How to Bench Press using a Smith Machine

Sports Nutritionist & Fitness Author
  • Chest, Chest, Compound Exercises
  • Posted 11 months ago

Note: Remember to always consult with a qualified fitness professional if you have any specific concerns or limitations before attempting new exercises including a Smith Machine.

The bench press is a stellar example of a compound exercise, primarily engaging the pectoralis major and minor – your chest muscles.

However, it doesn’t stop there, your shoulders (deltoids) and triceps also join the workforce during this exercise making it a comprehensive upper-body workout. Now, let’s bring the Smith machine into the equation.

This apparatus, with its barbell firmly attached to a guided track, brings an extra layer of stability and control to your bench press.

Unlike a traditional free-weight bench press, the Smith machine restricts the barbell’s path of movement to a fixed vertical line.

This peculiarity offers its own set of advantages and challenges during the bench press, which we shall delve into in the following sections.

Step 1: Set up the Smith Machine

Proper setup is the cornerstone of a safe and effective workout, especially when dealing with weightlifting. It’s like building a house – you wouldn’t start without laying a solid foundation first, would you? The same principle applies here.

Here’s how to set up the Smith machine correctly for a horizontal bench press:

  • Position the barbell at a suitable height: The ideal height allows you to unrack and rerack the weights comfortably, reducing strain on your body and preventing potential injuries. Aim for the barbell to be at about chest level when sitting on the bench.
  • Don’t forget about safety catches: These are your best friends when working out on a Smith machine. They act as an emergency stop, preventing the barbell from dropping too low and causing serious injuries in case you lose control. Make sure they’re securely in place before you start.
  • Set the safety catches just below your range of motion: Adjust them to a point where, if you were to lower the bar all the way to your chest, it would hit the safety catches before touching you.

Remember, the Smith machine isn’t something to fear or avoid, but to use correctly and respect. Take your time, set up correctly, and let’s get ready to bench press safely and effectively!

Step 2: Adjust the Weight

Once you have the Smith machine all set up, choosing the right weight is the next crucial step. This isn’t a guessing game, it’s about understanding your strength levels and choosing a weight that’s challenging yet manageable.

Here’s how to adjust the weight correctly for the bench press on a Smith machine:

  • Start with a lighter weight: If you’re new to the Smith machine or bench pressing, it’s wise to start with a lighter weight. This allows you to get a feel for the movement and concentrate on your technique without stressing about handling a heavy weight.
  • Gradually increase the weight: As you become more comfortable and confident with the movement, gradually increase the weight. Remember, the key word here is ‘gradually’. Don’t jump in weight too quickly as it can lead to poor form or injury.
  • Listen to your body: This is perhaps the most important tip to remember when adjusting the weight on the Smith machine. Your body knows its limits, so listen to it. If a weight feels too heavy or if it’s causing you discomfort, don’t push through it. Instead, lower the weight and focus on maintaining proper form.

Adjusting the weight correctly on the Smith machine will ensure you get the most out of your bench press workout while minimising the risk of injury. Always remember, safety first, progress second.

Step 3: Position Yourself on the Bench

Assuming the correct position on the bench is absolutely vital when performing a bench press on a Smith machine. It enables you to perform the exercise to maximum effect while reducing the risk of injury. Here’s how to assume the correct position:

  • Lie on the bench with your chest facing the bar: Make sure your back is flat against the pad. This stable support helps maintain your posture and protects your spine during the exercise.
  • Place your feet firmly on the floor: Your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. This is your foundation, providing the stability and balance needed when pressing the weight.
  • Arch your lower back slightly: Maintain a natural curve in your lower back. This arch allows for full chest expansion and shoulder mobility, maximising the engagement of your chest muscles in the bench press movement.

Remember, correct positioning on the bench is just as crucial as setting up the Smith machine correctly and choosing the right weight. Take your time to get into position, make sure you’re comfortable, and then you’re ready to begin the bench press.

Step 4: Grip the Barbell

The right grip is a critical component of a successful bench press on a Smith machine. It ensures that you can apply maximum force to the barbell and reduces the risk of injury. Here’s how to grip the barbell correctly:

  • Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip: This means your palms should be facing away from you. This is the most natural grip for a bench press, allowing you to exert maximum power while keeping the stress on your wrists to a minimum.
  • Choose a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart: By gripping the barbell wider than shoulder-width apart, you will engage more of your chest muscles during the bench press. However, be careful not to go too wide as this can put unnecessary strain on your shoulders.
  • Align your wrists with your forearms: This is a crucial point to remember. Ensuring that your wrists are in a straight line with your forearms reduces the risk of wrist injury and allows you to press the weight more effectively.

Remember, the grip is much more than just holding the barbell. It’s about creating a strong connection between your upper body and the barbell, allowing you to press the weight with maximum force and efficiency. Take the time to get your grip right, and you’ll reap the benefits in your bench press performance.

Step 5: Unrack the Weight

The process of unracking the weight is an essential part of a successful bench press on a Smith machine. Proper technique is crucial to ensure safety and effectiveness. Here’s how to unrack the weight properly:

  • Engage your core: Before you even attempt to unrack the weight, make sure your core is engaged. This provides much-needed stability throughout your body, helping to protect your spine and enhancing force production throughout the lift.
  • Push the barbell up with your chest muscles: To unrack the weight, use your chest muscles to push the barbell upwards. Remember to keep your shoulder blades retracted to maintain stability and protect your shoulders from unnecessary strain.
  • Carefully unhook the barbell from the safety catches: Once you’ve pushed the barbell up, you’ll need to carefully unhook it from the safety catches. Do this with caution to avoid any sudden movements, which could lead to injury.
  • Hold the barbell directly above your chest with your arms fully extended: After unhooking, hold the barbell in the starting position, which is directly above your chest. Your arms should be fully extended but not locked out to prevent putting excessive stress on your elbows.

Unracking the weight correctly is a vital step in performing a safe and effective bench press on a Smith machine. Remember to use your muscles, not momentum, to unrack the weight, and always ensure that your body is in a stable and controlled position before you start the exercise.

Step 6: Lower the Weight

Lowering the weight correctly is as integral to a successful bench press on a Smith machine as the other steps. It necessitates a balance of strength, control, and correct breathing technique. Here’s how to lower the weight correctly:

  • Inhale and brace: Before you begin to lower the weight, take a deep breath and brace your core. This not only provides stability but also helps to create a solid base for the lift.
  • Slowly lower the barbell: Begin the movement by slowly lowering the barbell towards your mid-chest. The key word here is ‘slowly’. Faster isn’t better when it comes to this exercise—it’s about control, not speed.
  • Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle: As you lower the barbell, keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body. This helps to maximise chest engagement and reduces the risk of shoulder injury.
  • Maintain control: Throughout the movement, maintain control over the barbell. Don’t let it bounce off your chest or sink into your chest. The barbell should lightly touch your mid-chest at the bottom of the movement.

Lowering the weight correctly and in a controlled manner is crucial to the effectiveness and safety of the bench press on a Smith machine. Remember, it’s not about how fast you can lower the weight, but how well you can control the movement.

Step 7: Push the Weight Back Up

Pushing the weight back up is the final, yet critical step in performing a bench press on a Smith machine. For this movement, concentration on your chest muscles and precise technique is paramount. Here’s how to push the weight back up correctly:

  • Exhale and engage your chest: As you prepare to push the weight upwards, exhale forcefully and engage your chest muscles. This expelling of air will help power the upward movement.
  • Push the barbell upward: Use your chest and arms to push the barbell back to the starting position. It is critical to maintain control over the barbell during this phase to ensure safety and maximise muscle engagement.
  • Keep your arms fully extended but not locked: At the top of the movement, your arms should be fully extended but not locked out. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows can prevent unnecessary strain.
  • Stabilise your shoulders: Throughout the lift, keep your shoulder blades retracted. This is important for maintaining stability, promoting proper form, and protecting your shoulders from injury.

Pushing the weight back up correctly is essential to the overall success and safety of the bench press on a Smith machine. Remember, the key to a great bench press isn’t just about moving the weight; it’s about using the correct technique to engage the right muscles and protect yourself from injury.

Common Mistakes to Avoid when Benching on a Smith Machine

In order to maximise your bench press performance and ensure your safety, it’s crucial to avoid several common mistakes that can hinder your progress and lead to injury:

  • Avoid bouncing the barbell off your chest: This is one of the most common mistakes in bench pressing. Rather than using your chest muscles to press the weight, bouncing the barbell off your chest can lead to a loss of control and potential injury. Always maintain a controlled and smooth movement throughout the entire exercise.
  • Avoid jerking or excessive swinging: Another frequent mistake is the use of jerky movements or excessive swinging to lift the weight. This can result in a lack of muscle engagement and increase the risk of injury. Remember, the bench press is about strength and control, not momentum.
  • Avoid flaring your elbows out too wide: Keeping your elbows flared out too wide can put an enormous strain on your shoulder joints. Instead, aim to keep them at a moderate angle to maximise chest muscle engagement and reduce the risk of shoulder injuries.

Being mindful of these common mistakes and focusing on your technique will not only improve your bench press performance but also enhance your overall safety when using the Smith machine. Make these considerations a habit, and you’ll be on your way to bench pressing like a pro.

Determining the Appropriate Weight and Progression

Determining the appropriate weight is a fundamental step in executing a successful bench press on a Smith machine. It significantly impacts your ability to maintain proper form, maximise muscle engagement, and progressively overload your muscles for continual improvement.

  • Start with a Manageable Weight: Begin with a weight that allows you to perform the exercise with proper form for 8-12 repetitions. This range not only promotes muscular strength and hypertrophy but also allows you to master the technique without risking injury. If you’re new to the bench press, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with just the barbell to familiarise yourself with the movement and establish correct form.
  • Gradually Increase the Weight: As you become stronger and more comfortable with the exercise, you can gradually increase the weight. Remember, the key is to maintain proper technique even as the weight increases. If your form starts to deteriorate, it’s a sign that the weight may be too heavy and should be slightly reduced.
  • Aim for Progressive Overload: Progressive overload is the principle of increasing the demands on your muscles over time to stimulate growth and strength improvements. This can be achieved by increasing the weight used, the number of repetitions performed, or the overall volume of your workouts. Consistent progression is crucial for achieving long-term improvement and avoiding plateaus in your training.

Determining the appropriate weight and progression is a delicate balancing act that requires careful consideration and constant monitoring of your performance and form. Always remember that while increasing the weight is a goal, it should never come at the expense of maintaining proper technique and ensuring your safety.

Modifications for Physical Restrictions: Adapting the Bench Press for Shoulder, Wrist, and Back Issues

If you’re facing physical restrictions due to shoulder, wrist, or back issues, you can still perform a bench press on a Smith machine with some modifications. Remember, the key is to be able to execute the exercise safely and effectively, without causing further discomfort or exacerbating an existing condition.

Adjusting Grip Width for Shoulder and Wrist Issues

Shoulder or wrist problems may require you to modify your grip width when performing the bench press. Here’s how:

  • Wider Grip: If you’re experiencing wrist discomfort, try adopting a wider grip. This adjustment reduces the angle at which your wrist is bent during the exercise, relieving some of the strain.
  • Narrower Grip: For shoulder issues, a narrower grip may be more comfortable. A narrower grip utilises more of the triceps, reducing the demand on your shoulder muscles.

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