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As a coach, it’s our responsibility to put our clients in the best position to succeed. When teaching someone how to squat with a bar on their back, they may need extra stability or freedom of movement, depending on their skill level.
So, let’s compare the Smith machine vs squat rack: The Smith machine offers better stability and self-spotting capabilities due to its fixed track and directional movement. In contrast, the squat rack allows for unrestricted motion and offers greater versatility in the range of exercises that can be performed.
The squat rack is likely to get the most attention because it's more common and seen as superior, whereas the Smith machine is often shunned because it’s seen as an inferior piece of equipment due to some of its drawbacks. However, when used correctly, the Smith machine can land right up there with the squat rack to get a good leg workout.
As you read on, you’ll learn the differences between these two pieces of equipment. You’ll also learn the pros and cons of the Smith machine, just as there are for the squat rack, and each has its place where it would be most beneficial.
By the time you finish this article, you’ll be able to determine which is better suited for your training goals.
Smith Machine vs Squat Rack: 7 Key Differences
Fixed vs Free Movement
This is the biggest difference between the two pieces of equipment and why some prefer using a squat rack over the Smith machine.
With the Smith machine, you’re locked into the bar path the rails allow you to go to. There's no degree of freedom as you have to move vertically, along with the rails.
With the squat rack, you can move as you see fit, allowing for a range of motion limits, joint differences, and foot placement.
With the Smith machine, since we’re on a fixed path, our smaller stabilizing muscles don’t have to work as hard to keep tension or stay balanced. However, this can be used to our advantage as we can concentrate our efforts on our bigger muscles if that's our goal.
When using a squat rack, we have to put effort into maintaining our core tension and balance. This can make an exercise like the squat more challenging as you have to work harder to stay balanced.
Both have great safety features that can keep you safe from injury. They differ in their approach, though. With a squat rack, you’re adding safety bars or straps to catch the bar should you not be able to complete a rep.
The Smith machine has several hooks along the rail that can catch the bar if you struggle to complete your reps. It basically has its own built-in spotter.
Smith machines and squat racks can take up about the same amount of room on the floor. However, there are smaller squat racks that you could use in your home gym that would take up significantly less room than a Smith machine.
A Smith machine is more ideal for a commercial gym than a home gym, whereas you can find a squat rack to fit your home gym.
Due to the nature of the sliding bar on a Smith machine, there aren't a lot of exercises you can do with it. You’re limited to movements that go up and down. With a barbell and a squat rack, there is more freedom to do other exercises like lateral lunges.
|Smith machine||$300 - $1,000|
|Squat rack||$100 - $500|
In general, squat racks are cheaper than Smith machines. This is because squat racks are made of simpler materials and require less complex manufacturing. A basic squat rack can cost as little as $100, while a basic Smith machine can cost upwards of $300. For more advanced models, the price difference can be even greater.
Smith Machine: How It Works, Pros, Cons, & Muscles Worked
How Does A Smith Machine Work?
A Smith machine is a piece of equipment with a barbell attached to vertical rails, providing stability and support when doing exercises like squats. The fixed barbell on the Smith machine doesn’t move side to side, and it is usually attached to the rails with hooks or latches.
It also has safety hooks that will catch the barbell if you squat too far. This can be good for preventing injury.
Using a Smith machine is another story. It's best to set the safety hooks at an appropriate height based on your exercise and the range of motion you intend to use. Much like squatting with a barbell, you’ll load weight plates on either side and ensure they are locked in with clips, although with the bar path being fixed, there’s less chance of the weights sliding off. But you can never be too careful.
To unrack the bar off the catches, you simply have to twist the bar so the hooks come out, then perform the exercise you are doing. For example, you can do squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, split squats, and rows with the Smith machine.
You can find more squat variations with a Smith machine in our full article.
Smith Machine Pros
- Safety Features
- Suited for All Levels
- Controlled Range of Motion
Smith Machine Cons
- Fixed Path
- Lack of Versatility
- Tricky to Unrack
Muscles Worked With The Smith Machine
If you’re performing squats in the Smith machine, you’ll target:
If you are doing chest presses or shoulder presses, you’ll target:
Our Favorite Smith Machine
Our favorite Smith machine comes from Titan Fitness, as it’s the most cost-effective piece of equipment. Although it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles other, more expensive Smith machines may have, you will get a sturdy piece of equipment that will last.
It has enough bonuses to make it worth it, like plate storage and pegs for adding bands to your squats for additional resistance.
This Smith machine is as straightforward as it gets if all you are looking for is a Smith machine without any extras like a cable system or pull-up bar.
Wondering how much the bar weighs in a Smith machine? Read the full article.
Squat Rack: How It Works, Pros, Cons, & Muscles Worked
How Does A Squat Rack Work?
A squat rack, sometimes called a power rack or a squat cage, is designed to support various exercises, like the squat, which its name implies. However, that is not the only exercise you can do, as you can press, lunge, deadlift, row, and if you’re feeling extra bold, even bicep curls. But really, most exercises can be performed in the squat rack due to your freedom of movement.
The squat rack is a steel frame with uprights and J-hooks to store a barbell for the exercise you will perform. Some squat racks come with safety features like safety rail bars positioned horizontally at a height to keep you safe should you not complete a rep.
Using a squat rack is pretty straightforward. Place the barbell in the J-hooks at an appropriate height for the exercise, then set the safety bars at a height that will stop the barbell safely if you can’t complete your rep. Unrack the bar, and perform your exercise. Once you finish, place the bar back in the J-hooks, and you’re done.
Squat Rack Pros
- Freedom of Movement
- Cost Effective
- Safety Features
Squat Rack Cons
- Skill Requirement
Muscles Worked With A Squat Rack
The squat is a compound exercise that works a variety of muscles in the lower body, including:
- Quadriceps – The quadriceps are the large muscles on the front of the thigh. They are responsible for extending the knee and helping to lift the body during a squat.
- Hamstrings – The hamstrings are the muscles on the back of the thigh. They are responsible for flexing the knee and helping lower the body during a squat.
- Glutes – The glutes are the muscles in the buttocks. They are responsible for extending the hip and helping to push the body up during a squat.
- Adductors – The adductors are the muscles on the inner thigh. They are responsible for adducting the thigh (moving it towards the body's midline) and helping stabilize the knee during a squat.
- Calves – The calves are the muscles on the back of the lower leg. They are responsible for plantar flexing the ankle (pointing the toes down) and helping to maintain balance during a squat.
In addition to these major muscle groups, the squat also works several smaller muscles in the lower body, including the hip flexors, the erector spinae, and the core muscles.
Our Favorite Squat Rack
Our favorite squat rack is the Rep Fitness PR-1100 Power Rack, as it is one of the most cost-friendly pieces of equipment, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. It is versatile in that you can perform many exercises. Plus, with the pull-up bar attachment, you can get a strong full-body workout.
Not everyone will have the space for a squat rack. That’s why we reviewed the best squat racks for small spaces. Check out the full article for details.
Smith Machine vs Squat Rack: Which Should You Choose?
In my opinion, the squat rack is your machine of choice as it provides more versatility and more freedom of movement. You can adjust your movement based on your own individualized needs and abilities. So is it worth using a Smith machine?
Who Is the Smith Machine Best For?
The answer is that Smith machines can be beneficial if you are starting your workout journey and have no experience using a barbell. Because the Smith machine is self-contained and keeps your movement to a strict range of motion and bar path, it can be great for beginners or those unsure of what they are doing but still want to use a barbell.
The Smith machine can also be good for rehab and injury prevention. It makes it easy to limit your range of motion or stay in a fixed range of motion to ensure stability and reduce the risk of re-injury. Additionally, it can be beneficial when training to failure or trying to isolate certain muscles, as the fixed barbell path allows you to safely push yourself with the need of a spotter or the demand of other muscles to stabilize.
Who Is a Squat Rack Best For?
The squat rack is best for those who have experience lifting and need to level up their exercises. Because there is greater freedom of movement in the squat rack, it does require more stabilizing muscle activation, which can be a challenge. However, one might need to take a degree of safety precaution with the squat rack. If you’re sure of your abilities, go with the squat rack.
The squat rack will be best when you want a large degree of movement for lower body exercises like squats or lunges where more control is necessary, but the barbell might not stay in one fixed path. It will also be best for non-squat exercises like presses, rack pulls, and step-ups.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Use a Smith Machine as a Squat Rack?
Yes, you can use the Smith machine as a squat rack as it has a bar attached to it, albeit a fixed trajectory bar. Even so, you can still perform your squats.
Is It OK to Deadlift in the Squat Rack?
From a functional standpoint, yes, you can deadlift in the squat rack as long as you move the safety bars out of the way. However, from a gym etiquette standpoint, others will likely want to use the squat rack for squats, so it might best to set up elsewhere.
Is the Smith Machine Better for Hypertrophy?
Since stability is taken out of the equation when using a Smith machine, you can concentrate on using the bigger muscles of the legs to perform the exercise. This means you’ll maximize the muscle recruitment of your legs, which will lead to more hypertrophy gains.
The Smith machine and the squat rack share similar purposes when it comes to squatting; key differences make each one unique.
The Smith machine is a good option for beginners or those who are rehabbing an injury. However, the Smith machine does not allow for as much freedom of movement as the squat rack, which can limit its effectiveness for some exercises.
The squat rack is better for experienced lifters who want to challenge themselves and build muscle. It allows for a wider range of motion and more freedom of movement, which can help to improve functional strength and prevent injuries. However, the squat rack requires more stability and coordination, so it is not a good option for beginners.
Ultimately, the best way to decide which machine is right for you is to consider your needs and goals.
About The Author
Chris Cooper is a certified personal trainer through the NSCA and a massage therapist in New York. He has over 17 years experience blending the two worlds to work with clients in their pursuit to get stronger and move pain-free as they return from injury. He runs his coaching services through CoachChrisCooper.com.