While the barbell squat is often called the “king of exercises”, using the smith squat machine is an excellent variation. This is because using the smith squat machine is both easier to learn than a free standing barbell squat and you can push yourself harder without the risk of having to “dump” a barbell if you hit failure. There is more of a comparison below.
Any squat movement should be considered your primary leg exercise, therefore performed as early in your lower body workouts as possible. The smith squat machine is no exception. Though many different sets and reps protocols work well, you’re best served by sticking to something rooted in strength-based hypertrophy. Do 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps.
One of the biggest benefits of using the smith squat machine can also be its biggest cause for concern. Proper form for the free standing barbell squat can be difficult to master, and the smith machine can help shorten your learning curve.
However, a smith squat machine will have the bar moving in an perfectly straight movement pattern, while a normal barbell squat tends to see the bar moving in an arc. This isn’t a big deal, you just have to be sure that you place your feet just right when setting up.
As mentioned in the video above, the width of your squat stance is important. However, just as important when using the smith squat machine where you place your feet in relation to the bar itself. Placing them too far forward or backward is going to result in your torso being contorted as you lower yourself. This is going to open up your lower back, hamstrings, knees, and more to injury.
You’ll want to play around with it a little, but a good place to start is to place your feet such that your heels are in line with or just in front of the bar. This should put you in a position that allows your hips to come back sufficiently and not force your knees too far forward. When you first get started with the smith machine squat, experiment with different foot placements over several sets. Make small adjustments until you find something that works and feels just right.
With a barbell squat, on the other hand, you almost can’t place your feet in the wrong spot. This is because the bar will go wherever your body is, so as long as you lower yourself with proper technique and have a wide enough stance to be stable, you’ll be fine.
There are a couple different variations you could use to further your leg development. One would be the smith machine front squat. In this case, you’d place the bar across your front delts in the “racked” position, shifting your stance backward. You’d want your form such that your lower leg stays as vertical as possible throughout the movement.
This is often much easier for everyday lifters than trying to do its barbell counterpart. Holding the bar across the front delts can feel unsteady when you have your arms cross in front of you, and most lifters don’t have good enough shoulder / wrist flexibility to hold the bar in the “racked” position like an Olympic lifter.
At the same time, the barbell front squat movement pattern can take a while to learn. You’ll almost always have to learn new muscle memory because the bar (and in turn, your center of gravity) is so much further forward. This will also make you want to come up on your toes, so putting a block or weight plates under your heels will likely be necessary. You still might need the plates for the smith machine, but it holding you in a groove will make learning the movement easier.
Another variation would be to actually take a step or two forward, almost mimicking a type of sissy squat. Your feet would be way in front of the bar and your torso would remain upright throughout. This means your hips would stay under your shoulders during the entire movement. You’ll have to do this version with much less weight, but it can put almost all the emphasis on only the quads instead of the entire leg. This is something that’s all but impossible to replicate with a barbell.
Using the smith squat machine is an excellent strength and mass builder that can save you time on learning proper form. Take a little time to find the exact right stance for you, and you’ll not only be pushing heavy weight in short order, but you should be safer while doing it.