In the same way that your phone comes loaded with applications that you don’t use, your gym comes stocked with equipment and machines you don’t use…yet. First, you need a good reason to work with it. What’s a good reason to hop on the Smith machine? If you want to build your back; the Smith machine bent-over row.
Despite the fact that it remains one of the most commonly found machines in commercial gyms, the Smith machine has something of an unearned reputation as the black sheep of gym equipment. Criticisms, often stemming from the restrictive range of motion the machine provides, can actually be reframed as beneficial in the right circumstances.
In the case of the Smith machine bent-over row, a restricted range of motion means an opportunity to isolate and build back muscles without unnecessary stress on secondary movers. Here’s how you can do the Smith machine bent-over row to build your back, bigger.
- How to Do the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
- Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Sets and Reps
- Common Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Mistakes
- Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Variations
- Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Alternatives
- Muscles Worked By the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
- Benefits of the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
- Who Should Do the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
In theory, the Smith machine bent-over row shares a lot in common with its barbell-based brethren. In practice, the Smith machine bent-over row sets itself apart by giving you the opportunity to really isolate your back muscles.
The rubber meets the road when you take stock of your equipment. In the case of the Smith machine bent over row, the machine functions as both barbell and rack, confined to a single plane of motion. Just stepping in the rack gets you most of the way there, and once you load up, you’re ready to start lifting.
Step 1 — Set Up
Using the safety hooks, fix the bar at about mid-thigh. With the bar now in the proper position, load up your weight. Then, set up with your hips a few inches away from the bar and your feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
Coach’s Tip: Engage your core before you unrack the weight.
Step 2 — Get in Position
Place your hands on the bar at around shoulder-width grip. Unrack the bar from the safety hooks. Keep your abdominals tight and maintain a neutral spine, and then hinge over.
Coach’s Tip: It’s okay to let your knees bend while performing a hinge as long as they’re not moving forward or obstructing the path of the bar.
Step 3 — Pull the Bar
Keep your core tight and pull the bar by drawing your shoulders and elbows back. Depending on the angle of your torso, the bar will make contact anywhere between your belly button and your sternum.
Coach’s Tip: If you find that you can’t maintain a consistent angle in your torso, (i.e. standing up while you’re lifting) lower the weight to lift with proper technique and isolate your back muscles.
Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Sets and Reps
By restricting movement to a single axis, the Smith machine enables you to isolate your back muscles without depending on your lumbar spine strength. You have a few programming options on how to incorporate the Smith machine bent-over row into your routine.
- For Beginners: Perform 3 sets of 10 reps.
- For Hypertrophy: Perform 4-5 sets of 8-12 slow and controlled reps.
- For Endurance: Perform 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps.
The Smith machine bent-over row is a great candidate for burnout sets at the end of your back workout to push your muscles over the edge without the potential risks associated with technique breakdown.
Common Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Mistakes
Thanks to the stability the Smith machine provides during any lift, mistakes tend to be a little less costly in the Smith machine than with free weights. Still, when you’re learning how to row, here are a few things to keep in mind to keep you healthy and happy in the gym.
Insufficient Hip Hinge
If you’re not bending over far enough during the Smith machine bent-over row, you’re going to have trouble isolating your back muscles. Going too heavy might be the underlying issue here, but it could also be a mobility issue. If you find it difficult to perform a proper hip hinge, you may be lifting too heavy or should regress to a chest-supported or machine version.
Overconfidence with Free Weights
While the Smith machine bent-over row can help you develop impressive musculature in your back, you might be surprised how little your gains carry over to free weights. Secondary muscle groups play a much larger part when performing barbell or dumbbell row variations than they do in the Smith machine.
If you’re just getting started, and you’re thinking of making the transition from Smith machine bent-over rows to a row variation that uses free weights, don’t go too heavy until you feel confident with the range of motion and movement pattern that comes with lifting a free weight.
Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Variations
Whether you’re looking for something a bit more accommodating, or you really want to challenge yourself, here are a few bent-over row variations that you should consider that utilize the Smith machine.
Reverse Grip Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
If you’re looking for a row variation that engages your biceps, you’re in luck. Just switch from a pronated grip to a supinated grip and you’re off to the races.
By changing your grip, you may also find that you alleviate discomfort in the event that you’re experiencing nagging shoulder or elbow pain while rowing. Sometimes a small adjustment can pay off in a big way when it comes to making an exercise work with your body.
Paused Eccentric Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
Once you’ve mastered the Smith machine bent-over row, you can increase the challenge without increasing the weight by incorporating pauses or timed eccentrics.
Studies have shown that the eccentric phase of resistance training triggers genes responsible for muscular cell hypertrophy to a greater degree than either concentric or isometric exercises (1). Training eccentrics literally gives you more bang for your buck.
Single-Arm Smith Machine Row
This unilateral exercise takes the challenge rating up a notch once more. By training one side of your body at a time, you engage your core muscles to a greater degree.
At the same time, the lift offers a greater opportunity to build the mind-muscle connection by demanding you focus your attention on the concentric portion of the lift. (2) Single-arm work is also a good idea if you have any imbalances in muscular strength or size.
Smith Machine Bent-Over Row Alternatives
Whether you’re new to strength training, you’re training around an injury, or you’re just looking for something different, eventually the thing that brought you to the Smith machine bent-over row could send you searching for a new way to train your back. If it’s about time for you to change things up, consider the following alternatives.
Dumbbell Seal Row
Anyone suffering from lower back pain knows that bending over can be a risky proposition, especially under load. Take your lower back out of the equation with this row variation.
Using an adjustable bench press and two dumbbells, you can isolate your back without putting unnecessary strain on your lumbar spine. The seal row may also be helpful for anyone who struggles to perform a hip hinge.
Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
If the Smith machine bent-over row is your introduction to rowing movements, graduating to dumbbells will open up a world of new opportunities.
The dumbbell bent-over row offers an increased range of motion and requires greater stability than the Smith machine bent-over row. The versatility and convenience that dumbbells offer make the dumbbell bent-over row an option that every lifter should have in their back pocket.
Barbell Bent-Over Row
If you value strength above all else, the barbell bent-over row should be your go-to to test your mettle and row heavy weights.
Targeting your back muscles still takes priority here, but the more weight you move, the more you’ll find yourself engaging your legs and core to stay stable throughout the lift.
Muscles Worked by the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
Although the Smith machine bent-over row effectively isolates your back by restricting movement to a single plane of motion, it remains a compound lift because it involves movement at multiple joints. Here’s a comprehensive list of the muscles used during the Smith machine bent-over row.
The largest muscle in your back, your lats do the brunt of the work when you perform the Smith machine bent-over row. Building large, strong lats helps create an aesthetic physique by giving your upper body a V-shape, making your shoulders look broader and your waist look thinner.
While the trapezius muscles aren’t the primary mover during the Smith machine bent-over row, the trapezius still have their role to play in the lift (mostly scapular retraction). In combination with other back exercises, the bent-over row can help develop large and powerful traps.
Muscles ranging from your rhomboids to your teres major, and other small stabilizers, work in tandem to provide scapular mobility. The ability to protract and retract your scapula keeps your shoulders healthy and can even improve your posture.
Benefits of the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
How you choose to row comes down to personal preference, but the benefits described below are unique to the Smith machine bent-over row.
Low Barrier to Entry
Without a coach or a mentor, getting started on your fitness journey can be a daunting endeavor. The Smith machine bent-over row provides prospective lifters the chance to get right into training, building stronger, more muscular back muscles, without having to navigate the complexity of learning a barbell exercise straight away.
Since the Smith machine glides across a fixed rail, your stabilizing muscles don’t have to work nearly as hard as they would with free weights. That inherent stability comes with a few benefits of its own: For bodybuilders, stability becomes an opportunity to focus on building a stronger mind-muscle connection. For someone training around an injury, it could be the difference between getting in a good back session and worrying too much about your safety or posture.
Picture a busy gym on a Monday evening. You’re looking for a barbell, or a bench, or the dumbbells you need, but they’re all taken. Oftentimes, even at peak hours, the Smith machine sits empty.
It has everything you need — a bar, and oftentimes a built-in plate tree. The Smith machine may lack the versatility of free weights, but that’s missing the point: Mastering the Smith machine bent-over row makes you a more versatile lifter.
Who Should Do the Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
Given the limitations that the Smith places on range of motion, and the low level of stimulation for secondary tissues while performing the lift, it’s safe to say that the Smith machine bent-over row isn’t for everyone. However, if you fit into one of the following niches, it may be time to jump on the Smith machine.
For anyone just getting started at the gym, the Smith machine bent-over row gives you a chance to cut through the noise and train your back without tripping yourself up by worrying too much about technique. The Smith machine offers a convenient and accessible alternative to free weights.
If You’re Working Around an Injury
Sometimes, a limited range of motion combined with low-level recruitment of stabilizing muscle groups is exactly what you need. When dealing with an injury, or nagging aches and pains, the Smith machine bent-over row could provide you with an alternative that lets you train without aggravating sore muscles or joints unnecessarily.
If You Need a New Way to Isolate Your Back
Consistency is key, but variety is the spice of life. If you’re a seasoned lifter, changing up your routine can help you get through a slump or push through a plateau. For anyone looking to target their back, the Smith machine bent-over row could be an excellent change of pace if only for its novelty.
Become a Musclesmith
Beneath the hyperbole, criticisms of the Smith machine are, for the most part, unfounded. By flipping those perceived disadvantages (fixed range of motion, low compatibility with certain body types) on their heads, you can make the Smith machine work for you. Use it to help you build a bigger, stronger back, whether you’re a beginner, training around an injury, or just looking to mix things up.
Despite being a relatively straightforward movement, you might still have a couple of lingering questions about how to best utilize the Smith machine bent-over row.
When should I incorporate the Smith machine bent-over row into my routine?
If you would benefit from a machine that does most of the stabilizing for you, the Smith machine bent-over row would probably fit well into your routine. You might fall into that category if you’re just starting on your fitness journey, if you’re training around discomfort or an injury, or if you’re trying to isolate your back muscles.
The smith machine bar doesn’t feel as heavy as a barbell. How much weight am I actually lifting?
Smith machine bars can weigh anywhere between six pounds and 45 pounds. Overall though, the Smith machine probably isn’t the best gauge of overall strength. Focusing on personal progress and consistency over time is much more important than how much you can lift on the Smith machine.
- Hody, S., Croisier, J., Bury, T., Rogister, B., & Leprince, P., (2019) Eccentric muscle contractions: risks and benefits. Frontiers in physiology. 10.3389.
- Schoenfeld, B., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., Winkelman, N., & Paoli, A., (2018) Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European journal of sports science. 18(5), 705-712.
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