How To Use A Smith Machine

When you hit the gym for the first time, there are a lot of daunting exercise machines to familiarize yourself with, but none are more intimidating than the mighty Smith machine. 

Typically standing around 7 feet tall and 6.5 feet wide, it’s tempting to give this imposing monster a miss, at least until you’re more at peace with this new environment.

How To Use A Smith Machine

But being that the Smith machine is a fantastic apparatus for beginners, if you want to optimize your workout sessions, it’s important to bite the bullet and learn how to use it.

So, let’s put our apprehensions to one side, face this beast head-on, and discuss how it can be tamed!

What Is A Smith Machine?

The Smith is a large exercise machine with an integrated straight bar and rack system designed to help with weighted workout moves.

Whether you want to blast out a few shoulder presses, work on your bench, or fire off a few weighted squats, the Smith machine is the perfect apparatus for you.

Why Is The Smith Machine So Great For Beginners?

It doesn’t matter if you’re adding some extra lbs onto bodyweight exercises or going for some straight-up gun-galvanizing lifts, using a free bar requires a lot of balance and core strength, things that you may not have developed if you’re just starting out.

On a Smith machine, the bar is locked into a vertical track in the frame that supports you during up/down movements.

This excess support combined with the built-in rack system also means you don’t necessarily need to have a gym buddy (which you might not have yet) spot you, as you can deactivate the bar easily on your own when you’re done lifting. 

What’s more, if the Smith machine in your gym has safety tabs, it’s impossible for you to drop the bar past a certain point, again, eliminating the need for a spotter as your exercise.

How Does The Rack System Of A Smith Machine Work?

I know you’re probably eager to pump some iron, but before you dive straight in with some exercises, it’s important to learn how to use the rack of the Smith machine. It won’t take long — the Smith machine is a deceptively simple instrument!

There are two main types of a rack on a Smith machine. One is a sequence of symmetrical teeth running along both sides of the frame that you can hook the bar onto.

The other uses a sequence of pegs that can be latched on to using hooks fitted to each end of the bar.

In most cases, to free the bar from the rack, all you have to do is to twist (not pull) the bar away from the rack whilst lifting it up.

To set the bar back onto the rack, simply twist the bar towards the rack and slide it either over the teeth and into the supporting recess, or latch the hook onto a pair of the pegs.

How To Use The Safety Tabs On A Smith Machine

How To Use The Safety Tabs On A Smith Machine?
The safety tabs on a Smith machine are essentially a pair of spring stoppers attached to blocks that can be hooked onto the rack at a level of your choosing.

Should you lose form and accidentally drop the bar, it will only fall as far as the safety tabs, where the springs will cushion the impact and bring the bar to a standstill.


Safety tabs can usually be found at the base of the tracks that allow the bar to run up and down.

To use them, simply pull them up to the desired level, then hook the blocks over the teeth or onto the pegs (depending on the style of Smith machine you’re dealing with).

Can I Set Up A Smith Machine In My Home?

If you have an in-home workout zone with plenty of space for a new addition, there’s no reason you can’t bring a Smith machine into the equation.

Granted, they can cost a pretty penny, but considering the money you’ll be saving on gym memberships, it’ll pay for itself eventually.

If that sounds good to you, I recommend checking out this guide to the best home smith machines that you can get for your home gym. 

The Marcy Smith Cage Workout Machine is also one that I recommend. I’ve had the pleasure of using this machine a number of times. The bar track feels buttery smooth, it’s a 100% steel construction, heavy enough to free stand (no bolting to the floor required), and it comes with all the trimmings, i.e. a footplate for seated rows, a bench, and tons of accessories.

3 Awesome Exercises You Can Give A Try Using A Smith Machine

The Smith machine can be used for a ridiculous amount of moves, far too many to tack on to the tail-end of this article, so I’ll just run through a few of my all-time favorites.

Bench Press

Using a Smith machine for benching is all about setting the bench up in the perfect position.

To do so, estimate where the bench should be beneath the machine, then do a trial run before placing any weight plates on the bar. The bar should fall straight across the chest at nipple level.

Back Squat

Back squats with a free bar take a lot of core balance to pull off, but with a Smith machine, you can focus purely on form and work muscles that would otherwise be neglected.

Donkey Kicks

Here’s something you can’t do with free bars, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great way of isolating your glutes. To do some donkey kicks, Smith-style …

  • Set the bar low on the rack
  • Get on all fours with your forearms down for stability.
  • Place your foot under the center of the bar.
  • Twist it (if you can) to un-rack it.
  • Flex your leg until your knee is about 2 inches from the floor.
  • Push into your heel to lift the bar as high as you can.
  • Repeat

Final Thoughts

The Smith machine may look sort of like a medieval torture device, but it’s really not that scary.

In fact, if you’re just starting out at the gym or perhaps working a muscle group for the first time, it’s your best friend. 

My advice — instead of avoiding the Smith machine at your local gym, acquaint yourself with the design as soon as possible, so you can use it with confidence, and start making some epic gains!

Kevin Harris
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