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Smith machine deadlift: Here's how to do it for the quickest results

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Welcome to my Smith machine deadlift guide. In this comprehensive article, you'll learn how to use the Smith machine for deadlifts safely—as well as the 10 mistakes that you must avoid for the fastest and best results.

But for now, here's what you should know:

Depending on how you perform it, the Smith deadlift can be one of the most dangerous, or one of the most effective Smith machine back exercises—it's all in the technique.

So let's get into it...

"The second the hairs on your shin touch the bar, that's the perfect lifting position."
Eddie Hall
Strongman

Smith machine deadlift exercise details

  • Main muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, lats, traps, spinal erectors
  • Supporting muscles: Calves, core, quads, forearms
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Straps, chalk, lifting belt, deadlift shoes, hand grip trainer
  • Exercise purpose: Increase overall muscle strength and synergistic power

How to deadlift on a Smith machine

Here's how to do Smith machine deadlift training:

Initial setup

two girls working out
  1. Set the Smith machine bar to the lowest setting. More often than not, this means resting in on the safety catches.
  2. Load a light weight onto the barbell.
  3. Avoid wearing shorts because the bar will naturally scrape your shins, potentially causing them to bleed. If you have to train shorts, wear compression tights under your them or use deadlift socks.
  4. Put on some flat shoes such as Converse or Addidas Havoc Multisport for stability. Lifting in socks or barefoot is also fine if your gym allows it.

Foot position

man getting in position to lift a heavy weight off the ground
  1. Stand just behind the bar—never deadlift from the front of the Smith machine. A shin-to-bar distance of 0.5" to 1" is ideal.
  2. Place your feet hip-width apart and point them straight ahead.

Body position

female standing over a barbell at a weight lifting event
  1. Descend towards the bar by sticking your hips back as far they'll go.
  2. Allow your knees to come forwards slightly—only when your hips can't go back any further.
  3. Keep your chest up and out. Never let it cave in as this causes your shoulders to round.
  4. Engage your lats by pulling them down as if you were doing cable lat pushdown (basically the opposite of a shoulder press).
  5. Maintain a neutral spine and look straight ahead.

Hand position

close up of a strength athlete attempting to lift a heavy weight
  1. Place your hands just outside of your shins, around 1" outside is perfect.
  2. Grip the bar as tightly as possible. Try to crush it with your grip.
  3. Mentally prepare yourself for the pull.

The pull

female strength athlete picking up a heavy weight from the ground
  1. Pull the slack out of the bar by pulling upwards on the barbell. Note that you're not actually trying to move the bar at this point, this cue is just to create tension with the bar.
  2. Explode up with the bar by first pushing your feet into the ground (as if you were performing a leg press).
  3. At the same, think about driving your chest up and backwards as you pull the bar off the ground.
  4. As the bar reaches your knees, drive your hips forwards
  5. Keep your back flat and contracted as you drive the bar towards lockout.

Lockout

closeup of powerlifter and barbell during competition
  1. Lock the bar out by driving your hips forwards—squeeze your glutes as you complete the rep.
  2. Your hips and knees should be in alignment, and your shoulders should be back slightly.

Lowering the bar

woman training inside a modern gym
  1. With the same upper body positioning as before, lower the bar by sticking your hips back, only allowing your knees to bend when the bar reaches the bottom of your thighs.
  2. Lower the bar under control but do not lower it slowly.
  3. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps if you're training for strength, and sets of 5-10 reps if you're training for size.

Smith machine deadlift mistakes

Despite what some people say, performing a deadlift on Smith machine stations isn't an accident waiting to happen. However, if you make any of these 10 fatal deadlift mistakes, then you may well be causing your body unnecessary stress—or worse, irreversible damage.

1. Hyperextending your lower back

woman working out with her personal trainer

When you're performing a conventional deadlift Smith machine style, you'll quickly realise that the lockout is (by far) the hardest part of the rep. Once you push your hips into alignment with your knees, it's all easy work from there.

However, as if performing some kind of suggestive victory salute, many people feel the need to hyperextend their spines and push their hips way forwards.

Not only does this extended range of motion provide zero additional benefits compared to just locking the weight out normally, but it also makes you look ridiculous. It looks as if someone was trying to set fire to your arse, and the only way that you could think of to avoid the flame was with a provocative hip thrust.

Understand this: once you've locked the bar out, all the tension is going through your traps and forearms. You're essentially in the starting position of a shrug, and shrugs don't work your legs or spinal erectors.

In fact, you could drop the weight, squeeze your back and glutes, and you'd get roughly the same amount of tension within those two muscles as if you were holding a 200kg barbell.

2. Shrugging the weight up

man doing dumbbell shrugs

Even if you're using the Smith machine for deadlift training, you shouldn't be able to shrug the bar up. If you can (and presuming that you don't have monstrous traps) then you're simply not lifting heavy enough.

Now listen, I won't deny that heavy shrugs work like gangbusters for building the traps. However, mixing shrugs and deadlifts is a surefire way to make your shoulders round and throw any semblance of proper form out the window.

3. Not alternating grips

weight liter picking up a bar with weights

I'm personally solving this problem by using Versa Gripps.

However, before making the switch, my right trap muscle was much bigger than the left. So much so, that I could've been an internet meme. Seriously, it looked like I injected Synthol or something into one side of my neck!

How did my traps become so imbalanced?

Well, for years, I did barbell shrugs only (no dumbbells), which caused a baseline amount of disproportion in my traps. However, when I threw mixed-grip deadlift into the mix, and, of course, forgot to alternate hand positions, my muscle imbalances reached epidemic proportions.

So unless you want to be immortalised into a fitness meme, then I recommend alternating grips every week (or every training cycle). Of course, if you're training for muscle growth or general fitness (rather than raw powerlifting), you can just use a pair of lifting straps and avoid the problem altogether.

4. Gripping the bar too wide

brawny bodybuilder prepairing to lift a barbell

Ok, let me ask you a question: which exercise are you stronger on, deadlifts or rack pulls?

It's definitely rack pulls, right?

This strength disparity is simply because the bar has less distance to travel during a rack pull than in an off-the-floor deadlift. But we can use this same bar travel principle to our advantage while performing deadlifts on a Smith machine.

Here's how: by maintaining a close hand position on the bar—just outside of our shins—we limit the distance that the bar has to travel. Naturally, this subtle change in hand spacing will instantly increase your pulling strength if you've been using too wide of a grip.

Just be sure that you don't take it to the extreme. If you don't grip the bar outside of your shins, then your hands will obstruct your thighs. This'll ultimately cause the bar to place excessive strain on your lower back because it'll naturally drift away from your body.

5. Bending your elbows

athletic man doing barbell exercises

Unfortunately, when some people hear the deadlift being referred to as a pull, they automatically assume that they should pull with their arms.

Not only does this lifting technique make you significantly weaker (your legs and back are much stronger than your arms), but It can also strain your biceps. And, in more extreme cases, even tear them.

While freak accidents do happen from time to time, you can mostly avoid deadlift bicep injuries by keeping your elbows locked out and pulling with your legs instead. It might also help to think of your arms as hooks, rather than the machinery that actually does the heavy lifting.

6. Bouncing off the safety stops

weight lifting bar on the rack in a fitness centre

Doing a deadlift with Smith machine systems is more like performing a rack pull because most systems can't bottom out completely.

However, this reduced range of motion isn't an excuse to bounce the bar off the safety catches, as if your tempo was stuck on 2x speed.

Instead, you want to reset the bar after every rep, and then—like the name suggests—lift the barbell from a dead stop.

This way, you'll have less chance of getting injured because you're only lifting weights that you can truly handle. Also, the number of dirty looks that you get will drop from extreme to high (remember, you are still deadlifting in the Smith machine).

7. Rounding your back

man gripping a loaded barbell

Although some lifters are stronger when they round their upper backs, as it allows their hips to get closer to the bar, don't automatically assume that you're one of these people.

And please—whatever you do—don't round your lower back.

Rounding your spine, whether intentional or accidental, makes you weaker because it encourages you to pull with your lower back rather than with your bigger, stronger leg muscles [1].

Spinal rounding is one of the mistakes that literally has no upswing because back injuries can have you out of the gym for years. And, in some cases, for life.

8. Incorrect breathing

athlete gripping a heavy barbell

You'd think that a task as straightforward as breathing would be easy to master, wouldn't you? However, when it comes to breathing on the deadlift, you can't just leave your lungs on autopilot.

You need to breathe very deliberately if you want to pull heavy weights.

Here's what to do: take a large breath into your diaphragm and push against your lifting belt. Only exhale once you've locked out the rep.

While it might seem counterintuitive—dangerous, even—to hold your breath while lifting, it's the only way that you can maintain the proper intra-abdominal pressure that's needed to lift big weights.

9. Letting your hips shoot up

woman picking up a barbell

This common deadlift mistake puts tons of strain onto your lower back and is most common when your hips were too low to begin with.

You want to keep your hips relatively high from the beginning of the rep. Remember, the deadlift is a hip-hinge exercise—not a squat—so think about driving your hips back rather than dropping them down.

I had trouble with my hips shooting up for years. However, after trying some of the techniques suggested by 15-time British powerlifting champion, Andy Bolton, in his book Deadlift Dynamite, my hyperactive hips are no longer a problem.

In fact, my deadlift now feels powerful and downright explosive because Andy Bolton's taught me how to properly engage my strongest muscles. I'd probably be nursing a serious back injury by now If Andy Bolton hadn't shown me how to keep injuries at bay in Deadlift Dynamite.

10. Overlooking your lats

man gripping a heavy barbell

Not only does engaging your lats prevent you from shrugging the weight up, but it also pulls the bar closer to your shins, which, in turn, puts your hips in their most powerful pulling position [2].

This tip alone can add kilos to your deadlift if you've been ignoring your upper back tightness.

Recommended training gear for the Smith deadlift

"For me, with deadlift, once it gets heavy enough that my grip is starting to fail a little bit, then I'll throw the straps on."
Brian Shaw
4x World's Strongest Man

1. Lifting straps

Some powerlifters might give me a lot of stick for using straps, and that's fine. I'd rather be the "weak" guy with the big traps and shredded hamstrings than the "strong" dude with the puny physique.

Of course, you can have both. Strength and size aren't complete opposites. But that's not the point.

versa gripp demo

I've tested over a dozen pairs of lifting straps throughout my training career. And since most of them haven't lived to tell the tale, I'm not exactly full of praise for traditional lifting straps—especially considering that most of them painfully tug on my wrists.

Anyway, I eventually bit the bullet and stopped buying cheap lifting straps after one of the lads from my gym let me try his Versa Gripps for a back session.

I was sceptical at first since they didn't exactly look like normal lifting straps. However, after putting them through a 20 set back workout, I quickly realised that Versa Gripps give you a much firmer hold on the barbell than any regular lifting straps.

man using straps to lift a barbell

I was using the Beast Gear Weight Lifting Straps before and as good a grip as they gave me, they just don't compare to the comfort and wrist support provided by Versa Gripps.

Also, my Versa Grip Pros came with arch support for carpal tunnel, as well as extra nerve damage protection. Now, this might not seem like a big deal if you're a professional bodybuilder. However, it makes a huge difference in wrist comfort if you have a regular desk job or spend a lot of time on your phone like I do.

2. Weightlifting chalk

liquid chalk sizes

If you're more hardcore than me and prefer to deadlift bare-handed, then I recommend this quick-drying liquid chalk.

It's perfect for when you need to chalk your hands on the sly while training in Globo gyms. It dries ridiculously quickly, and you don't get those annoying dust clouds that make it obvious you're chalking up for a big lift.

psychi chalk ball

I switched from using the Psychi Chalk Ball a while back, and I have no complaints.

I'm a bodybuilder through and through, and as much as I like straps for back exercises, I always use chalk for chest, shoulder and arm training. Not only does chalk make me stronger, but it also enables me to maintain a really firm and secure grip on the bar, which is crucial considering that I usually train without a spotter.

"Using a belt helps me lift more weight and/or perform more reps with a given weight. I do not consider it cheating."
Alan Thrall
Owner of Untamed Strength

3. Weightlifting belt

If there's one training accessory that I always use for deadlifts, it's my RDX Weightlifting Belt.

rdx weightlifting belt

I've tried more expensive lifting belts than my RDX Lever Buckle—you know, like the ones that professional powerlifters use. However, what I found is that most so-called "powerlifting" or "competition" belts are the exact same as any other leather lifting belt.

Besides the logo, the only difference is the price tag. In fact, I have a sneaky suspicion that most designer companies source their belts from the same place, slap their logo on it, and then charge us a premium while they laugh their way to the bank.

dark iron fitness weightlifting belt

But they're not going to fool us. You can wear something affordable like the Dark Iron Fitness Genuine Leather Weight Lifting Belt, which increases your major lifts by an average of 10%, and get the same calibre of results as you would with a hundred quid belt.

Plus, both the RDX and Dark Iron Fitness Telt come with a lifetime warranty to give us peace of mind while we lift. Funnily enough, my mate's belt (he's a powerlifter) cost him over £90, yet it only came with a 12-month guarantee (what a mug!).

4. Hand grip strengthener

captins of crush gripper in its packaging

I knock about with a lot of the powerlifting lads from my old gym, and besides being monster squatters, they've all got borderline-intimidating grip strength—and the forearm size to match.

Of course, I asked them about their grip training routine. However, to my surprise, most of the lads said that deadlifts aren't as good for building the forearms as the gurus claim they are.

Instead, powerlifters tend to excel at deadlifts because they have strong grips, not the other way around like I'd initially thought.

So naturally, I asked the lads what hand grippers they recommended. And before I could even finish my sentence, they all unanimously answered "Captains of Crush".

close up of captins of crush hand grip trainers

I don't mind spending a bit of money for my website, so I went ahead and ordered the CoC trainer, the CoC Sport, the CoC No. 1 and the CoC No. 1.5.

I kid you not, IronMind makes 5 heavier grips than their No. 1.5 and I still couldn't close it!

However, I'm very excited to see what regular grip training does for my forearm size and pulling strength in the long term. The weights are already feeling lighter, and my forearms look more vascular, but I'll keep you updated as I progress.

5. Deadlift shoes

Ok, so technically I don't wear specialist deadlift shoes (remember what I aid about fancy powerlifting gear?).

adidas havoc trainers

However, I still like to deadlift in flat shoes or bare feet so that I'm as stable as possible.

The trouble is, most so-called "gyms" don't let you deadlift in bare feet because, you know, so many people die each year from deadlifting barefooted.

Anyway, based on my testing of over half a dozen flat-soled shoes, there are two main contenders.

black converse trainers

My personal favourites are the Adidas Men's Havoc Aq3325 Multisport Indoor Shoes.

The flat soles keep me close to the floor, which instantly increased my strength because I didn't have to pull the bar as far. Plus, they're really breathable. So my wife is one happy lass.

But if you want something more multi-purpose, then Converse Chuck Taylors are also a solid option because they've got surprisingly stable soles for a generic trainer.

Smith machine deadlift muscles worked

Glutes

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

If you're using the proper Smith machine deadlift form, your glutes will be most active once the bar is past your knees and you're locking out the weight.

However, if glute growth, rather than pure strength, is your primary goal, then you might want to switch from conventional deadlifts to Romanian deadlifts, as research shows that the latter produces significantly higher gluteus maximus activation [3].

Hamstrings

massive bodybuilder doing strength training while at the gym

As with the glutes, your hamstrings function to extend the hips. They're extremely active during the latter half of a conventional deadlift, and you can train them even more intensely by performing a stiff leg deadlift variation.

Quadriceps

male athlete of powerlifting competition, preparing for attempt in deadlift

Despite being very much a hip hinge exercise, the deadlift still recruits an incredible amount of quadriceps muscle fibres. In fact, some research suggests that deadlifts can even put more stress on the quads than split squats [4].

Calves

man with impressive calf muscles

Although you won't get big calves from deadlifting, they still play an essential stabilisation role. Specifically, your calves help you to maintain proper deadlift positioning by ensuring that your feet stay planted firmly on the floor while your knees travel forwards.

Abs

very muscular man with his hands on his hips

When learning how to do a deadlift on a Smith machine, many people wrongly believe that they don't have to stabilise the weight. After all, stabilisation is what Smith machines are for, right?

Well, yes. But understand this: you still need to brace your core against your weightlifting belt if you want to pull respectable weights. Why?

Because doing so increases your intra-abdominal pressure, which in turns helps you to maintain proper deadlifting technique. Without a tight core, you back will round, your shoulders will cave in and your hips will shoot up—all recipes for a deadlift disaster.

Erectors

Shirtless athletic man turned back on white background.

Many lifters classify the deadlift as a back exercise. And yes, while doing a Smith machine deadlift bodybuilding style—where you pull off the safety catches rather than off the floor—does place additional tension on your back muscles, it's still primarily a lower-body exercise.

Like the abs, your erectors help you to maintain a neutral spine. But they shouldn't be the prime movers—that accolade goes to the legs.

To be on the safe side, you can reduce lower back compression by about 50% if you wear a sturdy weightlifting belt.

They take a bit of getting used, but belts usually increase your one-rep max by about 5-10kg instantly. And they're definitely worth the investment if you're conscious about your lower back health, like me.

Lats and traps

Your lats and traps work synergistically in a deadlift and are an integral part of a successful pull. They function to extend your shoulders (lats) and depress your scapula (traps). These two functions combine to help you to keep your chest up, which in turn enables you to generate maximum pulling power off the floor.

bodybuilder showing off his physique

Try this: shrug your shoulders and then lower them back down all the way. In which position was your chest most puffed out?

If you brought your shoulders back down all the way (and thereby depressed your scapula), then it was definitely the non-shrugged position.

This distinction is important to realise because by keeping your chest up, you can more easily follow through with your hips and lock out the weight—bigger weights.

Arms

male powerlifting putting weights onto a barbell

As I've mentioned, I personally use Versa Gripps for deadlifts nowadays since I'm focusing on overloading my traps.

However, I won't deny that the deadlift is an awesome forearm builder if you go strapless. After all, nothing says "strong grip" like ripping a heavy barbell off the ground, except maybe closing the No. 3.5 Captains of Crush hand grippers—that takes record-breaking grip strength.

Smith machine deadlift benefits

There are many amazing deadlift benefits that you can enjoy by using the proper form. However, discussing them all at length would require me to write a dissertation. And since most people who use the internet (especially meatheads) don't like reading, I've explained only what I believe are the 3 biggest deadlift benefits.

But, before we get into those, here's a list off all the Smith machine deadlift benefits:

  • Brute strength
  • Functional strength
  • Dense bones
  • Titanic traps
  • Gigantic glutes
  • Wide lats
  • A formidable grip
  • Solid abs
  • Injury prevention
  • Exemplary posture
  • More time in your life
  • Higher testosterone
  • Fat loss
  • More confidence

Synergistic strength

athlete flipping a tire

As we've just established, the deadlift has an astounding number of benefits that can truly enhance your life. However, few of these benefits are unique to deadlifts.

And some of them, such as bigger traps, can be realised faster by prioritising other exercises. For example, If I had one month to make my traps grow by an inch, and I could only do one exercise, then I'd pick shrugs, not Smith machine deadlifts.

However, for improving total body strength quickly, nothing—and I mean nothing—comes close to rivalling the deadlift.

Going back to the hypothetical scenario, If I had one month to increase my strength on every body part by 20%, and I could do only one exercise, I sure as heck wouldn't be doing shrugs. I'd be performing some kind of deadlift variation.

And honestly, as much as I love the Smith machine (for certain exercises), It's probably the last piece of equipment I'd use for improving my total body strength (note the word strength and not muscle size) because it removes the need for stabilisation.

Higher anabolic hormone levels

an athletic man and woman stood in the gym weight room

Ever heard the saying that deadlifts make your whole body grow?

While I don't quite believe that deadlifts will get your arms jacked or your blow up your pecs, I can understand where the myth comes from.

It's a well-established, scientific fact that compound exercises (of which the deadlift is a perfect example) secrete the highest amount of anabolic hormones like testosterone [5].

And it's why I always include a good mixture of compound and isolation exercises in my programs. The compound exercises get the testosterone pumping (which carries over to the isolation exercises), and the isolation exercises ensure that each body part reaches muscular failure. Works like a charm for gaining size.

Improved injury resistance

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

Ironically, more people hurt their backs as a result of performing everyday tasks like gardening and hoovering than they do from performing deadlifts.

However, you can stop yourself from becoming part of this statistic by habituating your body to lifting heavy objects off the floor.

In this regard, the deadlift is a remarkably functional exercise. Because even if we don't consciously realise it, we're always bending down to pick things up or sitting in awkward positions, which, if it wasn't for our deadlift strength, could easily cause us to pull a muscle.

Smith machine deadlift alternatives

Smith machine rack pull

When you're doing deadlifts Smith machine style, you'll quickly notice that your Smith machine deadlift is actually more like a Smith machine rack pull.

This is fine if building a thick back is your main goal. After all, few exercises thicken the traps as quickly rack pulls. However, just don't expect your Smith machine deadlift or rack pull strength to carry over to the free weight versions.

If you want to be strong off the floor, then you need to develop your stabiliser muscles—and that calls for free weight deadlifts. Also, definitely don't waste your time with Smith machine power cleans if you care about developing true strength.

Smith machine Romanian deadlift

The Smith machine Romanian deadlift takes all the benefits of the free weight version—deep stretch, ease of overloading the muscles—and removes the stabilisation component, enabling you to focus purely on working your hamstrings.

It's a brilliant exercise if you're performing Romanian deadlifts more so for hamstring size than you are for deadlift strength. On the other hand, doing good mornings on the Smith machine is a surefire way to level up your pulling power off the floor.

Smith machine straight leg deadlift

The Smith machine straight leg deadlift is one of the best exercises for building your deadlift strength because it specifically works on pulling off the floor.

You'll need to choose a relatively light weight compared to what you'd use for conventional deadlifts—but I'm telling you, the pump in your hamstrings and spinal erectors is more than worth the ego hit.

FAQ

Can I deadlift on a Smith machine?

Body Builder Putting Weights On Bar In Gym

Can you deadlift on a Smith machine? Yes, it's definitely possible to deadlift on the Smith machine and build some serious muscle and strength doing so.

However, since the Smith machine deadlift mainly works your back, you'll need to do plenty of leg exercises to develop a proportional physique.

What's the difference between a Smith machine deadlift and a barbell deadlift?

weightlifer prepairing for training

When you compare a Smith machine vs barbell deadlift, you quickly realise that the Smith machine version is more like a rack pull, and thus, emphasises your back. The free weight version, on the other hand, is more of a full-body exercise, with a particular emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings. [6] [7]

You'll also find that you're considerably stronger on the Smith machine version since the bar has less distance to travel. However, in terms of muscle growth (at least in the upper body), there's unlikely to be any noticeable difference in results between the two lifts.

Is the Smith machine deadlift good for bodybuilding?

bodybuilder flexing his muscles

Yes, the Smith machine dead lift is good for bodybuilding because it's more like a rack pull, which allows you to focus on overloading your traps, rather than merely lifting a dead weight [8].

Is the Smith machine sumo deadlift effective?

athletic woman training her lower body inside a modern gym

Performing sumo deadlifts on Smith machine equipment isn't a good idea because like the sumo deadlift itself, Smith machines have an inherently short range of motion. So, by combing the two, you'd basically be doing a poor man's rack pull. And as a result, neither your traps nor your glutes and hamstrings would get any real stimulation. [9] [10]

How about single leg Smith machine deadlifts?

thinking women with question mark on white background

Performing a single leg deadlift Smith machine style is a clever way to work each hamstring and glute separately while removing (most) balance problems from the equation. It's also a smart tactic for fixing muscle imbalances.

However, note that I said hamstrings and glutes.

You can't perform a conventional Smith machine deadlift one leg at a time. So you'd have to pick either the Romanian or stiff leg deadlift variant if you want to train unilaterally.

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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