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Reverse-grip smith machine row: The safe way to grow your lats

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Once you've figured out how to use the Smith machine properly, the only task left to complete is picking the best exercises for the job.

And today, I'm going to explain how to get the full benefits from one of the most effective Smith machine back exercises—the reverse-grip Smith machine row.

Let's get into the technique...

Reverse-grip Smith machine row exercise details

  • Main muscles: Lats, traps, biceps
  • Supporting muscles: Forearms, abs, glutes, hamstrings
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting straps, lifting belt, hand grip strengthener
  • Exercise purpose: Build back thickness and bicep mass simultaneously

How to do a Reverse-grip Smith machine row

  1. Set the bar to just below knee level.
  2. Grab the bar with an underhand grip just outside of shoulder-width.
  3. Hinge at the hips by pushing your glutes back while actively pulling your chest up (prevents spinal rounding).
  4. Unhook the barbell and extend your elbows so that the bar is resting against your knees or lower thighs (depends on limb length).
  5. Pull the bar into your lower abs by driving your elbows behind your torso.
  6. Squeeze your lats and then lower the bar under control, allowing it to stretch your back muscles on the way down.
  7. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.
"Instead of pulling up high to your chest, which'll give you a lot of bicep flexion, you're gonna pull down into the bottom of your waist with your lats."
Kris Gethin
Kaged Muscle Founder

Reverse-grip Smith machine row mistakes

Turning it into a rack pull

weight lifting bar on the rack in a fitness centre

It can be tempting for beginners to let their torso drop as they lower the bar in an attempt to stretch their lats. However, this kind of sloppy form only increases the strain on your lower back.

It means that you're constantly relying on your fast-fatiguing spinal erectors to switch between torso positions, effectively turning the movement into a glorified rack pull.

Instead, keep your torso as rigid as the trunk of a solid oak tree. You'll feel much more lat activation this way, and your spinal erectors will thank you for it.

Pulling with your biceps

man flexing his arms for a woman in the gym

You should—and will—feel an intense bicep pump while performing the Smith machine reverse row. It's also a brilliant exercise for sneaking in some arm work for if you don't like training your beach muscles. By which, of course, I mean that you're a powerlifter.

However, you shouldn't initiate the movement with your biceps. Instead, you should begin each rep by driving your elbows behind your torso. Think of your hands as hooks and treat the bicep pump as a nice bonus.

Or just remember this rhyme: lead with the bows' during Smith machine rows, and you'll have big wide lats like those IFBB Pros [1].

Using a narrow grip

athletic man doing rows with a barbell

Using a close grip during the reverse Smith machine row is a one-way ticket to a narrow, arm-dominant physique that makes people think that all you do is bicep curls in your bedroom.

By using an excessively close grip, you effectively reduce your trap activation to zero while simultaneously leaving your lats grossly understimulated. Because, invariably, a narrow grip causes your elbows to hit your abs, which literally cuts the range of motion (and your muscle growth) in half.

Pulling too high

man doing underhand barbell rows
This guy gets it

Traditional barbell rows reliably build the traps and rear delts. However, they're mediocre at best for lat development.

Try the Smith machine Yates row if your back is lacking width. The technique is virtually the same as it is for the regular reverse grip Smith machine row. However, rather than merely rowing the bar into your abs, you're literally dragging it up your thighs.

Don't be surprised if your t-shirt feels tighter after doing the Smith machine underhand Yates row for a few months. This exercise works likes gangbusters for widening the lower lats. It's a must-do movement, in my opinion, if you want to develop a broader v-taper.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine reverse-grip rows

1. Lifting straps

Lifting straps indirectly widen your back because they ensure that your lats and traps—not your grip strength—are always the limiting factor.

man with his beast gear wrist wraps

I originally used to wear the Beast Gear Weight Lifting Straps.

You see, I didn't have much money for training accessories back then. So it was imperative that my straps could stand the test of time.

Well, two years on, and they're still like new. But more importantly—thanks to their gel grips—these Beast Gear straps give me a steadfast hold on the bar. My grip never feels like it's going to give out in the middle of rows or pulldowns. And my back is grateful for it.

However, they weren't exactly the comfiest lifting straps in the word. So when times got a bit better, I went ahead and splashed out on some Versa Gripps.

versa gripp pro

I'd heard a lot of praise for these USA-made lifting straps, and I was curious if it was just hype or if Versa Gripps were actually legit.

The truth is that Versa Gripps aren't legit—they're ironclad legit.

Their non-slip construction immediately increased my pulling strength, and I had borderline unbearable back DOMS the next day from lifting so heavy.

However, my Versa Gripps's built-in arch support for carpal tunnel and their nerve damage protection mechanism made the biggest difference for me. You see, I work a desk job and spend way too much time on my phone (not while sitting on gym equipment, of course), and my hands are pretty cranky because of it.

blue versa gripps

Usually, this means that I need to lighten the weights if I want to avoid wrist and hand pain. And although Versa Gripps haven't cured all my ills, since using them for every back session, I've been able to lift heavy and smash through plateaus because my joints are no longer hurting.

And that, for me, is the biggest benefit—because you can't put a price on joint health. Far too many other straps feel like they're going to tear my wrist off. But Versa Gripps? They're comfy as heck!

2. Weightlifting belt

rdx weightlifting belt

Some "hardcore" powerlifters might laugh at me for wearing a belt while using a Smith machine. But I don't care. I'd rather be the "weak" guy with the wide back than the strong guy who looks like a beach whale.

And just to trigger the powerlifters reading even more, I don't think that fancy weightlifting bets are worth the money. At. All.

For example, I own the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting.

I performed deadlifts and squats in this so-called "entry-level" belt and then did them in my mate's professional belt, which cost him ninety quid.

dark iron fitness weightlifting belt

My strength was the exact same—both increased my lifts by around 8-10kg.

So I tried the Dark Iron Fitness Genuine Leather Weight Lifting Belt to make sure that it wasn't a fluke. And sure enough—much to the disappointment of my friend—my strength was the exact fricking same with the Dark Iron belt.

Need I say more?

"Hold solid joint position, drop the weight a bit, and train what you mean to train."
Eric Bach

Reverse-grip Smith machine row muscles worked

Lats

Illustration of the latissimus dorsi anatomy

Pulling the bar into your lower, rather than upper abs—or even dragging it up your thighs—is the best form tip I can give you for increasing your lower lat development [2].

You see, when you row low, you automatically put the traps and rear delts in a position of mechanical disadvantage. Naturally, this technique forces your lats to do all the work—and they're practically left with no choice but to grow.

Traps

Illustration of the trapezius anatomy

You're going to get some decent trap activation anytime you squeeze your shoulder blades together. After all, the trapezius muscles are scapula retractors. However, because we're keeping our elbows close to our sides, our lats will receive most of the tension [3].

Erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

When you perform the reverse row Smith machine style, your spinal erectors are under much less strain than when you do it with a barbell because they don't need to stabilise the weight.

This type of rowing is jaw-droppingly effective for building your upper back because it ensures that the muscles you're trying to work—your lats and traps—are always the limiting factor [4].

Biceps

Illustration of the biceps anatomy

The biceps serve two mains functions: elbow flexion and forearms supination (turning your palm up). Since the reverse grip bent over row trains both of these functions, it's actually a fantastic bicep builder. At least in theory...

Of course, if you're using the proper form—and if you don't have noodle arms—then your biceps won't be the limiting factor. This is great for your lats because it means they get a bigger share of the tension.

However, it also means that your biceps will always be left somewhat understimulated. So you'll definitely need to throw in some curls if you want complete bicep development.

Forearms

Illustration of the forearm anatomy

If you go heavy enough, then the Smith machine underhand bent over row can actually add some decent size to your forearms. But if you're anything like me, you'll naturally want to prevent your relatively weaker forearms from limiting your back growth, which is why I always use Versa Gripps during my rowing and pulling movements.

They work like a charm for maintaining a firm grip on the bar.

Reverse-grip Smith machine row benefits

Healthier spinal erectors

Doctor stretching a young man back in medical office

You only get one spine. And if you mess it up, then you're going to be in a world of pain—physically, mentally and maybe even financially.

And no, not even a good lifting belt can compensate for sloppy bent over row form.

Your spinal erectors are under insane amounts of stress every time you squat, deadlift and yes—even when you bench press. Why not give them a break on back day?

You'll have a much easier time feeling your lats working.

Wider lats

bodybuilder showing off his physique

The reverse grip Smith machine row is especially useful for building your lats because your arms are naturally close to your torso. This positioning cleverly shifts the tension from your traps to your lats, which results in a wider physique.

Also, you can just naturally lift more weight with an underhand grip than you can with an overhand one. This means that your lats are receiving extra resistance, which is yet another stimulus for growth [5].

Stronger mind-muscle connection

bodybuilder showing off his back and arm muscles

Besides performing more training volume—and you know, taking roids—a stronger mind-muscle connection is one of the reasons why bodybuilders are usually bigger than powerlifters.

When all you have to do is focus on stretching and squeezing your lats, it's much easier to produce a potent pump in your back. But it's great for muscle growth, too, because more of the tension is going where you want it to—namely, on your lower lats.

Bigger biceps

muscular man looking at his biceps

The reverse grip Smith machine row is for biceps what the bench press is for triceps—your bis aren't the target muscle, but they're still getting a boatload of stimulation.

You can row much heavier weights than you can curl. So in this regard, the reverse row is also kind of like a chin up—as far as bicep activation goes at least.

Reverse-grip Smith machine row alternatives

Smith machine bent over row

Check out the traditional Smith machine barbell row if you want to improve your back thickness. You'll still hit your lats decently with this overhand variation. However, it mainly focuses on the traps and rear delts, which gives your back that appearance of "muscle maturity".

Single arm Smith machine row

If you've maxed out the dumbbells in your gym, or if you want to fix the muscle imbalances in your back, then I can't recommend the single arm Smith machine row enough. Although this exercise has a reputation as an "accessory lift", it's actually an amazing mass-builder because you'll never come to close maxing out the Smith machine's weight capacity.

Conversely, many people can do 50kg dumbbells rows and have to switch exercises or resort to high rep training (when they max out the dumbbells). Which is less than ideal if you love lifting heavy.

Smith machine inverted row

The Smith machine inverted row is for back thickness what pull ups are for back width—an insanely effective mass-builder.

Mastering these two exercises alone will earn you a bigger back than 99% of people. Plus, bodyweight exercises are beneficial for strengthening your core—and they're safe for your joints.

Add in a quality weighted vest, and the back-building possibilities of this bodyweight exercise are endless. In my opinion, the inverted row can build just as much—if not more—muscle than the reverse-grip Smith machine row.

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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