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Smith machine good mornings: Learn how stabilisation can beef up your posterior chain

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Despite not having the same allure as a comfortable leg curl machine, good mornings are actually one of the most effective Smith machine hamstring exercises.

While they definitely have a steep learning curve and come with a higher injury risk—at least initially—than similar posterior chain exercises, Smith machine good mornings are one of the all-time best squat-builders.

Perhaps even more so that the free weight version...

Smith machine good morning exercise details

  • Main muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, lower back
  • Supporting muscles: Upper back
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Bar pad, lifting belt, foam roller
  • Exercise purpose: Strengthen the posterior chain
"Yes, it is true that the good morning can be dangerous if you do it incorrectly. But that can be said about any exercise."
Ryan Treadaway
Founder of Treadway Training

How to do Smith machine good mornings

Here's how to perform good mornings Smith machine style:

  1. Set the Smith bar to armpit height.
  2. Set the safety catches to waist height or just above (especially if you're learning the ropes).
  3. Assume a hip-width stance, bend your knees slightly and then place the barbell across your rear delts (this is called the low bar position in powerlifting circles).
  4. Brace your core against your lifting belt by taking a deep breath into your diaphragm.
  5. Initiate the rep by slowly driving your hips backwards until your back is completely flat. Think about pushing your upper back into the bar in order to keep your torso straight—don't try to support the bar with your wrists.
  6. Come back up by thrusting your hips forwards while pushing your rear delts into the bar (helps to maintain that crucial upper back tightness).
  7. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps.

Smith machine good morning tips

Keep your upper back tight

man with a barbell on his shoulders

Admittedly, it's pretty difficult to lose control of the barbell while performing a good morning Smith machine style. However, it's still possible. Especially if you forget to deploy the safety catches.

As a result, it's imperative that you keep your upper back—and really, the whole of your back—extremely tight. You want to actively drive your rear delts and mid-traps into the bar as if you were trying to push it up and away from your back. You can pretend a big rock is trying to crush you and that you're doing everything in your power to resist it if that helps.

Whatever you do, don't let your back round. Because this will cause the bar to effectively fold your torso in half—and presumably cause a lot of spinal pain in the process.

Allow only minimal knee bend

female with physio tape on her knee

Believe it or not, there's an art to bending your knees. At least during good mornings.

Breaking at the hips first is the easiest way to master this skill. Effectively, your knees are bending as a consequence of you driving your hips backwards.

This little form cue can mean the difference between building a stronger squat and actually turning your good morning into a squat. And as anyone with a working knowledge of human anatomy will tell you, the squat is a terrible hamstring exercise.

Start light, but lift heavy

sporty woman exercising with a loaded barbell inside the gym

Listen, I'm not your father. So I'm not going to tell you what to do.

However, I am going to strongly recommend that you start light when performing good mornings on Smith machine stations. Yes, even if you've done the barbell version before.

Reason being is that, while you can develop amazing hamstrings with this exercise, you can just as easily wreck your lower back. So learn the proper form before venturing beyond the unloaded Smith bar.

However, in somewhat mild irony, research shows that good mornings produce the highest hamstring and erector spinae activation when you lift heavy—specifically with 90% of your 1RM [1].

Stabilisation is my guess as to why the researches found superior muscle activation at 90% of 1RM compared to 50%, 60%, 70% and 80%. Put simply: your muscles need to be more "active" to stabilise a very heavy bar rather than just a moderately heavy bar. Makes sense, doesn't it?

All that said, I recommend sticking with 6-12 reps (so about 80% of 1RM) because more muscle activation doesn't necessarily correlate with more muscle growth. As I've said many times before, I could squeeze my hamstrings intensely and elicit extremely high levels of muscle activation. But would I build any actual size doing that?

No, probably not.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine good mornings

1. Bar pad

man using bar pad while training in the gym

Good mornings are a pain in the neck—literally if you mess up the bar position. But also in the learning curve. And while I hope this guide helps you with the latter, only towering traps and a thick bar pad can prevent the former from ruining your workout.

I personally use the Advanced Squat Pad for all my heavy barbell work, and I have absolutely no complaints.

The anti-slip design was what sold me on this particular bar pad. I can't count the number of times that other bar pads have rolled off the barbell mid squat and caused me tremendous pain. And that's to say nothing of the ruined lifting rhythm.

reehut bar pad

Anyway, I don't train legs anymore without my Advanced Squat Pad. However, if you're on a budget, then you might also want to check out the Beast Gear Barbell Pad, which I've also enjoyed good protection from in the past.

The company source some of the densest foam padding that I've felt, which really makes a difference during one-rep max attempts. But best of all, the padding is sweat-resistant, meaning that like my Advanced Squat Sponge, the Beast Gear Barbell Pad keeps you safe because it doesn't slip around during training.

2. Lifting belt

If there's one exercise that I refuse to do without my lifting belt, it's the good morning.

rdx weightlifting belt

Although good mornings are a fantastic glute and hamstring builder, they're also tough on the spinal erectors. However, you can greatly reduce this pressure by wearing a lifting belt because belts have been shown to reduce lower back compression by about 50%.

But there's no need to pay for designer weightlifting belts. The major powerlifters often endorse these fancy lifting belts. So naturally, they make the wearers feel strong, but they don't actually increase your strength more than the likes of this RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting, which is what I personally use.

It's made from 4" thick cowhide leather and comes with a money-back guarantee—so it'll be the only lifting belt that you'll ever need to buy. But the deciding factor for me buying it was the 10 adjustment holes (I like having a lot of precision when I'm optimising my lifting setup).

dark iron fitness weightlifting belt

I've also used the Dark Iron Fitness Genuine Leather Weight Lifting Belt and was really impressed with the quality.

I test a lot of fitness equipment for my website, so that's why I'm always wearing different belts. I couldn't tell much of a difference between this and the RDX one, but they were way better than most of the others (which I ended up giving away to people at my gym).

Dark Iron includes a lifetime replacement guarantee on all of their products, so I knew that I was getting a quality belt when I gave these guys my business. It's made from real Buffalo hide leather and includes double stitching for extra durability. And, as I mentioned in a previous article, it increased my deadlift strength by almost 10% (180kg > 195kg).

3. Foam roller

As much as I enjoy the benefits of good mornings, the resulting DOMS are often painful to the point of being semi-debilitating.

fit beast foam roller set

I tried consuming more protein and intra-workout BCAAs to help with the soreness, and it did help a bit. However, I was already consuming lots of high-quality protein, so it didn't exactly transform my DOMS into gains.

It wasn't until I bought this 4 Piece Foam roller set that I started to see a noticeable improvement in my recovery time. Nowadays, instead of having to wait 3-4 days between sessions, I can hit my leg hard again 2-3 days later—and with much less mental stress.

Yeah, there's something weirdly relaxing about foam rolling. Maybe that's why they call it self myofascial release?

Smith machine good morning muscles worked

Glutes

Illustration of the gluteus maximus anatomy

In terms of glute activation, the Smith machine good morning is the exact opposite of a hip thrust. Whereas the hip thrust is most challenging during the contracted position, the good morning is hardest during the stretched position, so it feels virtually weightless once you lock your hips out.

Therefore, you want to pick exercises that train your glutes in both their stretched and contracted states. The good morning is a fantastic choice for the former [2].

Hamstrings

Illustration of the hamstring anatomy

How do muscles grow bigger?

Essentially, you break them down with weight training and then build them back up by consuming high-quality proteins. At least that's the long and short of it.

If I started talking about sarcoplasms, myofibrillars and inflammation, that'd be a little boring, wouldn't it?

Anyway, the more intensely that you stretch a muscle, the more damage you create, and the bigger it grows back. And besides maybe RDLs, no exercise stretches the hamstrings more than good mornings. So if you're training for mass, then you want to do more than just leg curls.

Spinal erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

The spinal erectors get worked isometrically during good mornings because they flex to keep your spine from rounding.

Without them, your torso would fold in half like the flap of a cardboard box. Ouch.

Smith machine good morning benefits

Stronger squat

man performing deep squats

Good mornings are more effective than the stiff leg or Romanian deadlifts for increasing your squat strength because the bar's positioned on your back, rather than against your thighs. In other words, it more closely resembles the practice of squatting—put something heavy across your traps, descend and then get back up.

Reduced injury risk

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

When you go deep during barbell good mornings, it often feels like the bar's going to roll down to your neck. Of course, maintaining proper upper back tightness goes a long way to preventing reverse decapitation. But still, the risk is always there.

With the Smith machine version, however, the barbell is fixed. So you never have to worry about crushing your neck. That is, providing that you remember to set the safety stoppers.

Of course, if you ever do get stuck at the bottom of a Smith machine good morning, then you can get yourself out of trouble by simply turning your wrist to re-rack the barbell. However, with the free weight variation, you don't have this luxury. So it's probably best to go light or stick to machines [3] [4].

Bigger posterior chain

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

Unlike the barbell version, the Smith machine good morning enables you to customise the muscles worked—or rather, the muscle emphasised—by altering your foot position.

Step further away from the bar to active more of your spinal erectors, or stay closer to the machine to keep the tension on your glutes and hams. The beauty of this customisation is that you can work on your weak points.

Lower back giving out on deadlifts? Take a step or two back from the bar.

Struggling to bounce out of the hole on squats? Keep your feet underneath the bar.

It's that frickin' simple.

Smith machine good morning alternatives

Smith machine deadlift

woman training inside a modern gym

If you want to learn how to deadlift on a Smith machine, then definitely check out our info-packed guide. You'll learn why the Smith machine deadlift isn't really a deadlift at all (hint: it's more of a rack pull). Plus, I'll show you the 10 most deadly deadlift mistakes that you need to avoid if you want to get strong. So you'll be bound to learn something new.

Smith machine Romanian deadlift

woman performing a deadlift while standing on a step up platform

If muscle growth, rather than pure strength, is your primary goal, then I'd have to say that the Smith Machine RDL is a better choice than the good morning. Not only can you lift heavier weight with the RDL (and therefore, stimulate more hamstring growth). But in my experience, it's also far easier on the lower back, which is important if you want to train for years and decades to come.

Smith machine stiff-legged deadlift

woman working out on a smith machine

Performing a stiff leg deadlift on the Smith machine is a brilliant way to ensure that your hamstrings—and not your spinal erectors—are always the limiting factor in whether or not you can complete a rep. As a result, it's a much more effective exercise (from a bodybuilding perspective) than the likes of Smith machine good mornings.

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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