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Jim's Ultimate Smith Machine Exercise Guide

Learn about the unique ways this under-appreciated piece of equipment can enhance your power, size, and overall performance in the gym.

Jim's Ultimate Smith Machine Exercise Guide

A lot of trainers hate the Smith machine. Their reasons include the fact that it locks you into a fixed movement of the bar that is less natural than a free-weight barbell, and that it lessens the involvement of important stabilizer muscles. 

While these facts are true, I would argue that these negatives could be positives in certain circumstances—when used correctly. 

For example, the fixed pattern of the bar is perfect for the upright row, which can put stress on the shoulder joint. I find the fixed path of the bar removes the stress on the actual joint, yet increases the focus on the deltoid. Lessening the involvement of the smaller, weaker stabilizers can help you take the target muscle to failure better because the stabilizers are not the limiting factor causing you to fatigue on a set before the target muscle is fatigued.

However, I really love the Smith machine because there is an endless amount of unique exercises that you can perform on it if you think outside the box. So the next time a trainer tells you that you should never use the Smith machine, they're just demonstrating their ignorance and lack of ability to truly understand a training tool that could enhance results when used properly.

The Benefits of Smith Machine Training

I’m a firm believer in using all of the tools available in the gym. When it comes to the Smith machine, research shows one specific benefit of the Smith machine when training your chest. 

California State University (Fullerton) researchers measured the muscle activity of subjects' middle deltoids, front deltoids, and the pectoralis major (pecs or chest) muscles when subjects performed the bench press with a free-weight barbell or on the Smith machine. They reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that there was not much difference between the muscle activity of the pecs. 

However, they did find that the muscle activity of the middle deltoid was significantly greater, and the muscle activity of the front deltoid was slightly greater (see graph below) on the barbell bench press as compared to the Smith Machine.


The reason that there is greater muscle activity of the middle and front deltoid muscles on the barbell bench press is due to the fact that this free-weight exercise requires greater stability to balance the barbell. That means that the shoulders have to assist more on the barbell bench press. Since the Smith machine moves in a fixed path along the guide rods, there is less need for the shoulder muscles to help stabilize the bar.

Jim's Take-Home Message:

Other research studies have shown that you can lift more total weight on the barbell bench press than you can on the Smith machine bench press. So, you should definitely use the barbell bench press towards the beginning of your chest workouts to go heavier and place more overload on the pecs to stimulate greater muscle growth and strength gains. 

Later on in the workout, however, after you become more fatigued, you should also consider doing Smith machine bench presses to place better focus specifically on the pecs. Because the pecs need less help from the deltoids to do the Smith machine bench press, you have greater emphasis placed on the pecs, which can also help to stimulate greater muscle growth.

Here's a great chest workout that uses both versions of the bench press and really burns out the pecs.

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Smith Machine Bench Press Throw

Building muscle power is important regardless of whether your goal is to develop more athleticism, increase muscle strength, build muscle mass, or even drop body fat. In other words, everyone should be incorporating power exercises into their workouts. 

Power exercises can be any exercise done with light weight and fast reps. Although multi-joint exercises—such as the squat, row, or bench press—work best, single-joint exercises like the barbell curl are also effective, especially for muscle groups that do not have many multi-joint exercises, such as biceps and calves. 

Doing the reps as quickly as possible utilizes more of the fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are the muscle fibers that grow the biggest, the strongest, and the fastest. These muscle fibers also burn the most calories, which is why doing power exercises are also effective for fat loss.

One of the best exercises for building upper body power is the Smith machine bench press throw. To do the Smith machine bench press throw, place a flat bench in the middle of a Smith machine. Load light weight onto the bar. I'll get into precisely how much weight in a moment. 

Position yourself on the flat bench so that the bar is above your lower chest when you bring the bar down to your chest. It will take some trial and error to figure out how far to put the bench in and how high to scoot up on the bench to find this sweet spot where the bar is just below your nipples in the bottom position. 

Grab the bar with the same grip you normally use on the bench press. This should be a bit wider than shoulder width. Of course, you can also do this exercise to build more triceps power. In that case, you would use a shoulder-width grip to do a close-grip Smith machine bench press throw. Once you have your grip set, unlatch the safety hooks to free the bar and hold it over your chest with arms fully extended but elbows not locked out. 

Lower the bar down to your chest and press the bar up as explosively as possible. You literally want to throw the bar as high as you can in the Smith machine as you press the bar up. Catch the bar as it comes back down lowering it to your chest again and proceed right into the next rep. Never catch the bar with straight arms and try to stop the downward momentum of the bar. This will put too much stress on the wrists and elbows, and can lead to an injury. Always absorb the energy of the bar by guiding it down to your chest.

You can see why you would never want to do this with a regular barbell. The guideposts of the Smith machine keep the bar on the same path so that you know precisely where it will be as it comes back down. Of course, it still may take you some time to get used to catching the bar, so start with a very light weight until you are comfortable throwing and catching the bar.

Once you are comfortable with the exercise and your hand-eye coordination, use a weight somewhere between 30-50% of your one-rep max on the bench press. Research shows that this is the best weight range for maximizing muscle power. Do 3-8 reps per set, which research also shows to be the best rep range for maximal power gains.

This exercise is great for building muscle power because the bar keeps accelerating throughout the entire positive portion of each rep. When you perform a normal bench press, where the bar stays in your hands, you actually have to slow the bar down toward the top of the movement. This impedes power development. By allowing the bar to leave your hands, you're maximizing speed and power. 

To further enhance power development with the Smith machine bench press throw, consider using the rest-pause technique where instead of doing each rep consecutively, you take a short rest between reps. Rest about 20-40 seconds between reps, which research shows to be the best time frame for rest-pause to build greater power.

For a workout that I designed to show you how to use the Smith machine bench press throw in your chest workouts click on the link below:

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Standing Smith Machine Reverse-Grip Bench for Bigger Upper Pecs

Need to bring up a lagging pair of upper pecs and looking for something other than incline presses? I've got an exercise to offer up that doesn't even require you to lie down: The Standing Smith Machine "Incline" Reverse-Grip Press.

I've been touting the effectiveness of targeting the upper pecs with reverse-grip barbell and dumbbell presses for a while now, as studies have shown that doing flat-bench barbell presses with a reverse grip increases upper pec muscle activity by over 30%. (Here are two videos you can check out on this topic: Reverse-Grip Bench Press Tips and Dumbbell Reverse-Grip Press.) Do reverse-grip presses on an incline bench and that further increases upper pec involvement by another 5-10%.

But maybe you don't feel like doing incline presses because you don't have a spotter, or because your gym's crowded and all the incline benches are being used. Or, if you're like me, you just want to shock the muscles with something new and different. That's where standing Smith machine incline reverse-grip presses can come into play. 

With this exercise, you get the same great focus on the upper pecs with a new movement you've probably never tried before. Since we're talking about a new movement, watch this video for a demonstration of how to do it:

As I explain in the video, you can plug this exercise into any of my programs where incline barbell or dumbbell presses show up—but I also like this move as a finisher in a chest workout. That said, check out the below routine. The workout emphasizes the upper pecs, with three of the four exercises targeting that area—including the standing Smith machine incline reverse-grip press as the last exercise. Try the workout below and let me know how you like it.

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Smith Machine Power Row

As I said above, it's important to incorporate power training into your workouts for building explosive power. This isn’t just true for power athletes, but for anyone who is interested in building more strength and muscle mass. Using power moves like jump squats, Smith machine bench press throws, and power cleans target the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which grow the fastest, strongest, and biggest. 

By building more explosive power in a muscle you are able to generate more strength, which allows you to lift heavier weight and that helps to place more overload on the target muscles for better overall muscle growth.

One of the best ways to train with ballistic power movements is to use the Smith machine.
Because the bar is on a guided track, it allows you to let the bar go for generating maximum power, yet easily catch the bar on the way down. This works great on exercises such as bench press throws and curl throws. Using the Smith machine also makes a great way to train your back explosively, with my exercise the Smith Machine Power Row. 

To do this exercise, stand sideways in the Smith machine so that the outside of your left leg is almost touching the bar. Bend forward from the hips so that your torso is at about a 45-degree angle with the ground. Grab the middle of the bar with your left hand. 

Consider using an open grip with your thumb on the same side of the bar as your fingers, as opposed to wrapped under it. The open grip makes it easier for releasing and catching the bar. 

Use your legs, hips and lower back to generate the initial power that will transfer to your lats and arm to pull the bar up as high as possible. Let go of the bar in the top position and then grab onto it as it starts its descent back to the start position. Repeat for reps, completing all reps on the left side and then switching your position to repeat on the right side.

It's best to do the Smith machine power row at the very start of your back workout.
This is because you want your fast-twitch muscle fibers to be fresh and strong when trying to maximize power. Because these muscle fibers fatigue easily, you do not want to do explosive movements like this later in the workout when the fast-twitch muscle fibers are fatigued. This would limit power generation.

Do 2-3 sets of Smith machine power reps for about 3-8 reps per set using a weight that is somewhere between 30-80% of your one-rep max on this exercise. The goal is to not fatigue the muscles, but to maximize power development, so you stop the set long before muscle failure sets in. This makes the Smith machine power row a good warm-up exercises before the rest of your normal back training. Doing these sets will not fatigue the lats and can actually help them to be stronger on the following exercises.

Watch my video on how to do the Smith machine power row:

Click on the link below for a training program that shows you how to use the Smith machine power row in your workouts:

Download This Workout

Smith Machine Squats: Pros and Cons

As you’ve seen, one way I like to use the Smith is to train explosively, such as with bench press throws, or curl throws (explained below). Plus, you can do novel exercises on the Smith, like my Smith machine lateral raise for the delts or weighted hip thrusts for the lower abs (explained below, as well). Research has even shown that you can squat heavier on the Smith machine than you can with free weights.

However, as great as the Smith machine can be, like any piece of equipment, it has its pros and cons. One con of the Smith machine is that it may not activate as many muscle fibers in the legs as free weight barbell squats do, according to research from the University of Saskatchewan.

The Canadian researchers measured muscle activity of the major leg muscles in trained men during free weight squats and Smith machine squats. They found that during the Smith machine squat, muscle activity of the quads and hamstrings were 50% and 25% less, respectively, than during the free weight squat. Less muscle activity can limit the amount of muscle growth you achieve.

Jim's take-home point:

Use the Smith machine to squat with heavier weight from time to time—but don't completely replace the free-weight barbell squat. This should still be your major leg mass builder, and for good reason. This study shows just one more reason why the squat is called the king of all leg exercises.

Smith-Forged Shoulders

I love this Smith machine shoulder workout for a number of reasons: First and foremost is the fact that it hits all three heads of the deltoids in a unique manner—and you know I love hitting muscles in a unique manner. That's because each muscle is composed of hundreds of thousands of muscle fibers. You only involve a percentage of those when doing any one particular exercise, so doing a variety of exercises and doing variations of each exercise is the best way to make sure that you are hitting as many muscle fibers in a muscle as possible, and encouraging more of them to grow.

Another reason that I love this Smith machine shoulder workout is that it makes training in a crowded gym easy. On busy gym days, there's nothing worse than stressing out over whether or not the bench, or machine, or dumbbells you need for the next exercise are going to be available. All you have to do is wait for the Smith machine to be free and you can set up camp for the entire workout.

View and Download Workout Here

Smith Machine Lateral Raise

The typical dumbbell lateral raise is one of the most effective single-joint exercises for building up the middle head of the deltoid. And remember, the middle head of the deltoid makes up the majority of the mass of the deltoids. It also provides your shoulders both width and roundness, giving them that cannonball appearance. But the Smith Machine Lateral raise can offer even better results than dumbbells.

That's because it removes the forearms from the equation and places the focus more directly on the middle delts. This exercise is great for those with wrist or hand issues who can't perform the dumbbell lateral raise without pain. It also makes a great replacement for the machine lateral raise in case your gym does not have one. Regardless of why you try it, once you feel it and see the results it provides, you'll always keep this gem of an exercise in your shoulder routine.

To do the Smith machine lateral raise, place light weight on the bar of a Smith machine and set the bar just above waist height. Stand in the middle of the Smith machine with your left arm touching the bar. Bend your arm at the elbow 90 degrees so that your forearm is parallel with the bar. 

Unlatch the bar with your right hand and support the weight with your left forearm. Maintaining the bend at your elbow, raise your arm up to lift the bar to about shoulder height. Hold this position for a second, contracting your deltoid as hard as possible, then slowly lower the bar back down to just above waist height, keeping the bar in contact with your forearm the entire time. Complete all reps with one arm and then repeat in the same manner with the other arm.

To really boost intensity and blast your delts, try supersetting the smith machine lateral raise with the one-arm dumbbell lateral raise.

Smith Machine One-Arm Shrug

Nothing sets off a set of wide, round shoulders like a pair of mountainous traps. But like calves and forearms, the traps are one of those bodyparts that are tough for most guys to develop. So how the heck do you get big traps? My answer to that question is... SHRUG!!

You can't build big traps without shrugging, and while you can't beat the barbell shrug for overall trap size, there are some problems with this exercise. The most critical is the fact that certain, ahem, "bodyparts" (guys, you know what I'm talking about) get in the way when you shrug the bar up to hip height. That's why dumbbell shrugs are great variation – because they keep the weight off to the sides of your thighs. But even dumbbell shrugs can get a bit awkward, and some gyms don't have heavy enough dumbbells to really stimulate adequate trap growth.

But don't worry, I have a few tricks up my sleeves when it comes to growing huge traps. One trick I use a lot these days is an exercise I call the one-arm Smith machine shrug. It's easy to do and you can really load up the weight. Here's how it's done:

To perform the one-arm Smith machine shrug, load the bar of a Smith machine and stand in the middle of the apparatus with your right side facing the bar. Grab the bar in the middle with your right hand and shrug your shoulder up as high as possible while keeping your arm as straight as you can. Hold this position for a second and squeeze your trap muscle hard, then lower your arm back down to get a full stretch.

I suggest you use an open grip where your thumb doesn't wrap around the bar. This prevents your thumb from getting caught on your clothes and allows you to keep the bar closer to your body as you shrug it up. This helps to maximize the range of motion on this exercise for better trap development. 

When you finish all reps on one side, switch to the other side and repeat.

I suggest you start your traps workout with about 3 sets of standard barbell shrugs or even standard shrugs in the Smith machine. Then, finish with about 3 or 4 sets of one-arm Smith machine shrugs. Or, if you're short on time but don't want to be short on trap development, do 4-6 sets of one-arm Smith shrugs without stopping. By that I mean go back and forth from right arm to left arm without stopping until you've completed 4-6 sets per side.

One last thing about trap training: I know that many of you are confused about whether you should train traps with shoulders or back. Before I give you my answer, let's take a quick look at the anatomy of the musculature.

The trapezius muscle is a large diamond-shaped muscle on the back and shoulders. It's composed of three sections: the upper traps, which are used to raise the shoulders such as when you perform shrugs; the middle traps, which are used to pull the shoulder blades together, such as when doing rows; and the lower traps, which pull the shoulder blades down, such as during pulldowns.

I prefer to work the upper traps via shrugs after shoulders. That's because the upper traps assist with many shoulder exercises such as shoulder presses, lateral raises and upright rows. I often do exercises to target the middle and lower traps after back, since these areas of the trapezius tend to be involved in major back exercises like rows, pulldowns and straight arm pulldowns.

Smith Machine Biceps Curl Throw

As I’ve already said, performing reps explosively in this manner can help boost power and overall strength, which will then enable you to lift heavier weight during your normal biceps training, leading to improved overall muscle hypertrophy. The Smith machine is the perfect tool for performing these fast, explosive reps.

In the video below, I discuss a great exercise to help build stronger and more powerful biceps with one movement: The Biceps Curl Throw. If you’ve reached a sticking point on your strength gains when it comes to curls, give this exercise a try. 

Smith-Forged Calves

One of the questions that I get all the time is, "Jim, my gym doesn't carry a seated calf raise machine or a standing calf raise machine. So how can I properly train legs?" My answer is the Smith machine. After all, most commercial gyms carry at least one Smith machine and it's very easy to set up to do both the seated calf raise and the standing calf raise in the Smith machine. One stop shopping, allowing you to bang out your calf training without moving around much.

Watch this video to see how to do the Smith machine seated calf raise:

Watch this video to see how to do the Smith machine standing calf raise

Smith Machine Hip Thrust

I am always in search of unique techniques and alternatives to the traditional methods we use to help sculpt specific areas of the body. The below exercise, the Smith Machine Hip Thrust, is certainly one of the movements that is going to get you unique looks while executing it the next time at the gym. But who cares right? Results are what matter and I urge you all to give this new innovative ways to target the abs in a completely new way.

Try the workout below to see how you can incorporate the Smith machine hip thrust into your ab training routines.

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Smith Machine Crunch

I’m a firm believer in adding resistance to ab exercises such as crunches to build strong, well-developed abs. After all, the rectus abdominis (the “6-pack”) and other midsection muscles, such as the obliques, are like any other muscle group you train and need to be trained with a variety of resistance and rep ranges. 

In fact, a recent study found that when subjects performed a body-weight only ab workout several times per week for 12 weeks, they experienced no significant increases in abdominal strength.

While weighted crunches done holding weight plates, dumbbells, or medicine balls are good ways to increase the resistance on crunches, these methods can limit the amount of weight you can place on your abs. A great alternative is an exercise that I call the Smith Machine Crunch.

To do this exercise, place a bench in the middle of a Smith machine. Lie face up on the bench with your knees bent and feet flat on the bench. The bar should line up over your upper abs as you hold the bar at arm's length above you with your back flat on the bench. 

Use your abs to explosively lift your torso up as high as you can, pushing the bar up as your body rises. Slowly lower your upper body back to the bench and repeat for reps. Vary your weight and rep ranges and go as low as 6-8 reps in some workouts to as high as 25-30+ reps in other workouts.

When the gym is busy and empty benches aren’t easy to come by, forego the bench and do the Smith machine crunch right from the floor in the same manner.

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