9 Best Smith Machine Exercises for Full-Body Muscle Building

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: June 20, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Dr. Kristy Dayanan, BS, MD
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The Smith machines are perfect for generating power, pushing past plateaus, building muscle mass and strength. In fact, even beginners can train safely on it.

There are numerous exercise routines you can perform with your smith machine. Simply try them out until you identify the ones that are easy.  Afterwards, progressively try out other exercises until you become an expert.

Let us learn how you can get the most out of this underrated piece of gym equipment.

Quick Summary

  • The best smith machine exercises include the smith machine biceps curls, smith machine crunch, smith machine Romanian deadlifts, and the smith machine hip thrust.
  • Smith machine exercise routines work on different areas like the triceps, deltoids, glutes, hamstring, and quads, among others.
  • According to research from the National Institutes of Health, the Smith Machine close-grip bench press is effective for targeting triceps and pectorals.
  • In my opinion, incorporating Smith Machine exercises into your routine can be a valuable addition to your strength and muscle-building regimen.

1. Smith Machine Biceps Curl

Doing biceps curls on the Smith machine is one of the easiest and fastest ways to grow bigger and stronger arms. It lets you load more weight and forces you to use the perfect form as it doesn’t allow you to cheat the weight up, moving the barbell forward or backward (unlike free weight).

I've personally found that doing biceps curls on the Smith machine is a fantastic way to build bigger and stronger arms.

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Biceps
  • Brachioradialis
  • Forearm flexors

How to Perform the Smith Machine Biceps Curl

smith machine bicep curl

Grab the Smith bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip and lift it off the hooks.

With your shoulders still, curl the palms towards them, squeezing your biceps hard until your forearms come past 90 degrees and you feel an intense contraction.

After a short pause, slowly lower the bar until the full-arm extension.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

For maximized muscle growth, do 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

To fully benefit from this exercise, make sure you lower the bar for a full stretch, squeeze your biceps as tight as you can, don’t swing the bar up with your shoulders, lift it too high, or move your knees or hips.

You can also do different exercise alternatives like curl throw, incline, or drag curl for a better pump.

2. Smith Machine Close-Grip Bench Press

According to research published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), performing bench press on the Smith machine and using a free-weight barbell resulted in similar muscle mass and strength increase [1].

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Triceps
  • Pectorals

How to Perform the Smith Machine Close-Grip Bench Press

Smith Machine Close-Grip Bench Press

With your feet on the floor, lie back on a flat bench placed underneath the Smith bar that’s directly above your chest center.

Grasp the bar with an overhand grip and your arms fully extended inside your shoulder width.

Lower the bar slowly to your chest with your elbows tucked close to your sides.

When it’s an inch or so away from the chest, pause, then press it back up to lock out the elbows while squeezing your triceps and chest.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Complete 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.

Ensure your elbows stay tucked and wrists in a comfortable fixed position. Don’t overextend the arms at the top or bounce the bar off your chest. Inhale as you lower the bar and exhale while pressing it up.

Avoid too close grip as it puts more stress on your elbows and wrists and decreases the target triceps engagement.

3. Smith Machine Seated Overhead Shoulder Press

This exercise is great for adding mass to your deltoids to build a broad upper body and get that V-taper physique. It’s effective because the Smith machine enables you to lift heavy weights as you don't have to stabilize the weight.

If you are feeling any kind of shoulder pain make sure to not use weights, use these resistance band exercises instead.

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Anterior and lateral deltoids
  • Triceps

How to Perform the Smith Machine Seated Overhead Shoulder Press

Smith Machine Seated Overhead Shoulder Press

Sit on an adjustable incline bench positioned upright at an 80-85-degree angle underneath the Smith machine, slightly behind the bar.

Hold the bar with an overhand grip a bit more than shoulder-width apart.

Bend your elbows, lowering the bar slowly below your chin, and pause. Then, press the bar powerfully overhead, squeezing your shoulders until your elbows are fully extended.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps using a challenging weight. High reps are better suited for muscle growth, whereas low reps put more focus on gaining strength.

Avoid hyperextending your elbows and lifting the chest too high.

Remember to keep your back flat against the bench for your spine safety, head straight for the neck safety, and elbows tucked in slightly forward to protect your shoulder rotator cuff and joint.

“If you don't use the Smith machine properly, you can hurt yourself — just like every other piece of equipment in the gym.”

- John Meadows, IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

Related: John Meadows Workout and Diet: A Comprehensive Review

4. Smith Machine Crunch

Weighted crunches can increase abdominal strength more than performing a body-weight ab workout.

So, this is one of the safest and most effective exercises to overload your rectus abdominis with increased resistance and develop a muscular six-pack fast.

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Transverse abdominis
  • Upper rectus abdominis

How to Perform the Smith Machine Crunch

Smith Machine Crunch

Lie on a bench underneath the Smith machine with your back flat, knees bent, and feet together on the bench.

Grab the bar at your shoulder width, centering it at arm's length over your upper abs.

Crunch up, contracting your abs, simultaneously pushing the bar up as high as possible. Hold for a moment before slowly lowering the bar and your upper body while stretching your abs.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Go for 2-4 sets of 8-10 reps for optimum results.

Always lift your torso explosively using your abs.

5. Smith Machine Bent-Over Row

With upright row, reverse-grip, inverted row, and other variations, this exercise enables you to stretch, squeeze, and grow your back muscles quickly, making them look thicker from behind.

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Middle traps
  • Rhomboids
  • Upper lats

How to Perform the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row

Smith Machine Bent-Over Row

Hold the bar hanging in front of your shins with an overhand grip wider than shoulder width (just like your feet). Lean forward with a slight bend in your knees and lower back.

Without lifting your upper body, pull the bar into your mid-abs, moving your elbows behind your torso above the back level.

Hold for a second, then, stretching your back muscles, lower the bar with controlled movements to the full-arm extension.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Do 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps.

In the start position, stick your hips back, keep the torso bent at 45 degrees, chest puffed out, and spine in the neutral position.

Other types of exercises:

6. Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that Romanian deadlifts activate the glutes and hamstrings as effectively as hip thrusts [3].

Using the Smith machine instead of free weights for this exercise may increase your glute and hamstring strength with minimized hip shifting.

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Spinal erectors

How to Perform the Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

Stand with your back straight, knees slightly bent, toes forward, and feet shoulder-width apart underneath the bar, keeping it with an overhand grip just outside your thighs above the knees.

Pushing your hips back, lower your chest and the bar as deep below your knee-level as you feel comfortable.

Pause before you drive the hips forward and chest up, pushing through your heels to bring the bar back to the start position.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Complete 3-6 sets of 6-15 reps with moderate to heavy weight.

For the proper form and better exercise effectiveness, keep the bar close to your body, almost rubbing it against your thighs and shins throughout the movements.

Keep your back straight, shoulders blades squeezed back, and feet flat on the floor all the time.

7. Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squats

This smith machine squat variation doesn’t differ much from barbell squats. It enables you to develop strength, correct muscle imbalances, and increase stability due to the heavier load upon the lead leg and a deeper range of knee and hip motion it allows.

“It allows you to perform multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. Squatting with the Smith machine works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, while the weighted bar works the muscles of the shoulders, upper back, and core.”  - Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., Exercise Physiologist 

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

How to Perform the Smith Machine Split Squats

Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squats

Position yourself underneath the bar set at your chin height, placing both hands on it, letting it rest on your shoulders.

Stand with one foot on the floor (taking most of the weight) and the other foot raised backward on the bench (helping you balance).

Lower your body with your back straight until your front knee gets aligned with your ankle, bending both knees to around 90 degrees.

Then, push through the heel of the foot that’s on the floor, extending both legs to return to the starting position.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps with each leg. You can do 10-20 reps with moderate to light weight for better endurance and muscle growth.

Don’t round your back, place the front leg too far forward, or lean your torso back. Try to get your back leg as close to the floor as you can.

8. Smith Machine Hip Thrust

This is one of the best exercises for developing bigger, rounder, thicker, and stronger glutes.

Unlike the barbell hip thrust, the Smith machine helps keep the bar in place, allowing you to focus on the movements rather than balancing free weights.

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings

How to Perform the Smith Machine Hip Thrust

Smith Machine Hip Thrust

Place your upper back against the bench that’s at the entrance of a Smith machine. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, flared out some 15 degrees, and the padded bar centered over your hips.

Squeeze your glutes and curl your tailbone up while pushing the bar upwards explosively. Then, stretch out your glutes while lowering the bar back after a short pause.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Complete 3-6 sets of 8-30 reps.

Higher reps may lead to better muscle growth, whereas lower reps (below 10) with heavier load work better for building glute strength.

Make sure you extend your hips using the glutes, not relying on the lower back.

To avoid putting excessive strain on your lower back and lumbar hyperextension, always keep your chin tucked and look forward.

9. Smith Machine Standing Calf Raise

This exercise will add size and strength to your calves, enabling you to handle higher training intensity, and sprint like Usain Bolt.

This exercise help me not only to handle more intense training but also boosts my resistance to injury

Main Targeted Muscles

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Tibialis anterior
  • Soleus

How to Perform the Smith Machine Donkey Kick

Smith Machine Standing Calf Raise

Keep the bar in an overhand grip across your upper back while standing with your toes on a slightly elevated surface under the Smith machine with your midfoot and heels dangling off the edge.

Lower your heels until you feel a stretch in your calves. Then, raise the heels as high as you can until you feel an intense peak contraction. Hold for a second and repeat the movements.

Sets, Reps & Key Tips

Do 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps.

Avoid bouncing while performing this exercise as you’ll take the tension off your muscles and stress your Achilles heel, which can cause deep ankle pain.

Increase your range of motion because not stretching your calves enough (eccentric contractions) or not lifting your heels high enough (concentric contractions) results in insufficient muscle growth stimulus.

Other types of exercises:


References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20093960/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31356511
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
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Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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