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Smith Machine vs. Squat Rack: Pros, Cons, and Everything in Between

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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When weightlifting, having the right type of gym equipment is crucial. For squats, two great options are the Smith machine and a Squat Rack. Although they look very similar, each has subtle differences and pros and cons, which can affect the option best for you.

Let’s learn more about these pieces of fitness equipment to help you decide what’s best for your exercise regime.

A woman using a smith machine after doing the smith machine vs. squat rack comparison
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What Is a Squat Rack?

A squat rack, also known as the power rack or power cage, holds the barbell when completing squats. It’s like a four-sided rectangular cage with supports called cradles where the barbell rests between squats. There are many different squat racks, but despite the specific type, the lifter steps into the squat cage, pushes the barbell off the cradle, and begins a weighted squat.

What Is a Smith Machine?

We have body-building champion Rudy Smith to thank for the Smith machine, which is one of the most common pieces of equipment found in a modern gym. Although Jack LaLanne invented the Smith machine, Rudy was the first to use it in his gym. He requested improvements made to it before it became a commercial piece of equipment. 

A standard Smith machine includes a barbell fixed to vertical or nearly-vertical steel rails with a cable pulley. The barbell has a hook that latches onto the fixed track when at rest.

The Smith machine has a range of attachments to meet the needs of both advanced lifters and newbie lifters. You can use it to perform rows, overhead presses, shrugs, calf raises, and so much more. 

Many lifters use it to enhance their squats. Lifters choose an appropriate squat weight and then stand beneath the bar. They push up to unlatch the safety hook and begin squatting.

A squat rack with a barbell on it
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Key Differences Between Squat Rack and Smith Machine

Although weightlifters use both units to complete squats, each has some key differences. We can determine which equipment is better for your exercise experience by examining the differences. Here’s a quick glance at what sets the two machines apart. 

The squat rack tends to be better for more advanced lifters who want functional training. It has a greater range of motion, so you can activate and work more muscles. However, it’s not easy to use on your own and the risk of injury is higher, especially for beginners. 

The Smith machine is a great option for beginners. It’s easier to squat with higher weights and the injury risk is much lower for beginners. You can use it on your own and isolate specific muscles to meet your training goals. However, you’ll work fewer secondary muscles and it can add additional strain on the joints. There’s also less range of motion, which can be a disadvantage for those wanting to do compound moves. 

We’ll go into further detail on the pros and cons of the squat rack and Smith machine to help you determine what’s most important to you. 

Pros of the Squat Rack

There are pros for the squat rack. Some pros include better functional training, a wide range of motion, improved stabilizer muscle activation, and the opportunity to create a greater challenge. Let’s look at each in more detail.

Better for Functional Training

Functional strength training involves exercising a series of muscles and joints together instead of focusing on just one major muscle group. Because squat racks use free-motion barbells, the squatter must use their legs to lift and activate many other muscle groups to stabilize and maintain their balance throughout the workout. Therefore, the squat rack is better for functional training when compared to the Smith machine.

Greater Range of Motion

The squat rack allows for free-motion lifting, which means you have an improved range of motion compared with the Smith machine.

Squat racks offer a wide range of motion because you can move around more within the equipment frame. An enhanced range of motion means you can adjust your stance, bar, or foot placement, benefiting those with joint pain or physical limitations. It also means you can do more variations and compound movements.

A man performing squats with heavy weights on a squat rack
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More Activation of Stabilizer Muscles

When squatting with a squat rack, you’ll activate multiple muscles at once. Primarily, you’ll engage your major leg muscles to lower and raise the weighted barbell. Secondarily, you’ll activate the lower back, obliques, abs, and hips to maintain your balance. Therefore, when using the squat rack, the lifter strengthens both major and secondary muscles.

Produces a Greater Challenge

The squat rack can be more challenging than the Smith machine because the barbell is separate from the frame and offers more freedom of movement. A detached barbell requires improved form and structure when lifting if you want to avoid injury. If you’re trying to increase weight and improve your squat results, this increased challenge can be exactly what you’re looking for. 

Cons of the Squat Rack

However, the squat rack still has some cons. These disadvantages may mean the squat rack is not right for you or they may not hold much weight in your decision. Let’s take a look. 

Not Ideal for Beginners

Lifting with the squat rack requires extra skill and a more experienced form to squat successfully and safely under a weighted barbell. Therefore, the squat rack is not ideal for the beginner lifter. Your squatting technique and form should be well-developed before you try lifting with the squat rack.

Needs Additional Equipment

A squat rack only comes with the structural cage, which you can only use with additional equipment. At the bare minimum, you’ll need J-hooks or special posts to rack the barbell. You should also get a nice set of spotter bars to help protect against injury.

If you want to perform variations of a traditional weighted squat, you may need other attachments as well. 

Less Stable

The barbell on the squat rack is not attached to the unit, which means it’s less stable than a Smith machine. The free-motion barbell means the lifter could lose control of the bar or fall under the weight. If you’re trying to squat without a spotter, this could mean a serious injury.

A woman performing squats with the help of her coach on a squat rack
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Not Great for Solo Lifts

Squat racks have very few safety measures, one of the only ones being a safety bar about 3 feet off the ground. Lifters can use the safety bar to catch or rest the bar if they can’t raise it into the cradle. However, there’s a greater risk of injury if you drop the bar or fall.

Therefore, when lifting with the squat rack, a spotter is wise when you reach the end of your weightlifting routine and may be too tired to complete the lift.

Higher Injury Risk Due to Improper Form

When lifting with the squat rack, you need great technique. But, if your form is imperfect, you can easily injure yourself when doing free-weight squats. Injuries can happen because the free weights are less stable, and you can fall or hurt yourself because you’re using the wrong muscles when squatting. Either way, injuries can quickly derail your weightlifting goals.

Pros of the Smith Machine

The Smith machine also has an impressive list of pros. These benefits include isolating muscles during training, improved safety for solo lifters, working every muscle group, improved lifting capacity, and ease of use for beginners. Keep reading to find out more.

Isolate Muscles in Training

The stabilized and fixed nature of the bar means that you can isolate training to the main “lifter” muscles. Not needing to focus on the minor muscles used for balance means you can focus on the muscles you intend to train. Additionally, focusing on just strengthening the major muscles means you can lift more weight than you could with a squat rack.

Safer for Solo Lifters

The Smith machine has a built-in “spotter.” The Smith machine has multiple rods evenly spaced on the slide rail where you can hook the barbell when lifting. Therefore, you can rest the barbell anywhere throughout the squat if you are too tired to complete the lift. Hence, the Smith machine has a built-in spotter, and you don’t need another person when doing a weighted squat.

Work Every Muscle Group

Smith machines offer more than just weighted squats. Lifters can perform squats, presses, rows, and more when working with the Smith machine. This versatility allows the lifter to work more muscle groups in the body. Therefore, the lifter can strengthen the back, chest, and leg muscle groups.

A man performing heavy squats using a smith machine
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You Can Lift More Weight

With the Smith machine, there’s only one direction to lift–up. This single direction means that the user can lift more than when doing free-standing weight squats on the squat rack. The lifter only needs to focus on vertical movements and doesn’t need to worry as much about balance and other concerns present when using free-standing weights. Additionally, the Smith machine holds a more significant weight capacity when compared to the squat rack.

Easy for Beginners

The Smith machine is excellent for beginner lifters because it’s easier to use. The fixed bar is easy to maneuver, gives more stability when lifting, and has more safety features than are available from the squat rack.

You don’t have to be an experienced lifter because the Smith machine makes it easy to maintain the proper form. Not only does it have directions on the machine itself, but it’s difficult to perform the movement without proper form. And many safety features prevent injury from imperfect form. 

Cons of the Smith Machine

There are cons associated with the Smith machine as well. These cons include less range of motion, using fewer secondary muscles, increased potential for joint injury, reduced need for core muscle activation, and the Smith machine may not be ideal for every body type.

Less Range of Motion

Because of the affixed barbell, squats in the Smith machine can only move up and down in the same way, every time. The consistency of the movement pattern means a reduced range of motion during the lift. That means you can’t perform necessary foot or posture placement adjustments to address joint pain, instabilities, or other physical limitations.

A man using a smith machine with the help of his coach
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Fewer Secondary Muscles Worked

Once again because the barbell on the Smith machine is affixed to a permanent track with a cable pulley, there’s limited need to stabilize muscles or keep balance while lifting. Therefore, secondary muscles often used to maintain balance won’t receive the same workout as they would with a squat machine.

Potential for Joint Injury

The repetitive up-and-down motion of the Smith machine forces your body to use different muscles than when completing free-moving weight squats. Therefore, lifters distribute the weight onto the back extensors, knee flexors, knee extensors, and plantar flexors instead of the hip and back flexors. This new weight strain on the different parts of the body can lead to joint or muscle injury.

This does not mean everyone will experience joint issues when using the Smith machine. However, overusing the machine or slight imperfections in form could increase your risk of joint pain. 

Requires Less Core Activation

The Smith machine is more stable, meaning the squatter doesn’t need to focus as much on balance as when lifting with a squat rack. Your core is critical when maintaining balance and because you don’t need to work on balance as heavily when using the Smith machine, you won’t be growing these secondary muscles as effectively. 

Not Ideal for Every Body Type

No two lifters have the same body type or lifting needs. And because the Smith machine is less customizable, it may not be practical for every body type. Lifters who are shorter, are taller, or have physical limitations may find it challenging to use the Smith machine for squats.

Who Should Use a Smith Machine?

The Smith machine is ideal for beginners or individuals who want to transition toward heavier lifting routines. There are several beginner Smith machine workouts available. Individuals with recent injuries or weak muscle groups can strengthen these muscles safely with the Smith machine’s increased stability.

This doesn’t mean that more advanced weightlifters can’t use the Smith machine. Because of its varied use, it’s a favorite for newbie and experienced lifters alike.

Who Should Use a Squat Rack?

The squat rack is more challenging than the Smith machine, so it’s recommended that intermediate or advanced weightlifters use the squat rack. In fact, some weightlifters enjoy the added challenge the free-motion weights bring.

Beginners who want to try the squat rack should seek expert advice first. If you’re new to the squat rack, try it out with someone who is experienced and can help you maintain proper form.

A woman using a smith machine instead of a squat rack
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FAQs About Smith Machine vs. Squat Rack

Even with the best research, you may still have questions. Here are some common questions we get asked about the Smith machine and squat rack to help you decide which is best for you.

Is It Okay to Squat with a Smith Machine?

Yes. You can comfortably squat with the Smith machine. You’ll place your bar higher on the slide bar, step under the bar, and start squatting.
There’s a slight difference in form and style when squatting on the Smith machine, but with a bit of practice, you should quickly get the hang of it.

Do You Lift the Same Weight When Squatting with a Smith Machine?

You can lift the same weight, but because the Smith machine is more stable and the lifter does not need to focus on maintaining balance, you can squat with more weight plates on the Smith machine than on the traditional squat rack.

Why Does the Weight Feel Heavier on a Smith Machine?

The verticality of the Smith machine affects how heavy the weights feel while exercising. Also, the angle of the vertical rail can change how intense the weights feel.

Residential smith machines, like those used in garage gyms, are usually perfectly or nearly perfectly vertical whereas commercial machines range between 7-12 degrees away from that. The steeper the steel rails, the heavier the weights will rest on the lifter’s shoulders.

Is a Smith Machine Harder Than a Squat Rack?

The Smith machine is not harder than the squat rack but it can be different due to the unnatural movement pattern. In fact, the Smith machine can be easier than the squat rack and is better for the beginner squatter.

Yet, the Smith machine requires a slightly different form or style, which can require practice before the lifter feels comfortable.

Still, most people say that the Smith machine is easier to use than the squat rack.

A man using a squat rack at the gym
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Is the Smith Machine Bar a Different Weight Than a Squat Rack?

Typically, the Smith machine bar weighs 25 pounds whereas the squat rack typically uses a 45-pound barbell. However, you can change the barbell on the squat rack, so the weight of the barbell used with the squat rack can vary.
The Smith machine bar is typically fixed, so there’s less versatility in bar weight.

Are Free Weights Better Than Smith Machines or Squat Racks?

When squatting, free weights used with the squat rack have their benefits, but they aren’t necessarily better than the Smith machine itself.

Free weights are great for isolating movements and working specific muscle groups. They’re also highly accessible, so if you don’t have easy access to a squat rack or Smith machine, you can still do weighted squats.

The weight distribution of free weights vs. a Smith machine may differ slightly, so keep that in mind. There’s also less range of motion on a Smith machine, and depending on how much you lift, you may be able to lift more with free weights.
Squatting with free weights and a squat rack will feel very similar, but keep in mind that squat racks have added safety features. It’s easier to get the weight into the proper position, and the safety bar on squat racks offers more safety and free weights alone.

Ultimately, free weights and each piece of equipment have their pros and cons, and by using both, a lifter can create a well-balanced workout routine.

About

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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