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Can You Do Deadlifts on a Smith Machine? Your Questions Answered

deadlift barbell vs smith machine

The Smith machine deadlift is a hidden gem in weight training. It may seem different from your typical deadlift, but it offers an opportunity to build strength, skill, and muscle. What's even more appealing is its accessibility – you can find a Smith machine in nearly every commercial gym.

Understanding the Smith machine is essential. Unlike a free-moving barbell, it operates within a fixed range of motion. This characteristic simplifies learning and executing exercises like the Smith machine deadlift.

In this article, we'll explore the world of Smith machine deadlifts vs. classic deadlifts and provide you with insights on how to do it safely and effectively.

Smith Machine Deadlifts vs. Barbell Deadlifts

There are two main differences when you compare the Smith machine deadlift to the barbell deadlift. 

First, Smith machines have a fixed bar path so you must follow its track whereas with a barbell, you control the lift’s movement. In an ideal deadlift, the bar should move straight up and down, in line with the midpoint of your foot. However, many Smith machines have an inclined bar path, which can disrupt your form and cause you to overextend your hips during the lockout phase. You can perform deadlifts on an inclined Smith machine, but you need to be extra careful to avoid straining your lower back.

The second difference is that the Smith machine has a higher starting position. The plates do not touch the floor. Free weights are more physically demanding since you lift the weights off the floor. Lifting from the ground involves a broader range of motion, particularly in knee flexion and extension, contributing to better leg development. To align the starting position with free weights, you can use a low platform or plates to bring the bar closer to your shins.

Your choice between these two methods depends on your fitness goals and personal preferences, as each has its advantages and limitations and serves different purposes in your strength training routine.

How to Do a Deadlift on the Smith Machine

Doing deadlifts on a Smith machine is different since the Smith machine doesn’t have a free path like your conventional barbell rack. However, Smith machine deadlifts shouldn’t be difficult if you follow these steps:

  1. Begin by setting the Smith machine bar at its lowest point, ensuring the safety catches are in place. Stand just behind the bar and adjust the weights so they're about hip-width apart.
  2. Securely position both feet on the weights or an elevation box. Grasp the bar firmly, with either a close overhand or a mixed grip, placing your hands just outside your shins. Ensure consistent body weight distribution from your heels to your toes.
  3. Keep your spine straight and lower your hips until your shins are at a right angle to the floor. Maintain an upright chest and ensure your head faces forward to prevent your shoulders from rounding.
  4. Pull up by pushing the bar from your heels, and extending your knees. When the bar reaches knee level, push your hips forward, extending them, and contract your glutes while keeping your spine straight.
  5. Stop when your hips are neutral to avoid a full lockout.
  6. Stay focused on engaging your glutes and maintaining tension throughout the entire motion. You’ve completed one rep!
  7. Lower the bar gradually by pushing your hips back and allowing it to descend slowly. Pause when you reach the bottom. Rinse and repeat for however many reps you need!

Muscles Worked

Deadlifts are a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups at once. The main muscles worked during the deadlift are your hamstrings, glutes, quads, core, forearms, and back. 

Your quads, hamstrings, and knees are engaged during the first pull to help you lift the bar off the ground. When you lift from your knees to the lock-out position, your back and glutes keep you from rounding out your back as you complete the lift.  

Other muscle groups play a vital supporting role as well. Your core stabilizes your upper body. During the deadlift, you’ll rely on your abdominal muscles to transfer force from the lower body to the upper body. 

Forearms are also a critical muscle group when doing deadlifts on the Smith machine. As you increase the weight for your deadlift, you’ll notice that it becomes harder to hold on to the bar. Your forearms keep your grip tight as you lift more weight, a critical component if you’re a powerlifter or Olympic lifter.  

Safety Tips & Best Practice

Deadlifts on the Smith machine are safer than a conventional deadlift, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk of injury. Follow these safety tips and best practices, so that you don’t hurt yourself during the lift. 

  • Start Light & Use Proper Form: Your lower back has the highest risk of injury if you do not do the movement correctly. Start with light weight to get the proper form down. Then, once you can execute the lift with the proper technique, begin adding weight. 
  • Don’t Use Standard Deadlift Movement: Smith machine deadlifts have their own fixed bar path. This means you can’t get away with shifting your weight like you would with a conventional deadlift. You’ll need to alter your deadlift movement to match the bar path, so your back doesn’t have to overcompensate. 
    • Elevate the Bar: Since the bar doesn't reach the ground, place weights or blocks under your feet to set the bar in the correct starting position, just below the middle of your shins for conventional deadlifts.
    • Use Deadlift Grips:If you need a stronger grip, consider using deadlift straps. If you have never used lifting gear before, we highly recommend you learn how to use lifting straps. While useful, you need to know how to use them, because abusing straps can cause your deadlift performance to drop. Alongside lifting straps, add cluster sets with heavier weights and focus on fewer reps.

    Common Mistakes to Avoid

    To get the most out of Smith machine deadlifts, avoid these common mistakes:

      • Rounding Your Back: Rounding your back during Smith machine deadlifts is problematic because it not only puts unnecessary strain on your spine but also diminishes the effectiveness of the exercise. To avoid this mistake, focus on maintaining a straight, neutral spine throughout the entire lift. Keep your chest up, and shoulders back, and engage your core muscles to support your back. 
      • Lifting With Your Arms: Lifting with your arms during a Smith machine deadlift diminishes the exercise's effectiveness because it diverts the emphasis from the intended lower body muscle groups like the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. Your arms aren't as strong as your legs and back, limiting the weight you can lift and hindering your overall progress. Additionally, it raises the risk of shoulder and elbow strain and can lead to poor form, reducing both the exercise's benefits and safety. To optimize the Smith machine deadlift, concentrate on using your lower body for power, keeping your arms less involved to target the right muscles and maintain proper form.
  • Locking the Knees Too Soon: Locking your knees too soon in a Smith machine deadlift can affect its quality because it disrupts the coordination of your muscles. The exercise requires various muscle groups to work together. If your knees lock before your hips fully extend, you're not utilizing your hip and glute muscles effectively, which are crucial for generating power. This reduces the exercise's effectiveness and increases the risk of straining your lower back. 
  • Jerking the Bar: Do not jerk the bar, especially when handling heavier weights, as it can lead to injury. Instead, engage your core and lift through your heels for a safer and smoother motion.
  • Bar Too Far From the Shins:  If the bar is too far from your shins, it forces you to lean forward excessively when lifting, which can lead to rounding your back and poor posture. This takes emphasis away from your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings and increases the load on your spine.
  • Limitations of the Smith Machine Deadlift

    • Limited Muscle Engagement: Traditional deadlifts engage multiple muscles due to the free movement of the barbell. However, with a Smith machine's fixed position, fewer specific muscle groups are engaged since you don’t need to control the bar.
    • Increased Injury Risk: The fixed plane of motion from a Smith machine deadlift can lead to a higher risk of injury if you perform the deadlift at an angle.
    • Restricted Range of Motion: The bar only reaches knee level on a Smith machine. Unless you use elevation boxes, it will be difficult for you to get the full range of motion and fully complete the deadlift. 

    Smith Machine Deadlift Variations

    There are plenty of deadlift variations that you can do on a Smith machine as well. Try some of these exercises next time you decide to dodeadlifts on your leg or back day

    Romanian Deadlifts

    Smith machine Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are a great way to focus on your hamstring muscles. They also engage your erector spinae, gluteus maximus, and adductors, offering a well-rounded workout for your core and lower body together. 

    What's great about this exercise is the high level of muscle tension it creates during the deep eccentric stretch. This is key for muscle growth, especially in your hamstrings.

    In simpler terms, Smith machine RDLs are similar to stiff-leg deadlifts but RDLs provide a bit more flexibility in your knees.

    Follow these steps:

    1. Begin by standing on an elevated platform just behind the bar. Ensure your feet are hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees.
    2. Firmly grip the bar with your palms facing down, maintaining a shoulder-width distance between your hands. Position the bar around the middle of your thighs, directly above the midpoint of your feet.
    3. Hinge at the hips, while slightly bending your knees. To maintain a straight back, pull your shoulder blades together as you lower the bar.
    4. Lower the bar toward the floor until the stretch in your hamstrings reaches it max.
    5. To return to the starting position, press your hips forward and pull back on your knees.
    6. Repeat this sequence for your desired number of reps. 

    Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

    The Smith machine stiff-legged deadlift is an excellent alternative for targeting your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It offers stability and allows you to focus on these muscle groups, making it a simplified option compared to Smith machine deadlifts. Be cautious not to overextend your hips at the top for safety and effectiveness.

    Follow these steps:

    1. Set the Smith machine bar to the middle of your thighs.
    2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly narrower, keeping your knees slightly bent. Grip the bar with your palms facing forward. The bar should align with the middle of your feet to establish your starting position.
    3. Begin the movement by pushing your hips back while keeping your knees still and your back straight. Lower the bar until the stretch in your hamstrings reaches its max.
    4. Return to the starting position by pushing your hips forward, bringing your torso back up.
    5. Repeat this sequence for your desired number of reps.

    Related:Stiff-Leg Deadlifts vs. Romanian Deadlifts

    Rack Pulls

    The Smith machine rack pull is a fantastic choice for working your back muscles. It focuses on improving the upper portion of your deadlift and helps build a strong back and well-defined traps.

    If you want to do high volumes of this exercise at a significant weight, we recommend using wrist wraps. They can make rack pulls more comfortable since they provide extra wrist stability and lifting strength.

    To do a rack pull on the Smith machine, follow these steps:

    1. Adjust the safety stoppers to just below knee height on the Smith machine.
    2. Stand in front of the bar with your feet hip-width apart.
    3. Hinge at your hips and grasp the bar with an overhand grip, placing your hands just outside your thighs.
    4. Keep your chest up to maintain a straight back. This is your starting position.
    5. Drive through your heels and lift the bar, pulling it up to your thighs while pushing your hips forward and chest up. Keep the bar close to your body.
    6. At the top of the repetition, squeeze your glutes and upper back without hyperextending your lower back when locking out the weight.
    7. When lowering the weight, push your hips back first and bend your knees when the bar reaches the starting position.
    8. Maintain complete control over the movement throughout the entire range of motion to ensure proper form and safety.

    Related:Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts

    Good Mornings

    While not a deadlift exercise itself, good mornings target the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back by involving the same hip function. 

    Do a good morning by following these steps

    1. Select a height setting that allows the bar to rest on your shoulders comfortably.
    2. Stand beneath the bar and place both hands on it.
    3. Lift the bar off the rack. As you do this, inhale and hinge at your hips, lowering your torso until it's parallel with the floor. Keep your legs stationary and maintain a straight back.
    4. Lift your torso back up by engaging your glutes and thrusting your hips forward.
    5. Repeat this sequence for your desired number of reps. 

    Related:Good Mornings vs. Romanian Deadlifts

    Try Smith Machine Deadlifts Now

    If youdeadlift often, Smith machine deadlifts can be a valuable addition to diversify your workout routine. They’re a great way to mix up the lifting exercise

    When it comes to utilizing Smith machines, the variations mentioned above can often be more suitable options than traditional deadlifts. Through a well-planned mix of these exercises, you can effectively engage the same muscle groups as you would during a standard deadlift.

    Jaysen Sudnykovych

    Dr. Jaysen Sudnykovych D.C.

    A renowned Chiropractic Physician and seasoned fitness expert, he contributes over 30 years of experience to TuffWraps.com. Holding a doctorate in Chiropractic Medicine and a bachelor's degree in Nutrition & Food Science, he is a respected authority in strength training and fitness accessories. Explore his valuable insights and practical tips on TuffWraps.com, and take your fitness journey to new heights with precision, determination, and expert guidance.


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