Smith Machines are one of the most common pieces of equipment in commercial gyms.
We’d almost go as far as saying, most gyms will have one.
Although a lot of purists don’t like using them, truth be told, they have rightfully earned their place in the gym landscape and will continue to be a popular choice for many gym-goers… especially beginners who enjoy the support and guidance they offer.
Places like Planet Fitness have even removed barbells, meaning Smith Machine workouts are one of your only options for heavy lifts.
So, if we can all agree that it really isn’t the end of the world to use this equipment during a workout…what are the best exercises to include in a Smith Machine back workout?
We’re glad you asked… this guide outlines 6 effective exercises to do on a Smith Machine, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced lifter. We’ve also included tips on how to perform each exercise if you’re just getting started, as well as how to make each exercise harder.
Adapting the Workout for Your Goals
This Smith Machine back workout has been designed to help develop muscle and burn calories. You may want to adjust the number of reps/sets to adapt the workout for your goals.
Smith Machine Back Workout
|Bent Over Row||8-12||3|
|Reverse Grip Row||8-12||3|
|Smith Machine Pull Ups||AMRAP*||3|
*AMRAP = As many reps as possible
**ALAP – As long as possible
Bent Over Row
The Bent Over Row is a great place to start for your back workout on a Smith Machine. This will allow you to lift heavy, as well as giving you the flexibility to adjust the movement with different hand placements and height.
The benefit of the Smith Machine is that you don’t necessarily have to start the lift off the floor… you could set the bar up around mid-thigh height.
The bar shouldn’t hit the floor during each rep, so if it does, you’re likely leaning too far forward (like a Pendlay row). Similarly, if you’re short or have long arms, you may find it’s just easier to stand on a small step whilst performing Bent Over Rows on a Smith Machine to allow you to extend your arms more comfortably.
Compared to a barbell row, you don’t need to focus on balance and stability, so instead, you can focus your efforts on really squeezing your back to lift the bar towards your chest.
If you enjoy Bent Over Rows, try using a wider grip too, to further activate the upper back during the movement.
Stoppers Placed at the Bottom
Make sure the stoppers are placed at the bottom (i.e. the lowest possible setting) to avoid them reducing your movement. Especially during your first rep, if someone else has used the machine for a different exercise, the stoppers could be higher up, resulting in a sudden jolt during the lift.
The Inverted Row is a bodyweight movement that leverages the Smith Machine. The ability to adjust the height of the bar makes it super easy for you to set everything up for an inverted row very conveniently.
An Inverted Row involves laying under a bar and pulling your chest up to it, with your heels staying on the floor… similar to a pull-up.
We’d recommend a grip roughly shoulder width apart.
The bar wants to be high enough that you can fully extend your arms under it, without your back touching the floor.
This is a great exercise to prime your body for pull-ups. Similar to negative pull-ups, Inverted Rows can also be done with a slow downward movement to really focus on the eccentric part of the exercise.
Reverse Grip Row
Similar to Bent Over Rows, Reverse Grip Rows involve bringing the bar to your body in a bent over stance.
The difference is the grip… the reverse grip will further emphasize the lats, as well as engaging the biceps more too.
The ability to prioritize the back muscles differently between the regular Bent Over Row, a wide grip Bent Over Row and a Reverse Grip Row mean you can really add a new dimension to your back workouts and keep the muscles challenged.
Smith Machine Pull Ups
An exercise we love to do on a Smith Machine is the humble pull-up… especially if you’re a beginner.
The ability to set the bar at different heights (i.e. lower than a normal pull-up bar), means you can include a little “jump” in between reps to help provide a boost during the contraction of the pull-up.
Although this may seem like you’re “cheating”, it’s a great way to get your body used to pull-ups (which let’s face it, are a difficult exercise for most people).
Over time, you can place the bar higher, so the “jump” becomes less prominent… and before you know it, you may find you can do a full pull-up without any assistance!
Alternatively, you can place a bench parallel to the bar and rest your feet on it, bending at the hips. With your back straight, you can perform an assisted pull-up like this. This is another easy way to make pull-ups more manageable for beginners.
Rack Pulls are basically deadlifts on a Smith Machine. The range of motion is obviously different from a regular deadlift, as the bar is restricted in how it can move.
Nevertheless, Rack Pulls are a simple and effective way of lifting heavy weights by activating your back (as well as glutes and legs).
The advantage is that you can really tailor the movement more towards being a back exercise, by placing the bar at a higher starting position. This means the initial lift that requires your glutes and legs to be fully activated, isn’t required… so you can really focus the movement on squeezing your back to move the bar.
We would tend to position the bar so it doesn’t go beyond your knees during the exercise… i.e., the bar is moving against your upper thigh/quads for the exercise.
An important factor is the slight angle many Smith Machines have… which means you want to be mindful of which side of the machine you’re standing on. You want to be bringing the bar towards you as you lift the bar, not away from you… so check if the Smith Machine has an angle and face the appropriate way.
Dead Hangs are often an under-utilized exercise, but can be a great way to finish a back workout.
Dead Hangs involve getting into the starting position of a pull-up, but instead of lifting yourself up to the bar, you simply hang there.
Your lats and mid-back (as well as your core and arms) will be engaged for the duration of the hang, to ensure you’re stable.
This exercise is also great for developing better grip strength.
Again, the benefit of doing these on a Smith Machine is the ability to adjust the height and potentially lower the bar so your feet are close to touching the floor (perhaps touching on your tip toes). This means if you’re a beginner, instead of simply not being able to do it, you can do it with a bit of assistance to get your muscles used to the exercise.
Tips for Optimizing Your Back Workout on a Smith Machine
Progressive Overload Training
The overall weight you load onto the Smith Machine bar will largely influence how difficult you find the exercise.
Selecting the right weight is a really important part of this workout… too light and you just won’t get the results you could…but too heavy and you’ll struggle to complete the movements properly (and safely).
Ultimately, it may take a few practice sets to gauge how much weight to add. You’ll notice you can probably lift a lot more on a Smith Machine compared to using a weighted barbell.
Once you’ve found the optimal weight whereby you can do roughly 8-12 repetitions, try and progressively increase this weight over the weeks and months, so you’re continuing to challenge and push your muscles. This is known as progressive overload training and is a proven way to build muscle effectively.
If you’re looking to really lift heavy weights, straps are a popular way to ensure your grip doesn’t become a limiting factor in the weight you can pick up.
Straps basically make it easier to grip a bar. This means you won’t improve your grip strength as much, but it does mean you might be able to lift more weight, which will help with your hypertrophy during your workout… in this instance, your back muscles.
Resistance and Reps
This Smith Machine back workout plan is very adaptable in terms of simply changing up the resistance and reps. By opting for lower reps and heavier weight, you can really turn this into a pure strength routine, or by opting for higher reps and lighter weight, using it to tone and sculpt your muscles in more of a conditioning style workout.
The workout includes a nice mix of lifts and functional movements (like pull-ups), so it’s a good routine for those looking for an all-round back workout.