Smith Machine vs the Squat Rack: Benefits, Muscle Synergy, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 2, 2022

One of the most frequently debated topics in the field of lifting is that of using the smith machine or the squat rack - two types of fitness training equipment that enable an exerciser to position a barbell at a certain elevation so as to aid in the performance of a variety of resistance exercises.

However, as can be guessed by the fact that such a debate so often takes place; the smith machine and the squat rack are two distinctly different pieces of equipment, and as such present individual sets of advantages and disadvantages, making each one more suitable for certain purposes than the other.

For the most part, the differences between the smith machine and the squat rack revolve around the freedom of movement allowed within each barbell stand, with the smith machine being self-stabilizing and locking the bar into a certain range of motion while the squat rack is far more free-form.

What is a Smith Machine?

The smith machine is a resistance exercise machine primarily used to perform compound barbell exercises in a safe manner and with a fixed bar-path that excludes the performance of certain types of barbell exercises.

smith machine

It often comes with the barbell already permanently attached to the rack itself, and as such cannot be switched out for a barbell of different tensile strength or form, presenting yet another limit alongside the reduced range of motion and strict bar path that it employs.

However, to offset this, exercisers will often find that they are capable of lifting more weight with the smith machine - for greater volumes of repetitions, and in a far safer manner.

What is a Squat Rack?

A squat rack is a piece of weightlifting equipment that holds a barbell or similar implement between two pegs so as to allow the exerciser to begin a set of repetitions starting with the bar at a certain elevation.

squat rack

Unlike other barbell cages or racks, the squat rack primarily features only two columns with adjustable pegs pointing outwards from each one - though certain brands of squat racks will also feature a pair of adjustable safety bars near the bottom of the columns as well.

This allows for a greater freedom of movement and enables the exerciser to “walk out” a barbell, of which is a major component in many competitive powerlifting exercises such as the barbell row or back squat - hence the name of the squat rack itself.

An Overview: Suitability of the Smith Machine and the Squat Rack

As was previously mentioned at the beginning of this article, neither the smith machine nor the squat rack are better than the other on a general basis - as either piece of equipment can surpass the other when placed in the correct context.

These will usually revolve around the needs of the exerciser, what sort of exercise they wish to perform and the kind of training program that they are currently participating in, with the squat rack surpassing the smith machine in certain aspects of training or vice versa.

Benefits of the Smith Machine

The main benefit of the smith machine is in its safety mechanisms, with little to no chance of the exerciser dropping the barbell atop themselves or otherwise performing novice errors that may result in acute injury.

This is achieved through two main mechanisms; firstly is the safety rack built into each smith machine, of which will act as a pseudo-spotter and essentially catch the bar in the event that the exerciser has reached the point of exertive failure and can no longer lift it, with the other mechanism being that the barbell is locked into a specific path and as such cannot deviate excessively from said path, preventing slips or sudden injuries from occurring.

smith machine squat benefits

Furthermore, there is the matter of stabilization. 

Due to the barbell itself being directly attached to the smith machine - the exerciser will find that the weight stabilizes itself. 

As a natural benefit of such self-stabilization, the exerciser will experience effects such as a reduced total exertion and that the machine allows for a greater amount of total weight to be moved per repetition, as well as in more total repetitions - as the limiting factor of smaller stabilizer muscle groups is negated from the movement.

Benefits of the Squat Rack

The most significant benefit found in the usage of the squat rack (comparatively) is in its absolute freedom of movement, allowing practically any free weight exercise to be performed without the range of motion or bar path being constrained by the squat rack itself.

In addition to this, the fact that the squat rack does not stabilize the barbell in any manner forces the exerciser’s own musculature to do so; thereby activating stabilizer muscle groups in a synergistic capacity so as to allow the primary mover muscles to function at a maximal level, as well as to avoid injury.

Squat racks are also often found to be cheaper and to take up relatively less space due to the fact that they are relatively simplistic to make and use - making the squat rack a more economical choice for home-gym owners.

Who Should Use the Squat Rack?

Though the squat rack is available to healthy exercisers of any age, it is generally more effective when used by intermediate to advanced level weightlifters seeking to perform free weight barbell exercises in a manner that requires a greater range of motion.

Unlike in the power cage wherein the exerciser’s bar path is somewhat limited by the presence of four pillars surrounding the exerciser, the squat rack may simply act as a resting point for the barbell prior to the exerciser performing a set, without the rack itself hindering the movement.

power rack

In comparison to the smith machine, this leaves the entire burden of safety up to the exerciser, and as such it is important for lifters using a squat rack to have at least basic understanding of safe free weight exercise mechanics so as to avoid injuring themselves - hence the fact that at least intermediate level exercise experience is needed.

Who Should Use the Smith Machine?

The smith machine presents a safer and more strict movement pattern and bar path than the squat rack, making it more suitable for novice exercisers or individuals with a history of injury that may be aggravated if unsupported resistance is placed on the body.

As such, the smith machine is more suitable for individuals who are unsure of their ability to perform free weight barbell exercises safely - especially if doing so will aggravate or cause a recurrence of an acute injury.

It should be noted that chronic overuse injuries and similar circumstances are not helped by switching from the squat rack to the smith machine, as both types of equipment will lead to a recurrence of symptoms regardless.

The smith machine is also useful for athletes seeking a high level of specificity within a certain range of motion, bar path or movement pattern, such as powerlifters attempting to perform a supramaximal load on a small portion of their squat movement, for example.

Synergist Muscle Recruitment Differences of the Smith Machine and the Squat Rack

Throughout any exercise involving skeletal muscle group activation, subsequent activation of stabilizer muscle groups (dubbed synergist muscles) take place. 

This is automatically performed by the nervous system in order to allow the larger muscle groups to function to their fullest capacity without diverting energy towards stabilization of the exerciser’s own body and the barbell.

However, not all exercises do so to the same degree, as the fact that the barbell of the smith machine is self stabilized as a consequence of its attachment to the rack itself will cause a reduction in synergist muscle activation, regardless of the exercise performed.

What Does a Reduction in Synergist Muscle Activation Mean?

It is not always necessarily a negative thing, as a reduction in synergist muscle recruitment means that more exertion may be put towards actual large scale movements of the barbell itself, allowing more weight to be used and more repetitions to be performed - as well as greater recruitment of the primary mover muscles.

However, a reduction in recruitment of synergist muscles also means that said muscles will not develop as readily, especially if the exerciser performs no free weight movements and solely relies on the smith machine for resistance exercise training stimulus.

Unfortunately, unless the exerciser is planning to only use their strength in the context of the smith machine for the foreseeable future, it is the squat rack that is superior in this regard; in functional movements and athletic activities, strong synergist muscles are an absolute requirement.

Safety Mechanism Differences of the Smith Machine and the Squat Rack

In terms of built-in safety mechanisms, it is the smith machine that is the clear winner; the squat rack’s sole safety feature is a pair of adjustable or detachable safety bars that, unfortunately, will usually restrict the exerciser’s range of motion unless they are performing a barbell back squat alone.

Unlike the squat rack, the smith machine features a number of safety mechanisms built into it, with certain brands adding even further mechanisms to ensure that the exerciser remains uninjured during their workout.

An automatic spotting mechanism due to the barbell’s fixed attachment, hooks built into the barbell that allow it to automatically rack itself if dropped and even the fact that the bar is self-stabilizing all point to the smith machine possessing greater inherent safety than the squat rack.

This, of course, does not mean that the squat rack is unsafe - simply that it places the matter of safe exercise within the hands of the exerciser, leaving it up to them to move appropriately, follow proper form and generally ensure they are lifting in the correct manner.

Monetary Cost, Space Usage and Purpose of Use Differences of the Smith Machine and the Squat Rack

Though not exactly directly related to resistance exercise and training results, the aforementioned factors such as the gross financial cost of either equipment, how much space they may take up, the purpose of such equipment and the convenience they offer should be factors into which one is actually purchased.

When speaking of financial cost, it is the squat rack that will invariably be cheaper, as the smith machine often requires additional material and more complicated manufacturing to produce, whereas a squat rack is most often made of hollow metal in the shape of a half-rack.

This is not the case in terms of spacing, however, as though most brands of squat racks are narrower than certain smith machines, there is the fact that the exerciser will need to place a barbell within the rack (of which is usually six to seven feet), as well as require several feet of open space around the barbell in order to change the weight plates.

The exerciser must also consider the purpose of each type of equipment. If it is their intention to perform better in athletic sports or to develop their body in such a way that it is safer from injury and the effects of aging, the smith machine cannot feasibly help in such endeavors due to the stimuli it imparts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Shouldn’t You Squat/Deadlift on a Smith Machine?

Due to the fixed path of the smith machine’s bar, performing highly technical and heavy exercises such as a back squat or conventional deadlift may force the exerciser to deviate from proper form, leading to injury.

Can Both the Squat Rack and Smith Machine be Used Together?

Yes. In fact, performing both machine-based and free weight resistance exercises together have shown to be more effective than simply free weight exercise alone. 

So long as the exerciser relies on the squat rack or a similar free weight rack for their compound movements, with the smith machine being used for secondary compound exercises or auxiliary work.

Why is the Smith Machine Hated?

For the most part, the general dislike of the smith machine is unwarranted - it is in fact a perfectly effective modality of muscular development, so long as it is not the sole source of training stimulus in the exerciser’s training routine.

The smith machine is disliked because of its fixed bar path, incompatibility with many mainstream compound exercises and lack of synergist muscle group recruitment, all of which lead to poor functional strength development and less athletic capacity than what free weight exercises would ordinarily develop.

In Conclusion - Which Should be Used?

Save for instances where the exerciser is injured, has a history of injury, is a novice lifter or otherwise does not wish to develop functional muscular strength for carryover purposes - the squat rack should be used or purchased instead.

Ideally, a well-rounded exerciser will make use of the squat rack as well as the smith machine alongside any other number of training equipment so as to maximize the effectiveness of their training program, leading to better and safer results.

References

1. Saeterbakken AH, Olsen A, Behm DG, Bardstu HB, Andersen V. The short- and long-term effects of resistance training with different stability requirements. PLoS One. 2019 Apr 1;14(4):e0214302. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0214302. PMID: 30934001; PMCID: PMC6443166.

2. Saeterbakken AH, Andersen V, van den Tillaar R, Joly F, Stien N, et al. (2020) The effects of ten weeks resistance training on sticking region in chest-press exercises. PLOS ONE 15(7): e0235555. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0235555

3. Schick, Evan E; Coburn, Jared W; Brown, Lee E; Judelson, Daniel A; Khamoui, Andy V; Tran, Tai; Uribe, Brandon P; Reyes, Christian A Comparison Of Muscle Activation Between A Smith Machine And Free Weight Bench Press, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue - p 1 doi: 10.1097/01.JSC.0000367207.18161.d7

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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