November 24, 2021
Deadlifts are one of the most powerful exercises that you can perform and should be an essential part of any training regimen, regardless of your fitness goals (with exception to those who have some certain limitations like a back injury). So what happens if your gym doesn’t barbells (people at Planet Fitness know all about this)? Is a smith machine deadlift an acceptable alternative?
We’re about to answer every question that you might have about using the smith machine to do deadlifts so that you can make up your own mind. From how to perform a deadlift on a smith machine correctly to the benefits and alternative exercises, we have you covered.
The answer to this question will depend on who you ask. There is a great amount of controversy surrounding this question, and for good reason. This is because the dynamics of the lift are different when using a Smith machine for deadlifts simply due to the bar path and the bar placement. The same is true for bench press and squats.
While different, there are some techniques and things to pay attention to that will allow you to perform a conventional deadlift with a Smith machine and make the mechanics as close as possible to a free barbell deadlift.
So, to answer the question, you CAN do a conventional deadlift with a Smith machine both safely and effectively...you just have to know what you are doing, and that is what we are going to teach you below.
It should be noted that if you have access to a barbell, we do highly recommend that you use it to perform standard deadlifts, beginner or not. It's obviously superior to a Smith machine when it comes to deadlifts. However, let's face it, you’re not always going to have options when it comes to equipment options. Not every gym you train at will have the right equipment, and you’ll need to make do with what you have. Planet Fitness is a prime example of this. If you go to Planet Fitness, there are no barbells, in which case deadlifting with a Smith machine is far better than not deadlifting at all. Just make sure you follow our instructions below and all will be stellar.
Before we get into how to do a Smith deadlift, let us quickly go over the differences between a Smith machine deadlift and a barbell deadlift.
The two major differences between Smith machine deadlift and a barbell deadlift is that the Smith machine has a fixed bar path and the plates will not touch the floor. So, let's discuss these two points.
Fixed Bar Path: Because the Smith machine has a fixed bar path, you have no choice but to follow it. The best bar path for a deadlift is straight up and down (in line with the middle of your foot from top to bottom). With a barbell, you can do that because you control the bar path. However, Smith machines come in a variety of angled bar paths. Some are straight up and down (which is ideal for deadlifts) but most commercial gyms have a Smith machine with an angled bar path (generally 7-12˚ incline angle). This poses some issues as it messes with the form of a deadlift, and if going to full lockout, can cause excessive hip extension. This doesn't mean you can do it with an angled Smith machine, you just have to be careful of over extending your hips at the top and putting too much pressure on your low back on the way down.
Note: Another thing about a fixed bar path is it requires less effort to stabilize the weight. This makes it less effective for overall strength and building up your stabilizer muscles, but this is more of a disadvantage rather than an issue. That said, you may find that you can lift more because of this.
Bar Not On Ground: You’ll notice that the smith machine doesn’t let the plates rest on the floor. This means the starting position will be higher. With free weights, you’re lifting the weights off the floor, making it more systematically demanding. It takes a lot more strength to do this. Essentially, you'd be minimizing the range of motion (knee flexion and extension), which takes away from some leg development. That said, the easy fix for this is to stand on a low platform or some plates, so that the bar is towards the lower part of your shins. Again, we will make note of this in the instructions below.
All in all, barbell deadlifts elicit more muscles and power and it requires you to develop good mechanics. But, the Smith machine can be effective for building the same muscles, you just have to make some adjustments to account for its limitations.
Related: Barbell Deadlift Exercise Guide
Believe it or not, when the smith machine deadlift is performed correctly, it can be an effective and safe deadlift exercise. But before you jump on the smith machine and start doing deadlifts, there are some important things that you’ll need to know. Understanding the proper form, necessary steps, and potential dangers will allow you to make the exercise effective and reduce the risk injury.
Let’s first go over the different types of smith machines. There are angled and straight bar path machines.
Non-angled machines are far better, but unfortunately, most gyms have angled smiths. And if you do not perform it correctly, there is a higher risk of a lower back injury.
If you are using an angled Smith machine for deadlifts, you will need to make sure you’re facing the machine with the angled bar path coming towards your face rather than away. This ensures that when you’re bringing the bar down it drifts away from you, and when you come up, the bar comes towards you. This reduces the pressure placed on your lower back.
If you were to stand opposite, with the angle of the machine furthest from your face, the bar would drift towards you on the way down and towards you on the way up, causing your lower back to work harder.
If you are using a straight bar path Smith machine, you can face either way and you will be working with a bar path that is natural for deadlifts, so win-win.
As for bar height, because the bar does not go all the way to the ground, you’ll want to place something under your feet so the bar is in the correct starting position. This will differ depending on your heigh and mobility. Play around with it with an unloaded Smith bar first until you find the right height. You can use two 25lb weights stacked under both your feet or some blocks. The bar should be just below the middle of your shins for conventional deadlifts.
It’s important to note another major difference with the smith machine is the smooth bar and the way the bar rolls makes gripping it difficult, especially as you increase the weight used. Some of the ways that you can improve your grip are by using grips and doing fewer reps with cluster sets and heavier weights. Cluster sets allow you to get the work in with a brief rest in between, and you’re getting the work in, in a relatively short time.
Here’s step by step instructions:
If you want to watch the Smith machine deadlift, check out this video on Youtube. He will go over how to do it step-by-step, which is just as we've explained above. This guy knows what he is doing. Many other Youtube videos have people simply doing RDLs or Stiff-Leg Deadlifts on a Smith machine, not conventional deadlift, even though they claim it's a conventional deadlift. While RDLs and SLDLs are great, they are NOT the same thing.
To be honest, there aren't really any benefits of doing Smith machine deadlifts over a barbell deadlift. The main benefit is that if you don't have a barbell, you can use a Smith machine. That said, if you are using a straight bar path Smith machine, there is an advantage for beginners, which is that it will keep your bar path as it should be, teaching you the proper mechanics. This will allow you to get the form down and hit your muscles correctly. But eventually, you should move on to a free barbell deadlift.
Now, when not comparing it to a barbell deadlift, the Smith machine deadlift DOES have plenty of benefits, many of which are the same as deadlifts with barbells. You can build strength and muscle mass in your quads and entire posterior chain, as well as your forearms and grip. It's also great for building stronger bones, burning calories, and building overall brute power. You know, all the usual benefits of deadlifts.
There are many muscles that become active when pulling weight from the floor to a lockout.
When you’re bringing the barbell from the floor knees you target the quadriceps muscles and hamstrings. When you bring the barbell from your knees to lock out, you target the back muscles, glutes, and hamstrings.
While conventional deadlifts are great, there are also other variations and alternatives to consider if you only have a Smith machine. The below four exercises will essentially target the same muscles that you would with deadlifts. The conventional deadlift is a bigger, compound movement, and these are more so isolation exercises, but together you can effectively train the same muscles. Plus, these are generally well accepted to be done with a smith machine.
The Smith machine stiff-legged deadlift is a great alternative targeting your hamstrings, glutes, and low back. It's basically a hamstring isolation exercise, but it does work the other aforementioned muscles too. The Smith machine provides more stability over the barbel for these movements, allowing to really hone in on the muscles. Also, because the knees are essentially taken out of the equation with stiff-leg deadlifts, it's a good alternative over smith machine deadlifts. There's less you have to worry about. But still, avoid over extending your hips at the top.
How to do Smith Machine Stiff-Legged Deadlift :
Related: Stiff-Leg Deadlift Exercise Guide
When performed correctly, the Smith machine RDLs, or Romanian deadlifts, are extremely effective at isolating the hamstrings. It will also work the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, and adductors and aid in strengthening the core and the lower body with one move.
What makes this exercise even better is the high levels of muscle tension that you get from the deep eccentric stretch. This aids in building mass, specifically in the hamstrings.
Overall, it is very similar to the stiff-leg deadlift, but there will be more flexion of the knees. You can have a more pronounced knee bend with RDLs.
How to do Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift :
Related: Romanian Deadlift Exercise Guide
The Smith machine rack pull is an amazing alternative for your back. The primary function of this exercise is to improve the top portion of a deadlift and to build a beefy back and traps. You can go very heavy with this if you have wrist straps, which we recommend getting if you want to do rack pulls.
How to do Smith machine rack pulls:
This is the only exercise that is not a deadlift at all, but it does hit the hamstrings, glutes and low back, and it does involve the same hip function, which makes it a great alternative.
When it comes to smith machines, the alternatives and variations that we went over are arguably better options than conventional deadlifts, at least for some. Using a combination of these exercises, you’ll target the same muscles that you would be performing the deadlift.
There may come a time when all you have access to is a Smith machine for deadlifts. And that’s okay because now you know how to effectively and safely perform a smith machine deadlift. While it is not the best option, it is an option that can surely provide results.
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