How to squat on a Smith machine and NOT get injuries

Let’s be honest here and just admit it – Smith machine is one of the most controversial pieces of gym equipment nowadays. People tend to bash it on YouTube, in fitness magazines and in the gyms themselves. I am a far cry away from telling you that you should switch to Smith machine squats and forgo the conventional barbell squat, but I will try to show you how it can still be a valuable part of your workout plan, and most importantly – how to squat on a smith machine safely.

Is the Smith machine squat bad?

Gym bros all over the world tend to ridicule anybody who approaches the Smith machine, mostly for one reason – it seems like an easy way out. I do agree to that to some point, and the science seems to support their claims. Research published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research earlier this year found that our legs’ prime movers are activated significantly more during free weight barbell squats than during squats on a Smith machine.

To add insult to injury, people usually say that the movement itself is not natural and that you could be doing a disservice to both your knees and your lower back when opting for this squat variation.

However, there are certainly some benefits to doing squats this way as well. If you do them right, Smith machines are great for emphasizing the stress put on quads during the lift, and they definitely help when it comes to the safety of the exercise compared to the variation done in a traditional way. So let’s dive right in and see the boxes that you need to tick in order to minimize the risks of injuring yourself.

Get the form right

smith squat foot positionThe biggest issue people have when it comes to Smith machine squats is that your knees go way past your toes and that’s not something you want to do under heavy loads. I hear them, and I couldn’t agree more.  

But you have to understand that for a properly executed Smith machine squat, your feet placement and stance, in general, has to be different than the ones of its free weight counterpart.

So be sure to step out a bit (the rule of thumbs is the length of your foot) so that your knees would be over your heels when your thighs are parallel to the ground. Simply put, your shins and thighs should form a 90⁰ angle at the bottom of the movement.

Not only will you take the pressure of your knees, but you will also target your quads even better, if you want to include this variation of a squat as a burnout for your knee extensors, or if you have a similar purpose in mind.

Pre-exhaust the quads

As we already said, our lower back can be jeopardized if we opt for Smith machine squat, and these squats pale in comparison to a squat rack variation. I have to agree with the fact that loading up the bar during this somewhat unnatural movement may not be the idea of the month. However, even though free weight squats may be a killer exercise for your overall leg strength and growth, we can superset some other quad-dominant exercise with the Smith machine and then push ourselves to failure (and safely, thanks to the railings) with the weight that won’t bring any harm to our lumbar spine.

Remember to still engage your core

Another thing people do on a Smith machine is relaxing a bit more than during a regular squat which is as understandable as it is hazardous at the same time. With a traditional squat, there is always a (perceived) danger of barbell coming crashing down on us if our legs fail. On a Smith machine that is not an issue thanks to its design.

On the other hand, that does not mean that you should relax your core during the lift. It’s still a difficult exercise, and your spine will need all the help it can get to stay in a safe position. So remember to engage your core before you execute the lift, take a solid breath and start your exhale halfway up.

Maintain a straight back

straight back squats on a smith machine

If you have done everything I’ve said so far the chances are you will have a straight back, to begin with. It is still worth mentioning that your spine should

stay neutral during the entire movement, and that includes your cervical spine as well. What I am trying to say is – Keep your head up when you squat.

It might seem unimportant or minute to you, but the fact of the matter is – When we look down, our thoracic (pardon my Latin) spine tends to round as well. The kinetic chain breaks from that point on and that means more stress for the lower back that is already a weak point for the biggest part of the population. But it doesn’t stop there either. Those slight movements can cause your knees to cave in, your heels to detach from the floor. Before you know it, your entire form has gone out the window.

 So take my advice and don’t underestimate the position of your body’s seemingly less important parts during squatting. Stand tall, and look up – as simple as that.

Over to you

The truth is, no machine is good or bad if you have the right know-how and the right attitude. Keep in mind that some of the best bodybuilders (Dorian Yates comes to mind) in the world, that couldn’t do squats for various reasons, have made the switch to Smith machines and other alternatives in order to keep their legs big and strong.

Even if you can do regular squats, and you can push around a decent amount of weight, this might still be a good way for you to break plateaus, introduce a new stimulus and really get the legs burning. Hopefully, you will all benefit from this article and keep your gains coming by incorporating Smith machine squats in your workout plans – now in a safe way.

About the Author Dumbbellsgeek

Hey! My name is Paul Sheldon. I live in Nashville, TN and I love all things related to sports. Naturally I love workking out and I do it every day. If you want to talk feel freee to hit me a message or if you happen to be in Nashville we can get a coffee, I know a great place. Peace!