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4 Main Differences Between Smith Machines and Squat Racks

Strength training is a part of a daily fitness regimen for most people involved in fitness. If you love lifting weights, it is common to purchase a Smith machine or a squat rack, which helps to do exercises such as squats, shoulder press, bench press, and more.

While both help in building muscles and improving fitness, each equipment has its advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed cautiously before making a purchase.

Discussed here are four major differences between a Smith machine and a squat rack.

1. Smith Machines Are Safer, but Squat Racks Are More Versatile

Smith machines have two rods on either side that help your barbell descend upward or downward only up to a certain level as the equipment comes with guide rails.

These guide rails offer full support and safety as the user is not indebted to balance the barbell. But such restricted movements (upward/downward only) fail to activate your stabilizer muscles.

Whereas in a power rack, the barbell faces no restrictions in movement and can move in any direction of your choice.

This, in turn, helps in activating any muscle of your body, to strengthen it and perform additional exercises than what’s possible with a Smith machine.

2. Smith Machines Provide Extra Support While Squat Racks Don’t

There is no need to worry about injuries or safety issues while using a Smith machine as the equipment comes with multiple bar catches that can be used to add/take off weights at whichever level you might be working out.

If you are unable to lift the weight back to the top, there is no need to panic as you can twist your wrist on the bar and lock the bar into a safe place in the frame.

Hence, you need not worry about balancing your bar, which in turn means that you are free from injuring yourself while squatting.

But squat racks must be handled carefully after knowing how to use it; otherwise, you might find it intimidating to exercise using it.

That’s because if you lose balance or cannot lift the weight attached, you cannot lock movement, unlike your Smith machine.

Power racks are safe only when they are attached to the floor. Ensure that your home gym could accommodate this provision.

3. Your Movements Are Fixed in Smith Machines but Are Unrestricted in Squat Racks

The rods in a Smith machine allow your barbell to move vertically up or down only. Such a restricted bar movement prevents you from doing many different types of exercises.

For instance, doing dips is impossible here as there are no extra bar latches to support it.

But, with a squat rack, you are lifting weights in a more unrestricted area where the barbell can move in any direction. This helps you perform various exercises.

The ability to add attachments for bar dips and bench presses makes us realize the unrestricted range of movements that are possible with a squat rack.

4. Squat Racks Are Generally Higher Than Smith Machines

Most of the squat racks are taller than Smith machines coming with an enormous height—at least 90 inches measuring the entire equipment set up.

Besides this height, we also need some extra space to help the user do pull-ups comfortably without having to worry about colliding their head with the ceiling.

Hence, if you are planning to set up a squat rack in your basement or garage, ensure that the room has enough ceiling height before proceeding to buy one. See our choices of squat racks for low ceiling rooms.

Is Smith Machine Bench Press Effective?

Smith machine is not as effective as a barbell bench press or any other free weights exercise. The guide rails in a Smith machine stop you from deviating from your track preventing stabilizer muscles from working hard. But while doing bench press with free weights, the muscles in your legs, abs, and lats could be better activated.

This is because you are focused on moving the bar in a balanced way, using every tiny muscle to stop it from moving too much in any one direction.

Although the Smith machine is comparatively easier to use and safer, the barbell bench press is comparatively more effective than Smith machine bench press as it enables increased muscle activation, including the tiniest muscles in the body.

Is Smith Machine Squat Effective?

Smith machines help you to place your feet farther out while squatting, meaning that they open better opportunities for activating your glute and hamstring muscles. But, Smith machines lose it to free weight squats from the effectiveness perspective as free weights enable greater overall muscle activation of all leg muscles.

Though free weights squats are more effective without a doubt compared to Smith machine squats, there is an opportunity to use different angles (even isolate a leg completely, making it advantageous for people recovering from injury or having balance issues) with the machine with no worries about balance or stability.

So, if you love to lift safely or lift greater weights and be proud of yourself or train in a fixed position, it is always recommended to choose the Smith machine squat.

But if overall muscle strength and activation is your priority, choose the free weights squat.

How Much Easier Is Smith Machine Squat (or Bench Press)?

If you want to compare in terms of easiness levels, Smith machine squat is much easier as you need not worry about balance or stability. And the squat weights were about 4% higher when you train on a Smith machine compared to free weights.

This data is from a study done by researchers at Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa), and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning.

The researchers compared the one-rep-max strength of 32 trained lifters while performing bench press and squats in two different ways—using free weights and Smith machine.

And they also found that participants can do bench press with about 16% higher weights when performed on a Smith machine. 

Quick Conclusion

Strength training is integral for a fit body and can be done using both the Smith machine and power racks.

If you are a beginner looking forward to getting the hang of weight lifting but also worried about your safety, it is ideal to start training with a Smith machine.

Whereas, if you are an intermediate or advanced trainer looking for increased resistance, versatile exercise experience and would love to activate all different muscle groups in your body, it is always recommended to choose the squat rack, exercise with free weights and relish the joy of sweating hard and reaping greater benefits.