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Build muscular thighs with the Smith machine squat

Few exercises divide expert opinion as much as the Smith machine squat. Some coaches love it but others loathe it. But if you’ve always struggled to build big, strong and impressive legs then it’s time to take your lower-body training to the next level with this Marmite move to finally get the results you want, says New Body Plan editor Joe Warner

Building bigger, stronger and athletic legs doesn’t come easy. Even spending hours of training time under the bar in the squat rack may not have given you the impressive pins you want.

And while the classic barbell back squat is one of the very best lifts for developing big and strong legs, you may need to get a bit more creative with your workouts to force your legs to adapt and grow.

For instance, while back squats will build lower body muscle strength, size and power, if you are very tall, or have long legs in relation to your torso, you will always struggle with squats compared to someone who is much shorter and stockier. And if you’ve had ankle, knee, hip or back problems in the past, you may not have the mobility and flexibility, nor the confidence, to squat heavy safely.

It’s why all New Body Plan body transformation programmes include not only the back squat, but also its key variations. These include the front squat, Zercher squat, the leg press and the trap bar deadlift. And the best dumbbell leg exercises including the goblet squat, and different lunge exercises, including the barbell lunge and the reverse lunge.

Another fantastic move for superhero thighs is the Smith machine squat. Yes, the exercise has many haters, for reasons we get into below. But if do the move the right way then it can unlock your lower-body potential so you can get the big, strong and powerful legs you want!

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What is the Smith machine squat?

It’s a barbell back squat done using a Smith machine. Using this machine offers a number of advantages, and some disadvantages, compared with using free weights, such as an Olympic barbell or dumbbells.

What muscles does the Smith machine squat work?

The main muscles worked in Smith machine squats are very similar to to when doing any squat movement, whether that’s a bodyweight squat, dumbbell squat or barbell squat. Your quads, hamstrings and glutes are primary muscles involved in squatting movings. Your lower back and abs are also recruited to stabilse your torso.

The one big difference is that the Smith machine squat doesn’t recruit all the small stabilising muscles in the same way that barbell squats do. The main reason is that because the bar on the Smith machine can only move up or down, the machine itself acts as a stabiliser so those muscles aren’t needed.

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Why don’t some coaches like the Smith machine squat?

The Smith machine squat is something of a Marmite move: some coaches and personal trainers love it, but many others loathe it.

Why do some people dislike the Smith machine for squats? There’s a few reasons. One, the movement pattern is different to when doing barbell back squats. So they claim there’s no, or very limited, crossover benefit from doing squats on the Smith machine to then doing them with a barbell.

Two, your stabiliser muscles aren’t required when Smith machine squatting because the machine acts as the stabiliser for you. You want strong stabilisers to get better at all lower-body lifts, so the lack of stabiliser recruitment when using the Smith machine counts against it.

However, even if the Smith machine squats don’t have huge crossover benefits to doing the barbell squat, nor strengthen your stabilisers, it’s still a great move to build bigger and stronger legs.

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Is the Smith machine squat better than the barbell squat?

It’s never the case that one exercise is inherently “better” than another. The way to look at it is this: all exercises have advantages and disadvantages compared to others. Think of each individual exercise as a different tool in all your toolbox and each one has a very specific use.

Just like using the right tool for the right job, to get the best results possible you should use a wide range of exercises to work your muscles in a variety of different ways to maximise their size and strength potential.

Is the Smith machine squat better than the leg press?

Again, it’s not that one is better than the other. They just have different mechanisms to work your lower-body muscles. The leg press machine, like the Smith machine, stabilises your body so your stabilising muscles aren’t required to the same extent as when squatting with barbells or dumbbells.

But they do allow you to work your legs with a far heavier than is possible with any other bit of weight-training kit. Again, that’s why using a variety of different moves is so important to get the best results possible.

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How do I do the Smith machine squat?

Adjust the Smith machine bar to the correct height.
Add equal weight plates to each side of the bar.
Step into the machine and stand under the bar so it rests across your upper back and rear shoulders.
Stand with your feet between hip-width and shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing forwards or slightly to the sides (your left big toe should point to 10 o’clock on a clock face and your right big toe should point to 2 o’clock).
With your chin and chest up and your abs engaged, unhook the bar then bend your knees to initiate the squat.
Squat down as low as you want or can – ideally so your thighs are below parallel to the ground – pause briefly, then push through your heels to stand back up straight.
That’s one rep.

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