In the fitness world, the Smith machine can be a touchy subject and is often seen as some form of cheating. Let’s put that to rest right now.
That comment is simply ignorant and outdated. Many benefits go along with the Smith machine, and there is a reason it’s been around for over 70 years and has been a favorite of bodybuilders during that time.
If used and programmed correctly, the Smith machine can provide serious muscle-building stimulus in your leg workouts. But it gets unfairly dissed, and I’d like to put an end to that. It’s important to remember that we are not arguing about what the best piece of equipment of all time is.
Instead, we are going in-depth on how to get a fantastic Smith machine leg workout and how it can differ from free weights. Ready to use the Smith machine to build serious leg muscles? Let’s go!
Table of Contents:
- What Is A Smith Machine?
- Best Smith Machine Leg Workouts
- Programming Smith Machine Leg Workouts
- What Muscles Do You Work In Leg Workouts?
- Benefits Of Performing Leg Workouts On Smith Machines
- Cons Of Performing Leg Workouts On Smith Machines
- 12 Best Smith Machine Leg Exercises
What Is A Smith Machine?
The Smith machine is a power rack with a barbell on vertical rails that assist like a spotter. The rack uses a guided rod system that puts the bar on a fixed path. It was created by fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne and made famous by Rudy Smith hence the name.
Several variations of a Smith machine have different paths, including one straight up and down, one on a slight angle, and one using horizontal and vertical supports. The last option is a favorite, as it allows for a more extensive natural range of motion. However, the most common variation in commercial gyms will be either the straight up and down option or fixed on a slight angle.
The bar is attached to safety hooks with stoppers along the track to ensure you can safely rack the weight. You can also set up safety pins, similar to a regular squat rack, that stops the bar from going below a predetermined height.
When comparing the Smith machine vs squat rack, it’s often seen as more of an unfunctional way of training since the built-in spotter assistance rack eliminates the need for stability. But it does allow you to focus solely on building muscle without the need for a spotter. I’m not arguing that it’s the best training style for every situation, but it’s a tool in the toolbox with a specific purpose.
Best Smith Machine Leg Workouts
Before I go any further, let’s get into the workouts themselves, as that’s what you came here for! After the workout, stay tuned as I discuss programming tips, pros and cons of using a Smith machine, along with how to perform each exercise included in these routines.
Workout A: Glutes and Quads
Barbell hip thrust
Front foot elevated split squat
Workout B: Glutes and Hamstrings
Single-leg Romanian deadlift
Bulgarian split squat wide stance
Standing calf raise
Programming Smith Machine Leg Workouts
When programming the Smith machine into your leg workouts, you still need to look at your programming as a whole.
Most people hit their legs twice a week, and today we have two entirely Smith machine-based workouts that you can try out. Remember, the Smith machine will be less about functional movement and more about isolating muscles for improving muscular strength and hypertrophy.
Regarding volume, you need to treat it like a regular leg workout. Depending on your training level, anywhere from 15-22 working sets will be standard for a lower body day. Since certain stabilizers don’t give out as quickly, you may be able to squeak out a few more sets than usual but keep an eye on your fatigue and how you are recovering.
You can still mix in sets, and rep ranges for different purposes like any other workout. Strength movements will still be around 2-4 sets at 4-6 reps. Hypertrophy will be about 2-4 sets at 8-10 reps. Muscular endurance will be approximately 2-4 sets of 12-15+ reps.
What Muscles Do You Work in Smith Machine Leg Workouts?
Let’s take a look at how you can best use this tool to grow the specific muscles you’re looking to target.
1) Gluteus Maximus:
The gluteus maximus is the biggest of your butt muscles and overall largest muscle in your body. It sits at the top of the pelvic bone and connects to the femur.
Besides being an Instagram-worthy backside, its main roles are hip extension and stabilizing the hips and knees while walking, running, and jumping. It also externally rotates and abducts/adducts the hips.
2) Gluteus Medius & Minimus:
The gluteus medius mainly covers the upper outside of your butt. It also begins at the hip and inserts into the femur. Even though it’s not a primary mirror muscle, it plays a vital role in several movements:
- Hip abduction to take your legs away from your body
- Hip stability to keep them level in the frontal plane during any movements
- Assisting hip flexion/extension when the thigh comes up toward the torso
- Aiding internal and external rotation of the hips
The glute minimus is much smaller and plays a similar role in stabilizing the hips while walking.
The slab on the front of your thigh contains four muscles hence the name quadriceps.
The vastus lateralis located on the outer thigh is the biggest and works to extend the knee. It also provides and absorbs the force from the impact of movements like walking, running, or jumping.
The vastus medialis, the VMO muscle, is the teardrop-shaped muscle in the middle of your thigh. It functions to keep the kneecap aligned and also assists with knee extension.
The vastus intermedius is the deepest quad muscle and assist the entire group with knee extension. Finally, the rectus femoris crosses the hip and knee joint, which helps with hip flexion and knee extension.
The calves are composed of two muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus.
The gastrocnemius is the largest of the two, located right behind the knee and running down to the heel. It has more fast twitch muscle fibers, so it’s responsible for explosive movements like jumping and sprinting.
The soleus also runs from behind the knee to the heel, but it’s mainly made up of slow twitch endurance-based muscle fibers. Therefore, it’s the primary muscle for walking or long-distance running, and it’s activated most when the knee is bent.
Benefits Of Leg Workouts On Smith Machines
Curious as to why you should consider performing leg workouts on the Smith machine? Take a look at these benefits!
1) Increased hypertrophy:
Since your stabilizer muscles can relax and not take over, you can actually build more muscle using the Smith machine than you would simply using a barbell1.
For example, the constant tension and increased isolation in a movement like a Smith machine front squat will provide a much bigger training stimulus to the quads. And that bigger training stimulus leads to muscle hypertrophy!
2) More confidence:
Sometimes, it’s beneficial not to worry about balancing the bar during compound movements.
Newer lifters can gain confidence in these movements by not worrying about wobbling all over the place and struggling to connect to any muscles. Even advanced lifters can benefit from not needing a spotter and feeling safe enough to push it a little further on the weight they are using.
3) Reduce the risk of injury:
This point also makes it onto our cons list, but we will start with the pro. The fixed range of motion and built-in spotter require fewer stabilizer muscles, and they keep you in one specific range of motion each time you do that lift.
Not only can this help you practice the same form on each rep, but it also has the built-in spotter option to ensure you can safely rack the weight anytime without hurting yourself.
As with any equipment, it’s important to remember that a Smith machine is just a tool. It can break up the monotony of always doing free weight exercises. Whether you are just switching it up out of boredom or are attempting to feel muscles work better during an exercise, it is a great option.
5) Can lift more weight:
Because your stabilizer muscles aren’t working as hard to balance, your body can lift heavier weight on a Smith machine. Yes, some of that comes from the added spotter-type feature that the rails provide, but don’t let the haters tell you this doesn’t count!
Sure, there aren’t going to be any Smith machine powerlifting competitions, but it does have a place in allowing you to use more weight on movements, whether you are trying to build muscle or increase strength.
After having read through the benefits and seeing the workouts, you may even be ready to add a Smith machine to your home gym! If so, check out these 7 Best Smith Machines For Home Gyms!
Cons Of Smith Machine Leg Workouts
A lot of trainees have asked me if squat machines are bad. My answer is a resounding no, but there are some downsides to it. Here’s why the Smith machine might not be right for you.
1) Less freedom of movement:
When comparing the Smith machine vs free weights, the Smith machine and its guide rails do a great job of taking the stabilizers out of the equation, but this also means that you are in a very fixed range of motion.
Limiting the range can make certain exercises more challenging due to anatomical differences in trainees. Some Smith machines move up, down, forward, and back, but none will be the same as a free weight exercise.
2) Can lead to overuse injuries:
Since the Smith machine has less freedom of movement, it forces you to practice these exercises in almost the same fashion each and every rep.
This can be great practice to lock in that movement, but it can also lead to overuse injuries. Especially with the anatomy differences, if you are performing a movement that is uncomfortable for you repeatedly in the same path, you are likely to get injured.
3) Still not as safe as a spotter:
The built-in guide rails assist during this movement, but there is still a learning curve for racking the weight.
If you’re near your last rep and feel you need to bail, turning your wrists to lock out the bar onto the rack can be challenging. Even though it will slide down the guide rails, it still can be dangerous with the chance of injury.
4) All show no-go muscles:
If you only use the Smith machine, you’ll miss out on the stabilizer benefits of free weights. Not only will you be in an unnatural range of motion, but you won’t be challenging your body to move how it was designed.
Training that way means bigger muscles that are all about looking good and not performing well.
12 Best Smith Machine Leg Exercises
Some exercises work better on the Smith machine than others. Here are the best leg-focused Smith machine exercises.
1. Romanian Deadlift:
Doing a Smith machine Romanian deadlift will build serious beef on your hamstrings. Taking the stability out of the equation allows you to feel a deeper stretch and hamstring contraction, helping build the glutes and lower back muscles.
How to do Smith Machine Romanian Deadlifts:
- Move the Smith bar so it is just above knee level, and set your stance just outside, hip-width apart.
- Grab the bar about a thumb’s length away from your hips and unrack it
- Pull your shoulders back and pack your lats before beginning to bend your knees and hinge at the waist.
- Keep your chest lifted as you slide the bar down your thighs and reach your hips back behind you. The bar should stop somewhere at your shins below your knee, depending on your unique range of motion.
- Squeeze your glutes and extend your hips forward as you pull the bar back to the starting position.
2. Curtsy Lunge:
This single-leg lunge variation does a fantastic job of targeting the glutes, especially the glute medius. Usually, this exercise is challenging to do with a bar due to its stability, but the Smith machine remedies that problem by allowing you to load it heavier while it is under control.
How to do the Curtsy Lunge:
- Move the bar high enough to where you can place it on your traps like a squat
- Step under the bar and grip it with your hands outside shoulder width and unrack it
- Keeping the weight on your left foot, step back and behind with your right foot on an angle as if dropping into a curtsy. The left leg should look like a 90-degree angle at the bottom position
- Drive through your front foot and return to the standing position
Smith Machine Curtsy Lunge Demo on YouTube
3. Sissy Squat:
The sissy squat leverages the Smith machine to isolate the quads like a bodyweight leg extension.
Most gyms do not have an actual sissy squat machine, so this is a great option to target the rectus femoris, and it can be superset with other Smith machine leg exercises for a killer pump.
How to do the Sissy Squat:
- Move the bar toward the bottom of the rack so that when standing, the bar is just behind the top of your calf muscle.
- Stand with the back of your lower legs resting against the bar and face away from the smith machine.
- Squat down while keeping your upper body as upright as possible and focusing on keeping the tension all on the quads.
- Exhale, drive through your heels and midfoot, and return to the starting position.
Sissy Squat Demo on YouTube
4. Back Squat:
This Smith machine squat variation will target the glutes, quads, some hamstrings as an assister, and even the calves.
Since the Smith machine keeps you in a fixed range of motion, your body will be more upright, placing extra emphasis on the quads. You will still get some core activation even though it will be less than a free-weight squat.
How to do the Back Squat:
- Move the bar so it’s high enough to rest on your traps and position your feet under the barbell just outside the hip width.
- Unrack the weight and pause to ensure your core is braced. Bend at your hips and knees and begin the descent as if you were sitting in a chair behind you.
- Make sure to keep your back flat and chest up, and allow your head to naturally move with your upper back instead of trying to stare straight ahead.
- Squat until your legs are at a 90-degree angle to the floor, and then push through your heels to stand back to the starting position.
5. Front Squat:
The front squat variation places an even greater emphasis on the quads and slightly increases the core activation with the barbell in front of the body.
The rack’s assistance will ensure your upper back and spinal erectors do not give out before your legs. It also makes the movement more doable for people with wrist issues.
How to do the Front Squat:
- Set the bar at chest level and rest it across your upper chest along your collarbone. Cross your arms in front of you to the opposite shoulder as if you are making an X.
- Unrack the bar and squat down while slowly keeping your upper body vertical.
- Squat until you are close to parallel with the floor, and then stand back to the starting position.
6. Leg Press:
This exercise is a more vertical leg press option to target the quads than the traditional 45-degree angle leg press.
A Smith machine leg press can be a bit riskier, especially unpacking, so use the safety bars as your starting point. If your gym doesn’t have these, you will want to use a spotter.
How to do the Leg Press:
- Set up the bar to be around 3 feet from the ground, and lay underneath it with your legs straight up and mid-foot on it.
- Extend your legs to unrack the bar, or ensure it begins on the safety pins in an unlocked position. This will be your end range of motion.
- Press your feet into the bar and extend your legs and hips until your legs are just about locked out. Stop short of the lockout to keep tension on the quads.
- Lower down to the starting position without tucking your hips into the posterior pelvic tilt and repeat.
7. Smith Machine Hack Squat:
Smith machine hack squats do a fantastic job of targeting the quads, thanks to foot positioning and rack assistance.
In regular squats, the moving parts and stabilizer muscles make developing that kind of mind-muscle connection challenging.
How to do the Hack Squat:
- Position the bar so it is just below shoulder height. Get under the bar like you are setting up for a squat and grab it with both hands.
- Unrack the bar and step forward while keeping your feet hip-width apart and pointing your toes slightly out.
- Maintain an upright posture and squat down until the top of your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Stand up and repeat for indicated reps.
8. Smith Machine Split Squat:
Unilateral training requires a ton of balance, which limits top-end strength and size gains. With Smith machine split squats, you can focus on fixing any strength and size muscle imbalances as it allows you to focus more on hip flexion and targeting the glute max.
While there are many split squat variations, let’s go over the one keeping both legs on the floor.
How to do the Split Squat:
- Set up under the bar like you would for a back squat.
- Step one foot back into a lunge position with your back heel floating off the floor. You will maintain this stationary lunge position throughout the exercise.
- Unrack the bar and begin squatting down, focusing on 90% of the weight in your front leg.
- Once you get to around parallel to the floor, drive through your front foot and return to the starting position. Repeat and switch sides.
9. Bulgarian Split Squat:
Another split squat option, the Bulgarian split squat involves elevating your back leg on a bench behind you.
This setup will emphasize the front leg, making it a proper single-leg squat. A shorter stance focuses more on the quads, while a wider one will target more of the glutes.
How to do the Bulgarian Split Squat:
- Place a flat bench or box behind the smith machine where your back leg would be in a lunge.
- Set up under the bar with it resting on your traps and grab it with both hands just outside shoulder width apart.
- Reach one leg back and rest the top of your foot on the bench with a slight bend in your knee. Place your front foot slightly in front of the bar in a lunge position.
- Begin the descent by breaking at your hips and squatting until your front leg is around a 90-degree angle.
- Push through the front foot and return to the starting position.
10. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat:
This is the most advanced of the three split squat variations. Elevating the front foot will increase the range of motion for hip and knee flexion and give you excellent isolation of the glutes.
How to do the Front Elevated Split Squat:
- Place a riser or stack 2-3 weight plates slightly in front of the bar where your front foot would be for a split squat
- Set up under the bar like you are preparing to squat and unrack it.
- Step one foot forward onto the riser/plates and the other foot back into a lunge position like a regular split squat.
- Keep your upper body and core tight and squat down by flexing both knees. Lower until both legs are at 90-degree angles or your back knee touches the ground.
- Power through the front foot and extend your knee as you return to the starting position.
Smith Machine Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
11. Barbell Hip Thrust:
The hip thrust is one of the more popular Smith machine exercises, but it can be challenging and uncomfortable to set up.
Use the hip extension to build glutes and increase lockout strength for squats and deadlifts. It makes the hip thrust easier as the fixed path means the Smith machine bar rolls less on your hips.
How to do the Barbell Hip Thrust:
- Set up a flat bench behind the bar, and use a pad for the barbell so it doesn’t hurt your hips.
- Set up with your upper back on the bench and center the bar just above your hips.
- Make sure your feet are hip-width apart and are just below your knees.
- Grab the bar and unrack it by extending your hips before slowly lowering it towards the floor.
- Squeeze your glutes, extend your hips to thrust the bar back to the starting position, and repeat.
12. Standing Calf Raise:
Calves are hard enough to build for most people, and the balancing act of doing them with the barbell doesn’t make it easier.
The Smith machine will help you create a mind-muscle connection to the calves during the standing calf raise, actually building the muscle instead of wobbling all over the place trying to stabilize.
How to do the Standing Calf Raise:
- Place a riser or two weight plates just in front of the bar.
- Stand under the bar on the edge of your riser/plates with the bar on your shoulders and grab just outside shoulder width with both hands.
- Unrack the bar and stand up straight, keeping your legs locked out.
- Press through the balls of your feet and raise your heels as high as possible before lowering down under control to the floor.
- Repeat for indicated reps.
Here are some of the commonly asked questions about Smith machine leg workouts.
Can you build legs with a Smith machine?
You can absolutely build your leg muscles using a Smith machine. It allows you to isolate the muscles better and not worry about stabilizers.
Does the Smith machine help grow glutes?
The Smith machine can help you target and build your glutes if you use the correct exercises. It lets you feel the glutes working better in movements like a curtsy lunge or front foot elevated split squat.
Can you build quads with the Smith machine?
The Smith machine is excellent for isolating the quads in different positions. They often are hard to connect to with multiple muscle groups working, but you can get a superb quad pump without the stabilizing aspect.
How do you hit your legs on a Smith machine?
By effectively programming exercises just like a workout with free weights. When using the Smith machine, slow down and focus on tension and isolating the muscles instead of lifting fast.
Smith Machine Leg Workouts: Key Takeaways
Although the Smith machine can be a “love it or hate it” machine in the fitness world, it has tons of benefits for training legs. Especially if you’re a bodybuilder-type who is just interested in muscle growth for show, it can increase hypertrophy and eliminate excuses to train to failure without a spotter.
It’s important to note that while the Smith machine offers certain advantages, it should not replace free weight exercises entirely, as it lacks the engagement of stabilizer muscles and natural movement patterns.
Still, when used appropriately, the Smith machine can be a valuable tool in leg workouts, providing targeted muscle stimulation and increased weightlifting capacity.
Now that you have a great workout, it’s time to add a Smith machine to your home gym. Check out the 7 Best Smith Machines to find your perfect fit!
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Schwanbeck S, Chilibeck PD, Binsted G. A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009;23(9). doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b1b181