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Smith machine Romanian deadlift your way to world-class hamstrings

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Is it even a proper Smith machine leg workout unless you do Romanian deadlifts?

I certainly don't think it is.

If you want to build beefy hamstrings, then the Smith machine Romanian deadlift is your best friend. Unlike the barbell version, you don't have to stabilise the weight, which means that you can focus purely on achieving that oh so satisfying stretch in your hamstrings.

athletic woman training her lower body inside a modern gym

Perhaps you've been neglecting RDLs, opting instead for the comfortable leg curl machine?

You probably have lagging hamstrings if this is the case for you, because the hamstrings cross 2 joints—the hip and the knee. As such, to achieve the best development possible, you have to perform both knee flexion exercises (leg curls) and hip-hinge exercises (RDLs).

Preferably in equal quantities.

In this article, you'll quickly learn how to perform Romanian deadlift the right way. And, if you hang around a little longer, I'll show you the best training gear to help you get the most from each and every Romanian deadlift rep that you perform.

Smith machine Romanian deadlift exercise details

  • Main muscles: Glutes, hamstrings
  • Supporting muscles: Spinal erectors, abs, traps, forearms
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Weightlifting belt, lifting straps, chalk
  • Exercise purpose: Develop the posterior chain

How to do a Romanian deadlift on the Smith machine

Here's how to Romanian deadlift on smith machine stations:

  1. Position the Smith bar to just above knee level.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and flare your feet out around 15 degrees.
  3. Lift your chest up and brace your abs to create full-body tension.
  4. Grab the bar with an overhand grip so that your hands are just outside your thighs.
  5. "Pack" your lats by externally rotating your shoulders (essentially the opposite of a shrug).
  6. Bend your knee slightly and push your hip straight back while maintaining a neutral spine and keeping your chest up.
  7. Go as deep as you comfortably can. Just below knee-level is a typical RDL depth, and there's no need to touch the plates to the floor.
  8. Reverse the rep by simultaneously driving your hips forwards and your chest up—repeat for 3-6 sets of 6-15 reps.

Romanian deadlift mistakes

Do NOT make these 3 fatal mistakes on Smith machine Romanian deadlifts—if you want bigger hamstrings [1].

Overstretching

woman performing a deadlift while standing on a step up platform

Have you ever seen a bodybuilder—or perhaps just a regular gym-goer—precariously perform stiff leg deadlifts on a step-up platform or some other kind of elevated surface?

If not, then you're lucky.

This type of overstretching training actually makes me cringe because the injury risk is so high. It's one thing being able to touch your toes with no weight. But it's a completely different thing to be able to it with 100kg, 50kg—even just 20kg.

Ironically, deadlifting this deeply does virtually nothing extra for your hamstrings compared to just stopping at shin level. However, it does send your lower back and hamstring injury risk through the roof.

"Some people think that more range of motion is always better, but this simply isn't the case."
Jeff Nippard
Canadian Bodybuilder

Even more ironically still, I would guess that training like this actually leads to less hamstring growth because you have to lighten the weight significantly. It's a well-established fact that a muscle is weakest at it's most lengthened and most contracted positions.

Hence, why a bench press (where you train in between muscle lengths) is considered a better mass-builder than a pec fly, where you train in a very shortened position.

Letting your knees travel forward

man with knee pain sitting on the floor at the gym

Do you want to know how to spot an ego lifter?

Take a look at his Romanian deadlift. If his knees are bending excessively, or if his hips are dropping down rather than back (a common side-effect of knees travelling forwards), then you've just spotted an ego lifer in his natural habitat.

The poor sod is still doing conventional deadlifts!

If only he knew that Romanian deadlifts were a pure hip-hinge exercise, his hamstrings would be so much better off. While rocking your knees back and forth like a boxer who's about to hit the deck, might well help you lift more weight, I can assure you—it's doing nothing extra at your hamstrings.

Instead, focusing on hinging solely at the hips while keeping your upper back tight and your chest up. This muscle growth-first, ego-second deadlifting technique, will build your hamstrings faster while simultaneously lowering your injury risk.

If there was ever a cheat code to world-class hamstring development, it's the willingness to learn the proper form [2].

Sabotaging your lower back

woman with her hands on her back because she is in pain

As mentioned, when you sink your hips down (rather than back) during a Romanian deadlift, you're robbing your hamstrings of tension and shifting the resistance onto your quads.

Think about it for a second. Allowing your knees to bend excessively (and thus, your hips to sink down) essentially turns your deadlift into a squat. And as anyone with an ounce of biomechanics knowledge will tell you, squats are a terrible hamstring exercise.

Thankfully, you can avoid this all too common mistake by keeping the bar close to your body, effectively letting it rub against your thighs and shins the entire time. You won't be able to come down as far as you otherwise would, but you can lift happy knowing that all the tension is right where you want it to be—on your lagging hamstrings.

Recommended training gear for Romanian deadlifts

1. Weightlifting belt

Weightlifting belts compress the abdominal cavity and increase your intra-abdominal pressure (in other words, your ability to brace) by about 40%.

rdx weightlifting belt

Some may call this cheating, and that's fine. But I'd rather be the drug-free "cheat" with big hamstrings than the good little boy with twig legs.

Weightlifting belts can easily run into the hundreds, but since they pretty much all do the same thing, I use the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting, and I have no complaints.

I don't do conventional deads anymore since my main focus is muscle growth, but I still wear this cowhide leather belt whenever I perform Romanian or stiff-leg deadlifts. It's comfortable, fully adjustable and most importantly, it doesn't dig into my ribs like the others. It's also a great choice if you want a lifting belt that comes with a money-back guarantee.

dark iron fitness weightlifting belt

Similarly, I've tried that Dark Iron Fitness Lifting Belt with excellent results.

It's similar to the RDX belt in that it's made from thick Buffalo hide and offers a variety of adjustments so that you can increase your strength by finding the most comfortable position. And, according to the company, users saw an average increase of 10% on the major lifts.

And after using the belt myself, I can confirm that that's about right. My Smith machine RDL 5-rep-max went from 180kg to 195kg, which I think is decent considering that I've been lifting for more than 10 years.

2. Lifting straps

captins of crush gripper in its packaging

Now, I don't recommend neglecting grip training. I think that a firm grip is important if you want to be strong rather than just look strong. However, hamstring-focused Romanian deadlifts aren't the time to worry about your grip strength.

I train my forearms with my hand gripper, anyway.

For my RDLs and back exercises, however, I don't lift without my Versa Gripps.

close up of captins of crush hand grip trainers

It used to be a nightmare to get these things in England, but finally, you can. Their non-slip material enables me to maintain a sturdy hold on the bar without putting any thought into it. This allows me to get a better leg or back workout by focusing purely on the working muscle.

The arch support and nerve damage protection, however, is definitely my favourite feature since I spend a lot of my day working on the computer. So if you've got a desk job too, or just want something that goes above and beyond regular lifting straps, then I highly recommend investing in a pair of Versa Gipp Pros.

3. Weightlifting chalk

weightlifting chalk

If you're more old school (or just can't bear the thought of not having straps that don't match your purse), then weightlifting chalk is another good option.

As I said, I'll happily be the "weakling" with the big hamstrings all day long. But if your ego insists on going strapless, or if you want some good chalk for your other exercises, then I can definitely recommend this Sweat-Free Liquid Sports Chalk.

It's a little pricier (well, at least in terms of chalk) than other chalk, but it also doesn't create a huge white cloud every time you use it. It's great if you want to use lifting chalk on the sly without the grumpy gym staff noticing.

Romanian deadlift muscles worked

Hamstrings

close up of a bodybuilder's hamstrings

The hamstrings are the prime movers during the Smith machine Romanian deadlift. Because of the extremely high levels of muscle tension that results from the deep eccentric stretch, RDLs are just about the best mass-building hamstring exercise that you can do.

While the pump gets all the glory, the research is quite clear: mechanical tension (big stretch) is more important than metabolic stress (big pump) for sparking new muscle growth [3].

Glutes

man putting chalk on his hands during a powerlifting meet

The glutes are the second most active muscle in the Romanian deadlift. As far as your glutes are concerned, the RDL is essentially the opposite of the hip thrust (the peak tension is in the stretched position, rather than the contracted position).

As a result, there's no need to squeeze your glutes for any length of time at the lockout position. After all, the hardest pas of an RDL is at the bottom of the rep. At the top of the rep, your forearms and traps are handling the weight, so you're essentially doing weightless glute squeezes. Or, in other words—resting when you should be working [4].

Erectors

Shirtless athletic man turned back on white background.

The spinal erectors are more active during the barbell Romanian deadlift than the Smith machine version because they have to contract harder to maintain a neutral spine.

Obviously, doing the Romanian deadlift Smith machine style is the best way to isolate your hamstrings and glutes since you don't have to put any effort—mental or physical—into stabilising the bar. You can devote 100% of your attention to your legs and make them grow.

Diet permitting, of course.

Upper back

bodybuilder showing off his muscular back

Whether you realise it or not, your lats and traps work hard isometrically during RDLs to keep your spine in neutral. If you ease up on the tension, then your upper back will start to round, which in turn, makes your lower back start to round. And we all know that it's downhill from there...

So I like to "pack" my lats by pretending that I'm holding a lat pushdown exercise in the contracted position. This cue keeps my scapula depressed, rather than elevated (like in a shrug), and ensures that my back stays tight, thereby keeping my spine healthy and making my core strong.

Arms

bodybuilder flexing his big biceps

While any deadlift variation naturally provides a decent forearm workout, it's usually at the expense of your legs. So personally, I always use my Versa Gripps to make sure that my hamstrings—not my grip—is the limiting factor.

Romanian deadlift benefits

Beefy hamstrings

bodybuider training his hamstrings

I've seen countless people—usually older folk reading magazines—spend their entire training session on the leg curl machine. Yet, their hamstring development seems to have gone AWOL.

Ok, so maybe they're not consuming enough high-quality protein. Or perhaps they just don't want beefy hamstrings. That's fine. But that's not the point of this guide.

While leg curls do indeed produce a splendid muscle pump, they're much worse than Romanian deadlifts for adding mass to the hamstrings. This disparity is simply because you can lift far less weight on a knee flexion exercise than on a hip-hinge exercise.

Think about it. If you had one month to make your legs as big as possible, but you could perform only one exercise, would you do squats or leg extensions?

Exactly. You'd do squats.

Well, it works the exact same way for your hamstrings—you need to lift heavy to get big.

Amazing glutes

young woman doing yoga inside

The hip thrust is often touted as the world's best glute exercise. But is that really true?

Well, a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that Romanian deadlifts are equally effective as the hip thrust for activating the glutes and hamstrings [5].

And while I certainly wouldn't pack away your bar pad and stop hip thrusting anytime soon, the research shows just how magnificent a glute-builder the RDL really is.

Just make sure to push your hips as far back as you comfortably can if you want to enjoy the most glute growth.

Healthier lower back

runner ina white vest with a back injury

By removing the majority of your stabiliser muscle from the equation, the Smith machine Romanian deadlift teaches you to lift with hips, rather than with your back (or whatever other muscle you can use to lug the weight up).

Naturally, performing the RDL as it was intended (which is to say as a hip hinge) is far healthier for your lower back than just flinging the bar up by whatever means possible. In the long run, this form will also produce faster muscle growth in all areas of your body since you'll obviously have to take far less (if any) injury time away from the gym.

Extra injury resistance

man with a hamstring injury

Put simply, if your hamstrings are used to being stretched under heavy loads, a la the RDL, then they'll be much less likely to become strained in everyday life.

This might not seem like much of a benefit if you're a bodybuilder. But trust me, it will as you get older.

Romanian deadlift alternatives

Smith machine deadlift

woman training inside a modern gym

Some people, especially powerlifters, say that the Smith machine deadlift isn't a deadlift at all because you're not lifting off the ground.

And I would tend to agree.

If you want to truly test your strength, then you need to pick a heavy object up off the ground—not slide a cute little bar up some guided tracks,

However, as we've established, when it comes to building your hamstrings, that cute little barbell is damn effective. So don't think that you have to conventional deadlift if size, rather than strength, is your main priority.

Smith machine stiff legged deadlift

woman working out on a smith machine

It seems like there are a gazillion different deadlift variations these days—one for every country and degree of knee bend. However, most of them do pretty much the same thing (which is to say train your glutes and hamstrings).

Smith machine stiff legged deadlifts are virtually identical to Romanian deadlifts. The only differences are that, in a stiff leg deadlift, you go deeper, have less knee bend and sometimes begin the lift from the floor, in an attempt to improve your off-the-floor strength for the conventional deadlift.

Smith machine good mornings

woman training her legs inside the gym

If I had a pound for every time I saw someone perform Smith machine good mornings...I'd be absolutely broke.

Yeah, this exercise isn't very popular. It's brutal on your lower back, makes your hamstrings feel like they're going rip off the bone and has an intense learning curve—not exactly what I'd call fun.

I much prefer the Smith machine Romanian deadlift, and I think that you will, too.

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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