• Photo for Smith Machine triple-threat workout
    Photo Credit: Kevin Caudill

Smith Machine triple-threat workout

By Mitch Rustad

Ready for a quiz, fitness history buffs?

The Smith machine got its name from which of the following:

  1. The Smiths, the '80s British super group led by sad and pouty lead singer Morrissey
  2. One of the 2.5 million people with the last name Smith residing in the U.S.
  3. Randy Smith, an influential fitness figure in the 1970s
  4. All of the above
We're fairly sure the correct answer is 3), but one thing is certain—the Smith machine is your gym's equivalent to one-stop shopping for full-body fitness, an all-in-one, spot yourself workout station that's more flexible than an Olympic gymnast.

And now, courtesy of Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, a sports-performance coach and president of TeamHolland, a fitness consulting company in Greenwich, Connecticut, we bring you this triple-threat, upper-body Smith machine workout. This workout takes full advantage of this classic machine's adjustable bar, but with an unexpected (and for those of you with sore joints, very welcome) twist—no plates required.

All you need is your body weight, lots of intensity, and about 15 minutes to thoroughly nail your chest, back, and arms (biceps and triceps) and leave those exhausted muscle fibers begging for mercy.

"This workout throws a whole new set of stressors on your muscles," says Holland, "and if you're in a rut, this is a great way to shock your body into a new growth spurt."

The Workout
  1. Incline push-ups (see Photo 1): To get started, position the bar on the lowest rung of the Smith Machine. Now perform a set of 12 to 15 (at this stage, slightly inclined) push-ups, with your hands positioned slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Decline push-ups (see Photo 2): Next, reverse positions so your feet rest on the bar and—with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart—do a set of 12 to 15 decline push-ups to hit your upper pecs.
  3. Build the incline (see Photo 3): By now you'll be feeling the burn. Next, raise the bar one notch and repeat the incline push-ups. You should try to do 12 to 15 reps if possible, but the increased incline will make these sets harder, so don't get discouraged if you max out at less than 12 reps.
  4. Build the decline (see Photo 4): Turn over and do another set of decline push-ups.
  5. Add some pull-ups: Next, turn over and hang your upper body below the bar with your back straight, your body facing upwards at an angle, and your heels on the floor in front of the Smith Machine. Do a set of 12 to 15 incline upper-body pull-ups, which will nail both your lats and biceps. Your hands should be facing toward you and shoulder-width apart. Pull your upper body up until your chin is above the bar, then lower yourself until your upper body is hanging and supported by your extended arms. Do a set of 12 to 15 if you can.
  6. Pull-ups second phase: Raise the bar another notch, and repeat the incline pull-up cycle. These will be more challenging, so you may not be able to do the full 12 to 15 reps.
  7. Repeat the cycle: Place the bar at one notch higher than it was for your first set of incline push-ups.
You can experiment with varying your hand position on both the push-up and pull-up phases to focus on specific muscle groups. For example, try close-grip push-ups to emphasize your triceps and wide-grip push-ups to work the outer pecs. When doing the pull-ups, try facing your hands away from you and moving your grip slightly more than shoulder-width apart to focus on your lats. If you're in particularly good shape, try throwing some one-arm Smith machine push-ups into the mix.

The actual height of each notch in the Smith machine will vary by machine, so listen to your body when adjusting the incline—if it seems too steep to maintain your form, take it down a notch; and if it's too easy, bring it up a notch. With each notch on the machine, the bar is being raised—literally. The inclines and declines will get far more challenging with each notch you go up.

If you can get through the entire cycle two times—for a total of 12 sets—you'll look and feel like you've been pumping iron for an hour, and be out of the gym without making a serious dent in your day.

Mitch Rustad is a freelance writer who has written for numerous fitness and health publications, including Men's Fitness, Tennis, and Shape. A former tennis professional, he resides in Manhattan.