smith machine uk logo

Smith machine vs squat rack & power rack systems: What are the REAL differences?

By Henry Wilson
Last Updated on 17th August 2020

One thing's for sure. Buying a Smith machine multi gym or a squat rack is a significant investment for anyone to make. Heck, I was on the fence for weeks. And I missed out on some great discounts as a result.

Anyway. Given how crowded commercial gyms are these days (not to mention our busy lifestyles), home gym equipment is becoming an increasingly necessary investment to make—especially if you're serious about strength training.

But which is better, a Smith machine or a squat rack?

The answer might surprise you...

Difference #1: Ease of use

two girls working out

The main difference between a Smith machine and squat rack systems is that Smith machines have less of a learning curve because you don't need to stabilise the bar. This ease of use is particularly helpful if you're a beginner whose main goal is building muscle because you can start adding weight to the bar sooner (and therefore make gains quicker). [1]

Likewise, unracking a Smith machine bar is much simpler than unracking an Olympic barbell because you don't have to reach behind yourself to lift the bar off the hooks. This difference is only apparent during pressing exercises—it doesn't matter much during squats or rows.

Winner: Smith machine

Difference #2: Durability

A barbell resting in a rack at the gym

When you compare a Smith machine vs squat rack in terms of durability, it's usually squat racks that come out on top. Why?

Simple. Free weight racks simply have less moving parts. Ever wondered why most gym equipment manufacturers have separate warranties for the frame and parts?

It's because of durability. Small parts are much more likely to degrade in quality than big chunks of steel. Hence why, in general, squat racks are usually slightly more durable than Smith machines.

Winner: Squat rack

Difference #3: Versatility

woman working out on a smith machine

When I was a teenager—working out in my bedroom—a pair of my dad's old dumbbells was all that I needed to stay occupied. But as I've got more into weight training, I've realised that using all of the different gym machines is actually really fun [2].

But what does this have to do with the whole squat rack vs Smith machine debate?

I'll tell you. Since Smith machines and power cages (or squat stands) essentially have the same baseline versatility, whichever piece of equipment offers the most attachments, is the one that also provides the most varied workouts [3].

Related post: Smith machine workouts

And there's only ever going to be one winner here. I've essentially turned my Smith machine into a fully-fledged home gym by adding cable attachments, free weight catches, a pull-up station and an adjustable bench. And it wasn't even that expensive (as far as home gym setups go).

Winner: Smith machine

Difference #4: Safety

Man working out his legs

Safety is arguably the most critical Smith machine squat rack difference because if you get injured, then well, you won't be building any muscle. No matter how many proteins shakes you drink!

With a Smith machine, you can re-rack the bar at any point during the rep with a simple wrist turn.

But with a squat rack, on the other hand, you have to walk the barbell a good 4-8" before you can even think about re-racking it. Not a big difference, I know. But 4" can feel like a mile after you've just completed a squat grinder!

Related post: Dumbbells vs Smith machine

Plus, cheap squat racks don't always have safety catches. And even if they do, the catches aren't usually that long (and not that sturdy in my experience). Obviously, you can pay more for a solid squat rack. But still, Smith machines are undeniably safer if you usually train without a spotter, like I do [4].

Winner: Smith machine

Difference #5: Cost

sporty woman leaning on a barbell

This one's easy. Squat racks are much cheaper than Smith machines. In fact, you can get a high-end, commercial-grade squat rack for the same price as a mid-range Smith machine. So if you want quality on a budget, then definitely go with a sturdy free weight rack.

Winner: Squat rack

Difference #6: Assembly

Image of a nut and a spanner

I've installed countless different squat racks, power racks and Smith machines. And while none of the setup jobs were particularly complicated, assembling the Smith machines was definitely the most time-consuming of the two jobs.

This is simply because the Smith machines that I bought were essentially home gyms. They had cable attachments and adjustable benches, which increased the setup time significantly. I didn't mind, though, because once I found a reliable one, I never needed to step foot in a crowded gym again.

Winner: Squat rack

Difference #7: Maintenance

man cleaning gym equipment

Gym equipment maintenance isn't a glamorous task. But it needs to be done.

With Smith machines, you need to lubricate the moving parts every month so that the guide rods don't stick. You also need to check the bolt tightness every once in a while, to make sure that the frame's still sturdy.

Similarly, you should check the construction of your power rack or squat rack every few months, to ensure that the bolts are sufficiently tight. However, you don't need to spray WD-40 on your power rack. So overall, free weight racks are a little easier to maintain.

Winner: Squat rack

What's the difference between a Smith machine and a power rack?

Sporty woman with a barbell accross her shoulders

As many of you will already know, squat racks and power racks are distinctly different. So, to make things clearer, let's compare the Smith machine and power rack separately [5].

First. The cost. Power racks are considerably more expensive than squat racks. But, on average, they're about 10-20% cheaper than Smith machines of the same quality.

As for the versatility, many top power racks now come with integrated pull-up stations and optional attachments, making them very comparable to home gym-style Smith machines. If you just want basic functionality (pull up station, dip handles, bench etc.), then go with a power rack. But if you want cables and the like, then you'll need to invest in a Smith machine.

On the safety side of the power rack vs Smith machine battle, things are pretty much even. Although the Smith machine bar is still easier to unrack and re-rack, power cages are built for maximum safety. They have full-length barbell catches so that you can test your strength without needing a spotter.

Blonde woman performing barbell squats

So, should you buy a Smith machine or Power rack?

If throwing around heavy iron is your main passion, then definitely go with a quality power rack. They're generally a bit sturdier than Smith machines, and they also tend to have longer warranties.

Related post: Smith machine vs leverage gym

On the other hand, if you want the full home gym experience, then I recommend investing in a Smith machine. Not only do you get the peace of mind that comes from being able to instantly re-rack the barbell, but you also (in general) have a remarkable amount of attachments at your disposal. You essentially get to create your own home gym, which is what I did [6].

Smith machine vs squat rack: The bottom line

So, we just compared the Smith machine vs power rack. But how about the squat rack, is it a better investment than a Smith machine?

Well, if you've been paying close attention, then you'll have noticed that the squat rack edged out the Smith machine 4-3.

However, the squat rack only just beat the Smith machine in the maintenance and assembly categories. Whereas the Smith machine absolutely demolished the squat rack on both versatility and ease of use.

So, as you probably guessed from the start, the winner of the Smith machine vs squat rack comparison depends on your goals.

man doing preacher curls with an EZ bar

Love chalking up your hands to lift heavy free weights? Then go with a squat rack.

You want more safety and versatility? It sounds like a Smith machine is right for you.

Want the best of both? Then invest in a quality power rack.

Let me know which one you went for because I'm pretty much the biggest gym equipment nerd in England!

Henry Wilson
I'm an experienced research assistant who's responsible for the scientific accuracy of the information provided by Smith Machine UK. When I'm not analysing the latest studies from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and advising university physiology departments, you'll find me cycling in the great British countryside.
At Smith Machine UK, we create in-depth tests of the latest and greatest gym equipment on the British market so that you can create your dream home gym.
Amazon Associates Disclaimer
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
© Copyright 2014-2020 - Smith Machine UK - All Rights Reserved
hello world!
chevron-upmenu-circlecross-circle linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram