smith machine squat alternative
Fitness

10 Great Smith Machine Squat Alternatives

The Smith Machine Squat is a popular exercise to work the quadriceps muscle, especially for beginners. The exercise provides more support for the body thanks to its tracking guides. This, however, robs the body of having to work to stabilizer muscles for balance. This article presents ten alternatives to the Smith squat machine, which provide better muscle recruitment for bigger and stronger muscles.

1. Barbell Squats

Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, Gluteus Maximus

Equipment Needed: Olympic Barbell, Squat Rack

Why It’s A Great Alternative

Regular barbell back squats is the classic quadricep developer and is the exercise that the Smith Machine squat is based upon. Many people consider this to be the king of exercises. There are some definite advantages to going back to the original. When you use a free weight rather than a machine you have to use the muscles of your core, upper back, and legs to balance the weight on your body as you move up and down. That makes the traditional back squats harder, which, in turn, places more stress on your muscles and develops core strength.

The regular barbell squat is one of the best exercises for increasing overall body strength due to muscle activation in the upper well as the leg muscles. The result is greater strength and muscle mass gains, so long as you use proper form. For reduced risk of injury, do the barbell squat inside a power rack or a squat rack.  The regular barbell squat does apply spinal compression. If you are prone to lower back problems, select another squat variation from the list of squat machine alternatives below. 

Performance Steps:

  1. Load an Olympic bar on a squat rack at shoulder height and face the bar, placing both hands shoulder-width apart on it.
  2. Take one step forward and pull yourself under the bar, with feet shoulder-width apart.
  3. Place the bar evenly across the shoulders.
  4. Before lifting the bar off the rack, inhale to expand the lungs and chest. 
  5. Stand erect with your chest filled with air.
  6. Take one or two steps back.
  7. Simultaneously flex slightly at the knees and push your hips back and down, as if you were sitting in a chair.
  8. Maintain control of the weights as you descend into a parallel squat.
  9. Drive your feet through the floor as you push back up, driving your shoulders and chest into the bar.

Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

2. Reverse Lunge

Muscles Worked: Quads, Hamstrings, Gluteus Maximus

Equipment Needed: Olympic Barbell

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The reverse lunge places more focus on the glutes and hamstrings than the smith machine squat. It provides a more natural and fuller range of motion and can be done with minimal equipment, including with bodyweight only. 

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Performance Steps:

  1. Place the bar across your soldiers and stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Move your left leg back behind your body, simultaneously bending your right knee and lowering your hips. Keep your torso upright. Go down until your left knee is at 90 degrees and the right knee is parallel to the floor.
  3. Push through the right thigh to return to the start position, squeezing your glutes as you come back to upright.

Do 2 sets with reps of 15/12/12, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

3. Pistol Squat

Muscles Worked: Quads, Hamstrings, Gluteus Maximus

Equipment Needed: None

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The pistol squat is an advanced exercise that requires plenty of strength and balance. It allows you to work each quadricep individually. It is one of the best moves you can perform for quad strength and size without any resistance (apart from your body weight). You can begin this exercise by holding onto the support if needed. 

Performance Steps:

  1. Stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Raise one leg in front of your body as you push your hips backward and flex the standing leg into a squat. Lift your arms out in front for balance.
  3. Lower the legs as far as possible while keeping the front leg lifted then push back up to the starting position.

Do 3 sets with reps of 10.

4. Leg Extension

Muscles Worked: QuadsEquipment Needed: leg extension machine

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The leg extension is the purest quad exercise that exists. That is because it moves your quads through its ideal biomechanical range of motion, providing excellent isolation of the working muscle. 

Performance Steps:

  1. Sit on the leg extension machine and grasp the handles. Bend your knees and place your ankles under the pads.
  2. Lift your legs until they are parallel to the floor. 
  3. Slowly lower the weight until it nearly touches the machine. Stop a little short of knee lockout.
  4. Lower and repeat.

Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

5. Leg Press

Muscles Worked: Quads, gluteus maximus

Equipment Needed: leg press machine

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The leg press is a quad-dominant exercise that allows you to go very heavy. Just be sure that your ego doesn’t get carried away and you pile on weight without performing full reps.

Performance Steps:

  1. Sit on the leg press machine, lying back against the angled back pad. Place your feet about shoulder-width apart on the platform.
  2. Release the carriage by turning the stop bar out. Bend your knees to lower the weight as your knees travel to the sides of your chest. 
  3. Press the sled up until your legs are nearly locked to return to the starting position.

Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

6. Zercher Squat

Muscles Worked: Quads, gluteus maximus

Equipment Needed: Olympic barbell

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The Zercher squat places the focus on the front quads without compressing the spine. It allows for a more natural range of motion than the Smith Machine squat.

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Performance Steps:

  1. Position a loaded Olympic bar on a squat rack at knee level.
  2. Squat down to the bar and curl your arms under it, placing the bar where your forearms and biceps meet. Keep your head and chest up and your back straight.
  3. Squat the weight up until the legs are locked.
  4. Descend into the squat position.
  5. Push through the heels to return to a standing position.

Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

7. Jefferson Squat

Muscles Worked: Quads, gluteus maximus

Equipment Needed: Olympic barbell

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The Jefferson squat puts the emphasis on the inner quads and the glutes. It is a spinal compression-free version of the squat, making it great for people with pre-existing back problems.

Performance Steps:

  1. Place the bar on the floor and straddle the middle of it.
  2. Squat down and grasp the bar by placing one hand in front of your body and the other behind.
  3. Squat the weight up until the arms and legs are locked. Keep your chest up, back and head straight, and feet flat.
  4. Bend your knees as you lower the bar to return to the starting position.

Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

8. Reverse Hyper

Muscles Worked: Spinal erectors, gluteus maximus, hamstrings

Equipment Needed: Reverse Hyper machine

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The Reverse Hyper is a glute-focused exercise that allows you to safely move your glutes through a full range of motion without compressing the spine. It also does not overload your hips and pelvis.

Performance Steps:

  1. Lie on the reverse hyper machine with the top half of your body over the flat pad. From the waist down, your legs should be hanging off the machine.
  2. Secure a weighted strap around your ankles and grasp the handles.
  3. Squeeze the handles and raise your legs until they are horizontal to the floor or as.
  4. Lower your legs slowly to return to the starting position with control.

Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

9. Bulgarian Split Squat

via Gfycat

Muscles Worked: Quads, gluteus maximus

Equipment Needed: Dumbbells, box or bench

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The Bulgarian split squat combine the benefits of the lunge and the squat without overloading the spine. It also allows you to work each leg unilaterally. This is great for even development of each limb.

Performance Steps:

  1. Facing away from a box, place one foot on the box and the other one forward until it is directly under your hips. Hold a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides.
  2. Start by flexing the leg that is out in front of you, while at the same time pushing the elevated knee toward the floor.
  3. Keep your chest and shoulders upright, going down until the front thigh is parallel to the floor.
  4. Push through the front leg to return to the starting position.
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Do 4 sets with reps of 15/12/10/8, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

10. Glute Bridge

via Gfycat

Muscles Worked: Quads, gluteus maximus

Equipment Needed: Olympic barbell, bench

Why It’s A Great Alternative

The Glute bridge is a glute focused exercise that allows you to achieve full glute extension and then hold that extended position for maximum muscle fiber activation. It is a much safer and more natural way to work your glutes than the Smith Machine squat. 

Performance Steps:

  1. Lie on a bench with your back elevated off the floor and a barbell across your hips. Grasp the bar, with your knees bent and feet flat.
  2. Keeping your hands on the bar, push your feet into the floor and lift your hips upward toward the ceiling until the hips are parallel to your shoulders.
  3. Squeeze the glutes at the top of the movement and hold for 2 seconds before lowering the weight back to the starting position in a controlled manner. 

Do 3 sets with reps of 15 reps.

Conclusion

The Smith Machine squat is a decent assist exercise as a progression toward the barbell squat. However, any of the 10 Smith Machine squat alternatives listed here will provide you with a more quad and glute dominant workout. Choose two or three of these exercises for your leg routine training program and combine them into a leg quivering workout, doing 4 sets of each, working from a light weight for 15 reps to a heavy 6 reps.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should you Squat with a Smith Machine?

No, you should not squat with a Smith Machine if you can use an alternative. The Smith Squat Machine locks you into a single plane of motion, taking away all of the benefits of free weight exercise. The Smith Machine locks your body into a movement pattern that is not natural, increasing your risk of injury.

Is Leg Press Better than Squats?

No, the leg press is not better than squats. Both of these exercises primarily work your quadriceps. With the squat, however, your whole body is moving, so that you engage a lot more muscles. With the leg press, the legs are the only part that moves. There is also a greater risk of unnaturally rounding your back with the leg press. There is also a tendency to use a too heavy weight and only move through a small range of motion. In addition, the leg press locks you into a pre-defined movement pattern. As a result, you should use regular barbell free weight squat rather than any machine exercise as your fundamental movement for your legs.

Which squat alternative exercises focus on 1 leg at a time?

The best non-weight exercise that focuses on one leg at a time is the pistol squat. This is described above. Note that this is a challenging exercise that requires a lot of balance. The best weighted one leg at a time squat alternative is the Bulgarian split squat with dumbbells in your hands.

Steve Theunissen

Steve Theunissen is a former gym owner and personal trainer based in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness, and fat loss.

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