 degrees in a quarter squat position.
2. Incorrect foot placement
Because a Smith machine is more restricting, you want to set up slightly different you would a freeweight squat. We recommend placing your feet roughly 3-6 inches in front of your normal squat stance to stay more upright and ensure you’re in a safe and proper squatting position.
If your feet are too far back, your heels will raise up when you squat down. If they’re too far forward, the back will round too much.
3. Too much weight
A common mistake that can cost you is thinking you can use excessive weights because you’re on a Smith machine, also known as something called ego lifting. Many times, gym-goers will use a combination of heavy weight and poor form placing a dangerous amount of pressure on their spine, lower back, and joints.
One thing you’ll often see is when someone stand up from a squat, they’ll push their butt up and hinge forward at the hips… yikes! Avoid this at all costs.
4. Not Bracing The Core
Keeping the core braces is a critical component of proper squat technique. It helps you feel strong and in control from the moment you unrack the bar.
Many lifters forget to brace their core tight while squatting on a Smith machine, resulting in sloppy squatting technique and leaving the back vulnerable to potential injury.
How to brace your core: Take a deep breath and tighten your core before you unrack the bar. Now unrack the bar and squat down and up. Exhale once you get back in a standing position. Brace your core tight before each rep.
5. Heels Lifting Off The Ground
“Push through the heels” – is the standard advice to power up the squat. But many times, we see heels rising off the ground as the lifter squats down. It’s a common mistake caused by restricted ankle mobility and wrong foot positioning.
If you lift your heels up in the air, you are preventing yourself from squatting at maximum potential. Plus, you are putting too much pressure on the ankles.
How to solve it: You can prevent lifting your heels by placing your feet roughly 3-6 inches in front of your normal squat stance. Address your ankle mobility by incorporating some stretches and drills.
6. Not Going Low Enough
Too many guys still follow a shallow range of motion and then blame their genetics. Squatting deep down can impose tension on the quads by maximizing the stretch to initiate growth.
How much deep is too deep? It’s a false notion that going too deep is bad for the knees, a 2013 research about the effect of the range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations found “Training deep squats elicited favorable adaptations on knee extensor muscle size and function compared to training shallow squats”. 
You can go deep until the back of your thigh starts to touch your calves, but if you are experiencing a visible butt wink, then you should restrict the range of motion till you can maintain optimal back posture.
7. Collapsing Your Knees Inwards
It’s also known as knee valgus. It’s a red flag if your knees start to collapse inward while you add more weight to the bar, knee valgus stress out the knee and hip joints.
Knee valgus is not a problem in your knees, it’s usually caused by weak hip abductors, and you can prevent your knee from collapsing inward by strengthening the gluteus medius, which is primarily involved in hip abduction.
Here is how to correct the knee valgus:
8. Squatting With Wrong Shoes
Are you squatting with running shoes? Running shoes are designed to cushion the feet but create an unstable ground for the squat – it’s like squatting on a marshmallow.
Use squat shoes to provide a solid surface for the feet, squat shoes also come with elevated heels, which also increase the quad activations and help you go deeper by reducing the ankle mobility issue. Those who don’t have squat shoes should use flat shoes or squat barefoot.
Heal elevation may vary from shoe to shoe. Analyze your needs before buying a squat shoe.
9. Skipping Warm Up
Don’t rush to the Smith machine as soon as you enter the gym. Start with working on your hip and ankle mobility, before you start the actual training.
Warming up should be a fundamental part of your workout routine as it impacts the squat performance and prevents injuries.
Smith Machine Squats Benefits
Why should you choose to include Smith machine squats in your leg workouts?
Build a powerful set of wheels
Smith machine squats are an excellent addition to any leg workouts because you can load them heavy as crap and not having to worry about balancing a stinking bar on your traps. Of course, we still urge you to incorporate freeweight squat movements for full development and functional strength gains.
No circus acts
While we touched on this briefly, a Smith or any type of machine will allow you to focus solely on the lift because you don’t have to stabilize a loaded bar on your back. It’s also easier to readjust yourself once you’re under the bar as you can quickly re-rack and un-rack it if needed. That doesn’t mean you can throw all caution out the window but machines do have major advantages.
We’re not putting down freeweight barbell squats, in fact, we encourage them. But we will admit that they can be a dangerous exercise, especially if you’re not doing them in a setup that has safety bars or a place to catch the barbell if you cannot get out of the hole (deep squat position). A Smith bar will not wobble, tilt or roll if you need to bail the weight but you should also use safety arms too.
So why do Smith machine squats oftentimes get a bad rap?
Uses less muscular stabilization
Freeweight movements are often considered superior to other forms of exercise overall because they require heavy use of stabilizer muscles. This is believed to result in better overall development and yeah there’s probably some truth to that . However, when it comes to hitting the primary muscle groups (e.g., pectoralis major, gluteus maximus), machines will allow you to lift heavy and stimulate those areas for max gains. In one study where volunteers performed both variations for comparison, the Smith machine squat one-rep max lift was higher than that tested by the freeweight squat due to less stabilizer requirements .
Both a pro and con depends on who you ask. Some people are totally against Smith machine squats while it’s a saving grace for others. Being restricted in your movement means you have to adjust to the design of the machine but then again, it’s nice to be locked in where you can rely on a machine to hold you in place. But when it comes to functional strength development, freeweight squats win hands down. That’s because with machine exercises you’re missing the raw nature of a compound, multi-joint lift. You can get great results by incorporating both.
10 Best Smith Machine Squat Variations and Alternatives
This is where things get juicy! Check out all of these amazing Smith machine squat variations.
1. No weight Smith squat
You don’t actually need to load the bar to get a good workout. Whether just to warmup or for moderate to high-rep leg training, the no weight Smith squat takes the balancing out of bodyweight leg training.
2. Single leg Smith squat
Place a bench in front of you and elevate one leg on it for a unilateral Smith squat variation. This will instantly turn the no weight Smith squat into a more challenging variation. It will also force you to active more core muscle fibers and there’s functional benefits to training one leg at a time like increased coordination, and building symmetrical strength between the left and right side.
3. Heels elevated Smith squat
You want to hammer the quads even more? Place a couple weight plates on the floor and raise your heels on the edges to activate more of the front thigh region.
4. Narrow stance
This is another simple variation to make Smith squats harder. Instead of using a conventional wider than shoulder width squat stance, move your feet much closer together. Your quads will probably be on fire at the end of each set.
5. Feet forward
Something you cannot do with freeweight squats is position your feet out in front of you as they need to be directly under your center of gravity. Smith squats allow you to do this and consequently, make it more of a hip hinge variation that emphasized more of a posterior (glutes and hamstrings) focused exercise .
6. Kneeling squat
Much easier and safer on a Smith machine, the kneeling squat is a quad-centric exercise that is a great way to mix up your training and prevent boredom. We don’t recommend going very heavy on this exercise though as it can place a lot of stress on the knees.
7. Smith machine front squat
Just as effective as the back squat research has shown , the barbell front squat is a must-have variation that comes with its own unique advantages. You’ll build rock solid lifting posture and blow up those quad muscles seeing as the front squat forces you into an upright quad-centric position.
8. Freeweight squat
That brings us to the next variation, the mighty freeweight barbell back (or front squat as they’re interchangeable). Overall, research would agree that it’s the superior squat exercise, although not necessarily better in every category. Free moving squats are more scary, intense, and will work your whole body like the deadlift and you’ll build stronger stabilizer muscles making it a raw muscle and strength builder while making you a functional machine.
9. Hack squat
Also a machine variation, hack squats are an angled squat variation with some key differences that make it worth including in your leg workouts. Having your trunk supported and body positioned at an angle has shown to reduce overall core activation and trunk stabilizers. Consequently, research suggests the hack squat can produce a higher one-rep max lift than the freeweight barbell back squat because you don’t need to fight against a moving bar while squatting .
However, it was determined that the freeweight back squat is better for core activation and improving dynamic athletic performance.
10. Leg press
Leg presses are always going to be a top dog where compound leg exercises are concerned. Much like the hack squat, you’ll benefit from spine support as your back is pressed up against a padded backrest. Therefore, you won’t engage the core as much as you would during Smith squats. They’re also user-friendly, a good post-injury compound movement, and overall a great exercise to load up on weight and build insane muscle and strength gains.
Also read: 11 New Ways to Use the Leg Press Machine
Squats are a total body exercise but primarily a leg-focused movement. Learn about the anatomy and functions of these muscles below.
- Gluteus Maximus – The largest and heaviest muscle in the human body, gluteus maximus comprises most of your butt and hips shape, size and appearance. It primarily extends and externally rotates the hip and is a powerful athletic muscle.
- Quadriceps – The quadriceps are a large group of muscle at the front of your thigh also known as the quads. It’s made up of four individual heads – rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedialis. Quads flex the hips and extend the knee. If you want big upper leg muscles you got to squat!
- Hamstrings – Hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run from the pelvis down the back of the upper leg – semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. The short head of the biceps femoris only crosses the knee joint. Functioning to do the opposite of the quadriceps muscles, the hamstrings extend the thigh and flex the knee. Squats are a total lower body movement that works every leg muscle including the hamstrings despite what many might believe.
- Adductor magnus – The adductor magnus is the largest adductor muscle in the human physique. It along with other adductors draws the thigh in toward the center of the body. Magnus also helps with hip extension and medial rotation. Its anterior and posterior fibers act on the front and back of the leg.
- Calves – A highly genetic duo of muscles in your lower legs, the role of the calves is to point the toes down. They’re composed of two primary muscles – gastrocnemius (larger and most visible) and the soleus (smaller muscle located underneath the gastrocnemius). The calves also play an important part in explosive, athletic based activities.
Smith Machine Squat vs Barbell Squat
Advanced lifters often criticize the Smith machine squats as they do not like the bar moving in a strict path, and are skilled enough to squat with a barbell on the back, but things might look different if you think from the perspective of a beginner lifter. It’s often intimidating for a beginner lifter to squat with a 20 kg barbell on the back.
Experts have differentiating opinions on the effectiveness of freeweight barbell squats and Smith machine squats, making it necessary to recognize the difference. Let’s understand the key differences:
Freeweight squats add up the difficulty as you need to balance the weight while squatting. On the other hand, the Smith machine follows a fixed bar path which eliminates the need for extra stabilization, and you just need to focus on the squatting technique and pushing the weight up. This is the reason lifters are often able to lift more weight with the Smith machine.
Load distribution and level of complexity are different in both exercises, freeweight squats require greater muscle activation as it requires tons of stabilization from the core and posterior chain to maintain the body posture and balance.
The Smith machine bar moves in a unilateral direction, eliminating the need for engaging stabilizer muscles.
Smith machine squat is a beginner-friendly alternative to freeweight squats, as you can rack the barbell at any range of motion.
Because of the fixed path, it allows the lifters to opt for heavier weights without worrying about balancing or stabilizing the load.
Barbell back squat is the ultimate compound movement that creates strength and size. Whereas Smith machine reduces the engagement of stabilizer muscles and makes the quads do the majority of lifting to promote significant growth response.
Angled vs Vertical Smith Machines
Some Smith machines are designed to move in a straight vertical path, and some are designed with a slightly tilted path.
The best thing about the vertical path Smith machine is there is no wrong way to face the bar. It is more suitable for exercises with vertical path, like squats, lunges, and standing calf raises.
When squatting at an angled Smith machine, you got to ensure that you are facing right. For most people, your body should be facing away from where the bar is angled – so that bar should come down and forward as you squat down, and the bar should move up and back as you stand up into starting position.
Five Tips To Build Bigger Quads
It’s a no-brainer that squatting with heavy loads will help you develop bigger quads. This section will discuss the training techniques that will help you grow stronger and bigger legs.
1. Longer Rest Period
Getting stronger should be the first step towards building bigger legs. While most lifters are focused on progressive overload, only a few understand the importance of a proper resting period between sets.
What is your average rest period for compound movements? If your answer is one-two minutes, you need to rework your workout program.
2. Volume Is Important
Legs are big muscles that respond well to high-volume training. Regarding the number of sets per muscle group, you can increase the weekly volume to 12-15 sets per week. 
3. Vary The Rep Ranges
Don’t let your body get accustomed to the fixed rep range. Stimulate muscle fibers for growth by varying the rep ranges.
10-12 reps are undoubtedly the best range for hypertrophy, but muscles need to be shocked every once in a while to prevent reaching a plateau. Try drop sets, giant sets, one-rep max, and high-rep ranges to induce new growth in muscle fibers.
4. Use Pauses
Powerlifters trains to move the weight from point-A to point-B with maximum efficiency. They work on the concept called “stretch reflex”, this technique uses the elasticity of tendons and ligaments to assist the lifting.
As a bodybuilder, your focus should be eliminating the stretch reflex and forcing the muscle to do the lifting. Pausing at the bottom is an excellent way to dissipate the elastic energy.
Superset your Smith machine squat with the leg extension to provide extra stimulus to the muscle fibers. Ensure proper rest between the sets.
1. Why can I squat more on a Smith machine?
The squat machine reduces the role of stabilizer muscles and allows your quads to push with maximum force.
Plus, it also adds a psychological benefit because of the added safety.
2. How much does the Smith machine squat bar weigh?
The weight of the bar may vary. Some high-quality Smith machines come with a counterbalance that reduces the bar’s weight to a bare minimum.
Why do they use counterbalance? Beginners may find it difficult to squat down with a 20 kg Olympic barbell. So manufacturers use counterbalance to make it accessible for lifters with all strength levels.
3. Do Smith machine squats count?
Smith machine squats are not comparable to the freeweight squats, but that doesnt mean they doesnt count. Just like you do the leg press, hack squat, leg extension, and leg curl machine, the Smith machine allows different squat variations, which help in improving lower body strength and hypertrophy.
4. How to do Smith machine squats for the glutes?
Deep back squat is a great way to train the glutes with Smith machine. The deeper you go, the more glutes you will engage. Make sure you don’t round your lower back (butt wink) as you go deep.
Exercises that target the glutes and can be executed on the Smith machine – Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusters, reverse lunges, and split squats.
More Smith Machine Exercises:
- Smith Machine Deadlift
- Smith Machine Close Grip Bench Press
- How Much Does a Smith Machine Bar Weigh?
- Best Smith Machine Exercises
- How To Do The Smith Machine Incline Bench Press
- How To Do Smith Machine Kneeling Rear Kick
- Smith Machine Underhand Yates Row
- How To Do The Smith Machine Seated Overhead Press
- Smith Machine Bent-Knee Good Morning
- Behind-the-Back Smith Machine Wrist Curl
Smith machine squats are great for all types of exercisers from beginners to intermediate trainees and more advanced individuals. If you want to pack on the size and strength gains, you can do so without exhausting yourself from balancing a loaded bar and it’s much easier to adjust your footing and body position if need be. You’ll find that it’s a suitable substitute for freeweight squats, although we recommend both and a variety of exercises if you want the best results.
- K Bloomquist, H Langberg, S Karlsen, S Madsgaard, M Boesen, T Raastad. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Aug;113(8):2133-42. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2642-7. PMID: 23604798
- Schwanbeck, Shane; Chilibeck, Philip D; Binsted, Gordon. A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 9 – p 2588-2591 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181
- Free weight versus smith machine squats. https://www.ncsf.org/blog/12-freeweightversussmithmachinesquats
- Gullett, Jonathan C; Tillman, Mark D; Gutierrez, Gregory M; Chow, John W. A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 1 – p 284-292 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
- David R Clark, Michael I Lambert, Angus M Hunter. Trunk Muscle Activation in the Back and Hack Squat at the Same Relative Loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S60-S69. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002144. PMID: 28704312
- Belmiro Freitas de Salles, Roberto Simão, Humberto Miranda, Martim Bottaro, Fabio Fontana, Jeffrey M. Willardson. Strength increases in upper and lower body are larger with longer inter-set rest intervals in trained men. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Volume 13, Issue 4, 2010, Pages 429-433, ISSN 1440-2440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2009.08.002.
- Ratamess, Nicholas A.1; Chiarello, Christina M.1; Sacco, Anthony J.1; Hoffman, Jay R.2; Faigenbaum, Avery D.1; Ross, Ryan E.1; Kang, Jie1. The Effects of Rest Interval Length on Acute Bench Press Performance: The Influence of Gender and Muscle Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2012 – Volume 26 – Issue 7 – p 1817-1826 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825bb492.
- Brad J. Schoenfeld, Dan Ogborn & James W. Krieger (2017) Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Journal of Sports Sciences, 35:11, 1073-1082, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197.