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June 14, 2022 8 min read

The Smith Machine row is an upgraded take on a classic upper back exercise, the barbell row. The Smith machine offers enhanced stability throughout the row, allowing you to lift heavier weight and increase the size of your back muscles.

Rows with a barbell or dumbbell are foundational exercises for the back, and the Smith Machine bent over row makes it easy to maintain good form and target the upper back.

The Smith Machine Row

The Smith Machine row is most often performed in a bent over position. When someone refers to a Smith Machine row, it’s usually bent over. Bending over will allow you to properly extend your elbows behind your back, thus effectively engaging your lats.

Range of motion is critical in this exercise. Rows are a finicky exercise. Engagement of the lats and other back muscles can become comprised of improper technique or inappropriate weight.

The Smith Machine row should target the lats, triceps, traps, forearms, rhomboids, and glutes.

Although a row is considered an upper body exercise, glute activation will naturally occur because the starting position is just like the deadlift. The initial rep on your deadlift should resemble an overhand grip barbell row.

Benefits of the Smith Machine Row

The Smith Machine row is a staple in bodybuilding because it offers tremendous benefits for upper back muscle isolation, but it should be considered a compound movement. The back muscles are your prime movers in the row, but you can’t get to your back muscles without first going through your arms.

The benefits of barbell and dumbbell rows don’t stop at the back. Your arms, back, core, and even your legs should all be engaged.

The Smith Machine row targets the upper back muscles rhomboids, trapezius muscles, and lats.

Rows are considered back exercises. If a row is done properly, there should be minimal bicep engagement in this exercise, making a bent over barbell row superior for back engagement, in contrast to high rows and mid rows on a machine or cable and bench.

The Smith Machine row also targets your arms.

There is no way around it. You have to use your arms and shoulders to get to your back muscles. Inevitably, your arms will be targeted as a secondary muscle group. This is a good thing! It doesn’t mean you’re doing this lat exercise incorrectly.

The Smith Machine bent over row, when done with proper form, should also engage the core musculature.

Your rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis should be activated during this lift. Abdominal bracing (imagine flexing your abs as if someone was about to punch your stomach and you knew it was coming) will help you engage your core without even thinking about it.

Finally, the Smith Machine bent over a row can help train your glutes and hamstrings.

Since the bent over row is essentially a deadlift stance, the posterior chain will inevitably be activated. The bent over row should not be considered a substantial glute training exercise, however. In this case, benefits for your hamstrings and glute with this exercise are more of a side effect, and not the goal.

A Smith Machine bent over row should effectively target your abs, arms, and back. Rows are considered primarily back exercises. Strengthening your back is important for muscle balance, visual appeal, and functional health.

How to do a Smith Machine Bent Over Row

The Smith Machine bent over row can be accomplished anywhere where there’s an available Smith Machine. In case there is no Smith Machine available to you, regular barbell rows will be covered later on in this blog.

The Smith Machine bent over row can be performed with an overhand or underhand grip.

To perform a Smith Machine Row (overhand grip):

  1. Locate a Smith Machine, and set the barbell to a low height, just below the waist.
  2. Load the Smith Machine up with an appropriate weight. You should start with the weight that you would normally do a bent over row with, but you may end up lifting heavier due to the added stability of the Smith Machine.
  3. Stand in front of the Smith Machine, holding the barbell with your arms with an overhand grip (knuckles facing towards you), slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Bend your knees just slightly, not letting them go past your toes.
  5. Bend over with a neutral spine, hinging at the hips. Bend down to the starting position, where the barbell is just below your knees.
  6. Brace your abdominals, unlatch the barbell, and pull the barbell towards your navel. Your elbows should come just behind your back.
  7. Exhale on the way up with every rep. Inhale as you bring the bar back down to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner.
  8. Repeat for 10-20 reps for 4-8 sets, depending on your training program and goals.

The Smith Machine Row (underhand grip)

In some cases, an underhanded, or supinated, grip might be even more appropriate for your next back and bicep day. The underhanded grip will naturally incorporate the biceps more than the overhand grip.

For this reason, an underhand grip for the Smith Machine bent over a row will feel easier. Adjusting the weight may be appropriate for this one.

How to perform a Smith Machine Row (underhand grip):

  1. Locate a Smith Machine, and set the barbell to a low height, just below the waist.
  2. Load the Smith Machine up with an appropriate weight. It should be the same weight as you would do with an overhand grip Smith Machine row or a barbell row with free weights. Depending on your bicep strength, you may be able to lift more underhanded than overhanded.
  3. Stand in front of the Smith Machine, holding the barbell with your arms with an underhand grip (knuckles facing the floor), slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Bend your knees just slightly, not letting them go past your toes.
  5. Bend over with a neutral spine, hinging at the hips. Bend down to the starting position, where the barbell is just below your knees.
  6. Brace your abdominals, unlatch the barbell, and pull the barbell towards your navel. Your elbows should come just behind your back.
  7. Exhale on the way up with every rep. Inhale as you bring the bar back down to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner. Your biceps should be engaged, but the prime movers of this exercise should be your back muscles.
  8. Repeat for 10-20 reps for 4-8 sets, depending on your training program and goals.

Alternatives to the Smith Machine Row

If no Smith Machine is available, or you're looking to recruit your stabilizer muscles more, these are some alternatives to the Smith Machine row.  

Bent Over Barbell Rows

The most obvious alternative to a bent over Smith machine row is a simple bent over row with a free-weighted barbell. The Smith Machine is like training wheels for this upper back exercise, and the bent over barbell row is no exception.

The movement is going to be similar to a Smith Machine row, but with greater emphasis on core stability and maintaining a neutral spine position.

To perform the bent over barbell row:

  1. Find a barbell, either pre-weighted or free-weighted. Anywhere from 30-100 lbs is common. You will want to lift a little less than you would on a Smith Machine.
  2. Grab the barbell with an underhand or overhand grip. This exercise can be completed either way. (An underhand grip may be easier for beginners. It takes some of the load off of the back and onto the biceps).
  3. Bend your knees slightly and then hunch over at the hips with a neutral spine, keeping your shoulders rolled back. The barbell should be at your knees or just below it.
  4. Pull the barbell up to your navel with your elbows pointed directly behind you. Exhale as you bring the barbell up towards your upper body.
  5. Let the barbell down slowly, until you reach your knees, inhaling on the way down.
  6. Repeat the movement for 4-6 sets of 10-20 reps, depending on your training program and goals.

Single Arm Dumbbell Rows


The single-arm dumbbell row is the easiest option for beginners. The single-arm dumbbell row is best accomplished with a bench of some sort.

This version of the row targets each lat individually. If you have a bench available and are willing to spend a little more time rowing, the single-arm dumbbell row is a good option.

To perform a single-arm dumbbell row:

  1. Find a bench or a box to place a knee on. It should be about 18-24 inches off of the ground.
  2. Grab a dumbbell. Choose a weight that is about as heavy as what you would do for single-arm bicep curls.
  3. In the starting position, place your right knee on the bench while holding the dumbbell with your right hand. Your left foot should be on the floor. You will alternate legs and arms in between each set.
  4. Straighten out your back like a table. Pull the dumbbell up along the side of your torso with your elbow pointing backward. Your thumbs should be facing forward and your knuckles facing outward to the side.
  5. Raise the dumbbell to match the height of your back, exhaling on your way up. You should feel the lat engage on the same side that you’re lifting with (Right arm, right lat. Left arm, left lat). Hold each rep for about 1 second at the top of the lift.
  6. Slowly let the dumbbell come straight down.
  7. Switch arms and change legs on the bench in between each set.
  8. Repeat for 4-6 sets of 10-20 reps on each arm, depending on your training goals and ability with the weight that you’re working with.

 Smith Machine Row Form Tips

Bent over rows is a finicky exercise in general, and the Smith Machine might feel awkward before you get used to it.

There are a few technique tips to help you keep your back engaged while performing this exercise:

  • Lift with your lats, not your arms. Activation of the upper back is paramount in this lift. If you feel like you’re primarily relying on your arm strength to lift the barbell, check your wrists. If they are bowed downward, it can reduce lat activation. Try to actively squeeze your back at the top of this lift. For greater activation and lat isolation, try a 2-second pause at the top.
  • Don’t flare your elbows out. Just like push-ups, bench presses, and bench dips, if you flare your elbows out on this lift, you will significantly impair your muscle activation. Flaring out your elbows in this lift shifts the tension from your lats to your lower back and shoulders. Keep the elbows tucked behind you! For extra shoulder stability, if needed, try seated rows. A seated row can provide greater shoulder stability than upright or bent over rows.
  • Keep your spine neutral. Keeping your spine straight during the lift will help prevent lower back pain, and it is necessary for the proper execution of this lift.
  • Recover smarter. Try a recovery aid like BCAAS-EAAS, to ensure maximum muscle growth efficiency so you can keep your gains and build your muscles back bigger and faster.
  • Don’t let your belly get in the way. Let’s address the elephant in the room. If your gut is big, you aren’t going to be able to get a full range of motion in this exercise. This is because you will not be able to pull the barbell close enough to your torso. If a boost in fat loss is what you need, then try SHREDDED-AF for extreme fat-burning results.

Row for a Bigger Upper Body 

The Smith Machine row is an integral part of any back day.

Rows can be accomplished with a variety of modalities, but the Smith Machine bent over row is arguably one of the most important foundational upper back exercises in bodybuilding.

Bent over rows can be successfully performed with an overhand or underhand grip. The Smith Machine version of the barbell row is an excellent tool for maintaining perfect form so that you can add more weight and crush your goals.

For more back exercise training tips, check out theExtreme Mass Building Back Workout for a Huge Back.