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Smith machine back exercises: Workout routines to grow your lats and traps

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

No body part is more aesthetically pleasing when developed than a broad, thick back. Don’t you agree? The lats give your back an appearance of width and size, while the traps give your back that coveted look of thickness and power. When these muscles are combined, the back is truly a sight to behold.

fitness equipment for strength training at a gym

Add in a pair of strong rear delts and some developed spinal erectors, and your physique is essentially a walking anatomy chart. It’s no wonder why people say that the back is the most important muscle group in bodybuilding!

But what are the most effective Smith machine back exercises?

If you've read my post regarding the best Smith machine exercises overall, then you probably already have a pretty good idea. But if you haven't, here's the definitive list.

Top 11 Smith machine back exercises

1. Bent over row

Benefits: Thickens up your traps tremendously without straining your spinal erectors.

The Smith machine row is the barbell row for smart bodybuilders. Rather than waste valuable energy on stabilising the barbell, you can grow your back quicker by letting the Smith machine handle the balance part of the equation.

All you need to do is stretch and squeeze your back, which means that you can focus 100% of your attention on the parts of the rep that really count.

Step 1: Set the bar to mid-thigh level and grab it with an overhand grip, just outside shoulder-width.

Step 2: Bend your knees slightly and stick your hips back so that your torso forms a 45-degree angle. Make sure that your spine is neutral and that your chest is puffed out.

Step 3: Row the bar into your mid-abs by driving your elbows behind your torso.

Step 4: Hold the contraction for a split second and then lower the bar under control by stretching your back muscles. Your elbows should reach full extension at the end of the rep. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps.

Tip: I recommend wearing Versa Gripps (or straps if you can't justify the cost) so that your forearms never give out at the expense of your lats and traps. Rowing barehanded might make you feel hardcore—as if you're Branch Warren. But it's definitely not optimal for your back development [1].

2. Reverse-grip row

Benefits: Develops your lower lats while simultaneously building your biceps.

The reverse grip Smith machine row is a unique exercise. It was a favourite of six-time Mr Olympia Dorian Yates, and it's single-handily the most effective row variation for adding slabs of mass to your back. Not recommended unless you want to increase your t-shirt size [2].

Step 1: Position the bar at knee level and grab it with an underhand grip, just outside shoulder width.

Step 2: Bend your knees and hinge at the hips while actively sticking your chest out. This minimises spinal rounding.

Step 3: Unrack the bar and row it explosively into your lower abs by driving your elbows behind your torso.

Step 4: Hold the contraction for a split second and lower the bar down by way of stretching your lats. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.

Tip: Although this is one of the best back exercises Smith machine wise that you can do, make sure to pull with elbows rather than with your biceps. Your biceps are going to be in bits from this movement. However, you still want to initiate each rep with your back so that your arms don't take over.

3. Single-arm row

Benefits: Improves back symmetry and reduces muscle imbalances.

The single arm Smith machine row has been dubbed the "Smith machine dumbbell row"—and for good reason. Not only does this unilateral back exercise help to even out muscle imbalances, but it also enables you to lift extremely heavy (handy if your "gym" doesn't carry heavy dumbbells). [3]

It's one of the greatest Smith machine lat exercises of all time.

Step 1: Set the bar to just below knee height and then stand outside of the Smith machine, side on to the barbell.

Step 2: Assume a staggered stance and bend your torso over to 45 degrees. Make sure that your spine is straight, your chest is up and your eyes are looking straight ahead.

Step 3: Grab the bar with a neutral grip and hold onto the Smith machine frame with your other hand for support.

Step 4: Unrack the bar and fully extend your elbows, allowing the weight to stretch your back muscles.

Step 5: Row the bar until your elbow is just past your torso. Hold the contraction for a second, and then lower the bar back down, once again allowing the weight to stretch your lats. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

Tip: This unilateral row lets you lift heavier than virtually any other back exercise. Therefore, you always want to use a good pair of lifting straps (or Versa Gripps) so that your grip strength doesn't limit your back development.

4. Inverted row

Benefits: Improves bodyweight strength and adds serious mass to the traps and lats.

The Smith machine inverted row is for your traps what pull-ups are for your lats—quite possibly the best exercise in existence for back thickness. And you'll soon learn why.

Step 1: Set the barbell so that when you fully extend your arms, your shoulder blades are suspended off the floor.

Step 2: Grab the bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and tuck your elbows in at a 45-degree angle. In other words, don't flare them excessively.

Step 3: Extend your legs out in front of the machine so that the bar is centred over your mid-chest. Make sure that your spine is more or less neutral and also ensure that your eyes are looking straight up (don't bend your neck).

Step 4: Row your chest towards the bar by driving your elbows behind your torso.

Step 5: Hold the contraction for a full second and then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 bodyweight reps before adding external resistance.

Tip: Once bodyweight rows become too easy, you can wear a simple weighted vest to increase the resistance and make your back even more muscular. Weighted back exercises are one of the reasons why callisthenics guys have so much muscle on their bodies!

5. Pull up

Benefits: Adds width to your lats more reliably than any other back exercise.

You might not have considered pull-ups while performing back exercises using Smith machine systems [4]. However, if you want to improve your v-taper, the Smith machine pull up should be a staple in your back workout.

You can, of course, simply use the Smith machine barbell as a standard pull-up bar. Yet, you can also make use of the barbell's adjustability to perform assisted pull-ups. This is the variation that I'm going to teach you now.

Step 1: Squat down and raise your hands above your head, as if you're performing an overhead squat. Whatever height the tips of your fingers are at is where you need to position the barbell.

Step 2: Grab the bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip so that you feel a stretch in your lats.

Step 3: Retract your scapula by squeezing your shoulder bladed together slightly. You also want to arch your thoracic spine (upper back) by puffing your chest out.

Step 4: Place your feet slightly out in front of you. The further your legs are from your centre of gravity, the harder the exercise will be.

Step 5: Pull your chest towards the bar by flexing your lats and driving your elbows down to the ground.

Step 6: Come as high as you can and then lower yourself slowly. Repeat for as many reps as possible.

Tip: Avoid using straps if you want to get better at pull-ups. Relying on straps is fine (and heavily encouraged) for bodybuilding. But for improving your bodyweight strength, you need to get your grip accustomed to heavy lifting. Of course, using chalk is still a good idea so that your hands don't slip.

6. Shrug

Benefits: Adds height to your upper traps and creates a more imposing physique.

When you're performing back exercises on Smith machine systems, it's easy to get preoccupied with the endless row variations. And while rows will certainly thicken your back when viewed from behind, nothings adds height to your upper traps quite like the Smith machine shrug.

Step 1: Set the bar to mid-thigh level and grab it with a shoulder-width overhand grip.

Step 2: Unrack the bar and fully extend your elbows so that the bar is stretching your traps.

Step 3: Shrug your shoulders blades up and squeeze your traps as hard as you can. Then, finish the rep by lowering the bar under control until your elbows reach full extension. Repeat for 6-20 reps (yeah, shrugs work at any rep range)

Tip: Always wear Versa Gripps or straps during shrugs because there's no way that your grip can keep pace with a muscle as powerful as the traps.

7. Pendlay row

Benefits: Builds explosive power in the lats and traps.

The Smith machine Pendlay row (also called the Smith machine dead stop row) is an unconventional weightlifting exercise that builds explosive power in your upper back. Since each rep is typically performed form a dead stop, it's especially useful to strengthen your back for deadlifts.

Step 1: Set the safety stoppers to the bottom of the machine and then place the bar on top them.

Step 2: Garb the bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and then stick your hips back while keeping your chest up. Your knees should be slightly bent.

Step 3: Tuck your elbows in at a 45-degree angle. Then row the bar to your lower chest by squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Step 4: Hold the contraction for a second and then lower the weight under control, allowing the bar to come to a complete dead stop. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.

Tip: Avoid using high reps because this exercise can fatigue your lower back quickly.

8. Deadlift

Benefits: Supercharges full-body strength.

The Smith machine deadlift is a very controversial exercise. Because in most people's minds, you can only "deadlift" with a free weight barbell. And I'd tend to agree. However, that doesn't stop this deadlift variation being one of the best back thickeners of all time.

Step 1: Position the barbell on the lowest hook and stand next to it (your shin hairs should touch the bar) with a hip-width stance.

Step 2: While keeping your chest up, push your hips all the way back. Then, bend your knees slightly so that you can get lower to the ground—but avoid turning it into a squat. Remember, the deadlift is a hip hinge. So allow only minimal knee- bend.

Step 3: Grab the bar so that your hands are just outside of your shins. Activate your lats so that your spine stays rigid (imagine that you're performing the bottom part of a lat pushdown).

Step 4: Take a deep breath in and brace your core against your lifting belt. Pull the bar up by pushing your feet into the ground, and then, once the bar gets to knee height, drive your hips forwards while pushing your chest up and back.

Step 5: Finish the rep by contracting your glutes. And then lower the bar by sticking your hips back and bending your knees. Perform 3 sets of 1-5 reps for strength or 3 sets of 5-10 reps for size.

Tip: Deadlift in flat shoes like Converse (or barefoot if your gym allows it) as this reduces the distance that the bar has to travel.

9. Rack pull

Benefits: Builds bigger traps and a stronger deadlift lockout.

Gym doesn't have a power rack? Then give the Smith machine rack pull a try. This mass-building back exercise overloads the traps with more resistance than virtually any other movement.

The rack pull is especially effective for growing the upper traps, and it's a must-do exercise whether you perform your back workouts on Smith machine systems or with free weights.

Step 1: Set the safety stoppers just below your kneecap.

Step 2: Assume a hip-width stance and grab the bar with a double overhand grip. Ensure that your spine and eye gaze are both straight (don't round your back & don't look down).

Step 3: Explode up with the bar by driving your hips forwards and pulling your chest up. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible throughout the entire movement.

Step 4: Squeeze your traps as you lock out the rep and then lower the bar under control onto the safety stoppers. Repeat for anywhere between 3-10 reps (more reps for size and fewer reps for maximal strength).

Tip: No exercise on the planet lets you lift as heavy as rack pulls do. As such, it's imperative to always use straps. But it's equally important to train your grip directly so that your forearms don't sacrifice your trap development by giving out prematurely.

10. Back extension

Benefits: Strengthens the spinal erectors and makes your lower back look thicker.

Back extensions are one of the most effective Smith machine lower back exercises because they focus purely on the spinal erectors. So many pump-obsessed bodybuilders skip lower back training and then complain that they can't get the "Christmas tree" look for their spinal erectors [5].

Don't be one of those lifters!

Step 1: Set the bar to mid-thigh level and centre a thick pad on the barbell.

Step 2: Stand a few inches away from the bar (but rest your thighs against the pad) and hold a weight plate for resistance.

Step 3: Maintain a neutral spine as you bend at the waist until your back is completely flat. Allow your lower back to round slightly so that you can stretch your spinal erectors.

Step 4: Come back up by contracting your lower back, and repeat for 10-20 reps.

Tip: You'll feel a fair amount of ham and glute involvement in this exercise—this is normal. What you can do, though, is actively round your lower back so that your spinal erectors take most of the tension. Think of your glutes and hams as mere stabilisers—not prime movers.

11. Face pull

Benefits: Reduces shoulder injury risk by strengthening your rear delts and rotator cuffs.

No cables, no problem. The Smith machine face pull, which you could also perform in a squat rack, is an excellent exercise for building proportional shoulders because it heavily works your rear delts. Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Stand at the side of a Smith machine and grab the end of the bar with a single-arm overhand grip. Also flare your elbows out (just below 90 degrees is ideal).

Step 2: Shuffle your feet out in front of you and then lean your torso back so that the resistance is going through your lats, traps and rear delts.

Step 3: Row your upper chest towards the bar by driving your elbow behind your torso. Hold the contraction for a second or two, and then lower your body back into the stretched position.

Tip: Wear a weighted vest once you can lift your bodyweight for 15 reps. Doing so will build more back muscle while also improving your bodyweight strength for exercises like pull-ups.

Smith machine back workout routines

Workout 1: Width

bodybuilder showing off his physique

Performing this back workout Smith machine style allows you to focus on widening your back without needing to waste effort stabilising the weight. If you do this workout consistently, you'll notice your lats starting to naturally flare out more, which also has the nice bonus of giving your physique a more prominent v-taper.

Pull up: 4 x 6-8 reps

Reverse-grip rows: 4 x 10-12 reps

Single-arm row: 3 x 12-15 reps

Shrug: 3 x 15-20 reps

Workout 2: Thickness

rear view of bodybuilder training with dumbbells on black background

If your back looks wide from the front but lacks that thickness or "muscle maturity" from behind, then give this Smith machine back workout a try. The primary focus of this program is trap development (aka back thickness), but with these 4 exercises, you'll naturally add mass to your lats and rear delts as well.

Bent over row: 4 x 6-8 reps

Inverted row: 4 x 10-12 reps (perform first if doing weighted)

Chin-ups: 3 x 8-10 reps

Back extensions: 3 x 12-15 reps

Workout 3: Strength

athlete prepairing to lift a heavy barbell off the floor

Doing back exercises with Smith machine systems might not improve your barbell strength, but it will improve the strength of your actual back muscles since your stabilisers don't take tension away from them. Here's the routine:

Deadlift: 3 x 3-5 reps

Rack Pull: 3 x 4-6 reps

Pull-ups: 3 x 6-8 reps

Bent over row: 3 x 8-10 reps

Smith machine back exercises: In closing

As I've said many times on this site, performing your back workouts Smith machine style is one of the greatest methods for broadening your v-taper because you don't have to stabilise the weight.

In other words, you can devote 100% of your attention to working your back muscles.

These are the muscles that contribute the most mass to the coveted v-taper.

For best results, use a combination of rows (for thickness) and pulls (for width)—and always use straps so that your grip doesn't detract from your back stimulation.

Well, that's all from me for now. Let me know what your favourite Smith machine back exercises are. If you leave some good suggestions, I'll happily add them to my list!

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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