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6 Ways to Use a Smith Machine That Won’t Make You Look Like a Cotton-headed Ninnymuggins

Despite the name, the Smith machine was actually invented by Jack LaLanne. He designed his sliding apparatus to be a part of a larger strength program that included free weights. Since then, however, exercise enthusiasts everywhere have used the Smith machine to take normal, effective exercises and butcher them into movement not-quite-dopplegangers that would make the Tin Man cry.

If you aren’t 100% clear on what I’m talking about, I’m referring to the pseudo-squat rack where the bar slides up and down in a fixed range of motion. It has pins running up and down the sides of the machine and hooks attached to the bar, making it easy to adjust the placement of the bar within the machine.

It seems that the primary users are those who are hesitant to take the dive into the dumbbell/barbell/kettlebell/band/medicine ball/slider pool, those who are blissfully unaware of the increased benefits of the aforementioned exercise implements, and bodybuilders looking to isolate prime movers without being limited by their ability to stabilize the weight. (For this reason, one can typically use more weight on Smith machine exercises, theoretically building bigger muscles.)

Also, a bigger ego.

Those supporting functional training are typically staunchly (I know I just used two “ly” adverbs in a row, but, you know, it’s not like there’s a law against it) opposed to the Smith machine as anything besides a rack for your sweatpants, but if you find yourself in the midst of a Smith machine, you should take solace in the fact that there are actually quite a few good uses (besides building up your own sense of self-worth).

The Six Best Uses for a Smith Machine

6. Fast-claw and hip extension drills

We frequently use fast-claw and hip extension drills to teach sprint technique and single-leg hip extension, respectively. They’re both similar, utilizing a quick, powerful extension with one leg. The fast-claw differentiates itself by bringing the thigh back around to hip flexion.

Typically, these are done along the wall, either facing the wall or facing sideways. But we can face-forward with the Smith machine, keep balance with our hands, and not worry about drilling our knee into a wall when we fast-claw.

Click on this picture to see a cat claw/fast-claw video.

Additionally, we can wrap a light band around the Smith machine bar and use it as resistance in a hip extension drill.

The bar itself could theoretically be used in any situation where balance was an issue. For instance, during split squats or single-leg RDLs where balance might be the limiting factor in the exercise. We can easily adjust and hold onto the Smith machine.

5. Bench throws

Power can never be developed to it’s full potential during a bench press because of the need to secure and decelerate the bar in the hands (else risking the integrity of your rib cage by tossing a heavily loaded barbell straight in the air above your supine body).

For this reason, developing horizontal pushing power in the upper body is often done through the use of medicine balls and plyometric-style pushups. (Note that plyometric handstand pushups do not fall under this category. Please never do plyometric handstand pushups.)

You could also perform plyo-pushups on bench(es) or on the Smith machine bar itself instead of the floor.

But with a spotters, the Smith machine can be easily turned into a device for developing horizontal power with bench throws. While throwing a loaded barbell into the air without a fixed range of motion is downright ludacris, doing so in a Smith machine ensures that the bar will always fall through the exact same path.

That being said, the fixed path on a Smith machine might still give you discomfort through the shoulders and elbows, in which case you would stick with medicine balls and plyo-pushups.

4. Inverted rows and modified pushups

The benefit of the Smith machine is that you can easily set the height of the bar without having to reset the catch-bars or j-hooks (as in the case of a real squat rack).

Therefore, we can easily modify the height of the bar for our inverted rows and modified pushups. This also makes tracking progress easier than with band-assisted pushups or TRX rows. You simply count the reps at one height and move the bar down to increase the difficulty as necessary.

In addition to typical inverted rows, you could elevate your feet onto a box or bench and perform a sort of assisted chin-up.

3. Hanging stuff

In this case, I’m referring to bands or the TRX. In one gym that I frequent, the TRX hangs from the wall so that it is impossible to perform TRX rows at anything lower than a positive 30-40 degree angle.

No worries though, because I MacGyvered the TRX so that it hangs from the highest Smith machine setting and allows me to prop my feet up on a box and cover my chest in 45 lb plates before rowing to infinity reps.

Probably does TRX rows.

If you don’t have a great place to hang the TRX from and happened to have purchased a Smith machine, you can put said Smith machine to good use by allowing the TRX to hang from there. In fact, you could place two TRXs on the Smith and perform pushups, dips, L-sits, and other sorts of body-in-the-middle exercises that the TRX typically makes wicked uncomfortable because the two handles come together at one single point and you get TRX-rugburn on your forearms when trying to do pushups on it.

The other “stuff” that I’ve referred to here are bands (and my laundry). Once you are close to performing pushups on the floor, you can hang a band from the Smith machine bar and wrap it around your waist. The lower the bar is, the less assistance the band will give at the bottom of the movement and the harder/closer-to-real your pushups will be.

Other band exercises include band tricep pressdowns, band dip pushdowns, and single-leg hip extensions (as noted above).

2. Mechanical advantage drop sets

Somehow, this guy always had a pump.

Ah, mechanical advantage drop sets, otherwise known as MADS. MADS are different from typical dropsets. Instead of changing the dumbbell or stripping plates off the bar, you alter the position of your body to adjust the intensity of an exercise. These are a perfect way to generate an awe-inspiring pump at the end of your session.

Popular ways to do this are to move from wide-grip to medium-grip to close-grip exercises, as in the bench press or pull-ups. You could also switch from a pronated grip to a neutral or supinated grip, as in chin-ups or bicep curls.

However, you can use MADS with bodyweight exercises by simply changing your body angle! For instance, try foot-elevated inverted rows before moving to regular inverted rows and then bar-elevated inverted rows. Theoretically, you could continuously move the bar up until you were nearly vertical.

Recently though, my favorite MADS has been pushups on the Smith machine. I was just fooling around in the gym one day and came up with this as the prescription:

  1. Place the Smith machine bar at about hip height (just high enough that you can safely put one foot on the bar while placing your hands on the ground).
  2. From here, perform decline pushups ’til failure before dropping the bar down one level. Do this until you get to the last level and then transfer to regular pushups on the floor.
  3. Once you fail on the floor, place your hands on the bar and perform modified pushups to failure, continuously moving the bar up until you return to the original bar placement.
  4. The final step involves rolling up your sleeves and checking out your triceps in the mirror, looking around to ensure that women and children (mostly women) notice the veins projecting from your triceps brachii like major highways on Google maps.

My triceps.

1. Hurdle step-overs and step-unders

The final and best use for a Smith machine is hurdle step-overs and step-unders. These can be performed moving forward, laterally, or even with a warrior lunge thrown in for good measure. There are some great videos here (conveniently in an article very similar to this one).

While step-overs allow us to dissociate our hips into flexion and extension, both movements allow us to practice flexion, abduction, and external rotation.

Step-overs.

I love step-overs and step unders as multi-planar hip mobility drills that we could do later in a warm-up after we’ve moved from supine and kneeling variations.

Here’s a few tips on how to properly perform step-overs/unders:

  • Stay tall during step-overs. Don’t let your upper back round over.
  • Don’t rotate your foot around to get it over the bar. If you can’t clear the bar by lifting the leg straight up, the bar’s too high!
  • Don’t curl yourself over when performing step-unders. If you can’t squat underneath the bar, then it’s too low!
  • Try and keep your knees out when stepping under. Don’t let them collapse in.

When done correctly, these are a great addition to any warm-up and can easily be set-up and performed without getting up or down off the floor or incorporating any types of bands.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, six quality uses for a Smith machine.

Although this quasi-squat rack is more often placed in front of the mirror and used for self-admiration, it’s existence is not completely in vain. The ease with which you can relocate the bar to a different height makes it ideal for maintaining balance, pushup and inverted row variations, hanging stuff, MADS, and hurdle step-over/unders.

The fact that the bar remains in a fixed path is usually one of it’s largest offenses, but this fact makes it an ideal location in which to perform bench throws (if the path of the bar doesn’t bother your elbows, shoulders, or wrists).

As Jack LaLanne intended, the Smith machine should only be used as part of a larger training program involving free weights. However, I dream of a world where functional training “gurus” and Smith machines can peacefully coexist in a utopia of performance, aesthetics, and long-term health.

Not anymore, you aren’t.

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