Home Fitness Squat Rack vs. Smith Machine | Which One Is Better & Why?

Squat Rack vs. Smith Machine | Which One Is Better & Why?

by Alistair Knight

This is a complete comparison of a squat rack vs. a smith machine.

If you want to know which one is best (right now), jump down to the verdict by clicking here

Contents of what you’re going to learn also include:

Let’s first look at the key points of this guide, shall we?

Key Points:

  • A squat rack (or half rack) consists of two steel stands with two or more pins. These steel stands can be attached or completely separate
  • A smith machine is a weight machine that consists of a fixed barbell which provides near verticle movement
  • Both can work your entire body musculature (whole bodies muscles)
  • Both are excellent for compound-specific movements (movements which work multiple muscle groups at once)
  • The squat rack is by far the better option because you avoid being locked into a fixed movement pattern which diminishes the amount of assisting (smaller) muscle groups that would otherwise be strengthened. (More on this below.)

What Is a Squat Rack?

The squat rack is a piece of gym equipment which involves a barrel resting on two steel stands.

The purpose of a squat rack is to assist you in performing strength training exercises as the adjustable stands stabilise the weighted barbell for you to lift.

Without a squat rack, you’d have to pick up the barbell from the floor and put it back there after you’ve finished your set (this is hard to do when you are training until failure).

What Is a Smith Machine?

A smith machine with a white background

A smith machine is a weight machine which is found in many commercial gyms.

As you can see from the image above, it consists of fixed steel rails with multiple slots.

These slots are used to rack the barbell at any point in the vertical axis which is very useful if you’re lifting heavy.

When using the smith machine, the barbell travels in a fixed position as it glides up and down the steel sides.

What Are the Pros & Cons of a Squat Rack?

pros and cons of a squat rack with a lady holding up a yes and no in either hand

Pros

  • You’ll use more stabilising/assisting muscles: Because you’re free to move the barbell around
  • Great to use at home if you’re limited in space: A squat rack isn’t very big (two metres by two metres)
  • Lower cost: Although squat racks are expensive, they are significantly less expensive in comparison to a smith machine

However, there are also disadvantages that can break the deal for you:

Cons

  • You can’t lift as heavily: Some racks feel shake after more than 100kg is loaded
  • More limited in exercises: Smith machines typically come with other equipment like cables, pulleys.

What Are the Pros & Cons of a Smith Machine?

pros and cons of a smith machine with a lady holding up a pro and a con in either hand

Pros

  • You can lift heavily without a spotter: Smith machines contain multiple slots along the vertical rails meaning you can rack at any point during the exercise
  • Typically comes with other accessories: You will find that most smith machines come with cables, pulleys, and can be turned into a chin-up bar allowing for greater exercise variety
  • Smith machines can fit in your home: While they are bigger than squat racks, smith machines can also fit into most homes as they arrive disassembled and are typically 2 metres high by 2 metres wide

Cons

  • Fixed movement pattern: The biggest disadvantage is the fact that you are stuck in one range of motion meaning you’ll use less stabilising muscles which are demanded in squat rack and free weight exercises
  • Expensive: Smith machines are typically twice the price of squat racks and can cost as much as £10k

Squat Rack vs Smith Machine Verdict – Which One Is Best for You

squat rack vs smith machine final verdict

Now that you know what each one is, which one would be best for you?

Whether you’re a complete newbie or an advanced lifter, the squat rack will always be the best for you.

Why?

Because a smith machine (which is attached to the steel sides) will force you into a set position.

This takes away a lot (as much as 43%) of your stabilising/assisting muscles when doing certain movements such as the squat or bench press.

See, your body should be keeping you stable, not the smith machine which allows you to balance easily.

On the other hand, the squat rack will allow you to stabilise the weight and actually move to your own body mechanics. But…

What if the squat rack isn’t strong enough to hold your weight? 

This is a common problem many people face because so many squat racks can be unstable to use at higher weights.

But this problem is easy to solve, you can get a really stable squat rack (that also comes with a stainless steel spotter) right here on Amazon.

Also note: A squat rack is much less expensive than a smith machine.

Summary: No matter how much strength you have or how experienced you are in the weight room, a squat rack is the best option because you can move to your own body mechanics as opposed to being stuck in a fixed movement pattern with the smith machine.

Common Squat Rack Questions

In this section, you’re going to find out about the top 5 most common squat rack questions which I’m going to answer based on extensive research and my experience as a certified personal trainer.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it:

Common Question 1. What Exercises Can You Do With a Squat Rack?

You can do dozens of exercises with a squat rack and barbell because you have so much freedom of movement.

Some of the most common exercises you can do include the:

  • Squats
  • Partial squats
  • Barbell bicep curls
  • Overhead press
  • Barbell bench press
  • Deadlifts
  • Barbell reverse lunge
  • Barbell hip thrusts
  • Barbell Rows
  • Lots more

Want to combine these exercises into a full-body workout? We’ve got you covered with a full-body workout in our article right here.

Summary: You can perform dozens of strength exercises with the squat rack meaning it is great for a full-body training workout. They don’t usually come with a pull-up bar like a power rack does.

Common Question 2. How Much Does a Squat Rack Bar Weigh?

A squat rack bar can vary depending on whether you use an Olympic barbell (commonly found in most gyms) or a standard barbell (commonly found in most home gyms).

The Olympic barbell weighs 20kg whereas a standard barbell can weigh between 6 and 15 kg.

The best way to find how much your barbell weighs is to use a non-scratch weighing scale such as this one.

Summary: A squat rack barbell can weigh between 6kg and 20kg and the best way to find out how much your barbell weighs is to weigh it.

Common Question 3. Where Can You Use a Squat Rack?

Illustration of how big a squat rack is

You can use a squat rack anywhere where you have at least two metres width and height.

Most local and commercial gyms have power racks as opposed to squat racks because these are safer to use and ‘strong-man’ individuals can lift more weight using one.

Squat racks are great for a home gym because you can move them around easily.

If you’re lifting really heavily (150kg or more) then we’d recommend bolting the squat rack to the ground to prevent unnecessary movement.

If you are a giant and want to perform exercises such as the overhead press, you will also need to find a ceiling in your home tall enough to lift a barbell over your head without the light smashing above you.

Summary: You can use a squat rack anywhere you think is sensible. The majority of gyms have power racks as opposed to squat racks because of their added safety and cooler look.

Common Question 4. What Is a Half Squat Rack?

The half-rack is another name for the squat rack.

It is called a half-rack because it is half of a power rack (known to some as a full rack).

Summary: A half-rack is a squat rack

Common Question 5. Which Rogue Squat Rack Is Best?

The best Rogue squat rack has to be the Rogue S-1 Squat Stand 2.0 because it is one of the most durable and sturdy squat racks on the market.

In fact, it is so sturdy, it can hold over 1000lb of weight which means this squat rack is as good as its power rack counterpart. Another impressive thing is that… the 2.0 squat rack has a 48″ X 48″ triangle footplate made from strong steel making it both safe to use and look the part in any gym or home.

Check it out here.

Summary: The best Rogue squat rack is the S1-Squat Stand 2.0 because it is extremely stable and low in cost compared to other squat racks.

Common Question 6. How Much Does a Squat Rack Cost?

A squat will vary in price depending on how much weight it can handle as well as additional attachments it comes with.

The price can range from £100 to £2000 because of these reasons.

Most products online have a high monetary value because they are branded. Which means…

You can get a squat rack like this one for £130 and it can still hold up to 300kg of weight as well as spot you on your lifts:

Summary: A squat rack can vary in price from £100 to £2000 depending on how many attachments it comes with.

Common Smith Machine Questions

In this section, you’re going to find out about the top 5 smith questions which I’m going to answer based on extensive research and my experience as a certified personal trainer.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it:

Common Question 1. How Much Does a Smith Machine Bar Weigh?

Smith machines do not come with a label of how much their bars weigh. Which creates the problem of:

How do you track your gains?

Let’s break it down.

While a typical smith machine bar weighs around 45lbs, most commercial smith machines have a counterweight which reduces this weight to around 15lbs.

An example of a smith machine bar and counter weight designed to reduce the barbells weight

Image idea credit: tworepcave.com

Why do smith machine bars weigh 15lbs? 

Manufacturers could have gone with a heavier counter-weight, but if the barbell didn’t have plates, it would sporadically slam against the top of the smith machine and cause wear and tear.

Even if the bar weighted 2lbs, newbie lifters could make the mistake of pushing the bar too much and causing the same problem.

This is why manufacturers settled on a 15lb bar weight.

Note: A typical barbel (which isn’t attached to a smith machine) weighs 45 lbs.

Summary: A commercial smith machine barbell weighs 15lbs because the barbell itself has a counterweight. This means you can exercise without the resistance of the entire barbell carriage.

Common Question 2. Which Is Best: Smith Machines vs Free Weights?

To answer this question, let’s look at from a granular perspective and answer the following questions:

  • Which one is better for your exercise technique and safety?
  • Which one is better for overall muscle activation and gains?

A. Which One Is Better for Your Exercise Technique and Safety?

This depends on whether you’re lifting really heavy (1-3 rep range) or are challenging yourself (10-12 rep range).

You’re lifting really heavy in the 1-3 rep range:

Smith machines are best.

Why? 

When lifting heavy, you’ll typically be performing compound exercises such as the squat, the deadlift, or the bench press.

During these lifts, the smith machine would be a better option for you because you have far more control of the weight.

This is because you’ll be able to rack at any point (smith machines have multiple slots) during the exercise with a simple twist of your wrist.

If you are lifting this heavily with free weights (and without spotters) you will certainly not be safe because you have nothing to support you when you reach failure.

You’re simply challenging yourself in the 10-12 rep range: 

Free weights are best.

Why? 

The majority of smith machines are locked in one fixed position.

This means the smith machine will be able to support you and keep you balanced resulting in a lack of stabilising muscles being used.

With free weights, on the other hand, research reported that free weight squats trigger 43% greater muscle activation than a smith machine.

This is because the free-weight squat demands more support from stabilising muscles such as the core, plantar flexors, knee flexors, and knee extensors.

B. Which One Is Better for Overall Muscle Activation and Gains?

For beginner lifters: Free weights

For advanced lifters: Smith machine

Why? 

Free weights are better for overall muscle activation and gains because as we’ve mentioned above, you can have greater movement control and efficiency when not lifting heavily. And guess what?

Beginners shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights. 

If you’re a beginner, you need to build a foundation of strength alongside mobility and flexibility.

This way your joints will be able to cope with a heavy load.

Which means if you’re a more advanced lifter and you need to lift heavy weights, using a smith machine (alongside free weights) would be better for you because you will have greater support.

The alternative: A better alternative to a smith machine would be a power rack because power racks provide support like a spotter, allow greater freedom of movement, and are significantly less expensive.

Summary: For beginners, free weights are the better option because you can challenge yourself whilst maintaining greater freedom of movement, good technique, and free weights will also save your bank account. Smith machines are good for more advanced lifters who need support when lifting heavier weights.

Common Question 3. What Exercises Can You Do With a Smith Machine?

If you own a smith machine without all the additional accessories they typically come with, the exercises you can do include:

  • Overhead press
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Calf raises
  • Bench press
  • Shoulder press on knees
  • Hanging V-Ups
  • Windshield wipers
  • Lots more you can find here

Summary: You can train your entire body with the smith machine because the bar can serve as a pull up bar for you allowing you to train abb and back related exercises.

Common Question 4. When Was The Smith Machine Invented?

Portrait of Jack LaLanne and Rudy Smith, inventors of the smith machine.

The smith machine was invented over seventy years ago in 1950 by an American named Jack LaLanne from California.

LaLanne was one of the most influential individuals in the fitness niche who achieved numerous feats and honours including:

  • Swimming the entire distance of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge underwater carrying 140 pounds of equipment which includes his two air tanks.… An incredible world record he completed at the age of 40 years old
  • He swam handcuffed from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, CA. one year later at the age of 41
  • Achieved the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the age of 95
  • And did so much more which you can learn here!

During the 1950s, Jack LaLanne realised that there was a problem with bodybuilders and weight lifters who didn’t have anyone to spot them when performing the squat.

Jack thought hard of a solution, and one night, he invited his good friend and Men’s Bath House manager Rudy Smith over for dinner to discuss the plans he had.

After a long conversation, Lalanne and Smith drew out a prototype that would later become the well known Smith Machine of today.

Shortly after, Rudy Smith got to work on building the first machine.

He hired an equipment builder named Paul Martin who put everything together successfully.

With Jack LaLanne’s connections, the smith machines in many gyms until word and mouth grew so large that every gym in the United States had a Smith machine.

The rest is history.

Summary: The Smith machine was invented by Jack LaLanne and Rudy Smith in 1950.

Common Question 5. How Much Do Smith Machines Cost?

The price of a Smith Machine will depend on how many attachments it comes with and how much weight it can handle.

For example, the price of a smith machine with pulleys, lat pulldown cable, and bars can cost up to £8000 whereas a stand-alone Smith Machine costs £400.

This stand-alone smith machine here is £400 and you can lift as much as 135kg:

This smith machine has a wide range of  attachments which is why it costs £4000:

Summary: The price of a Smith machine will vary from £400 to £8,000 depending on how much weight you want to lift and how many attachments you want. You can compare prices online here.

Conclusion

This comparison on smith machines vs squat racks has provided you with the knowledge and resources you need to understand what each one is, which one is best for you, and how you can benefit when using them.

Now we turn it over to you:

  • Which one do you prefer using: A squat rack or a smith machine? Why?
  • Do you have one at your home or do you use one at your local gym?
  • Perhaps you might have another suggestion about the pros and cons of each?

Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below.

I’ll respond to all of you as best as I possibly can.

P.S. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram so that you don’t miss out on great fitness tips, how-to’s and more!

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