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February 11, 2022 9 min read

If your gym doesn’t have barbells, you can use a Smith machine to do your deadlifts. We will show you how to perform a deadlift on a Smith machine correctly and present some alternative exercises as well.

What Are Deadlifts?

The deadlift can be an excellent exercise choice for an all-around full-body exercise.

Deadlifts are some of the most powerful movements you can perform and they should be an essential part of any training regimen, regardless of your fitness goals.

Smith machine deadlifts in particular can be used by bodybuilders who want to isolate a particular muscle group. 

The Smith machine deadlift can be a good substitute for other squat variations for  beginners and casual gym-goers, as well as for lifters who want to limit any added volume to their other muscle groups during their leg workouts. 

Muscle Groups Worked 

Deadlifts in general are excellent ways to train the  strength and stability of your core muscle for an intense upper ab workout if you do enough reps of the exercise with proper form.

Your abdominals, obliques, and deep core muscles like the transverse abdominis are also very important. 

There are so many other muscles that will become active when you are pulling weight from the floor to a lock out position, such as the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, glutes, erector spinae, trapezius, rhomboids, and forearms.

When you lift the barbell from the floor, you mostly target the quadriceps muscles, the knees, and the hamstrings. When you lift the barbell from your knees to lock out, you mostly target the back muscles, glutes, and hamstrings. 

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Doing Deadlifts On a Smith Machine 

The dynamics of the lift become different when using a Smith machine for deadlifts because of the bar path and the bar placement.

The same is true for squats and bench presses.

While a Smith machine allows for different movement patterns, there are some techniques to remember that will allow you to perform a conventional deadlift with a Smith machine in a style as close as possible to a free barbell deadlift. 

You certainly can do a conventional deadlift with a Smith machine both safely and effectively, but you have to know what you are doing. If you have access to a barbell, you can use it to perform standard deadlifts. But a suitable set of barbells might not always be available.

Even at your local gym, all of the barbells may be in use for the duration of your workout session, and you might need to try some alternatives. This is a perfect case of when deadlifting with a Smith machine can be a far better option than not deadlifting at all.

What About Barbell Deadlifts? 

The two major differences between Smith machine deadlift and a barbell deadlift is that the Smith machine has a fixed bar path and the plates will not touch the floor.

Because the Smith machine has a fixed bar path, you have no choice but to follow it. The best bar path for a deadlift is straight up and down (in line with the middle of your foot from top to bottom). 

Smith machines come in a variety of angled bar paths. Some are straight up and down (which is ideal for deadlifts) but most commercial gyms have a Smith machine with an angled bar path.

A fixed bar path requires less effort to stabilize the weight.

The Smith machine does not let the plates rest on the floor, which means the starting position will be higher. With free weights or dumbbells, you lift the weights off the floor, which takes a lot more strength to do. Smith machine deadlifts minimize the range of motion (knee flexion and extension), which takes away from some leg development. 

Just like when you are doing squats, you should always bend your torso forward from your hips (called a hip hinge) and push your rear end behind you as you bend your knees and go lower. You really want to feel the tension in your glutes and your quadriceps. If you do need to hinge forward, keep your core engaged so that your back is flat and does not arch.

The best way to fix this is to stand on a low platform or some plates, so that the bar is towards the lower part of your shins.

You will find that barbell deadlifts use more muscles and power and they require you to develop good mechanics.

The Smith machine can do the same thing, but you just have to make some weightlifting adjustments to build your upper body strength. 

How to Do a Deadlift on a Smith Machine 

 

  1. Set the Smith machine bar to the lowest setting, which will be on the safety catches, and stand just behind the bar and place the weights where your feet will go (about hip-width apart). 
  2. Place both feet securely on the weights or elevation box, and then grip the bar just outside of your shins and grip it as tightly as you can. 
  3. Bring your hips down (while keeping your spine straight), sitting low enough so that your shins are perpendicular with the floor. 
  4. Keep your chest up and your head straight forward to prevent your shoulders from rounding. From here, you will begin pulling up. Push up with the bar from the heels of your feet, extending at the knees. 
  5. 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. Don't full lockout, stop when your hips are neutral. 
  6. Squeeze your glutes and keep everything tight and engaged. This is one rep. 
  7. Slowly lower the bar down by pushing your hips back while letting the bar slowly come down and then flexing (bending) at the knees. 
  8. When the bar is all the way at the bottom, pause and then repeat for your desired number of reps. 

When Smith machine deadlifts are done correctly, they can be effective and safe. But before you start doing your deadlifts, there are some important things to keep in mind. 

Important Safety Tips

There are a few different types of Smith machines. There are angled and straight bar path machines.Non-angled machines are better, but many gyms only have angled smiths.

If you do not perform the movement correctly, there is a higher risk of a lower back injury. Understanding the proper form, necessary steps, and potential dangers will allow you to make this exercise as safe and effective as possible. 

If you are using an angled Smith machine for deadlifts, face the machine with the angled bar path.

This means that when you bring the bar down, it moves away from you, and when you bring it up, the bar comes towards you. This reduces the pressure that is placed on your lower back. If you are using a straight bar path Smith machine, you can face either way and you will be working with a bar path that is natural for deadlifts. 

Because the bar does not go all the way to the ground, try placing something under your feet so the bar is in the correct starting position.

For example, you can use two 20 pound weights stacked under both your feet or even some blocks. The bar should be just below the middle of your shins for conventional deadlifts. 

If you need to improve your grip, try using grips and doing fewer reps with cluster sets and heavier weights.

Remember that a deadlift is always done from a dead stop. So at the bottom, adjust your posture if necessary. Then ensure that your spine is straight and your shoulder blades are retracted before you perform the next rep. 

Benefits of the Smith Machine Deadlift 

They offer amazing benefits and they are easy to perform once you know what you are doing. There are no real benefits of doing Smith machine deadlifts compared to doing barbell deadlifts. The only real difference is that if you don’t have a barbell, you can use a Smith machine. 

  • Good for beginners: If you are a beginner, using a straight bar path Smith machine will keep your bar path as it should be and help you learn the proper mechanics.
  • Strong lower body: Other benefits of the Smith machine deadlift are the same as deadlifts with barbells.You can build strength and muscle mass in your quads and entire posterior chain, as well as your forearms and grip.
  • Total body strength: You’ll also build stronger bones, burn more calories, and develop overall body strength.

Limitations of the Smith Machine Deadlift 

  • It works fewer muscles: Regular deadlifts work multiple muscles because the movement is somewhat unstable. With a Smith machine, there is no need to control the bar because of its fixed position.
  • You are restricted: Because you are working on a fixed plane of motion, you can sometimes put your body at an increased risk of injury if you perform the deadlift on the Smith Machine at an angle. 
  • Decreased range of motion: Unless you use an elevation box or weights, the bar will only come to knee level, which means your range of motion is limited, and you may not be getting the most out of the exercise. 

Best Deadlift Alternatives With a Smith Machine 

In addition to conventional deadlifts, there are other deadlift variations to consider with a Smith machine. The four exercise guides described below will target the same muscles as deadlifts.

The conventional deadlift is a bigger, compound movement, and these alternatives are mostly isolation exercises, but when performed together, you can effectively train the same muscles.

Best Smith Machine Alternative Exercise #1: Stiff-legged Deadlift 

 

The Smith machine stiff-legged deadlift targets your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, but it is basically a hamstring isolation exercise.

The Smith machine provides more stability over the barbell for this movement. 

To do the Stiff-legged deadlift:

  1. Start by setting the height of the bar on the Smith machine to about the middle of your thighs. 
  2. Get into position by grasping the bar with palms forward that are shoulder-width apart. 
  3. Your feet should be positioned shoulder-width apart or a slightly narrower stance, and knees slightly bent. The bar should be under the middle of your foot. This is your starting position. 
  4. Push your hips back, bending at the waist while keeping your knees stationary to start lowering the bar down. Always keep your back straight. 
  5. Once you feel a maximal stretch in your hamstrings, begin bringing your torso back up by pushing your hips forward until you return to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat for your desired number of repetitions. 

Best Smith Machine Alternative Exercise #2: Romanian Deadlifts 

 

When performed correctly, Smith machine RDLs (Romanian deadlifts), are good at isolating the hamstrings.

They will also work the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, and adductors and strengthen your core and lower body with one move.

To do the Smith Machine RDL: 

  1. Begin by standing on an elevated platform behind the bar. Your feet should be positioned hip-width apart and a slight bend in the knees. 
  2. Firmly grip the bar with palms down and the hands approximately shoulder-width apart, the bar should be at about the middle of your thighs and directly above the middle of your feet. 
  3. 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. 
  4. Lower the bar towards the floor until you feel the maximal stretch in your hamstrings. Then, press hips forward, and pull back on the knees to return to starting position. 
  5. Repeat for your desired number of reps.

Best Smith Machine Alternative Exercise #3: Good Mornings 

 

This exercise is not technically a deadlift, but it does work your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, and it also involves a similar hip function. 

To do Good Mornings:

  1. Choose a height setting that is appropriate so that the bar can rest on your shoulders. 
  2. Step under the bar and place both hands on the bar. 
  3. Lift the bar off of the rack. Inhale and hinge at the hips and move your torso until it is parallel with the floor, keeping your legs stationary and back straight. 
  4. Start lifting your torso back up by squeezing your glutes and thrusting your hips forward. 
  5. Repeat for your desired number of repetitions. 

Best Smith Machine Alternative Exercise #4: Smith Rack Pull 

 

The Smith machine rack pull is another good alternative back exercise.

The main function of this exercise is to improve the top portion of your deadlift and build strong traps in your back.

You can choose very heavy weights with this exercise if you have wrist straps. 

To do Smith Rack Pulls: 

  1. Set the safety stoppers to just below knee height. 
  2. Stand in front of the bar with a hip-width stance. 
  3. Hinge at the hips and grab the bar with an overhand grip and hands positioned just outside your thighs. 
  4. Keep your chest up to maintain a straight back. This is the starting position. 
  5. Drive through your heels and pull the bar up to your thighs while pushing your hips forward and chest up. The bar should be close to your body. 
  6. At the top of the rep squeeze your glutes and upper back without hyperextending your lower back when you lockout the weight. 
  7. When lowering the weight, stick your hips back first and bend your knees when the bar gets to starting position. 
  8. Maintain full control of the movement throughout the full range of motion. 

Using Smith Machines to Full Effect

When it comes to using Smith machines, the variations above might be better options for you than conventional deadlifts. By using a smart combination of a few of these exercises, you’ll be able to target the same muscles that you would be when performing a regular deadlift.

The deadlift is one of the big three exercises in powerlifting. It can also be dangerous if you are inexperienced.

But with the Smith machine, you can perform deadlift safely and still get all of the benefits of this compound exercise. Sometimes the only equipment you’ll have access to is a Smith machine. So now you know how to safely and effectively perform a Smith machine deadlift.

When it is done with the proper form, a Smith machine deadlift can be one of the most effective exercises in your gym.