Is Deadlifting With The Smith Machine A Bad Idea?

July 17, 2023 0 Comments

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In this article I will be answering the question “is deadlifting with the smith machine a bad idea?”. Some people have no choice but to use the smith machine for big compound exercises.

They train in gyms that don’t have a squat rack. There are even some cheap gyms that don’t have regular barbells. It is rare, but they do exist.

As such, a lot of people will use the smith machine to perform exercises like the deadlift. It is not optimal but can you still make progress in this way? Is it too risky?

This article will explore this topic in greater detail and present some very useful insights.

Is Deadlifting With The Smith Machine A Bad Idea?

Smith machine deadlifts are certainly not optimal. The movement pattern is not natural like it is with free weights. There is also a higher injury risk, especially if you pull facing the wrong way.

If you deadlift in the smith machine facing the wrong way, you can put more stress on the lower back. This can increase the risk of injury. There is less use of stabiliser muscles in the smith machine deadlift.

You will be hindering strength development to some degree. However, getting a lot stronger on the smith machine deadlift will also translate a little to the actual deadlift.

You can still deadlift with the smith machine and make progress in terms of strength and power on the actual deadlift. It is far from optimal but it can be done. It is important to remember that only more experienced lifters should consider it as an option. 

You really need a good base of free weight training so that you have the proper experience. If you have a good base, then you will have strong stabiliser and supporting muscles. Adding in an assistance exercise like a smith machine deadlift will not be too detrimental.

Not Optimal

It is true to say that deadlifting in the smith machine is not optimal. Deadlifting off the floor with a free weight barbell is superior. There is greater freedom of movement and more stabiliser muscles are worked.

With the smith machine deadlift, the bar is moving in a fixed path and you are not really deadlifting the weight from the floor. The bar in the smith machine will be resting on the lowest railing. 

So it is almost akin to a rack pull from well below the knees rather than a deadlift. In terms of transfer to real world activities, the free weight deadlift is superior.

This is because it is more functional and translates better to lifting awkward objects off the floor in real life. If you are going to be performing the smith machine deadlift regularly, you need to ensure that you don’t completely stop doing normal deadlifts. 

Previously on this site I have discussed why the smith machine has a bad reputation.

Injury Risk

It should be stated that there is a decent injury risk on both the smith machine deadlift and regular deadlift. This is especially true when the weight gets very heavy.

Even with very good technique it only takes one bad rep to pick up an injury. However, due to the more unnatural bar path on the smith machine, there is more chance of an injury occurring.

You are fixed into a certain movement pattern, which is not how you would naturally pick up a heavy weight off the floor. If you deadlift in the smith machine facing the wrong way, you will put more torque on your lower back.

Some smith machines have an angled bar path, if you deadlift facing away from the machine you will increase the risk of lower back injuries.

Less Core Involvement

The deadlift works the core heavily. When you are lifting heavy weight off the floor, all the stabiliser muscles are being worked and your core has to work hard to maintain your back angle.

If your core is weak then you will find yourself rounding over more during reps. The smith machine deadlift requires less core activation. This is because the bar is already moving in a fixed plane.

As such you won’t develop much core strength from performing smith machine deadlifts. If you rely too heavily on smith machine deadlifts and don’t do any normal deadlifts, your core strength will suffer greatly.

Case Study – Can Smith Machine Deadlifts Make You Stronger?

Whilst I have said some disparaging things about the smith machine, there is a real life case study which demonstrates that you can get stronger with this exercise.

This case study is very interesting. The man in question has 16 years experience lifting and is well versed in powerlifting movements. During the Covid pandemic his normal gym was closed.

He didn’t have access to weights at home so he would just do bodyweight exercises from home during the period when gyms were shut. This period of a few months of limited training caused him to become detrained.

His normal gym didn’t reopen so he was forced to join a Planet Fitness gym nearby. Planet Fitness is notorious for having a lunk alarm and discouraging a serious lifting atmosphere.

They have smith machines but don’t have free weight barbells. As a result, members that are serious about lifting would have to make do with the smith machine.

This is what he did, he decided to use the smith machine for deadlifts, benches and squats. What he found was that standing on two 10kg plates better replicated a normal deadlift starting position.

The bar would be closer to the shins in the starting position. He found this to better replicate the real deadlift. Over time he got stronger on the smith machine deadlift. He then also did a couple of sessions with the free weight barbell deadlift in his brother’s house.

He managed to return to his pre Covid strength levels from this approach, even despite losing bodyweight. This shows that the smith machine deadlift is not ideal, but if you get stronger on this exercise your regular deadlift will improve.

He says that he doesn’t recommend novice lifters performing smith machine deadlifts. Because he has 16 years of lifting experience, he is better suited to this approach.

It is important to have good programming knowledge and solid lifting experience with free weights. If you have this then you will benefit from using the smith machine deadlift. If you do not you will hinder your strength development a lot more.

Final Thoughts

Is deadlifting with the smith machine a bad idea? The answer is that it isn’t optimal. However, if you have good lifting experience with free weights, you can use smith machine deadlifts to improve your regular deadlift.

You want to ensure that you mimic the normal deadlift starting position by standing on plates when using the smith machine. The movement pattern will not be the same, there will be less core involvement and stabiliser muscles recruited.

But if you add a lot of strength to the smith machine deadlift you will get good carryover to the free weight deadlift. I would advise people to prioritise free weight deadlifts. Only perform smith machine deadlifts as a last resort or a change of pace once in a while.

If you have any comments on the smith machine deadlift please leave them below. As always, stay safe and enjoy your training!

>> Should You Do Zercher Squats In The Smith Machine?

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