Overcoming Your Fear of the Smith Machine

woman lifting weights at the gym
The Smith machine can be used for almost any weightlifting exercise, such as the simple squat.

by Mary Lambkin

If you've found yourself shying away from the seemingly complex contraption known as the Smith machine — you're not the only one! It can be one of the most intimidating pieces of gym equipment for newcomers. But it's actually a great choice for beginner and seasoned gym-goers alike, with a ton of options for safe, effective workouts.

Tackling a Smith machine workout may seem scary at first, but after trying a few simple movements and familiarizing yourself with how it works, you'll be able to approach this equipment with a newfound sense of confidence.

Benefits of the Smith Machine

The Smith machine can be used to work all muscle groups and modify any basic weightlifting movement. Many of the exercises you'd complete in the weights area — from a squat to a shoulder press — can be completed on the Smith machine.

The main benefit of using the Smith machine is that it includes safety and stabilization features that can help you push your limits with less fear. The ridged safety hooks along the bar serve as "spotters" that can relieve you if you need a rest during the middle of a movement. Additionally, the bar remains fixed along the machine's sliding plane of motion, reducing your risk of dropping it to one side and helping concentrate the focus of each exercise on the intended muscle group.

Smith Machine Exercises

A Smith machine workout can be highly efficient compared to other workouts. Instead of having to switch from machine to machine, you can complete a full-body workout all at once with a single piece of equipment!

Before you undertake a Smith machine workout, make sure you have plenty of extra weights and benches available so that you can quickly adjust the machine between exercises. Afterward, complement your strength training with some cardio work so you maintain a well-rounded fitness routine. Here are a few beginner exercises to try during your next gym visit.

Smith Machine Squat

Start with no weight on the bar. Stand with feet at shoulder-width distance and grip the bar at a distance slightly past your shoulders, resting it comfortably across the top of your upper back.

Now slowly lower yourself to the squat position (your legs should form 90-degree angles and your thighs should be parallel with the floor) and raise yourself back up to a standing position. Once you're comfortable with the basic movement, you can add weight to the bar. If you overload the bar and can't complete a rep, quickly lock the safety hooks by rotating the bar forward.

Smith Machine Bench Press

Start with no weight on the bar and place a flat bench beneath it. Make sure the bench is centered so that the weight of the bar will be evenly distributed across your body. Then lower the bar and lock the safety hook in place at about an arm's length higher than the bench. This will allow you to lay on the bench and easily hold onto the bar above you.

When you feel ready, lay down on the bench with your back straight and the bar located above the middle of your chest. Grip the bar, making sure that your hands are a little wider than shoulder-width distance. Now lower the bar toward your chest, with your elbows flared out and back straight. Raise the bar back up until your arms are almost completely straight, and repeat. Once you are comfortable with the movement, add weight to the bar. If you overload the bar and can't complete the movement, simply lock the safety hook in place and slide off of the bench.

Smith Machine Shoulder Shrugs

This simple movement will challenge your upper back and shoulders. Start with no weight on the bar, and stand close behind it with your knees slightly bent. Lower the bar slightly past your hips and hold it with an overhand grip with your hands shoulder-width apart. Make sure your body is centered within the machine and your hands are equidistant from the lines on the bar.

Keeping your elbows straight, shrug your shoulders up and down as you lift the bar slightly. Repeat the movement, feeling your shoulder blades come together with each repetition. Once you are comfortable with the exercise, add weight to the bar. If you get tired or can't complete a full shrug, just lock the safety hook in place and rest.

Now that you have some basic knowledge of the Smith machine and some exercises to try, you can enjoy all it has to offer! As always, please consult with a physician prior to beginning any exercise program. See full medical disclaimer here.