The decision between buying a squat rack or a smith machine is one of the most difficult for someone building their first home gym.
There are similarities and differences between the two, crossovers in functionality and different opinions on each.
As a gym owner and personal trainer, I’ve bought plenty of both over the years. So you’ll benefit from my years of experience distilled into one article. Here’s a look inside my current gym layout…
In this article, I’m going to clearly explain the differences between a Smith machine and a squat rack and help you make your decision.
By the end of the article, you’ll know what they are and how best to use them. You’ll also have some buying guidance for both.
- What is a Smith machine?
- What is a Squat rack?
- Smith Machine Pros and Cons
- Smith machine pros
- Smith machine cons
- Squat Rack Pros and Cons
- Squat rack pros
- Squat rack cons
- Buying Decisions – Squat Rack vs Smith Machine
- How to determine equipment quality
- Squat Rack vs Smith Machine – a summary
- Squat Rack vs Smith Machine – the bottom line
What is a Smith machine?
A Smith machine is a rack containing a barbell that has a fixed range of motion. The barbell runs along a straight-line path, which has been fixed via a steel rail. It will run either vertically or (in most cases) at a slight angle. The Smith machine is useful for a number of exercises but is most commonly used for squats and presses.
The Smith machine has plenty of critics in the fitness industry, many of whom mention form issues, impaired movement control, and high injury risk as being reasons to avoid it. Whilst some of these are valid points, there is more to it than that.
Check out this link for more information on whether Smith machines are bad or not.
Smith machines have rotating handles on the bar that allow you to hook the bar on safety stoppers. This is ‘self-spotting’, so you can lift to failure when working out alone.
What is a Squat rack?
A squat rack is essentially a station for a wide variety of barbell exercises, most predominantly squats and various forms of presses.
Squat racks come in a lot of different options – squat rack, full rack/power rack and a half rack. Essentially they all versions the same thing, but the full rack has added functionality and usually a pull-up bar.
A squat stand is designed for squatting and pressing. A half rack adds low level loading arms, so can be used for movements from hip height such as hang cleans. A power rack contains all of these, but is often taller and will include additional functionality such as a pull up bar.
You can usually buy additional attachments for a full rack to give it even more functionality. These are usually an added extra, but it’s still significantly cheaper than buying additional machines.
This is one of my racks…
It’s a full rack, complete with the multi-grip pull up bars at the top, a dip bar attachment and a set of spotter arms (in the folded down position as the rack was being used for dips at the time).
Smith Machine Pros and Cons
If you’re going to make a decision, you’ve got to have objective information. In this section, I’m giving you a bias-free run down of the good and bad of both…
Smith machine pros
1. A Smith machine stabilizes the weight
The barbell path on a Smith machine is governed by the metal poles the barbell runs along. This means that if you lack strength or technique to control the bar, you don’t have to worry.
It also means you just focus on the mechanics of the lift (pushing, pulling etc) without worrying about barbell stabilization or technique nuances.
2. Evidence says a Smith machine is an effective way to build muscle and strength
Although a lot of people claim Smith machines aren’t very good, that simply doesn’t stack up in the evidence.
3. Smith machines are contained
If you’re tight on space in your home gym, a Smith machine is helpful – you don’t have to factor in much extra room around the machine. You work within the frame of the machine so don’t have to allow for extra space.
4. A Smith machine has a built-in spotter
The safety racks on the machine mean you can lift to failure on the machine without worrying about being crushed under the bar.
Smith machine cons
5. A Smith machine leads to compromised form for some exercises
Where they may be effective, they’re not optimal. If you have movement issues or your form is different because of biomechanics, a Smith machine isn’t ideal.
6. Smith machines don’t offer as much exercise variety
The bar is fixed in place, so you can’t move it and perform exercises such as cleans, curls, jerks, snatches etc.
7. Smith machines are generally more expensive than racks
That’s not always the case, but with more moving parts and more technical building, Smith machines usually cost more than racks.
Squat Rack Pros and Cons
Here are some of the main pros and cons of squat racks…
Squat rack pros
8. Squat racks allow a huge exercise variety
A squat rack offers you all of the exercise variety you get with a Smith machine, plus a whole lot more. The free barbell means you can perform any barbell exercise with a squat rack.
9. Squat racks are excellent for technique progression
Technically the squat rack is a great way to progress. Your form isn’t dictated to you by a fixed bar path. You’ll learn perfect form using a squat rack properly.
10. Squat racks are usually cheaper than a Smith machine
There are exceptions, but for the most part, a rack is cheaper than a Smith machine. You can even buy elite-level racks that are often cheaper than relatively basic Smith machines.
11. Squat racks have different shapes and sizes for different uses
You can buy a range of racks to suit your space and technical requirements, so your options are wide open.
12. Additional attachments are available on squat racks
You can add extra functionality to a squat rack by buying additional attachments. These include dip bars, landmines, cables and the like.
Squat rack cons
13. Your form has to be better using a squat rack than a Smith machine
When using a squat rack your form is important. Whilst this isn’t a con as such, it’s something to be aware of.
ASmith machine where you don’t need to think especially hard about form
14. Squat racks don’t have a built-in spotter, so you have to be careful
You can’t go lifting to absolute failure unless you have bought spotting arms.
If you haven’t, there’s nothing to prevent you being crushed under a bench press, or folding in half under a squat!
Buying Decisions – Squat Rack vs Smith Machine
I’ve outlined the pros and cons of the Smith machine and the squat rack, so now it’s time to look at the considerations from a buyer’s point of view.
15. Think of the intended use…
If you want to lift free weights, a Smith machine is pointless. You can’t move the barbell, it’s fixed. You’ll be working on the same handful of movements over and over again. If that’s all you’re looking for, fine. If you want more variety though, you’ll have to opt for a rack.
16. Think of the available space…
Smith machines tend to be tighter, with a smaller footprint and little need for access around them. A rack will need room to move in and out from. It’ll also need room on either side because a barbell is 7ft long, plus you’ll need space on either side to change the weight plates.
17. Think of your budget…
Squat racks tend to be cheaper than Smith machines, so you’ll have to factor in your finances.
18. Think of your training goals…
Smith machine has no sport carry over at all. No sport moves in such fixed patterns, so if you’re looking for equipment to improve your athleticism, don’t go for a Smith machine. It’s certainly useful for bodybuilding, but not for sports.
19. Consider the functionality…
Are you happy with a basic setup, or do you want pull-up bars etc?
If you want all-singing, all-dancing and have the space and money required then you’ll have to look at the better racks on the market. That will require more attachments, therefore more money.
You can learn a ton more about what to look for in a squat rack and find our recommendations from comparing over 100 of the best squat racks here.
How to determine equipment quality
This image will give you a quick idea about some of the key features of a squat rack…
And here are some of the key aspects of a Smith machine…
There’s also additional information on equipment if you know what to look for. Take note of these points to build a picture of whether or not the item of equipment you’re looking at is any good…
20. Steel Gauge
If there’s information about the product, look at the gauge of steel used – you want a minimum of 14 gauge (the lower the number, the thicker the steel).
It has to withstand heavy weight and constant re-racking and supporting bars. If you’re a big, strong dude or dudette, this is going to be very important.
21. Online Reviews
Take a look at online reviews – companies will only tell you how great their products are, but look for real-life thoughts from actual customers.
As a guide, I tend to ignore a chunk of the 5* and the 1* reviews, because they’re not representative. They are usually written by the fanboys and the moaners!
Look at warranty – as a rule of thumb, the better the product, the longer the warranty. This is because high-quality products are likely to last longer, so the manufacturer can be confident they won’t be pestered with immediate returns.
If you get to see the rack in real life…
23. Build quality
look at the build quality. Is the welding tight? Are the components good quality? Do the moving parts move smoothly? Does it make any weird noises? Does it wobble when pushed?
You can get a feel for equipment within a few moments if you give it a push, a pull, and perform a few reps on it.
Squat Rack vs Smith Machine – a summary
Contrary to popular opinion, Smith machines are good, especially if you’re not focused on sport carryover or Olympic lifting.
They offer a good exercise variety, they’re proven to be effective at building muscle and strength and they have one benefit that the most basic squat racks don’t offer, which is the self-spotting mechanism. Smith machines are also better in tighter spaces because they generally have a smaller footprint.
They’re good for bodybuilding and physique work, where the goal is aesthetics rather than performance. They also help beginners more because there’s less requirement to get your technique right. There’s also a wide range of options on the market to choose from.
Check out our best Smith machine recommendations and buying guide here to see what’s available.
There are some legitimate criticisms of the Smith machine (as we discussed previously), but the vast majority of the criticism is either misguided or misinformed. They’re a good item of equipment when used appropriately.
Why I Recommend Squat Racks for Most People
On the other hand, squat racks offer far more exercise variety than Smith machines. Essentially they can do everything the Smith machine can and a lot more. If you buy a full rack, you’ll even be able to do pull ups etc on it.
Squat racks are far more functional because the barbell is free to move anywhere.
It allows you to work with better technique because no form is forced upon you. This means the carry-over into sport is so much better and you can replicate movements you need to work on.
Squat racks tend to be cheaper because they’re easier to build and contain no moving parts. Of course, you can spend more money and get an elite product, but it’s not a necessity. There’s a range of options depending on your available space and budget.
Check our squat rack buying guide to see the options we recommend after comparing over 100 different racks.
If you do spend the extra cash on an elite level rack, you’ll be able to buy ‘spotter arms’ that make your lifting safer by allowing you to self spot, just like a Smith machine. See the image below to understand how spotter arms work on a rack…
You can also add a wide range of attachments to a rack, making it more than just a frame.
Common attachments for squat racks include:
- dip bars
- lat pull downs
- leg rollers
These take the squat rack from a frame to a complete gym, without having to buy additional extra machines. So if you want to use less space, a squat rack just makes sense in the long run!
Squat Rack vs Smith Machine – the bottom line
I’m of the strong opinion that squat racks are significantly better than Smith machines. They’re more functional, they offer more variety and they’ll likely save you money. If it’s a home gym decision, it’s an easy one for me to make.
In my gym, I own 6 full squat racks. I own ZERO Smith machines. You can draw your own conclusions from that I suppose…
We’ve compared over 150 squat racks and got a ton of user feedback to share the best squat racks with you here.
At Strong Home Gym, we write unbiased articles to help you build the perfect home gym for your needs and budgets. Take a look at our guide on building your own home gym, regardless of the budget. You’ll take ideas and inspiration from the article, plus you’ll learn a whole lot about the process!