Improving the deadlift is one of the best ways to increase your overall strength and add muscle to your frame. Some people may not have access to a standard barbell and weights and choose to stop training the deadlift altogether. However, the Smith machine deadlift is a viable option that allows you to perform the movement safely and still reap the benefits of increased size and strength that deadlifts offer.
So how do you do a Smith machine deadlift? To do a Smith machine deadlift, set the bar at the lowest setting. Stand in front of the bar with a shoulder-width stance. Grab the bar outside of your shins. Lower your hips, and sit back so your shins are vertical and your shoulders are over the bar. Push through your heels from this position to lift the weight.
Without understanding how to deadlift on a Smith machine, you may find yourself losing all of your deadlift gains when forced to train in a gym without deadlift platforms or a barbell and plates.
In this article, I’ll discuss:
- If it is possible to deadlift on a Smith machine
- Muscles worked in a Smith machine deadlift
- How to perform a Smith machine deadlift
- Benefits of Smith machine deadlifts
- Drawbacks of Smith machine deadlifts
- Who should do Smith machine deadlifts
- How to program Smith machine deadlifts
- Alternatives to the Smith machine deadlift
- How a Smith machine deadlift compares to a barbell deadlift
Is It Possible to Deadlift on a Smith Machine?
A common question among new gym-goers and even experienced lifters who don’t use a Smith machine often is, “Can you deadlift on a Smith machine?”
Yes, it is possible to deadlift on a Smith machine. Generally speaking, any movement done with a standard barbell can be done on the Smith machine.
Many gyms don’t have barbells and plates. For example, at a gym like Planet Fitness, a Smith machine deadlift may be the only option available since it doesn’t have barbells. But just because the equipment isn’t ideal doesn’t mean you can’t work on your deadlift.
The Smith machine will change some things about the movement, but many of the basic technique cues for the barbell deadlift will also apply to the Smith machine deadlift. The Smith machine deadlift is a safe and effective deadlift alternative when you don’t have access to any other equipment. It’s also a good option if you just want to add more variety to your routine.
Smith Machine Deadlift: Muscles Worked
One of the reasons that the deadlift is such a great exercise, including the Smith machine deadlift, is because it involves so many different muscle groups. Many people consider the deadlift to be mostly a posterior chain developer, but many other muscle groups are involved when carrying out the movement.
The Smith machine deadlift is a great compound movement for working many muscle groups of both the lower and upper body. The muscles worked in the Smith machine deadlift are the:
- Quadriceps: the quad muscles extend the knee in the bottom portion of the movement.
- Hamstrings: the hamstrings help perform hip extension during the lockout and help bring the hips to the bar. They also help stabilize the knee as the quads extend the knee.
- Glutes: the glutes are the primary hip extensor during the lockout. They help bring the hips closer to the bar. The hamstrings aid them in this movement.
- Erector spinae: the erector muscles run along the outside of the spine. They contract to help keep the spine from rounding in the deadlift. They also help extend the spine to help you stand upright.
- Latissimus dorsi: the main function of the lats in the deadlift is to keep the bar close to the body. Losing contact between the bar and the body can put stress on the lower back.
- Trapezius: the traps help maintain the shoulder position in the deadlift. The shoulders should be in a neutral and slightly depressed (pulled towards the ground) position.
- Rhomboids: the rhomboids, similar to the traps, help to maintain a proper shoulder and upper back position during the deadlift.
- Abdominals: the abdominals play an important role in stabilizing the spine and help prevent hyperextension of the spine.
- Forearms: the flexor muscles of the forearm are used to maintain grip on the bar throughout the deadlift.
- Calves: the calves mainly act to stabilize the body throughout the movement. They help stabilize both the ankle and the knee. There is also some slight plantar flexion (toes moving farther away from the shin) of the foot at the bottom of the deadlift.
For a complete guide on all the muscles worked in the deadlift, check out Deadlift: Muscles Worked (Ultimate Guide).
Smith Machine Deadlift: How To
Performing a proper Smith machine deadlift is different than performing a barbell deadlift. If you’re unsure how to do a deadlift on the Smith machine, follow the steps below.
Step One: Adjust the setting on the Smith machine
Unlatch the Smith machine barbell and set it on the floor or the lowest setting. The bar should rest on the safety catches. To most closely replicate a conventional deadlift with a standard barbell, it is important that the weight is as close to the ground as possible.
Step Two: Find the proper stance
Stand upright in front of the bar with a shoulder-width stance. Your shins should touch the bar.
Most Smith machines have a seven- to 12-degree angle to them, meaning the bar does not travel straight up and down. You want to stand on the side of the bar that angles the bar path toward yourself. Your feet should be pointed straight ahead and parallel to each other or angled out slightly.
Step Three: Grab the bar
Now that your feet are set, you can grab the bar. Bend over and grab the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing yourself) or a mixed grip (one palm facing yourself and the other facing away). Your hands should be just outside of your legs.
Step Four: Lower your hips to get into the starting position
Get into the starting position by bringing your hips down and lowering yourself towards the floor. You should maintain a neutral spine while doing this. Sit low enough so that your shins are parallel to the floor.
Step Five: Push into the ground with your feet and lift the bar while keeping your spine neutral
Keep your chest up and your head straight forward to prevent your shoulders from rounding. Make sure you maintain a neutral spine. Your torso, neck, and head will remain in a straight line throughout the movement. From here, you will begin pulling up. Push up with the bar from the heels of your feet, extending at the knees.
Step Six: Drive your hips forward once the bar reaches your knees
When the bar reaches your knees, you’ll drive your hips forward (extending at the hips) and squeeze your glutes while maintaining a straight spine throughout the full range of motion. Once your knees and hips are locked out, stop the movement. Continuing to lean back can place unwanted stress on the lower back.
Squeeze your glutes and keep your lats and abdominals engaged. Don’t lose tension while your body is under a heavy load. Most deadlift injuries happen because the lifter doesn’t maintain a tight brace in their core muscles. This completes one rep.
Step Seven: Lower the bar and continue
Slowly lower the bar by pushing your hips back and letting the bar slide down your thighs. You will then flex (bend) at the knees to return the bar to the starting position. When the bar is all the way at the bottom, pause and repeat for your desired number of reps. Between reps, you can take your time and ensure you are in the proper position to perform another rep.
If you have trouble deadlifting without hitting your knees, check out How To Deadlift Without Hitting Your Knees (5 Tips).
3 Benefits of Smith Machine Deadlifts
1. Good Option for Beginners
The conventional barbell deadlift can be a difficult movement to perfect. The bottom position is particularly challenging, even for seasoned lifters. It can be hard to learn how to get in a proper starting position and avoid rounding the lower back.
Smith machine deadlift form is much easier to learn than barbell deadlift form. This is mainly because the starting position of the movement is easier to get into. The machine also has a fixed bar path, which helps a beginner lifter move the way they should throughout each rep.
2. Builds Muscle Size and Strength
I already discussed the many muscle groups involved in the Smith machine deadlift. But it is worth repeating that the Smith machine deadlift involves the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, abdominals, and forearms.
Building size and strength in these muscle groups is beneficial for athletic performance and everyday life.
For example, being able to powerfully extend your hips is essential for success in any sporting endeavor. Not only that, but being able to pick things up off the floor is an essential function of daily life.
3. Increase in Bone Density
One of the many benefits of weight training is an increase in bone mineral density. This is especially true of movements that require axial loading, meaning movements that load the trunk. As you load the body, it is forced to respond.
Research has shown that 24 weeks of resistance training utilizing compound movements such as the deadlift can lead to an increase in bone mineral density in both male and female college students.
Since the Smith machine deadlift is also a compound movement (meaning it works multiple muscle groups at the same time), one can assume that it also has a positive effect on bone mineral density.
3 Drawbacks of Smith Machine Deadlifts
1. Decreased Range of Motion
During a Smith machine deadlift, the bar has to rest on the safety catches instead of the ground. This means you’ll begin the deadlift rep from a higher position than on a standard barbell. This can pose a problem if you want your Smith machine deadlift to carry over to a traditional conventional deadlift.
In a conventional deadlift with a barbell, the hardest part (and the most difficult part from a technical standpoint) is the bottom of the lift. You can stand on a box or plates when using a Smith machine to try and mimic the technique of a regular deadlift, but it still isn’t quite the same.
2. Improper Movement Pattern
In a conventional barbell deadlift, the bar should travel straight up and down. You want to keep the bar close to the body the entire time. This helps to keep the movement safe and prevents unwanted strain on the lower back. A straight bar path also ensures you are not wasting any energy and can lift as much as possible.
On a Smith machine, the bar path is often angled. While it is better to have the bar travel toward yourself than it is for it to travel away from your body, neither bar path is ideal. If you are forced to do your deadlift training on a Smith machine, it may be difficult to unlearn this bar path when returning to a standard barbell.
3. Fewer Muscles Are Worked
As discussed, many muscles are involved in the Smith machine deadlift. However, the Smith machine reduces many of the stabilization requirements of the deadlift. The machine helps stabilize the weight and moves the bar on a fixed path. This makes it so certain muscles, particularly the abdominals, do not have to work as hard to steady the weight.
Earlier, I also spoke about the difference in range of motion when using a Smith machine. Less range of motion means less time under tension for each muscle group. Time under tension is a major factor in building muscle. Less time under tension means less muscle damage and less future muscle growth.
Smith Machine Deadlift Mistakes to Avoid
1. Bar Too Far from Shins
How you start a lift affects how you will finish it. When doing a deadlift on the Smith machine, the bar should be right up against your shins. This ensures that you use your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and erectors to move the weight and not your lower back.
Standing too far away from the bar makes it harder to keep a neutral lower back. There is nothing worse for making progress on the deadlift than unexpected injuries.
2. Standing Facing the Wrong Direction
The majority of Smith machines have an angled bar path. If you stand on the wrong side of the bar, the bar will travel farther away from you during your rep.
The bar traveling away from your body will put a lot of stress on your lower back. It will also make it very difficult to squeeze your glutes and bring your hips through at the top to complete the rep.
3. Bouncing the Bar
It is important to keep your ego from getting in the way when using the Smith machine. The machine already shortens the range of motion, making it easier to load a bunch of weight.
Some people try to add even more weight than they should by bouncing the weight off the safety catches. The added momentum allows them to lift far more than they could with proper form.
It is important to remember that you should be in control of the weight at all times. You will get stronger in the long run by keeping tension on the appropriate muscles and using proper technique.
Who Should Do Smith Machine Deadlifts?
People Who Don’t Have Access to a Barbell
The most obvious group of people who should perform Smith machine deadlifts are people that don’t have access to a standard barbell and plates. The deadlift is a great way to develop strength and size in many muscle groups. Without access to certain equipment, the Smith machine is a great way to keep deadlifts in your training.
A Smith machine deadlift is a great option for beginners. It allows them to learn the technique of the lift more easily and helps keep them safe.
People With Poor Mobility
People with mobility issues can benefit from using a Smith machine. Deadlifting on a Smith machine shortens the range of motion and makes it much easier to get into a proper deadlifting position. This allows them to load the muscles and joints involved in a deadlift without risking injury due to a lack of mobility.
People With Injuries
People dealing with injuries may have an easier time deadlifting on a Smith machine than on a regular barbell. There are fewer variables to account for in the bar path, and the body is not required to stabilize the weight as much as in a standard deadlift.
How To Program Smith Machine Deadlifts
Just as with a conventional deadlift with a standard barbell, Smith machine deadlifts can be programmed in various ways. It depends greatly on your performance goals.
If the goal of your current training is to put on muscle size, you should perform a higher number of reps at a lower percentage of your one rep max. Use between 60-80% of your max for sets of 6-12 reps, performing 3-5 sets. Follow this up with another deadlift variation to emphasize weak muscle groups. For example, for weak hamstrings and glutes, do Romanian deadlifts next.
If you are focusing on improving strength, the load should be increased, and the reps should be decreased. Use between 75-90% of your max for sets of 4-6 reps, performing 3-5 sets. Follow this up with another deadlift variation to target your weaknesses, using the same sets and reps.
If you are a competitive powerlifter approaching a meet, or if you are getting ready to test your one rep max, you need to get used to handling near max loads. Use 85-100% of your max for sets of 1-3 reps, performing 3-4 sets. Very few, if any, accessory movements should be used at this point.
It’s also important to train your back sufficiently to build a strong deadlift. Check out our favorite inverted row variations for some exercises to bring up your back strength.
3 Smith Machine Deadlift Alternatives
1. Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift
The Smith machine RDL is a great way to develop strength and size in the hamstrings and glutes. The movement takes emphasis and involvement away from the quads to more greatly focus on the posterior chain.
How To Do a Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift
- Stand on a box or plates behind the bar.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in the knees.
- Grip the bar with palms facing away from you, approximately shoulder-width apart. The bar should be at about the middle of your thighs and directly above the middle of your feet.
- Hinge at the hips while bending at the knees slightly, and maintain a straight back by pulling your shoulder blades together as you lower the bar. You should have a slight bend in the knees, but most of the movement should occur at your hips.
- Lower the bar towards the floor until you feel the maximal stretch in your hamstrings.
- Bring the hips forward, squeeze the glutes, and straighten the knees slightly to return to starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Can’t do Romanian deadlifts? Try one of these alternatives to the Romanian deadlift instead.
2. Smith Machine Rack Pull
The Smith machine is a great way to perform rack pulls because of how easy it is to adjust the bar position. A rack pull is a great way to allow the body to safely handle a lot of weight. It is also a great exercise if you struggle to lock out your deadlifts and if you want to build a strong mid and upper back.
How To Do a Smith Machine Rack Pull
- Adjust the safety catches to just below knee height.
- Stand in front of the bar with a hip-width stance.
- Grab the bar with a double overhand or mixed grip just outside your thighs.
- Pull the bar up by simultaneously driving your hips forward and pushing your chest up. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible throughout the exercise.
- Finish the rep by squeezing your glutes and upper back.
- Lower the weight with a slow and controlled motion.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
3. Smith Machine Good Morning
A good morning is a great movement for training the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It trains many of the same muscles as the Romanian deadlift but does not involve grip strength. This can be a great option for people with arm injuries who still want to train a deadlift-like movement. It is also a good option if your grip is already taxed from other exercises.
How To Do a Smith Machine Good Morning
- Set the bar height to where you would normally squat from.
- Set the safety catches to waist height so you can set the weight on the safeties in case something happens.
- Assume a hip-width stance, bend your knees slightly, and place the barbell across your rear delts.
- Lower your torso toward the floor by pushing your hips backward until your torso is almost parallel to the floor.
- Return to the starting position by squeezing your glutes and bringing your hips forward.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
How Does a Smith Machine Deadlift Compare to a Barbell Deadlift?
There are three important differences between a barbell deadlift and a Smith machine deadlift: the bar path, whether or not the plates touch the ground, and the muscles worked.
Fixed Bar Path
The fixed bar path on the Smith machine changes how you perform the movement.
On a barbell deadlift, the bar should travel straight up and down. There shouldn’t be any wasted movement forward and back.
On a Smith machine, the bar path is usually angled by seven to 12 degrees. This means that as you deadlift with the Smith machine, the bar will keep getting closer to you. This can cause you to hyperextend at the low back to allow max room for the bar to continue moving upward.
Plates Not Touching the Ground
The plates do not touch the ground on the Smith machine. This affects the starting height of the deadlift. This also means less range of motion, which can affect how your muscles respond to the exercise and could lead to less muscle growth. You can avoid this to some degree by deadlifting off of a box or plates to increase the range of motion.
The most important comparison, however, is that both exercises work the same muscles. Both variations of the deadlift work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, abdominals, and forearms.
Some of those muscles will be worked slightly less on a Smith machine since the machine stabilizes the weight for you, but it is still a good exercise.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Okay to Do Deadlifts on a Smith Machine?
Yes, it is okay to do deadlifts on a Smith machine. Smith machine deadlifts will change the technique and starting position of the lift, but it is still a good movement because it will develop strength and build muscle in the lower body.
Is a Deadlift on the Smith Machine Better Than a Deadlift With a Barbell?
No, most people would not consider a Smith machine deadlift to be better than a barbell deadlift. A barbell deadlift allows more range of motion. Barbell deadlifts also require the body to stabilize the weight, which works the involved muscles more than a Smith machine deadlift.
Is a Smith Machine Deadlift the Same as a Barbell Deadlift?
No, a Smith machine deadlift is not the same as a barbell deadlift. A Smith machine is on a fixed bar path, which is also angled. During a barbell deadlift, you must control the bar path on your own, and it should be straight up and down. The starting position and range of motion differ between the movements as well.
The Smith machine gets a lot of hate from gym-goers, but there are times when deadlifting with a barbell simply isn’t possible. While a Smith machine deadlift differs from a barbell deadlift in many ways, it is still a beneficial movement.
A Smith machine deadlift still trains all of the muscles involved in a barbell deadlift. There is less range of motion and fewer stability requirements, but it is much better to train the deadlift on a Smith machine than not at all.
If you are a powerlifter, you should probably find somewhere else to train if all you have to deadlift on is a Smith machine. For everyone else, however, a Smith machine is a perfectly good piece of equipment to deadlift on.
About The Author
Derek Reasch is a strength and conditioning coach with experience coaching at the Division I, Division II, and NAIA levels. Previously, he worked as a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. He holds a Master’s in Kinesiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. As a competitive powerlifter, he has achieved an elite total in several weight classes. He currently is focused on his online coaching and apparel business, Reaschmode Athletics.