There are many ways of undertaking resistance exercises both at the gym and at home. Two of the more common pieces of equipment found in commercial gyms, great for allowing you to execute a wide range of resistance-based movements, are the smith machine and the squat rack.
This article looks into the differences between the two and which one you could best make use of depending upon your circumstances and what you’d like to accomplish with your strength training. But what is the main difference between each piece of equipment?
A smith machine allows the user to perform certain exercises in a vertical plane of motion by way of a barbell fixed to the rack that runs on linear rails. By comparison, a squat rack, sometimes referred to as squat stands, will give the user more freedom of movement, as the barbell is not fixed to guide rails.
If we take a barbell front squats as an example, let’s see how they would differ when performed on both of the pieces of equipment.
When performing a squat on a smith machine, you would load the machine up with weight plates and position yourself under the bar and hinge at the hips squatting downwards. As it’s a fixed range of motion, there is no activation of the stabilisation muscles. A potential drawback of this is that squatting down with no flexibility on how your body can move, could be putting unnecessary strain on the joints, especially the knees and ankles.
By comparison, a free weights barbell squat is going to offer significantly more freedom of movement by allowing the user to best position themselves. Anatomically, people can be very different and the limitations with the smith machine could make certain weight training movements more uncomfortable.
The biggest difference is that a more traditional barbell squat is going to result in muscle activation of all the major muscle groups when compared to that of smith machine squats, this leads to more muscle mass. Both forms of the squat will work the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Additionally, a free weight barbell squat will also work the lower back and stabilisation muscles. This means that it can offer benefits to balance and posture, whilst helping to improve back pain.
Because of the increased muscle-mind focus required with a heavy weights squat, you’ll also be taxing the central nervous system considerably more than you would be with a smith machine squat. In a nutshell, the CNS comprises of the brain and spinal cord and is responsible for coordinating all activities of the body.
Many factors help to keep your central nervous system in tip top condition such as good nutrition, plenty of sleep, meditation and exercise. The benefit of working and strengthening your CNS is that it can help with coordination of the prime movers. These are muscles such as the quads, pecs, biceps and triceps and will expend large amount of energy to be able to move.
A free weight squat is a very technical compound exercise and, as such, proper form is vital to prevent serious injury. Squatting on a smith machine will not teach you the correct technique for free weight barbell squats. For this reason, it’s not unusual to see recommendations that would suggest smith machine squatting be left to more advanced lifters who are capable of executing a front squat with good form.
WHAT IS A SMITH MACHINE
At first glance, the smith machine looks similar to that of a half rack with the defining feature being that it houses a barbell which is fixed to a steel rail either side of it. This barbell will run up and down with a fixed bar path allowing the user to perform a number of exercises.
It tends to be a somewhat controversial machine, especially amongst experienced lifters who favour free weight compound exercises that can push the body to its limits.
As the need for balance is removed when using a smith machine, this could lead to more dominant muscles taking over resulting in unequal training. This may cause an unbalanced physique both aesthetically and strength wise.
A common misconception is that if you can squat heavier weights on a smith machine this will carry over to a free weight barbell squat using a squat rack. This is not the case. Smith squats will not translate to a free weight squat and attempting to do so could increase the risk of injury.
Some smith machines are manufactured to include a counter balance. This will allow the user to reduce the starting weight load if they wish to do so. They would typically reduce the weight of the bar itself which can vary anywhere between 15lb and 25lbs, depending on the manufacturer of the machine. Some even include a pull-up bar making it even more versatile.
WHAT IS A SQUAT RACK
A squat rack, also known as squat stands, is a piece of gym equipment that features height adjustable uprights allowing the user to perform free-weight squats. It’s a simple design that securely holds the barbell prior to undertaking a squat movement.
They can vary in terms of functionality, with some offering very basic set-ups comprising two uprights that connect from the bottom. Whilst others have adjustable safety arms built in. Despite the safety bars, with any heavy compound exercise, it’s always advisable to have a spotter on hand in case you run into any difficulties.
When performing a squat exercise using squat stands, the exercise itself will be much more taxing on the muscles requiring the user to brace their core giving them the stability that they wouldn’t have when compared to using a smith machine, which would negate the use of back and stabiliser muscles. A free weight squat is a much more natural movement that results in much greater muscle activity.
Another difference, between this and the smith machine, is that you need to ‘walk out’ the loaded barbell. Essentially, once you have unracked the bar you are required to step away from the stands to give you the clearance required to squat to depth. This, of course, becomes more difficult with a heavier weight load and generally why, only seasoned weight lifters tend to use the squat rack.
WHICH IS BETTER FOR A HOME GYM
When it comes to size and portability, a squat rack is going to be your best option. This is because, they are much more light weight and, in many cases, can be broken down and stored away. Squat racks also tend to be more cost-effective, this tends to be because they have less moving parts thus keeping the overall cost down. You will also need to invest in an Olympic barbell too.
However, that’s not to say you should discount a smith machine. If you’d prefer the safety offered by this, such as easier re-racking of the barbell or eliminating the bar ‘walk out’ in a squat, then it’s worth considering. Smith machines also tend to be more versatile allowing you to perform a wider range of exercises such as the chest press, bent over rows and even deadlifts.
If you have a preference for squat stands but also want something versatile, consider the different models available. In many cases squat stands feature uprights that, at their lowest setting, will not allow for chest pressing. However, in some cases, uprights can be swapped out for those seen on combination powerlifting racks. This will then give you a much more versatile squat rack allowing you to perform bench presses.
Another factor to consider is how you like to train. If you’re a powerlifter, or wish to train to your maximum each time, you’re unlikely to get as much workout intensity with smith squat exercises as opposed to free weight exercises. If you’re more into volume work, higher repetitions with lower weight, then the smith machine would suffice.
Whilst it’s usually assumed that the smith machine carries more safety features, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that this means using one eliminates the chance of injury completely. As mentioned above, the fixed bar path reduces the range of motion and forces the user to adopt a fixed position when performing an exercise. So, even if you’re a beginner, correct form is important to ensure no stress is placed on the joints.
SMITH MACHINE BENEFITS
- Stabilises the weight
- As the smith machine bar stabilises the weight, this makes it beneficial for those who have weak core or lower back muscles.
- No need for a spotter
- The smith machine comprises bar catchers so that in the event of a failed lift, these will catch the barbell reducing the chance of injuring yourself. This makes it safer option, but not completely risk free.
- When compared to a squat rack, the smith machine is typically more versatile allowing you to perform many difference exercises such as chest press, shoulder presses, stationary lunges etc.
- You can lift more weight
- Because of the fixed path of the barbell, the weight is typically easier to lift allowing you to increase the load than you may otherwise not be able to.
SMITH MACHINE DRAWBACKS
- Fixed Bar Path
- The barbell cannot deviate from its fixed plane of movement, and this can cause some users discomfort to the joints when executing certain exercises.
- No core activation
- As using a smith machine significantly reduces the use of stabilizer muscles, you won’t reap the same benefits such as improved core strength, better balance and a stronger lower back than you would with regular back squats.
- Not suitable for all exercises
- Some people may find that fixed barbell makes performing certain exercises, especially compound movements such as the squat, quite awkward and uncomfortable.
- Pattern Overload
- By performing certain exercises on the smith machine repeatedly and adding in no other versatility by way of different machines or free weight exercises, you could over train muscles. The fixed bar path means you will be working the same muscles over and over whilst at the same time, be neglecting other muscles. Whilst this is good for isolation, you’ll want to be sure to work all muscle groups for overall body development.
SQUAT RACK BENEFITS
- Cost effective
- When compared to many other machines or pieces of equipment that allow for squatting, the squat rack tends to be a lower cost option.
- The size is considerably smaller when compared to a smith machine or or power cage, and some models are easy to breakdown making the squat rack easy to store away. For this reason, it could be a better option for home gyms with limited space.
- Better for squat form
- When compared to the smith machine, you’ll be able to achieve a much better, and safer, squat form thanks to the freedom of movement.
SQUAT RACK DRAWBACKS
- You’ll need a spotter
- This would depend on the model of the squat rack as some are supplied with safety catches. For those that do not, you’ll need a spotter on hand. This potentially makes it unsuitable for some home gyms.
- Not As versatile
- As mentioned above, some squat stands can be quite limiting and this lack of versatility may make it unsuitable for home gyms. That being said, if you’re an experienced lifter with a home gym, squat stands could be a great option. A lot of people like to add a weight bench into their workout routine.
For home gym equipment you’ll likely want something versatile so that you can perform a number of different exercises. Whilst the smith machine typically only allows for vertical movements, it is going to be more versatile than a squat rack or other squat cages.
There are many different types of smith machines and it would be a good idea to do plenty of research before choosing the best smith machine for you. Before making a choice, clarify what physical activity you enjoy and don’t just compare it to the squat rack. There are other machines that would be worth considering such as functional trainers, half racks and, if space allows, even a power rack.
Consider the most important factors before choosing any type of equipment as there can be significant differences, and be sure to note extra features such as mechanical spotter arms and even weight plate storage.