There are two sides to the Smith machine squat vs. barbell squat argument. One states that the Smith machine is dangerous because it locks you into an unnatural movement while the other states it is safer because you are on a guided rack.
The barbell squat shows a greater range of motion at all joints, greater muscle activation of the legs, and you can generally lift heavier than the Smith machine squat unless you have little experience barbell squatting.
It’s common for the fitness industry to hate on the Smith machine. Especially for big compound exercises like squats. But is this hate warranted?
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The Major Differences Between Smith Machine Squats And Barbell Squats
The barbell back squat has been shown to have a larger range of motion at all joints compared to the Smith machine squat .
However, in the bottom position, the only difference was the barbell squat showed greater trunk flexion (bent over more) and greater ankle dorsiflexion (knee further forward) compared to the Smith machine squat.
This is likely because to hit depth in the Smith machine, you need to place your feet further forward causing you to be more upright.
When we dive deeper into muscle activation, barbell squats elicit 34% higher muscle activation of the calf muscles, 26% higher activation from the outer hamstring (biceps femoris), and 49% greater activation from the inner quadricep (vastus medialis, aka VMO) compared to Smith machine squats .
There was also a trend for the outer quadricep (vastus lateralis) to have 25% greater activation during barbell squats.
Overall, all muscle groups on average showed a 43% higher muscle activation compared to Smith machine squats.
And this was with participants squatting 14-23 kg more in the Smith machine during the study!
It seems that barbell squats may increase muscle activation around the knee to stabilize and support those adjacent joints where this is not needed to the same extent in the Smith machine.
What’s interesting is that trunk activation was not significantly different between the two squats which is often an argument made for the superiority of barbell squats.
This could’ve been due to the low sample size in this study with only six participants or the fact that they were squatting more weight in the Smith machine.
Further, foot placement during the Smith machine squat was not mentioned which is important as we know is that placing your ankles directly under your hips increases the stress on the quadriceps and knees while placing your feet further in front increases the stress on your glutes, hamstrings, and hips .
But how does all of this translate into how much you can lift in each exercise? Firstly, we see from the previous study a very large difference in 14-23 kg during an 8RM squat.
Another study shows that people generally squat heavier (by approximately 5 kg) in their 1RM in the Smith machine compared to using the barbell .
But when these participants were split into men and women, only the women showed greater barbell squats compared to Smith machine squats.
Men saw no difference between the two variations. Why? Men had greater barbell squat experience than the women in this study. Generally, the greater the experience of barbell squatting, the lower the Smith machine squat 1RM .
Those with 4-7 years of barbell squat experience performed about the same between the two variations and those with little barbell squat experience had greater Smith machine squat 1RMs.
This is probably due to the “awkwardness” of the Smith machine squat which was reported by some participants. I know I’ve experienced it myself. Squatting in the Smith machine just feels yuck.
It’s difficult to find the right groove as you are stuck in a straight line. It may even take you a few reps to get your feet in the right position so you don’t feel like you’re going to blow your knees off.
If that is the case, you will likely squat more with the barbell compared to the Smith machine.
Are Smith Machine Squats As Effective As Barbell Squats?
Based on the evidence we have; Smith machine squats are not as effective as barbell squats. But what are we defining as effective? If we are talking muscle activation and hypertrophy (muscle growth), then the barbell squat seems to be more effective due to the greater range of motion and activation.
A greater range of motion generally means greater mechanical tension being placed on the muscle which is one of the mechanisms of muscle growth. Placing the muscle under heavy loads and stretch.
Further, if you are competing in any strength sport, the squat is likely one of your main movements. The barbell squat is a competition movement in Powerlifting.
Weightlifters must stand up with heavy loads on their shoulders or overhead. Strongmen may squat for reps in competition. CrossFit athletes may even work up to a 1RM squat in competition.
For these athletes, performing the barbell squat is important because squatting is a skill. While strength is simply an expression of force production, you need to be able to express force in the movement you are performing in your competition.
One important adaptation to heavy strength training is improving load-specific coordination. Meaning the more you perform a movement with heavier loads, the better you’ll be able to coordinate the movement under load. I.e., improving your skill of squatting.
If you spend that time getting stronger in the Smith machine, your ability to express force is likely not going to transfer as you hope because you haven’t trained the skill of squatting.
While that is a crude example as there aren’t many strength sports athletes only squatting in the Smith machine, your time is better spent with the barbell.
Now, is there a time and place for the Smith machine in your training? Potentially. One reason many use the Smith machine is to train the legs without placing more stress on the lower back.
While the study I mentioned showed there isn’t a significant difference in trunk activation (measured on the erector spinae), there is greater forward lean during the barbell squat. So, the Smith machine may be a better option to get some reps in the legs without too much involvement from the back.
Further, if your sole goal is to build muscle and target specific muscle groups, you could use the Smith machine squat with your ankles under your hips on a quad-dominant training day and feet further in front for a glute and hamstring dominant training day.
Is Squatting In A Smith Machine Harder?
If you are a very experienced barbell squatter, squatting in the Smith machine can be much harder. It is an awkward movement as you are fixed into the machine. Whereas free weight squats allow you to move freely and self-organize the body to find comfortable positions.
Overall, if you don’t have much of a barbell squatting background, you may lift more in the Smith machine as you no longer have to stabilize the weight.
Is The Smith Machine Squat Better For Glutes?
The Smith machine squat can target the glutes by placing the feet further in front. This takes the stress off the knees and places it mainly on the hips. Therefore, the quadriceps don’t work as hard while the glutes and hamstrings take most of the load.
Is It Bad To Squat On A Smith Machine?
It’s not inherently bad to squat in a Smith machine. If you are serious about strength and strength sports, you should either avoid it or use it sparingly if you are trying to target certain muscle groups while squatting for hypertrophy purposes.
If you are on the bodybuilding side, the Smith machine can be a tool to target muscle groups based on your foot placement.
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2. Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P. D., & Binsted, G. (2009). A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(9), 2588-2591.
3. Abelbeck, K. G. (2002). Biomechanical model and evaluation of a linear motion squat type exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(4), 516-524.
4. Cotterman, M. L., Darby, L. A., & Skelly, W. A. (2005). Comparison of muscle force production using the Smith machine and free weights for bench press and squat exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(1), 169-176.