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Smith machine RDL: Form, Benefits and Tips

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Love or hate it—the smith machine RDL is a staple exercise by many lifters. Many enthusiasts denounce the smith machine for being too easy or ineffective. So, is the smith machine Romanian deadlift worth it, or should you stick with a conventional barbell?

Let’s look at the advantages, disadvantages, and best-use cases for the smith machine Romanian Deadlift.

A woman exercising its smith machine rdl at the gym
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What Is an RDL?

The Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is a variation of the traditional deadlift. The movement isolates the glutes and activates muscles in the posterior chain, like the hamstrings, erector spinae, and adductors.

As a compound movement, the RDL strengthens the core and lower body simultaneously. It can be used as a leg-focused exercise or an accessory to improve your standard deadlift.

What Muscles Does the Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift Activate?

The Romanian deadlift is a variation of the conventional deadlift, making it a compound movement. It utilizes the posterior chain and targets muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and back. That said, it activates mainly the glutes and hamstrings.

It’s helpful in strengthening the legs and can improve your traditional deadlift and squat.

The hip hinge movement is also beneficial, as it places less pressure on the knees while increasing hip and back strength. The Romanian deadlift requires muscle tension that helps build mass in the lower body, especially the hamstrings.

What’s the Problem With Smith Machine RDLs?

Many lifters knock the smith machine and those who use it. But it’s just a barbell attached to safety rails, so you can lift it without a spotter, right? Not quite.

One of the downsides to the smith machine is that the bar only moves vertically, limiting the forward/backward motion. This design restricts and changes your form during an exercise. The adjustments to the range of motion can be drastic and feel unnatural.

Additionally, restricted motion can place additional stress on your joints if you aren’t careful. This can increase the chance of injury and is more common during squats.

Smith machines can also make certain lifts easier, as it essentially controls the barbell for you. The limited forward/backward movement stabilizes the bar for you and requires less muscle activation. Some models even have counterbalance systems that stabilize the weight and help you pull it back up.

So, can you use a smith machine for Romanian deadlifts? Yes, but be sure to practice caution and use proper form. Remember that you won’t be activating the same muscles or using the same load, so you might see fewer gains over time.

What Are the Advantages of the Romanian Smith Machine Deadlift?

Although there are apparent downsides to the smith machine Romanian deadlift, several factors can benefit lifters. The smith machine might be better for newer lifters and can be handy if you don’t have access to a barbell. Let’s take a look at some additional benefits of the movement.

More Accessible for Beginners

The smith machine can be more accessible for beginners looking to jump into the gym or learn the Romanian deadlift. The restricted bar path makes the RDL easier to perform and can help new lifters learn the technique.

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Not to mention, the smith machine is available in almost all commercial gyms. You can visit your local gym, step up to the smith machine, and improve your fitness without hassle. This factor may be advantageous for those with less experience with a barbell or who feel intimidated by the gym.

You Can Start With Less Resistance

 Traditional barbells start at 45 lbs. The smith machine allows you to start below this, allowing you to perform the RDL with 25, 35, or 40 lbs. Less weight can be beneficial if you’re just starting, warming up, learning techniques, or recovering from an injury.

Additional Stability

 The smith machine doesn’t allow the barbell to travel forward or backward. Instead, the bar is restricted to a vertical path. Although this limitation requires less muscle activation, it can offer more stability for some lifters. The barbell is essentially stabilized for you, so you don’t have to worry about losing balance or falling forward.

When to Use the Smith Machine Over Standard Barbells?

Let’s face it; standard barbells can provide more benefits than the smith machine. But that doesn’t mean the smith machine is entirely useless. It’s a valuable piece of equipment that can be used by any gym-goer, regardless of their experience or fitness level. Here are a few situations where you might want to use the smith machine.

You Don’t Have Access to a Barbell

The smith machine can be invaluable if you don’t have access to a conventional barbell. Many home and apartment gyms are limited to smith machines, dumbbells, and primary machines.

Although dumbbell variations can help activate more muscles, you can’t use as much weight as you can with a traditional barbell or smith machine. In these cases, it’s better to use the smith machine, as you can pull more weight.

You’re a Beginner

Although it might be best to start with the conventional barbell version, the smith machine can still be valuable for beginners. Besides technique, new lifters need to develop consistency with attending the gym. If you only have access to the smith machine or it helps you work out more often, it’s perfectly fine to use it.

You Need Less Load

The smith machine has a lower minimum resistance than a conventional barbell. Less weight can be advantageous if you’re recovering from injury, warming up, or learning technique. Traditional barbells start at 45 lbs.

You’re Performing Deadlift Variations

Deadlift variations, like the Romanian and stiff-legged variations, can be acceptable on the smith machine. Regular deadlifts are more significant compound lifts that lose value on the smith machine. RDL and straight-leg variations work similar muscles but isolate the hamstrings and glutes. The isolation makes them better suited for the smith machine.

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How to Perform a Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

Smith machine Romanian deadlifts can be excellent at isolating the hamstrings and strengthening the glutes, adductors, core, and lower body. Here’s how to perform the smith machine RDL:

  1. Assume the starting position by standing on an elevated platform behind the smith machine bar.
  2. Keep your feet hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Firmly grasp the barbell with your palms down. Your hands should be about shoulder-width apart with the bar above the middle of your feet.
  4. Now, hinge at your hips and bend the knees gently. Maintain a stiff back by pulling the shoulder blades together. The movement is mainly at the hips.
  5. Lower the bar towards the ground until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
  6. After, push your hips forward and pull back on your knees to return to the starting stance.
  7. Now, repeat the process for repetitions.

Avoid These Mistakes

 Although the smith machine is beginner-friendly, It’s possible to injure yourself on the smith machine. Avoiding common pitfalls can ensure you leave the gym injury-free and get the most out of your session. Here are a few mistakes to avoid when executing smith machine Romanian deadlifts.

Facing the Wrong Direction

Facing the wrong direction on the smith machine is a common and dangerous error. The wrong stance when doing the deadlift can lead to excessive hip extension, lower back strain, and injury.

Rounding the Back

Just like the barbell variation, rounding the back on the smith machine can also lead to strain and injury. Arching your back places excessive stress on the back, which can be detrimental over time. Ensure you keep a neutral spine and don’t overextend your neck.

Incorrect Feet Position

 Keep your feet shoulder or hip-width apart when performing the smith machine Romanian deadlift. This will help you use the correct muscles and avoid injury.

Keeping the Bar Far Away

If the bar is too far away from your shins, you’re more likely to arch your back and suffer injury. Instead, keep the bar no more than one inch away from your shins to prevent your back from rounding.

Jerky Movements

Jerking the bar or your body is another common mistake. Unfortunately, jerky movements can lead to injury and muscle imbalances. Instead, tighten your core and work through your heels to maintain balance.

Romanian Deadlift Alternatives

You can try several RDL variations with or without the smith machine. These exercises will target similar muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and back. Here are a few to keep in mind.

Barbell Romanian Deadlifts

The barbell Romanian deadlift is the first choice when it comes to substitutions. It’s the same movement pattern but requires more stabilizing muscles and effort than the smith machine. Don’t feel intimidated if you’ve never used a barbell before. You can use bumper plates to get your technique down and work your way up to heavier weights.

Smith Machine Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

Stiff-legged deadlifts on the smith machine are another fantastic substitution. The exercise type targets the hamstrings, glutes, and low back, especially the hamstrings. Additional stability from the smith machine allows you to isolate these muscles further, making it perfect for adding to your leg day.

Smith Machine Rack Pull

If you’re looking to target your back, consider the smith machine rack pull. This type of exercise will improve the top portion of your deadlift technique and strengthen your back and traps. Wrist straps can help you pull heavier weights, making it ideal for building mass.

Is the Smith Machine Better for Romanian Deadlifts?

Most lifters recommend the barbell over the smith machine. That said, the smith machine Romanian deadlift can better suit beginners or those who want to isolate the hamstrings even further. The downside of the smith machine is that it doesn’t activate as many muscles, restricts the bar path, and can be easier.

Is it OK to Do Deadlifts on the Smith Machine

Performing regular deadlifts on the smith machine is not recommended unless you have prior experience. The deadlift is a compound lift that requires lots of power from several muscle groups. The restricted movement path from the smith machine bar will affect your form and increase the chance of injury.

Why Is the Romanian Deadlift More Difficult?

The Romanian deadlift exercise can be more complicated than conventional deadlifts because your back and legs stabilize the direction of the bar without stopping at the ground. The eccentric (downward) movement makes it challenging, emphasizing the hamstrings and glutes more.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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