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Unless you’re Willy Wonka, you wouldn’t ride an elevator that had no fixed path. You want to be locked into the same route on every trip. So it is with Smith machine exercises—and there are many more such exercises than most bodybuilders realize. In fact, there are enough that you can hit all your body parts at a Smith station, making certain every rep goes straight up and down.
In order to safely squat without a spotter, fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne came up with the idea in the 1950s for a bar attached to a sliding apparatus. His friend Rudy Smith improved the design, enlisted an equipment builder, and sold the machines to gyms. As manufacturers copied the concept, the popularity of Smith machines grew. With some such devices, the bar travels perfectly vertical. With others, it moves up and down at a 7-degree angle. And with a Jones machine— a recent variation—you can move the bar horizontally as well as vertically.
Although their multiple safety catches are great for squatting or pressing alone, Smith machines can be used for any lift that travels through a vertical plane. Having the range of motion locked in place is both a strength (allowing you to focus only on propelling the resistance) and a weakness (failing to activate muscle action for balancing). A Smith removes horizontal movement from arced exercises, like curls, effectively transforming those exercises into very different ones (curls become drag curls). And a Smith machine provides a height-adjustable bar for body-weight lifts. As the following roll call proves, you can effectively train every body part with only a Smith machine.
Squats can be safely performed with a variety of stances, from feet far out in front (working the glutes and hamstrings more, contrary to what many believe) to under your hips (working mostly the quadriceps) and from very wide (more inner quads) to heels together (more outer quads). You can also do one-leg squats, lunges, step-ups, and vertical leg presses. For hamstrings, do stiff-leg deadlifts while standing on a block or a bench.
Standing calf raises (toes on a block) and seated calf raises (bar resting on your legs just beyond your knees) can both be cranked out on a Smith.
Barbell rows and deadlifts can be done Smith-style, but depending on the machine, you may need to stand on a box or a bench to get a full range of motion. You can also do inverted rows, rack chins, and chins by setting the bar at various heights and using your body (and additional weight if needed) for resistance.
You can press the bar while lying at or at an incline or decline. For something different, try bench-press throws (pushing the bar up with such force that it leaves your hands on each rep) or one-arm or alternating-arm presses. The bar can also be set at various heights for pushups.
Because you can safely rack and rerack the bar and bail to a safety catch if you fail, the Smith is great for front or behind-the-neck shoulder presses. For your medial, anterior, and posterior delts, do one-arm side laterals (with your arm bent and the bar resting just above your elbow), front raise holds, and wide-grip rows, respectively.
With their vertical ranges of motion, shrugs (front, behind-the-back, and one-arm), as well as upright rows and high pulls, are great Smith machine candidates.
By pulling your elbows back as you raise the bar straight up against your body, the Smith machine smooths out any hitch in a drag curl. It’s equally effective for underhand inverted rows (feet on the floor) and pullups (feet off the floor).
You can do triceps extensions—overhead or lying—by moving your elbows forward as you lift the bar straight up. Another exercise is the body-weight triceps extension, performed by holding the bar with bent arms overhead and then propelling yourself up and away from the bar by straightening your arms. Three more options: close-grip bench presses, close-grip pushups, and hands-behind-the-back dips gripping the bar and resting your feet on a block or a bench.
Even abs can be blasted on Rudy Smith’s machine. For weighted crunches, hold the bar as if doing a bench press. Set it high, and hold on for hanging leg raises. And stand perpendicular to it and grip it with one hand for side bends.
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