5 Best Smith Machine Squat Alternatives (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 30, 2022

In fitness circles, it is quite well established that squatting with the smith machine is a rather poor idea. The risk of injury is quite significant, and many exercisers will find that it is extremely uncomfortable in comparison to other squat variations.

Fortunately, there are dozens of possible alternative exercises that can more than surpass the smith machine squat in safety and effectiveness.

For the most part, exercisers will wish to substitute the smith machine squat with its closest free weight alternative; the barbell back squat.

In the event that this is infeasible, several other alternatives like the machine-based leg press or the dumbbell lunge - just two of many alternatives that can possess quite a few advantages over the smith machine squat.

Why Should the Smith Machine Squat be Alternated Out?

The main reason why the smith machine squat should be substituted is simple; it is an unsafe and disadvantageous exercise.

This is due to the fact that the barbell of the smith machine is locked into a single line of motion, also locking the exerciser themselves into this line by extension. 

smith machine squat benefits

When an individual executes a squatting movement, their body will move through multiple planes as they thrust the pelvis backwards and push the chest outwards so as to maintain spine neutrality alongside a number of other vital form cues.

Such cues are otherwise impossible to adhere to when performing a smith machine squat, greatly increasing the risk of injury and robbing the exerciser of much of the training stimulus that would be induced with non-smith machine alternatives.

How to Pick the Right Smith Machine Squat Alternative

Though there are quite a number of possible alternatives to the smith machine squat, being able to pick the right one will involve matching these alternatives to the specific use-case of the exerciser, as well as picking an alternative that meshes best with their training program.

Muscles Worked by the Smith Machine Squat

The smith machine squat works the muscles of the quadriceps femoris, the hamstrings, the glutes and the hip flexors - all muscle groups that any proper alternative exercise should also be capable of targeting.

smith machine squat

Furthermore, exercisers substituting with another exercise may wish to pick one that will include the core musculature as well.

Intensity

In order to retain the projected recovery aims of the lifter’s training program, picking a substitute exercise of similar or slightly greater intensity may prove quite effective.

Compound movements utilizing near-maximal loads or relatively intense amounts of repetition volume per set are the ideal, though exercisers finding smith machine squats to be too taxing can instead opt for somewhat less intense exercises with lower levels of resistance or fewer sets.

Exerciser Compatibility

Individual differences between exercisers should also be accounted for when selecting a smith machine squat alternative. 

Factors like personal preference, bodily proportion differences, a history of injuries and what sort of equipment is available to the exerciser are all relatively small matters that should be included when making the decision on which exercise to perform.

Certain exercises like the barbell squat or dumbbell lunge will require different equipment that may not be available to the exerciser, or otherwise aggravate injuries sustained by the exerciser in the past.

Smith Machine Squat Alternatives

1. The Main Candidate - Barbell Squats

The quintessential lower body exercise, barbell squats are arguably the most effective alternative to the smith machine squat. 

barbell full squat

This is because of the freer movement made possible by the usage of a barbell, as well as the fact that barbell squats far surpass smith machine squats in terms of effectiveness at muscular recruitment. 

Barbell squats are considered essential in nearly every bodybuilding or strength-building training program, and is otherwise the most suitable substitute to the smith machine squat - that is, barring any history of injuries or lack of equipment on the part of the lifter.

This Alternative is for:

The barbell squat is the best alternative for serious lifters wishing to build lower-body strength and power, as well as individuals that wish to retain the general muscular recruitment and movement pattern of the smith machine squat while foregoing its usual disadvantages.

How-to:

To begin performing a repetition of the barbell back squat, the exerciser will load a moderate to heavy amount of weight onto a racked barbell.

Then, stepping beneath the barbell and placing it against the back of the neck or atop the shoulders, the exerciser will unrack the bar and step into the clear space of the rack.

Setting the feet wider than hip-width apart, the exerciser will push their chest out, flex their core, and bend simultaneously at the hips and knees, thereby lowering themselves until their hip-crease is parallel with their knee joint.

Then, pushing through the heels and thrusting the pelvis forward, the exerciser will rise back to their original standing position, completing the barbell squat repetition.

2. The Leg Press Machine

Another classic exercise among bodybuilders, the leg press is a low-impact compound leg exercise that acts as an excellent alternative to the smith machine squat due to the similarities in muscular recruitment, despite the fact that the leg press is considered to be far safer than the latter exercise.

leg press

Though the leg press machine shares the same disadvantages as other machine-based exercises, it is nonetheless quite effective at placing great resistance and volume of the quadriceps, hamstring and glute muscle groups of the lower body - all while keeping the exerciser safe by way of multiple safety mechanisms and an inverted angle of resistance.

This creates a smith machine squat alternative that possesses enough similarities to allow for a direct 1:1 substitution of volume and programming while foregoing many of the former exercise’s issues.

This Alternative is for:

The leg press machine is a suitable alternative for exercisers that wish to retain the machine-based nature of the smith machine squat while allowing a freer range of motion and movement.

Additionally, the leg press machine can also be used as a smith machine squat substitute in the event that the latter exercise is programmed as an accessory or secondary compound exercise within the workout - a role perfectly suited for the leg press.

How-to:

To perform a repetition of the leg press exercise, the exerciser will load a moderate amount of weight onto the machine and sit within it, pressing their feet against the plate ahead of them.

Disabling the safety mechanisms with their hands, the exerciser will then bend slowly at the knees, angling their toes outwards so as to achieve a more advantageous leg angle.

Allowing the weight to bend their knees until reaching a full range of motion, the exerciser will then drive their heels into the plate, pushing the weight back to its original elevation at the start of the repetition. Avoid full extension of the knees, as this may result in injury.

Once this point is reached, the repetition has been completed.

3. Barbell Front Squats

A barbell squat variation that places the weight in front of the lifter’s torso rather than atop it, barbell front squats are more quad-centric than the majority of smith machine squat alternatives - thereby matching it in terms of muscular recruitment intensity.

front squat

Furthermore, the weight utilized in the barbell front squat is quite similar to that of the smith machine squat due to the disadvantageous angle of resistance, resulting in the same amount of pressure being placed on the lower body, albeit in a less injurious manner.

This Alternative is for:

The barbell front squat is an excellent alternative to the smith machine squat for lifters that wish to place greater focus on their quadriceps femoris, or those that wish to limit the amount of resistance needed to complete the exercise.

How-to:

To perform a repetition of the barbell front squat, the exerciser will load a low to moderate amount of weight onto a racked barbell and unrack it atop their chest shelf, bending at the elbows and wrists so as to secure it against the clavicular area.

4. Dumbbell Lunges

A lower-impact compound leg exercise that primarily works one side of the body at a time, dumbbell lunges are an excellent alternative to the smith machine squat for exercisers seeking a more dynamic and hip-flexor focused exercise to perform.

dumbbell lunges

Though dumbbell lunges are not as effective at building lower body power as other exercises in this article, they are nonetheless exceptional in terms of functionality and specificity of stimuli - so much so, in fact, that they are frequently included in athletic training programs of all disciplines.

This Alternative is for:

Dumbbell lunges are the correct choice for a smith machine squat alternative if the exerciser wishes to improve their athletic performance or otherwise reinforce the muscles of their hip flexors and quadriceps femoris.

Furthermore, due to the rather low-impact nature of dumbbell lunges, they remain among the safest lower body compound exercises available, far outclassing the smith machine squat in terms of low risk of injury.

How-to:

To perform a repetition of dumbbell lunges, the exerciser will grip a pair of dumbbells in each hand and stand with their feet set at a natural distance apart.

Taking one large step forward while planting the other behind, the exerciser will lower their knees and hips simultaneously - stopping one the knee behind the body is parallel with the floor along a horizontal plane.

Driving through the forward leg, the exerciser will then return to the original standing position and repeat the action with the two legs switched in placement.

This completes a repetition of the conventional dumbbell lunge.

5. The Hack Squat Machine

Another machine-based compound leg exercise, the hack squat machine surpasses the smith machine squat in practically every aspect of resistance training - excelling in muscular recruitment, safety, ease of use and general effectiveness as a leg-training movement.

hack squat musculature

The hack squat machine is primarily utilized by bodybuilders and powerlifters for the purpose of training the quadriceps femoris to a significant degree, while also simultaneously recruiting the glute and hamstring muscle groups as secondary mover muscles.

In terms of capacity for loading and volume, the hack squat machine’s positioning allows for both greater resistance than the smith machine squat, as well as a greater volume of repetitions due to the fact that the hip flexors are not placed in as disadvantageous a position.

This Alternative is for:

In the event that other exercises listed in this article are unsuitable or dangerous to perform for the exerciser, it is possible that the hack squat is the most suitable alternative when switching from the smith machine squat.

This is because of the high margin of safety involved in the exercise, as well as the fact that the machine hack squat targets the exact same muscles in the same manner as the smith machine squat, reducing the amount of program alteration needed.

How-to:

To perform a repetition of the hack squat, the exerciser will position themselves within the machine with their shoulders against the pads and their chest facing outwards. The feet should be spaced slightly wider than hip-width apart atop the plate, and the hands should be gripping whatever support handles may be available.

Then, ensuring that the core is braced and the spine is maintained at a neutral angle, they will allow the weight to rest fully atop their body as they bend at the knees, ensuring that the majority of the force is distributed into the plate through the lower body.

Once reaching the bottom of their range of motion, the exerciser will push through the platform using their feet, extending the knees and ensuring that they are pointing outwards. This portion of the repetition ends once the exerciser is back to their original starting position.

And with that, a repetition of the machine hack squat has been completed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is it Worth Doing Squats on a Smith Machine?

Unless used as a low-resistance secondary compound movement, it is far better to avoid performing squats on the smith machine due to the inherent dangers involved in its rigid movement pattern.

Smith machine squats are generally considered to be quite inefficient and disadvantageous, both in terms of risk of injury and relative muscular activation - that is, except for the quadriceps femoris.

If the smith machine squat is programmed in such a way that it is used as a quadriceps-focused accessory movement rather than a primary compound exercise, its usage may be more than justified, and well worth the risk.

Of course, prior to doing so, ensure that your mobility and strength is sufficient enough to safely perform the exercise.

Why do Bodybuilders Squat on Smith Machine?

Certain higher level bodybuilders will choose to squat with a smith machine as it allows for greater quadriceps-focus alongside greater volume in comparison to free weight exercises.

This can help in building thick and muscular quads, but is otherwise less conducive to strength and stability development - as well as the fact that utilizing smith machine squats for this purpose will generally require a higher level of experience in the first place, making their use-case specific in scope.

Are Smith Machine Squats Better than Leg Presses?

Outside of specific situations that call for the smith machine squat, the leg press is generally considered to be better across the board. 

In terms of safety, relative range of motion, posterior chain activation and built-in safety mechanisms, the leg press beats out its smith machine counterpart - especially for newer lifters who have yet to fully maximize their lower body mobility or knowledge of proper exercise mechanics.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it; some of the most efficient smith machine squat alternative exercises available.

Chances are, if you still haven’t found the right substitute exercise for your needs, there is likely one out there - the exercises listed here are geared more towards general physical development and safety, rather than niche requirements like athletic explosiveness or isolated muscle recruitment.

In this case, we encourage you to keep searching, as the smith machine squat is a poor primary compound exercise for a leg workout session.

References

1. Schwanbeck S, Chilibeck PD, Binsted G. A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2588-91. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181. PMID: 19855308.

2. Saeterbakken AH, Olsen A, Behm DG, Bardstu HB, Andersen V. The short- and long-term effects of resistance training with different stability requirements. PLoS One. 2019 Apr 1;14(4):e0214302. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0214302. PMID: 30934001; PMCID: PMC6443166.

3. Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training Jan 2007 M RippetoeL Kilgore - Rippetoe  M., and Kilgore, L. (2007). Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training. Wichita Falls, USA: The Aasgaard Company, 2nd ed. P. 2

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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