Smith Machine vs Squat Rack: Which is Better and Safer?

Every sport has its controversies. 

When it comes to bodybuilding and working out in general, one of the most divisive debates involves the squat. The issue isn’t whether or not you should do it; there’s a general consensus that you gotta’ squat to build muscle, especially in the lower body.

The question is should you squat on a Smith machine or a squat rack?

Many gym goers consider the Smith machine squat the cheat version of the exercise. They liken it to drinking non-alcoholic beer—a poor imitation of the real thing!

Smith machine vs squat rack

Yet others see the Smith machine as a highly functional training aid that allows you to squat safely without compromising the movement’s benefits. 

So, what’s the truth?

Read on to get the unvarnished truth on the squat Smith machine vs power rack debate. 

What is a Smith Machine

1950s fitness icon Jack LaLanne invented the Smith machine. However, it was manufactured and mass-marketed by gym owner Rudy Smith, who gave it its name. Smith wanted a safe way for his members to squat and bench press while working out alone. 

A Smith machine is an exercise machine consisting of a steel frame with a barbell bar attached. The bar is set between fixed rails, so it can only move directly up and down. 

Hooks are attached to the bar, allowing the user to rack the bar quickly at any phase of the exercise. Weight plates are usually loaded onto the ends of the barbell. However, some Smith machine brands use a pin-loaded weight stack. 

The barbell rails on a Smith machine are either wholly vertical or set at a slight pitch of 5-12 degrees. This angling allows for a more natural movement path when squatting. 

The Smith machine is designed to allow stabilized vertical movement to perform various exercises, most notably the squat, safely. Here are its key features:

  • Guided Movement: The bar travels along a fixed path, ensuring that the exerciser moves through a vertical range. This can help beginners use proper form and can also be helpful for people who are doing squats as part of their rehabilitation program.
  • Safety: The Smith machine allows users to lock the barbell anytime while exercising. They can ‘bail out’ without a spotter if they cannot complete a rep. All they have to do is roll their wrists forward to bring the hooks attached to the bar into a lock position.
  • Versatility: While mainly considered a squat machine, the Smith machine can also be used for bench presses, lunges, overhead presses, and several other movements. 
  • Stability: The fixed nature of the bar provides stability during the exercise. This allows the user to focus more on lifting the bar than stabilizing the weight. This factor becomes increasingly important as the weight squatted nears your maximum. 
  • Muscle Isolation: The Smith machine removes the need to balance the barbell, allowing the user to isolate specific muscle groups when doing exercises like the squat. It also allows you to perform exercises such as front squats and feet-forward squats to isolate different portions of the quadriceps much more safely than the squat rack version. 

Smith Machine Negatives

Many people who deride the Smith machine do so without mentioning any specific issues with the exercise. They might say things like ‘It looks lame’ or ‘It’s only for beginners.’ 

The reality is that the Smith machine is an effective squat alternative that enhances your safety on the exercise. However, there are a few specific problems with it. Let’s break them down:

Reduced Eccentric Load

When you perform the squat with a free-weight barbell, you are operating in a frictionless environment. As a result, the load your muscles are working against on the lifting (concentric) and the lowering (eccentric) parts of the exercise are the same. 

However, when you use a Smith machine, the rails that the bar travels within create friction that reduces the effective load on the working muscles during the squat’s descent (eccentric) phase. This effect is even more significant if the rails contain rust. 

On the way back up (the concentric phase), you have to work against the combination of friction and rust, meaning that your force production requirement is higher than on a free barbell squat.

Some credible research suggests that the eccentric phase of an exercise induces more of a growth response than the concentric phase. 

A 2009 study showed that experienced lifters who followed a 12-week eccentric-focused squat program (3-second descent) had significantly better leg growth and strength outcomes than those who performed traditional squats. [1]

Reduced Transfer to Real World Strength

When you use a Smith machine, you have to move through a pre-set range of motion. This means that you are hampered in your free motion. One consequence is that your stabilizer muscles are not involved in the movement. 

The combination of lack of free movement and non-involvement of stabilizer muscles means a reduced transference to real-world strength when you use a Smith machine. After all, none of our muscles work in isolation. 

Whether we’re carrying groceries, moving in for a tackle on the football field, or running for the bus, our stabilizer muscles need to work in harmony with our primary muscles. The power rack version of the squat will do a better job of increasing that functional strength than a Smith machine. 

Potential Joint Problems

The lack of free motion allowed on a Smith machine can cause joint problems if you don’t set up for an exercise correctly. For example, if you place your feet too far forward when getting into position for the squat (or too far back, for that matter), your spinal alignment will be severely compromised. Your knees will also be in a far from ideal position. 

On the Smith machine, you are locked into your position. Improper foot positioning will feel unnatural, but you won’t be able to do anything about it. If you were using a power rack, you would naturally adjust your foot position to feel more natural. But you can’t do that on the Smith machine. 

Of course, this Smith machine negative is only an issue if you don’t properly set up for the exercise. So, it is important that you take your time to get into position correctly. 

Here’s a guide on how to set up for the Smith machine squat:

  • Adjust the barbell to shoulder height.
  • Stand under the bar, positioning it across your upper traps and shoulders.
  • Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Unlock the bar by rotating it.
  • Step forward a few inches and place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Ensure your toes are slightly pointed outwards.
  • Inhale and bend your knees and hips to lower your body.
  • Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor or slightly below.
  • Exhale and push through your heels to rise back to the starting position.
  • Straighten your legs without locking your knees at the top.
  • Maintain control throughout the movement.

Weight training YouTuber and fitness influencer Dr. Mike Israetel considers the Smith Machine squat to be a valuable adjunct to conventional squats. Here’s what Mike said in a recent YouTube video … 

It’s a great tool that you can use [if you] use the Smith machine correctly. That means adjusting your positioning; if your joints feel uncomfortable or weird or if they have pain  [adjust until it] feels better because, with the barbell, everything autocorrects anyway, so it feels weird on one. You can always move the bar in your own hands with a Smith machine that bar only goes up and down. It doesn’t do shit else, so it’s up to you to get the right settings. If you can do that, it doesn’t take a ton of insight if you don’t know how to properly position yourself.

What is a Squat Rack?

A squat rack, also known as a squat cage or power rack, is a piece of weight training equipment used to support free-weight barbell exercises. It consists of a heavy-duty steel frame with upright posts. 

The front uprights feature a series of holes. J-hooks are placed in these holes at the appropriate height to hold a free barbell. The rack may also feature various spotter safety mechanisms, including adjustable safety bars to catch the bar if you cannot complete a lift. 

You can perform free-weight squats on a squat rack. When you unrack the bar, you simply take a step back and perform the movement. The barbell moves freely, allowing for natural motion and the involvement of stabilizer muscles. 

The freedom of movement and engagement of stabilizer muscles help develop strength that transfers better to real-world activities.

Squat Rack Negatives

Higher Risk of Injury: Without the guided movement, there’s a greater risk of injury if you lose balance or use improper form. 

Requires Spotter or Safety Bars: For heavy lifts, it’s safer to have a spotter or make sure safety bars are set correctly to catch the bar if you fail a lift. 

Learning Curve: There is quite a learning curve when it comes to performing the barbell squat. Beginners are prone to making a number of errors. These include excessive forward lean, rounding of the back, and improper knee alignment.

When you use a Smith machine, you move through a set range of motion, which helps you get the correct positioning. This can be easier for people who are new to the exercise. 

Looking for a home gym squat rack that meets your specific training needs and budget? Check our rack builder series and discover the IronBull difference.

[Related: How to Use a Squat Rack?] 

Smith Machine vs Squat Rack: Pros & Cons

Having analyzed the critical points of each squat version, let’s summarize the pros and cons of the Smith machine and Squat rack.

Smith Machine:

  • Pros:
    • Safety: It is easier to rack the bar at any point during the lift, reducing the risk of being trapped under the weight.
    • Guided Path: Helps maintain proper form, especially beneficial for beginners or during rehab.
    • Isolation: Allows for better muscle isolation by removing the need to balance the barbell.
  • Cons:
    • Reduced Functional Strength: The fixed path limits the engagement of stabilizer muscles.
    • Potential Joint Stress: Improper setup can lead to unnatural movement patterns, increasing the risk of joint problems.
    • Reduced Eccentric Load: Friction from the rails can reduce the load during the lowering phase of the squat.

Squat Rack:

  • Pros:
    • Natural Movement: Allows for a full range of motion, more closely mimicking real-life movements.
    • Engages Stabilizer Muscles: You must balance the bar, engaging more muscles.
    • Functional Strength: Better transfer to real-world strength due to the involvement of stabilizer muscles and natural movement patterns.
  • Cons:
    • Higher Risk of Injury: Without guided movement, there’s a higher risk if form or balance is compromised.
    • Requires Spotter/Safety Bars: Having a spotter or correctly set safety bars is safer, especially for heavy lifts.

Bottom Line

In this article, we learned that the Smith machine and the squat rack version of the squat provide unique benefits. The Smith machine is a generally safer version that allows for better quad isolation, while the squat rack is better at developing functional strength and allowing for free natural movement. 

So, rather than viewing the issue as a binary choice, the smart weight trainer will consider the two exercises to be complementary. You might use the squat rack version as your main squat form and add a couple of high-rep sets of Smith machine squats at the end of your workout as a finishing /pump exercise. Or you could alternate between the two versions every leg day.

Just remember, there’s no rule saying you have to do one to the exclusion of the other. By adding the Smith machine AND squat rack squats to your program, you’re getting the best of both worlds. 


Q: Is a squat rack better than a Smith machine?

If your goal is to develop functional strength for sports or everyday activities, a squat rack is better than a Smith machine. The squat rack requires the recruitment of stabilizer muscles and allows for a more accessible range of motion. 

Q: Is it OK to squat with a Smith machine?

Yes, using a Smith machine for squats is completely safe, provided you are set up properly for the exercise. The key is to place your feet just a few inches before the bar. If the movement feels unnatural on your spine and knees, rerack the bar and adjust. 

Q: Why are Smith machine squats harder than regular squats?

Smith machine squats are harder than regular squats because you have to fight against friction and possibly rust in the railing on the upward (concentric) part of the exercise. 

Q: Is a Smith machine as good as a barbell?

A Smith machine is not as good as a barbell in developing functional strength. However, it does a better job of isolating the quadriceps and is a safer alternative. Rather than being seen as an alternative to the squat, it should be considered an auxiliary exercise.


[1] Kongsgaard M, Kovanen V, Aagaard P, Doessing S, Hansen P, Laursen AH, Kaldau NC, Kjaer M, Magnusson SP. Corticosteroid injections, eccentric decline squat training, and heavy, slow resistance training in patellar tendinopathy. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2009 Dec;19(6):790-802. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.00949.x. Epub 2009 May 28. PMID: 19793213.