Both the Smith machine and the squat rack are fantastic pieces of exercise equipment that you'll find in almost every commercial gym.
Although they may share some similarities in terms of some of the exercises that can be done with them, there are some notable differences as well.
Today, we're doing a smith machine versus squat rack comparison to see exactly what both of them are, what they're designed for, and what their biggest advantages and disadvantages are so that you can choose the right piece of equipment for your goals.
What is a Smith Machine?
First, we have the Smith machine, which is one of the most commonly found types of weight training equipment found in commercial gyms. The Smith machine consists of a large rectangular frame complete with vertical or near-vertical steel rails to which a barbell is attached.
The barbell can move up and down the steel rails, therefore allowing for a variety of lifting and pressing movements.
Many people enjoy using a Smith machine because the guided rails make performing various exercises much easier due to there being no need to balance the barbell. It allows users to focus specifically on pushing the weight and on their form.
Many exercises can be done with the Smith machine, including squats, lunges, bench presses, overhead presses, a variety of rows, shrugs, calf raises, curls, hip thrusts, rack pulls, and much more.
Related: Leg Machines at the Gym Guide
What is a Squat Rack?
We then have the squat rack, which you will sometimes hear referred to as a squat cage or power rack which isn't technically correct as a squat rack doesn't have the cage-like shape. Instead, it has a variety of J-hooks you can walk a barbell onto.
This is another piece of weightlifting equipment that you usually find in gyms, and although it can also be used for other exercises, as you can probably tell by the name of it, it's generally used for performing squats and other standing barbell exercises.
A squat rack is characterized by a very strong metal frame with vertical stops to hold a barbell, to make it easier for someone to do squats, along with bar catchers or safety stops if you fail.
Many squat racks come with adjustable safeties to accommodate people of different sizes, as well as a few different exercises.
Squat racks can be used for back squats, front squats, overhead presses, deadlifts, rock pools, and even bench presses (if you have a bench underneath).
Pros and Cons of Smith Machines
Now that we know what the Smith machine is, let's take a look at the biggest pros and cons that they come with.
- Smith machines are great for people lifting by themselves because they feature adjustable stoppers and a fixed path that stops the barbell from dropping and injuring the lifter. Not only are there built-in safeties, but there are also hooks all along the track that let you rack or drop the weight no matter how high or low you are. This means that you don't need a spotter.
- Smith machines are also great for beginners because they allow you to focus on your range of motion, and proper form, and push as much weight as you can. Because the barbell is on a fixed path, you don't have to worry about balancing. It's much easier than using a regular barbell.
- Because Smith machines feature a controlled path that you have to follow, it's ideal for letting you isolate certain muscles. You don't have to strain and grunt and use your whole body to lift the barbell, instead, you can focus on specific muscle groups.
- The other big advantage of smith machines is that they allow you to perform many different exercises, virtually for your whole body.
- Although the fixed path can be beneficial in some cases, remember that everybody is a little different. That fixed path might cause you to move in a way that is not ideal for your body, which may lead to injuries and increased amounts of stress being placed on your joints.
- Although Smith machines are ideal for beginners because you don't have to stabilize or balance, this can also be seen as a drawback. It means that the muscles you would usually use to stabilize aren't being trained, especially when compared to regular barbells or free weights. This may in some cases lead to muscle imbalances.
- some types of smith machines actually reduce the amount of weight you're lifting, which means that you might not be lifting quite as much as you think you are.
Pros and Cons of Squat Racks
Now that we've covered the pros and cons of Smith machines, let's do the same for squat racks.
- Although a squat rack might not have a fixed path to help you stabilize, the big benefit here is that you get a free range of motion. You aren't moving along a very rigid path, which means that any exercises that require you to move in an arc are much easier to do than on the Smith machine.
- Because squat racks don't have a fixed path and because the barbell isn't attached to anything, they force you to use all of your stabilizer muscles and engage more muscles. This automatically means that squat racks result in fewer muscle imbalances and help train your whole body more thoroughly.
- Because there isn't a track or any kind of pulley system helping you lift the barbell, like on a counterbalanced Smith machine, every pound of weight you put on that barbell on a squat rack is a pound that you are lifting 100% by yourself.
- Squat racks are still quite safe because they have safety bars that can save you if you can't finish your squat or other exercise.
- On that note, speaking of other exercises, although squat racks are primarily used for squats, there are a few different exercises that can be done on them.
- Squat racks may not be ideal for beginners who are just starting out, as there is a need to stabilize the bar. In some cases, this might be too much.
- Because squat racks are characterized by free weight exercises, there's a pretty big risk of you injuring yourself if you aren't using proper form.
Smith Machine vs Squat Rack – Major Differences
Let's wrap things up by taking a quick look at the biggest major differences between the two pieces of equipment.
A Smith machine has both safety catches and special hooks that the barbell can be dropped on in the event of failure, whereas a squat rack only has safety catches.
One could argue that a smith machine is therefore slightly safer.
On a smith machine, your movement is always very rigid and linear, which is because the barbell is on a fixed path.
This is beneficial for some cases, but not for exercises that require you to move in an arcing motion, such as is possible on a squat rack.
A squat rack allows for a much freer range of motion, which is beneficial in some cases.
There are some types of smith machines out there that have mechanisms that reduce the Smith machine bar weight, which means that you might be lifting less weight than you think.
However, there are no such assistance mechanisms on a squat rack, which means that you're lifting every pound of weight you put on that barbell.
Because smith machines feature a fixed path, you aren't forced to balance, which can be ideal for beginners, although it can lead to muscle imbalances and a lack of training the stabilizer muscles.
A squat rack on the other hand can be much more difficult to use because you have to balance the barbell, but it also results in you training to stabilize your muscles much better.
As you can see, both smith machines and squat racks have their advantages and disadvantages worth considering.
Realistically, they are both machines that you should incorporate into an exercise routine.
Smith machines are the more beginner friendly option but also allow you to isolate muscles to maximize your results and is a useful tool.
But if you want to increase your raw power and push your limits safely then a squat rack is the go to.