To build the best legs possible, one needs the best exercises at their disposal. One such exercise, though criminally overlooked, is the smith machine front squat. Because of its accessibility, effectiveness, and overall safety- it can help guide lifters to larger quads and more well rounded thighs. In this article we’ll dive into the exercise, how to perform it, and some great alternatives to incorporate into your workout.
To start, we should talk about the front squat itself. The front squat is a squat variation performed while balancing the barbell across the collarbone. This in effect engages a few muscles of the upper body while primarily working the muscles of the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Because of the skill and coordination required to perform this exercise, it is best for those with greater upper body strength and mobility. It is also important to have excellent wrist flexibility due to the irregular grip needed to hold the barbell in place. The smith machine provides some support during the lift, however it’s still necessary to have great posture and proper form.
Smith Machine Front Squat: Muscles Worked
Before performing smith machine front squats, it’s important to understand which muscles it works in the first place. With a wide variety of lower body exercises (in addition to stances) there are a plethora of different muscle combinations different lower body exercises can stimulate. Knowing the difference can help you develop a w lol balanced physique in the long run. So without any further delay let’s jump into it.
It’s virtually impossible to approach any squat variation without targeting the quadriceps to some degree. The quadricep dominant muscle group of the anterior thigh made up of four individual muscles:the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, rectus femoris. They originate from the upper pelvis (specifically the anterior superior iliac spine) and insert at the distal end of the tibia, right above the kneecap. This group of muscles are responsible for hip flexion and the majority of actions produced by the legs. As you squat, the quadriceps stretch under the shear weight of the barbell during the eccentric phase.
The erectors refers to the muscles of the lower back closest to the pelvis. These muscles insert at the sacrum and travel all the way up the back to the base of the skull. They include the iliocostalis, the spinalis, and the longissimus. Because of the distribution of weight during the front squat, the torso is vertically aligned than other variations like the back squat. Due to this the muscles of the lower back fight to keep the torso upright while keeping the barbell fixed over the body’s center of gravity.
As the bar rests in front of the body, the abs in addition to the erectors fight to keep the torso upright. The diaphragm and the deep muscles of the core contract, applying pressure on the spine to keep it as upright and stable as possible. This happens throughout the exercise in both the lowering and extension phases of the exercise.
The glutes serve as the largest muscle group of the posterior chain. When the hips begin to hinge at the start of the front squat, the glutes help to glide the hips backwards as the torso goes down.
Benefits of the Smith Machine Front Squat
Activates Virtually The Same Muscles As Back Squats
With all types of information and exercise bias floating around, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that one type of squat is simply better than the other. Many also believe that because of the back squat’s heavier load, muscle activation is much higher when compared to exercises like the front squat.
However according to Gullett et al., there may not be much of a difference. While observing the possible differences of front and back squats on muscle activation, they came across some interesting conclusions. Despite lifting 19 kg more during the the back squat (both being the relative 70% of 1RM), there was no significant differences in muscle activation in the quadriceps, hamstrings, or erector spinae during both exercises.
Front Squats Are A Safer Choice For The Knees
For gym-goers who have suffered from knee injuries or discomfort may find smith machine squats a safer choice. For one the smith machine is an assisted piece of equipment, which takes some of the resistance off of its users. However the front squat according to several studies is in and of itself better for the knees (smith machine or not).
In one study researchers found that while there were no significant differences in sheer force between the front and back squat, compressive forces were much higher when performing back squats(1). Essentially the front squat may be a more efficient choice for maximizing overall muscle recruitment while minimizing compressive force on the patellofemoral joint.
They Help Improve Olympic Lift Performance
Over time research has shown that Olympic lifts have correlated with many improvements in sports performance such as the vertical jump and sprints. There has also been a positive link between front squat 1RM and hang power clean performance specifically.
The technique, strength and body positioning needed to master front squats assist in shoulder reception and vertical acceleration during power cleans and other related Olympic lifts.
Bar Placement Of The Front Squat
How one holds the barbell is crucial to perform the front squat correctly and with good form. There are a few options at your disposal, however the one you choose will depend on which you find comfortable. Many practitioners find the front squat grips awkward at first, but with patience and practice it will begin to feel natural.
The Clean Grip
This grip takes after the hand placement used specifically during the catching phase of a power clean. With the barbell resting on your collarbone, grip under the bar with your fingertips on the outer edges of your shoulders. From this position raise your elbows so that your triceps are parallel with the floor.
Maintain this position throughout the entire set. Keep in mind that this hand position can cause wrist pain if you lack mobility in the region. Also if you happen to have poor shoulder mobility or large biceps, this grip may not be ideal.
The Cross Grip
The cross grip is another commonly used variation. As the bar rests on your clavicle, fold your arms while touching opposite shoulders. The upper arm should again be raised so that it is parallel with the floor. This grip won’t pose any problems to the wrists and is quite easy to master, however it might feel a little unstable balancing the barbell on the collarbone.
The Clean Grip With Straps
This method may not be necessary because of the stabilizing properties of the smith machine, but it’s still quite useful. This grip is just as it sounds; you’ll rest the bar on your collarbone and set up your hands and arms like that of a typical clean- however using two straps you’ll wrap them under the bar and hold them for stability. Ideally you’ll want the straps to remain shoulder width apart and hold them as close to the bar as possible.
This method is the best middle ground for those who prefer the clean grip but lack the grip mobility to do it comfortably. Even if you don’t have the straps at your disposal, they can be easily supplemented with a shirt or towel, also making them a very versatile grip option.
Smith Machine Front Squat Step-By-Step
- choose a weight that works for you and adjust the smith machine so the bar is level with your collar bone.
- keep your feet hip width apart and your feet pointing forward in front of the knees.
- decide the grip and hand placement you prefer, and once set up release the barbell from it’s resting position.
- once released allow the bar to effortlessly glide downward along with your torso. To execute with good form, squeeze the muscles of the core while keeping your back straight.
- point your chest high and keep your shoulders packed so the barbell rests securely on your collarbone throughout the set.
- bend your knees and sit into the squat until your thighs are or a little past parallel to the floor.
- hold the position briefly at the bottom of the movement. Guide the barbell and your torso back to the starting position by extending your legs.
- at the top of the movement, keep a slight bend in your knees to keep constant tension on the quads. Repeat the process for as many reps are necessary.
Smith Machine Front Squat Alternatives
The smith machine is a versatile piece of equipment that can build the lower body in many ways. While the front squat is an excellent place to start, there are a few options that can build the muscles of the legs like the exercises below. Both of these alternatives are single leg exercises, this can have its advantages. For one it specifically allows for improving assymmetries in strength and musculature of the lower body. They also help develop better balance and stability through unilateral movement.
Smith Machine Split Squat
- a good way to find proper footing is by getting a nice 90 degree angle in both your lead leg and back leg. The distance it creates between the two legs should be comfortable enough for traveling vertically, though staggering them closer together may feel more natural to you.
- stand as tall as possible at the smith machine with the barbell resting on your upper traps and shoulders. With the feet hip width apart, take a decent step forward with your right leg. The distance will vary from person to person, but a general rule is when bending both knees, they should create a 90 degree angle at the bottom of the movement. Keep the toes pointed forward with a strong arch beneath your lead leg.
- keeping your chest and torso upright, begin lowering your body into a squatting position. Continue to lower yourself until your back knee makes contact with the floor.
- at the lowest position you should feel the majority of the contraction in your lead quadricep and glute. This is because while in the lowering phase about 80-90% of your bodyweight should be on the lead leg. After briefly pausing at the bottom, return to the starting position by straightening both legs and extending the knees. Stay in a staggered stance at all times until you complete the entire set.
Smith Machine Lunges
Now you may be reading this and wondering what the difference is between a smith machine slit squat and a smith machine lunge? This is a valid question considering the two are virtually identical. The main difference between the two is the foot placement. During the smith machine lunge (and other variations) the lead foot is moving, either forward or backwards. The split squat’s emphasis however is on keeping both feet stationary.
- begin in a standing position with your feet hip width apart.
- take a step forward so that your leading leg is a few inches ahead of your torso and back leg. Keep your lead foot flat while making contact with the ground. It’s natural if your back foot heel starts to rise off the floor.
- bend your knees and lower your body until both legs create a 90 degree angle. While lowering your body keep your torso and core upright and engaged.
- once the back knee has reached the floor, return to the starting position by taking your lead leg and stepping it back underneath your torsos to its original place. Alternate legs and repeat this process for as many reps as possible.