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Leg day is a polarizing day at the gym. Many lifters are happy to grab a pair of the best dumbbells and do bicep curls ‘til the cows come home, but the sight of a squat rack makes them shudder in their sneakers. We’re not entirely sure why; after all, building strong leg muscles will only contribute to better overall health and fitness in the long run, no pun intended.

That’s why we’re providing an alternative way to train your legs. Leave the free weights on the racks, and don’t bother waiting for the squat racks to free up because all you need is a Smith machine for these leg exercises.

RELATED: Smith Machine Workouts

Certified personal trainer (CPT) and GGR Head of Content Kate Meier discusses the benefits of this popular piece of gym equipment and provides step-by-step instructions for Smith machine leg workouts to help get you swole during your next sesh!

What is the Smith Machine?

The Smith machine is a unique piece of fitness equipment resembling a squat rack. However, unlike a regular squat or power rack, the uprights contain the barbell and restrict its movement, so you’re guaranteed a straight bar path on every rep.

smith machine bar inspire fitness ft2 functional trainer review

“The fixed path of the Smith machine is a double-edged sword,” says Kate. “On the one hand, you can often go heavier on the lift because the machine is doing the work to stabilize the bar, letting you isolate the target muscles instead of using stabilizing muscles to steady yourself. Since it’s doing that work for you though, you’re not engaging as many muscles as you would if you were using free weights.”

Smith machines also use safety features, like stoppers or hooks, to catch the bar in the event of a failed lift, making this machine more approachable for beginners.

Benefits of Smith Machine Leg Workouts

Critics will claim that you’ll never get the same quality of results from a Smith machine as you would by just using free weights. However, according to a 2020 study1 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, “training with free weights or machines resulted in similar increases in muscle mass and strength.” In other words, this line of thinking is merely conjecture.

Not only do Smith machines work as a viable training modality for increasing strength, size, and endurance, but they often enable a lifter to go heavier than they normally would if using free weights. That’s because the machine’s fixed path assists in stabilizing the bar, letting you focus on the target muscle groups and really digging deep to move heavier weights.

RELATED: Smith Machine Vs Free Weights

woman-performing-smith-machine-front-squat

“Going heavier on the Smith machine is important for building muscle size and strength, but it also helps you work through plateaus,” says Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1. “If you’ve been hitting the same sticking point on your regular barbell squat, and you just can’t push through, trying the same weight using a Smith machine will often provide the stimulus that helps you break the plateau when you go back to the regular barbell.”

RELATED: RitFit Smith Machine Review

Smith machines also incorporate several safety features, making them a great option for beginners. If you don’t have a spotter, know how to bail a squat, or other barbell safety rules, you’ll still be able to lift heavy, provided you set up the safeties of the Smith machine properly.

Drawbacks of Smith Machine Leg Workouts

There are many advantages to using the Smith machine, but it’s not exclusively positive. Some things that make the Smith machine effective in one regard are the same things that make it less effective in another.

Specifically, the fact that the Smith machine stabilizes the barbell for you saves your stabilizing muscles from having to contribute as much, or at all, to the lift, meaning your major muscle groups bear the brunt of the workload.

woman-doing-a-smith-machine-lunge

According to the Journal of Strength and Condition Research2, that means exercises like the free weight squat will be “more beneficial than the Smith machine squat for individuals who are looking to strengthen plantar flexors, knee flexors, and knee extensors,” as the smaller muscle groups receive less activation when using a machine.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Smith machines are bad per se; just different. For the best results, use the Smith machine rotationally, making good use of free weights, bodyweight exercises, and other training modalities.

RELATED: Bodyweight Leg Workout

Smith Machine Leg Exercises for Size and Strength

Now that we’ve covered what the Smith machine is all about, we’re moving onto the best Smith machine exercises to build strength and muscle in your legs. Check them out!

Smith Machine Back Squat

Why we love it: The benefits of back squats are well documented, including improved lower body size and strength, increased bone density, and even core activation3 that rivals actual ab exercises. Squats are very functional, too, making everyday tasks more manageable.

How to do it: 

  1. Set your Smith machine to approximately shoulder height and load the bar.
  2. Stand underneath the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart and unrack the bar onto your upper back and shoulders, keeping your back straight, core tight, and eyes forward.
  3. Push your hips back and bend your knees to lower yourself as though sitting down in a chair. Continue until your thighs are nearly parallel with the floor.
  4. Pause at the bottom, then drive through your heels to stand back up.

Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, core

RELATED: What Muscles Do Squats Work?

smith-machine-back-squat

Smith Machine Front Squat

Why we love it: Holding the bar in the front rack position increases core activation and, according to a 2009 comparative study4 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, places “significantly less compressive forces” on the knee joint, meaning they “may be advantageous…for individuals with knee problems…and for long-term joint health.”

How to do it: 

  1. Set up your Smith machine and unrack the bar in the front rack position.
  2. Push your hips back and bend your knees, simultaneously pushing them outward, to lower yourself down as though sitting in a chair.
  3. Continue until your thighs are nearly parallel with the floor.
  4. Pause, then drive from the heels to stand back up.

Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, core

smith-machine-front-squat

Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

Why we love it: The Romanian deadlift emphasizes the eccentric phase of the deadlift movement, which, according to PLoS One5, increases muscle activation in the hamstrings.

How to do it: 

  1. Set the Smith machine to hip height, load the bar, and stand behind it with your feet hip-width apart. Grip the bar with an overhand grip.
  2. Slowly bring the bar towards the floor, pushing your hips back as you descend.
  3. Continue until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then return to the starting position.

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes, hip adductors, lower back

RELATED: RDL Workout

smith-machine-romanian-deadlift

Smith Machine Split Squat 

Why we love it: “The staggered stance used during the regular and Bulgarian split squats helps encourage muscle growth by focusing on one leg at a time,” says Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, “and they absolutely wreak havoc on your quadriceps and glutes in the best way possible!”

How to do it: 

  1. Set up as you would for the regular back squat, then step one foot forward to enter a staggered stance and unrack the bar onto your upper back and shoulders.
  2. Slowly lower your body, bending both knees until they form 90-degree angles.
  3. Pause at the bottom, then drive through the heel of your front foot to stand back up.
  4. Complete all reps, then switch sides and repeat the set.

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves

smith-machine-split-squat

Smith Machine Leg Press

Why we love it: Commercial gyms typically have both Smith machines and leg press machines, so you won’t necessarily need this adaptation. However, it remains an option in case the Smith machine is your only means of getting in your sets of this excellent lower body exercise.

How to do it: 

  1. Set the Smith machine to a low position and set your safeties to catch the bar if it slips.
  2. Lie supine on the floor below the Smith machine bar and place the soles of your feet on the bar, keeping your knees bent.
  3. Slowly extend your knees to push the bar away from the body.
  4. Hold the end position briefly, then slowly bring the bar back down.

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves

RELATED: How to Do a Leg Press At Home

smith-machine-leg-press

Smith Machine Reverse Lunge

Why we love it: “Reverse lunges work well with the Smith machine because, unlike walking lunges, you’re staying in the same floor spot during the set,” says Kate. According to a 2021 study in Physical Therapy in Sport6, reverse lunges are also easier on your knee joint.

How to do it: 

  1. Set up your Smith machine and unrack the bar onto your upper back and shoulders.
  2. Take a step back with your left leg, bending both knees as you lower your body towards the floor. Continue descending until your left knee touches the floor lightly and both knees form 90-degree angles.
  3. Drive through the heel of your front foot and step your back leg back to center.
  4. Repeat all steps, this time stepping back with your right leg.
  5. Alternate sides on each rep until the set is complete.

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core

smith-machine-reverse-lunge

Smith Machine Calf Raise

Why we love it: Nothing isolates the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles like the calf raise. Virtually no other exercise provides muscle activation in the calves to the same extent, making it a great inclusion in regular weightlifting programs and indispensable to bodybuilding workouts.

How to do it: 

  1. Set up your Smith machine and unrack the bar onto your shoulders.
  2. Push the balls of your feet into the floor to come up onto your toes.
  3. Hold the position briefly, then slowly come back down.

Muscles worked: Calves

RELATED: Calf Exercises

smith machine calf raise

Smith Machine Hip Thrust

Why we love it: A 2019 systematic review in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine7 found the hip thrust exercise to provide excellent muscle activation to the usual lower body muscle groups, as well as superior activation to the hip extensors.

How to do it: 

  1. Set your Smith machine to a low position, then place a weight bench parallel to the machine. Push your upper back and shoulders into the bench, bend your knees, and plant your feet firmly on the floor.
  2. Position the Smith machine bar in your hip crease, then thrust your hips upward.
  3. Squeeze your glutes, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

RELATED: Hip Thrust Workout

Muscles worked: Glutes, hamstrings, hip extensors, hip adductors, quads, core

smith-machine-hip-thrust

Sample Smith Machine Leg Workout

The Smith machine is a great tool and viable training modality whether you’re looking for a full body workout or just something to do on leg day. We’ve put together a sample Smith machine leg day workout designed to improve muscular hypertrophy and endurance in the lower body.

ExerciseSetsReps
Back Squat3 to 68 to 12
Romanian Deadlift3 to 68 to 12
Reverse Lunge3 to 68 to 12
Hip Thrust3 to 68 to 12
Calf Raise3 to 68 to 12

“Our sample workout is perfect for general fitness purposes,” says Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR Head of Content, “but it can be adjusted to maximize strength gains by going heavy on each set and reducing the number of sets and reps. Aim to lift between 75% and 80% of your one-rep max for between 2 and 5 reps per set if that’s more conducive to your personal fitness goals.”

RELATED: How Many Reps to Build Muscle

Smith Machine Leg Workouts: Final Thoughts 

Assuming the Smith machine is inferior to other training modalities is denying yourself an excellent alternative to traditional free weight-based resistance training. Simply put, Smith machines:

  • Have been shown to help increase strength, size, and endurance
  • Are designed with safety features for solo lifters and beginners
  • Are great for isolating the target muscle groups
  • Are an excellent option for your next leg day session

Don’t just take our word for it; add Kate’s suggested exercises to your workout routine and see how you fare. Chances are you’ll find out firsthand what makes the Smith machine so effective! Good luck!

Smith Machine Leg Workouts: FAQs

Can you build legs on Smith machine?

Recent studies show1 that using a Smith machine produces “similar increases in muscle mass” when compared to regular weight training. So, if your goal is muscular hypertrophy, using the Smith machine is totally viable.

Are Smith machine squats enough?

“Performing squats using a Smith machine is effective, but we’re never too keen on recommending one training modality exclusively,” says Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR Head of Content. “A multifaceted approach is generally best. Use Smith machines, free weights, selectorized machines, bodyweight movements—anything and everything unless you’re medically contraindicated.”

How do you target quads on a smith machine?

You’ll be hitting your quads with most lower body exercises, but you’ll especially feel the burn on exercises like the front squat, split squat, and leg press.

RELATED: Leg Press Workout

It’s advanced, but if you’re already familiar with the sissy squat, Smith machine sissy squats are possible and amazing for targeting your quads. We highly recommend working with a personal trainer or fitness professional if you’re not already very familiar with this technical move.

Can you lift heavier on a Smith machine?

Because the Smith machine stabilizes the bar along a fixed path, you won’t need to recruit as many (or virtually any) stabilizing muscles to keep things steady through the exercise’s range of motion.

So, you’ll be able to summon all the strength in the target muscle group or groups and often surpass what you’re able to lift using regular old free weights.

“Because you can often lift heavier using a Smith machine, it’s the perfect tool for breaking plateaus,” says Kate. “If you’ve been stuck for ages on a certain lift, try using a Smith machine to push through. You might just surprise yourself!”

References

1. Schwanbeck SR, Cornish SM, Barss T, Chilibeck PD. Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels. J Strength Cond Res. 2020;34(7):1851-1859. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003349

2. Schwanbeck S, Chilibeck PD, Binsted G. A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(9):2588-2591. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181

3. van den Tillaar R, Saeterbakken AH. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2018 Jun 13;62:43-53. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0176. PMID: 29922376; PMCID: PMC6006542.

4. Gullett JC, Tillman MD, Gutierrez GM, Chow JW. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):284-292. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb

5. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS One. 2020;15(2):e0229507. Published 2020 Feb 27. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0229507

6. Goulette D, Griffith P, Schiller M, Rutherford D, Kernozek TW. Patellofemoral joint loading during the forward and backward lunge. Phys Ther Sport. 2021;47:178-184. doi:10.1016/j.ptsp.2020.12.001

7. Neto WK, Vieira TL, Gama EF. Barbell Hip Thrust, Muscular Activation and Performance: A Systematic Review. J Sports Sci Med. 2019;18(2):198-206. Published 2019 Jun 1.

Further reading

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Leg day is a polarizing day at the gym. Many lifters are happy to grab a pair of the best dumbbells and do bicep curls ‘til the cows come home, but the sight of a squat rack makes them shudder in their sneakers. We’re not entirely sure why; after all, building strong leg muscles will only contribute to better overall health and fitness in the long run, no pun intended.That’s why we’re providing an alternative way to train your legs.  » Read more about: Smith Machine Leg Workouts: Build Lower Body Strength Without the Free Weights  » Read more

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