If you’re new to the world of fitness, you might be feeling overwhelmed by the countless machines and setups to choose from.
When I first started going to the gym, I remember being very torn on the specific choice of using a squat rack vs a smith machine. Tons of people would tell me to avoid the smith machine at all costs, while others would tell me that it was a great tool.
Plus, I was seeing serious lifters using the squat racks, and as a beginner, I felt incredibly intimidated to even step close to it.
Since I was once in your shoes, I want to help!
To be perfectly honest, both smith machines AND squat racks are incredible pieces of equipment that both deserve space in your workout routine. But, depending on your situation, one may be more beneficial than the other.
Let’s explore the main differences between smith machines and squat racks and help you determine which is the best choice for you.
What are Squat Racks?
A squat rack is a piece of weight training equipment that allows you to perform barbell squats, bench presses, and other free-weight exercises. They are built with hooks to safely rack the barbell onto, and adjustable safety catches to “spot” you in case you fail at the bottom of your squat.
Depending on the commercial gym you are in, you may see a squat rack (or squat stand), half rack, or full free-weight power rack.
Technically speaking, squat racks and power racks are two different pieces of equipment, but for the purposes of this blog post, we’re going to group them both together to call them both squat racks.
Power racks, or power cages, are built with four vertical posts, and adjustable safeties, and typically have a pull-up bar across the top. Essentially it’s a full cage that you exercise inside of, whereas a squat rack, or squat stand, is built specifically for squatting to allow you much more room when you step away from the rack.
Regardless of which you have access to, squat racks are ideal for anyone who wants to perform compound lifts such as back squats, front squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, etc.
They offer greater freedom of movement and exercise variety compared to smith machines, allowing for more challenging free weight movements.
However, squat racks require proper form and technique to avoid injury, and have limited safety features, so it’s very common for beginners to feel intimidated by them.
Pros and Cons of Using Squat Racks
- Greater freedom of movement and exercise variety
- Allows for greater muscle activation due to the need for proper form and stability
- Provides more of a challenge, resulting in greater muscle mass and strength gains
- Ideal for experienced weightlifters who want to perform compound lifts
- Requires proper form and technique to avoid injury
- Limited safety features, requiring spotters or safety bars
- Can be intimidating for beginners or those new to weightlifting
Best Squat Rack Exercises
The squat rack or power cage allows you to perform any barbell exercise you’d like, with the added benefit of having a built-in spotter. Because of this, there is no limit to the exercises you can perform using a squat rack, but here are my favorites:
- Back squats: Start with the barbell on the rack at shoulder height. Step under the bar and place it on your upper back. Step away from the rack and take a shoulder-width stance. Squat down by pushing your hips back and bending your knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Return to standing by driving through your heels.
- Front squats: Set the bar on the rack at shoulder height. Step under the bar and cross your arms in front of you, placing the bar on the front of your shoulders. Step away from the rack and take a shoulder-width stance. Squat down by pushing your hips back and bending your knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Return to standing by driving through your heels.
- Reverse lunges: Start with the barbell on your shoulders as in a back squat. Step back with one foot and lower your back knee towards the ground. Your front knee should be at a 90-degree angle. Push through your front heel and step back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
- Standing shoulder press: Begin by racking the barbell at shoulder height. Take a shoulder-width grip and lift the bar up to your shoulders. Press the barbell overhead by extending your arms. Lower the bar back to your shoulders to complete the rep.
- Rack pulls: Set the bar on the rack at knee height. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and position yourself under the bar. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip and pull it up until your body is fully extended. Lower the bar back to the starting position.
- Stiff-legged deadlift: Begin with the bar on the ground. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Reach down and grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Stand up while keeping your legs straight until you are in an upright position. Lower the bar back to the ground.
- Bench press: Lie down on a bench and grasp the barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Unrack the bar and lower it down to your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body. Press the bar back up to the starting position.
- Pull-ups: If your squat rack has a pull-up bar, grasp it with a shoulder-width grip and hang with your arms fully extended. Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, then lower yourself back down to the starting position.
- Good mornings: Begin by racking the barbell across your shoulders as in a back squat. Hinge forward at your hips, keeping your back straight and your core tight, until your torso is parallel to the ground. Return to standing by extending your hips and squeezing your glutes.
- Split squats: Start with the barbell on your shoulders as in a back squat. Step one foot forward and the other foot back into a lunge position. Lower your back knee towards the ground, keeping your front knee at a 90-degree angle. Push through your front heel and step back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
What are Smith Machines?
A smith machine is a piece of weight training equipment that has a fixed barbell on a guided track. You can only move the smith machine bar up and down, so you may not be able to perform all of the same exercises as squat stands allow.
The straight line path of the bar makes a smith machine very different from using free weights, but with the ability to quickly & easily lock the bar into place at any point in your movement, it makes it much safer than free weights.
Smith machines are ideal for those with injuries or limited mobility, as the fixed bar path limits the range of motion and can help you perform exercises in a safe way.
Since you do not have to worry about stabilizing the bar, it makes for a much easier movement for beginners or those nursing injuries.
That being said, a smith machine isn’t exclusively meant for beginners. I consider myself a pretty advanced weightlifter, having been working out for over 10 years now, and I love the smith machine.
While I prefer to use a squat rack for most exercises, a huge benefit to the smith machine is that allows you to safely perform an exercise once you are fatigued, which is especially helpful if you are working out close to failure.
For example, I will often perform a full chest routine, and then finish up with incline bench press on the smith machine. Using the machine allows me to safely work to failure when my body is already very fatigued.
Pros and Cons of Using Smith Machines
Despite its limitations, the smith machine has some advantages that might make it a good choice for certain situations.
Pros of using a smith machine:
- Provides a fixed bar path, which some people find easier to control and safer to use
- Ideal for those with injuries or limited mobility, as the fixed bar path limits the range of motion
- Built-in safety features such as safety catches and a built-in spotter
- Great way to perform isolation exercises
- Can help you safely and effectively perform exercises at the end of your workout when you are fatigued
Cons of Using Smith Machines:
- Limits freedom of movement and exercise variety
- Limited muscle activation due to the fixed bar path
- Does not require proper form and stability, resulting in less of a challenge as you progress through your fitness journey
- Can put strain on your lower back when squatting due to the fixed bar path
Best Smith Machine Exercises
There are quite literally hundreds of exercises you can perform using a smith machine, but here are 10 exercises that I find to be very effective using a smith machine:
- Squat: Stand facing the bar, position it at the top of your traps, take a step back and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly squat down while keeping your back straight and your knees behind your toes. Return to starting position by extending your legs.
- Split Squat: Stand facing away from the bar, place one foot in front and one behind, resting the top of your back foot on the bar. Lower your back knee towards the ground, keeping your front knee behind your toes. Return to starting position by pushing through your front foot.
- Bent Over Row: Stand facing the bar, feet shoulder-width apart, and grasp the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Lean forward, keeping your back straight and pull the bar towards your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body. Return to starting position by extending your arms.
- Incline Bench Press: Adjust the bench to an incline, lie down on it and position yourself under the bar. Grasp the bar with a medium grip and lift it off the rack. Lower the bar towards your chest and push it back up to starting position.
- Hip Thrust: Sit on the ground facing the bar, with your back against a bench. Position the barbell over your hips and hold it with both hands. Lift your hips up towards the ceiling while squeezing your glutes, then lower them back down.
- Seated Shoulder Press: Adjust the seat to your height and position yourself under the bar. Grasp the bar with a medium grip and lift it off the rack. Press the bar above your head, keeping your core engaged and your back straight. Lower the bar back down to starting position.
- Inverted Row: Set the bar at waist height and lie underneath it, grasping the bar with an overhand grip, shoulder-width apart. Pull your chest towards the bar while keeping your body in a straight line. Return to starting position by extending your arms.
- Calf Raises: Stand facing the bar and place your shoulders underneath it. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Lift your heels up as high as possible and hold for a second, then lower back down.
- Romanian Deadlift: Stand facing the bar and position it at the top of your feet. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Hinge forward from your hips, keeping your back straight, and lower the bar towards your shins. Return to starting position by extending your hips.
- Shrugs: Stand facing the bar and position it at the top of your thighs. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Lift your shoulders up towards your ears, hold for a second, then lower back down to starting position.
Best choice for those with injuries
If you experience an injury, or are unable to train due to an ailment or other reasons that limit your movement, then a smith machine is definitely the way to go for you.
This machine allows users to perform different exercises in a safer and more controlled way than if they were using free weights, resulting in a much lower risk of re-injury.
Smith machine squats can be beneficial for those with knee problems as they allow for a more controlled movement and can help to reduce stress on the knees. However, it’s important to use proper form and to limit the use of extremely heavy weight to avoid aggravating any existing knee issues.
If you have lower back problems, smith machine squats can be less ideal as the fixed path may not allow for a natural range of motion and can put more stress on the lower back. In these cases, using a squat rack for your barbell squat will be far more beneficial as long as you focus on keeping perfect form as much as possible.
Ultimately, the piece of equipment you choose to use when recovering from an injury is going to vary based on your specific needs.
For many injuries, the smooth path and built-in safety features of a smith machine are going to be the most beneficial, but free weight exercises using a squat rack will always have their place if you keep the weight light and your form controlled.
It’s a wise idea to work with an athletic trainer or physical therapist when recovering from an injury if you are unsure of the best option for you.
Which is the better option for home gyms?
When it comes to home gyms, the choice between a squat rack and a Smith machine may come down to a few key factors.
First, consider the amount of space you have available. Smith machines typically take up much more space than a simple squat rack, which may make them less practical for smaller home gym spaces. With the steel rails of moving parts of a smith machine, it requires a much larger footprint than simple squat stands.
However, it’s worth noting that squat racks typically require more space around them to allow for proper movement and lifting technique, whereas everything is contained within the smith machine.
Next, consider your fitness goals and needs. If you only want to perform very basic exercises and are not interested in performing compound movements, then a smith machine may be great for you. If you are older and dealing with a lot of injuries, with no real goals of serious progression, the smith machine may be your best friend.
But if you want to allow for maximum growth in your fitness journey, having a squat rack (or power rack, more specifically) will allow you to perform significantly more exercises with greater difficulty as you progress.
Another factor to consider is cost. Squat racks and smith machines can vary in price, with some models costing several thousand dollars. However, squat racks may be a more budget-friendly option, especially since there is such a wide variety of options. If you want a very cheap option, you can purchase simple squat stands, but those will offer the fewest safety features and upgrade options.
If you prefer a power rack, there are many different manufacturers out there, so the prices will vary greatly. Personally, I recommend either Titan or Bells of Steel, both of which I have used for all of my own home gym equipment.
Ultimately, the choice between a squat rack and a Smith machine for a home gym will depend on your individual needs, preferences, and budget. If I could fit both, and money was no object, I’d love to have both in my home gym. But personally, I chose to go with a power rack, and I am very glad that I did.
My Recommended Brands
As someone who has built his own home gym over the past few years, I’ve learned what some of the best brands out there are for home gym equipment. You have to consider the cost and the overall footprint of each piece of equipment, and there are many other companies out there, but here are some of my favorites:
- Smith Machine from Titan Fitness
- Squat Stand from Titan Fitness
- Folding Wall Rack from Bells of Steel
- Full Squat Rack from Valor Fitness
- Power Racks from Titan Fitness
- Power Racks from Bells of Steel
Smith Machine vs Squat Racks: Who Wins?
In conclusion, both the Smith machine and squat rack are effective pieces of equipment that can be incorporated into your workout routine depending on your fitness level and goals.
However, each machine has its own set of pros and cons.
Squat racks provide greater freedom of movement and exercise variety, resulting in more challenging free weight movements, but require proper form and technique to avoid injury and have limited safety features. Meanwhile, Smith machines are ideal for beginners or those new to weightlifting as they provide a safer environment, but the machine’s fixed movement pattern limits muscle activation and exercise variety.
Regardless of which you choose, always prioritize safety and proper form.
Start with lighter weights and focus on building your strength gradually over time. Whether you prefer squats, bench presses, or shoulder presses, both the squat rack and smith machine have a variety of exercises you can perform.
Whether you’re working out at a commercial gym or in your own home gym, safety should always be the top concern. If you’re just starting your fitness journey, take things slowly. We don’t need to chase results overnight.
At the end of the day, my recommendation is this: use BOTH the smith machine and squat rack, and figure out which you prefer.
Truthfully, both have their place, and you may find that you prefer one over the other for different exercises.
Perform some squats in the squat rack, then move over to the smith machine to perform some hip thrusts if that’s what you prefer. Learn what works best for you, because only you can make that decision!