Smith machine squats vs barbell squats

Squats are one of the most effective exercises for building muscle and strength in your lower body. They are one of the three compound movements alongside the bench press and deadlifts that can have benefits in everyday life outside of the gym.

There are numerous squat variations ranging from foot position to barbell position to target the quads and glutes in different ways.

woman doing smith machine squats in blue leggings
woman in lower end of barbell squat

Two squat variations —Smith machine squats and barbell squats—are great for building leg muscle mass and strength.

Muscles involved

The lower body muscles targeted in a squat include:

  • gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius (buttocks)
  • quadriceps (front of the thigh)
  • hamstrings (back of the thigh)
  • adductor 
  • hip flexors
  • calves

In addition to the lower body, the squat also targets your core muscles. These muscles include the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae.

Why do smith machine squats?

The smith machine can be used as an alternative exercise to the barbell squats for developing the quadriceps and gluteus maximus.

woman in starting position of smith machine squats
woman doing smith machine squats in blue leggings

The smith machine squat can be a great addition to your daily workout routine. The barbell moves on steel runners with safety stops which is great for beginners and those wanting to work on technique and good form.

Steps to do smith machine squats

  • Rest the bar on your lower trapezius and rear shoulders. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and several inches in front of your hips
  • Grab the bar with a wide, evenly spaced grip and unrack the weight— the bar will need to be rotated slightly to unhook the locking mechanism.
  • With your head up and abdominals tight, begin by bending at your knees and squatting towards the ground.
  • Lower yourself until your thighs are just below parallel to the floor.
  • Drive yourself up until you are in a standing position.
  • Do not lock your knees.
  • Repeat the movement until you’ve completed your desired number of reps. Re-rack the bar by twisting the hooks and putting it back on its post.

Why barbell squats?

The barbell back squat is a simple exercise. It is referred to as the “king of lifts” and one of the best lower body exercises.

woman standing in squat rack with barbell on upper back for barbell squats
woman in lower end of barbell squat

Performing the barbell squat requires you to keep the weight over your center of gravity, engage your core and stabilizer muscles. This means more muscle fibers are used than on the Smith machine, where less support is needed from stabilizer muscles.

Steps to do barbell squats

  • Stand in the squat rack with the bar against your upper back/shoulders and your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Un-rack the barbell and walk it out.
  • Make sure your shoulder blades are retracted and your core is braced before starting to lower yourself.
  • Bend at knees and hips until your thighs are parallel with the ground.
  • Explode upwards from the bottom to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps — reset your bracing at the top if required..

Smith machine and barbell squat variations

You can do the same smith machine squat variations as free weight barbell variations. The squat variations include:

  • Back squats
  • Front squats
  • Split squats
  • Sumo squats
  • Zercher squats

Smith machine squats vs barbell squats: What are the differences?

woman doing smith machine sumo squats
woman doing smith machine sumo squats

The significant difference between the barbell squat and the Smith machine squat is how far you can bring your feet in front. With the barbell, there is only one position—feet directly under the bar. In contrast, the Smith machine follows a fixed path, thereby removing the need to balance it, so you can bring your feet out to various distances.

The farther in front of the bar the foot placement the more emphasis on glutes and hamstrings and less on the quads. When your feet are directly under the bar, you will work your quads more.

Smith Machine squats vs barbell squats: advantages and disadvantages

Smith squats and free-standing barbell squats have their advantages and disadvantages.

The smith squat helps balance the weight for you, and so performing the exercise becomes easier and less strength is required overall. This can lead to improper form and a weaker lower back which over time could result in injury.

One reason many use the Smith machine is to train the legs without placing more stress on the lower back.

Free weight barbell squats will be working harder at moving the weight since you are using your own stabilizer muscles and not getting help from a machine to balance the weight for you.

This will help strengthen your lower back and core muscles while increasing overall body strength.

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