SMC condensin complexes are central modulators of chromosome superstructure in all branches of life. Their SMC subunits form a long intramolecular coiled coil, which connects a constitutive "hinge'' dimerization domain with an ATP-regulated "head'' dimerization module. Here, we address the structural arrangement of the long coiled coils in SMC complexes. We unequivocally show that prokaryotic Smc-ScpAB, eukaryotic condensin, and possibly also cohesin form rod-like structures, with their coiled coils being closely juxtaposed and accurately anchored to the hinge. Upon ATP-induced binding of DNA to the hinge, however, Smc switches to a more open configuration. Our data suggest that a long-distance structural transition is transmitted from the Smc head domains to regulate Smc-ScpAB's association with DNA. These findings uncover a conserved architectural theme in SMC complexes, provide a mechanistic basis for Smc's dynamic engagement with chromosomes, and offer a molecular explanation for defects in Cornelia de Lange syndrome.