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Smith machine row your way to a thick back by using the bent over barbell technique

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th November 2020

For years, I had a serious, annoying back problem. But not the kind that you're thinking of. My first-world problem was that my trap growth—my back thickness—had completely stagnated. And by stagnated, I mean that every workout felt about as productive as trying to drag race in standstill traffic.

You see, I'd got fairly strong (for me, at least) on free-weight barbells rows. However, my spinal erectors—my stabiliser muscles—just couldn't keep pace with my traps. As a result, my sets would always end early due to lower back fatigue, which meant that my traps and lats were constantly left unstimulated. And boy, did it show in my physique.

man with his shirt off training his back muscles

I was getting sick of spending my life waiting for gym equipment anyway. So I cancelled my gym membership and started working out at home. Since I like to train without a spotter, the first thing I invested in was a quality Smith machine.

And I've not looked back since.

The Smith machine row is always a major part of my Smith machine back workout these days. No longer do my spinal erectors become fatigued at the expense of my traps. I can focus 100% of my attention on stretching and contracting the working muscle—as a bodybuilder should—and it's made a world of difference to my v-taper.

My upper body looks significantly broader and more aesthetic. And my lower back? It's never felt healthier!

"Barbell Rows are easy to cheat. You can lift heavier weights by using your hips. But your upper-back should do most of the work."

Smith Machine bent over row exercise details

  • Main muscles: Lats, traps, rear delts
  • Supporting muscles: Biceps, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting straps, weightlifting belt, chalk
  • Exercise purpose: Increase back thickness

How to do a Smith machine bent over row

  1. Set the Smith machine bar to mid-thigh level.
  2. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, just outside of shoulder-width.
  3. Bend your knees and stick your hips back while keeping your spine in neutral (no rounding or arching).
  4. Unrack the bar and let it stretch your back.
  5. Ensure that your core is tightly braced (preferably against a lifting belt) and that your eyes are looking straight ahead.
  6. Drive your elbows towards your mid abs and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  7. Hold the contraction for a split second, and then lower the bar under control so that it's once again stretching your back muscles. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.

Smith machine row form tips

Pull with your elbows

muscular man doing a barbell row

Sure, having bulging biceps might turn a few heads. But now isn't the time to work on your beach muscles. A thick back is what separates the men from the boys. And to get that thick back, you need to do more than just merely row—you need to row with intention.

Think about driving your elbows backwards—as forcefully as possible—rather than just pulling the bar into your abs. This cue alone can take your back development from mediocre to world-class. All you need to do is increase the weight every once in a while, and the gains will take care of themselves.

Maintain a neutral spine

woman doing reverse grip rows in the gym

Maintaining a tight, punch-resistant core while keeping your head up is the most effective hack for preventing dangerous spinal rounding.

You might well be able to get away with rounding your back today. But as you become stronger, your spine will start to make its feelings about your sloppy form painfully clear.

Plus, keeping your spine in neutral makes it easier to engage your core. This positioning, in turn, makes you stronger. And as we know, more back strength reliably leads to bigger lats and traps. So there's even more reason to practise perfect technique!

Use an overhand grip

man training his back muscles with a barbell

It's a well-established fact that vertical pulling movements emphasise your lats (back width), while horizontal rowing movements mainly work your traps (back thickness).

I do plenty of pulldowns to widen my back. But when it comes time for rows, all I'm thinking about is squeezing my shoulder blades together to activate my traps. You can heighten this activation and build a thicker back by using an overhead grip, which naturally makes your elbows flare out to the sides.

This elbow position puts your lats in a position of mechanical disadvantage that forces your traps to work harder, and ultimately grow bigger.

Get a full range of motion (ROM)

man doing a barbell row exercise

Nothing kills your back development faster—and with more consequences—than half-rep training. Not only does shortcutting the ROM cause your muscles to shrink, but if you're lifting heavy weight at the expense of proper form, then it'll also place you one step closer to a spinal catastrophe.

Instead, actively stretch your traps at the bottom of every rep (but don't round your shoulders too much), and then squeeze your back at the top of the rep as if your life depends on it.


bodybuilder performing a cable row

In case you didn't get it the first time, you must squeeze your traps—if you want a thick back.

Note, that you don't actually need to hold the contraction for more than a split second. Lift explosively and squeeze as you're pulling the weight into your abs.

Recommended lifting gear for Smith machine rows

1. Lifting straps

Lifting straps enhance your mind-muscle connection (and thereby muscle growth) because they enable you to focus purely on pulling with your back.

man with his beast gear wrist wraps

For years I was using the Harbinger Weight Lifting Straps.

These bad boys and their gel grips gave me a steadfast hold on the bar. And the fact that they still look good as new two years later speaks volume about their durability. So for the price I have no complaints.

However, they weren't exactly the most comfortable lifting straps in the world. So I decided to go upmarket for once and try out a pair Versa Gripps while doing a bent over row Smith machine style.

versa gripp pro

Versa Gripps are the world's number one grip support (according to the company), and they're 100% made in the USA—so naturally, I was expecting good things. But these quick-release lifting straps surpassed even my wildest expectations.

They do everything that my Beast Gear straps do but better. My grip is more secure, the straps are faster to set up and they don't slip around during my sets. However, the biggest benefit that I experienced was a reduction in hand and wrist pain.

I work a regular desk job, so my hands are pretty beat up from all the typing (yours might be too if you spend a lot of time on your phone). Anyway, the arch support for carpal tunnel syndrome and the nerve protection offered by these Versa Gripps is second to none.

My small little hand bones feel healthy again, and I can see why they charge more than the other brands. Definitely worth the money, in my opinion, if you're combining a lot of typing with heavy lifting (especially for rows on Smith machine systems/with free weights).

2. Weightlifting belt

Now, since I'm more of the bodybuilding type, I'm not one to spend a lot of money on what most would consider powerlifting gear.

rdx weightlifting belt

However, when I discovered that weightlifting belts could reduce lower back compression by 50%, I had to get my hands on one.

Of course, I was never going to pay £70-£90 for a "professional" weightlifting belt (like my mate did) so I went ahead and ordered the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting.

It's made from 4" thick cowhide leather and comes with double stitching, so I knew that the quality would be spot on. However, what's funny, is that my pulling strength was the exact same while wearing my RDX belt as it was while wearing my mate's ninety quid belt.

dark iron fitness weightlifting belt

But since I knew I'd be publishing this review, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't a fluke. So I ordered the Dark Iron Fitness Genuine Leather Weight Lifting Belt.

It's constructed from sturdy 4" buffalo hide leather, and it's got a dual side tongue buckle for extra intra-abdominal support. And—sure enough—my lifts were just as strong while wearing my Dark Iron Fitness belt as they were when I had my friend's "special" belt on.

With either of these belts, you're looking an immediate improvement of around 10% on all your major leg and back exercises. Just don't be tempted to buy something expensive, because all belts (past a certain quality threshold) do exactly the same thing.

3. Lifting chalk

"If your gym doesn't allow chalk, find a new gym."
Alan Thrall
Marine Corps Veteran & Gym Owner

As I said, I'm not much of a powerlifter these days. But back before I used to wear straps, I'd always chalk up my hands with this quick-drying liquid sports chalk.

psychi chalk ball

I also tried the Psychi Chalk Ball, which did the job, but it'd always leave a massive cloud of dust behind and get me into trouble with the morngy gym staff (you know the type).

The liquid chalk, however, is great for enhancing your grip on the sly. It dries in seconds and leaves no evidence of your hardcore training philosophies behind. It won't increase your strength as much as straps will. But for exercises like bench press and pull-ups, this liquid chalk works wonders for the firmness of your grip.

Smith machine row muscles worked


photo of a bodybuilder's back muscles

Use a wide, overhand grip if you want to emphasise your traps during the Smith machine bent over row. However, don't make your grip so wide that it turns into a rear delt exercise. Just outside shoulder width is ideal.


bodybuilder showing off his muscular back

Use a supinated, shoulder-width grip if you want to emphasise your lats during the Smith machine barbell row. This grip naturally enables you to lift more weight and is a convenient way to sneak in some bicep work if you don't like doing curls (maybe you're a powerlifter?). [1]

Rear delts

close-up of a man flexing his arm muscles

The rear delts get heavily taxed during in any rowing movement. And, whether you're training on a bent over row machine or using heavy barbells, the more you flare your elbows out, the higher your rear delt activation will be.


bodybuilder holding a protein shake

The overhand Smith machine rows exercise is a surprisingly decent mass-builder for your brachioradialis. The brachioradialis is the long muscle that sits just below your biceps. It's technically part of the forearm musculature, and when developed, it gives your arms a really aesthetic, three-dimensional appearance.


muscular man looking at his biceps

The forearm flexors (which sit underneath your brachioradialis) also get some decent stimulation from the Smith machine wide grip row.

However, since I do rows purely for my back (and also because I train my forearms separately with Captains of Crush), I always wear my Versa Gripps for back training. These American-made straps let me focus purely on working my back without worrying about my grip giving out before my lats and traps have become fatigued enough to grow.

Smith machine row benefits

Thicker back

bodybuilder showing off his back and arm muscles

I train with free weights all the time, so I'm definitely not knocking barbell rows. However, many lifers, including me, get a much more intense upper back workout from performing the Smith machine bent over row [2] [3].

This naturally means that most people also have a stronger mind-muscle connection on the Smith machine version, something which is incredibly important for muscle growth itself.

Add in the fact that you don't have to waste energy stabilising the bar, and you're practically laughing your way to a bigger back.

Healthier spinal erectors

Close-up Of A Shirtless Man With His Back Pain Standing In The Gym

As mentioned, you don't have to stabilise the bar while performing bent over rows Smith machine style. Of course, this is just great for blowing up your traps. However, it also gives your spinal erectors a much-needed break.

This recuperation time is important, especially considering that your lower back is active during virtually every exercise that you perform. It's ridiculously easy to overtrain your spinal muscles if you're not careful. And, as we've learned, too much spinal stress can have catastrophic consequences.

Easier setup

Body Builder Putting Weights On Bar In Gym

Ease of setup is the biggest difference when you compare Smith machine rows vs barbell rows.

Now, I love being in the gym as much as the next bloke. However, spending my session loading plates onto a barbell makes me feel like I'm back at my old warehouse job. Plus, bending down like that irritates my lower back, and some tosser always ends up nicking my bar.

Since I originally wrote this guide, I've started training at home. So obviously this means that I don't have any muppets taking my machine.

But, even though I could still do barbell rows, I find the Smith row machine version much, much easier to setup. Since the machine naturally raises the bar off the floor, I can load weight plates onto it without tweaking my lower back. This setup also means that I don't have to deadlift the bar off the floor for every rep—and waste valuable energy in the process [4].

Plus, I don't have to go treasure hunting around the gym for barbell collars. Which is way too much cardio for me anyway.

Smith machine row alternatives

Performing your bent over row on Smith machine stations is a brilliant way to mass-up your traps without straining your lower back. However, if you want to turbo-charge your results, then I recommend adding at least one of these alternatives into your program [5].

Smith machine inverted row

The Smith machine body weight row is a surprisingly potent mass-builder if you wear a weighted vest.

The inverted row is one of the safest row variations for your joints and is a clever way to increase your pull up strength without actually doing anymore pull ups.

You can do it for mass by wearing a weighted vest (my choice), or you can use it as a finisher with just your bodyweight. Either way, you'll quickly realise that inverted rows are one of the most versatile (and most effective) back builders out there—even more so than Smith machine rack pulls.

Smith machine reverse grip row

The fact that the reverse-grip Smith machine row was a favourite exercise of six-time Mr Olympia winner Dorian Yates speaks volumes about its effectiveness.

Admittedly, I think he mainly did the barbell version. However, he was a huge proponent of using the Smith machine for bodybuilding purposes. And had his lower back not being as strong as it was, I don't doubt that he'd have tried the Smith machine variation.

Single arm Smith machine row

If you've maxed out the dumbbells in your gym, then the Smith machine one arm row is a remarkable way to continue overloading your back. Using the frame of the station for support and a step-up platform for extra ROM, you can correct your muscle imbalances fast with this proven, unilateral exercise.

It's a great alternative to doing the barbell row Smith machine style or with free weights because it provides you with enhanced muscle isolation.

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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