Power rack vs smith machine: 5 differences to help you choose best.

Introduction

Power rack and smith machines are the two most versatile fitness equipment that can help in targetting the full body. For many people, it has been hard to choose between the power rack and the smith machine. 

Both pieces of equipment are used for similar kinds of exercises like squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, etc. However, the way these machines target your muscles is substantially different. 

I have been asked this multiple times, “coach, should I use power rack or smith machine?” or “what is the difference between working out with power rack or smith machine”. 

Whether you are building a garage gym or like to training at a local fitness studio, this article helps you have a clear insight on the merits and limitations of both.


What is a power rack?

In simple terms, a power rack is a piece of weight training equipment that works as a mechanical spotter for free weight barbell exercises.  

Power rack allows the lifter to practice the heavy compound movements without worrying about injuries. These racks also make the racking and de-racking of the barbell fairly easy and effective. 

Types of power racks:

  • Full power rack: Most commonly found in commercial gyms. 
  • Half power rack: A shorter version of “Full power rack” that is designed to consume less space, these are perfect for home garage gyms.
  • Squat rack stands: Got outdated and you won’t see them at local gyms. These are the power racks that were designed to rack and de-rack the barbell while squatting. 
  • Multifunctional power racks: Power racks that are designed for home gyms. As the name suggests, these racks are equipped with an additional pully system to provide enhanced abilities. 

What is the smith machine?

A smith machine is a limited version of a power rack that has a fixed range of motion. It consists of a barbell that is fixed within steel rails allowing only vertical or near-vertical movement. 

Smith machines are more preferred by lifters with low strength levels and their fixed range of motion reduces the likelihood of injuries. 

Types of smith machines

  • Commercial Smith machine: These are the high-end machines mostly found in commercial gyms, these machines have a counterweight functionality that makes the bar fairly lighter. The barbell can feel as light as 20 lbs only which is quite beneficial for the new lifter. 
  • Smith machine for home: A cheap machine that can help you squat at home without the need for the spotter. 
  • All-in-one smith machine: It’s not a machine, it’s a compact gym within itself. All in one smith machines are designed to help you train the full body with its wide variety of exercises. 

Power Rack Vs Smith Machine

So we are now aware of the basics of the power rack and smith machine, now let’s get on to the basic differences between both the machines. 

Versatility:

Although versatility is not a big concern at commercial gyms, they have many options available. But when it comes to garage gym, versatility is one of the major factors that I would expect from the equipment. 

Power rack vs smith machine on versatility

Smith machine can’t beat power rack in terms of versatility, period!

Smith machine offers the motion in a predetermined and secure path which can be good for squats, chest press, overhead press and other few exercises. 

On the other hand, a power rack provides the unrestricted movement of the barbell that can be used in hundreds of different ways. Additionally, a power rack with a pullup bar also allows you to train pull movements that are certainly not very practical with the smith machine. 

In short, power rack allows you to target every single muscle on your body and a smith machine doesn’t. 


Muscle isolation: 

The ability to isolate muscle might depend on the lifter’s capacity but the machine you are using make a big difference as well.

An experienced lifter can isolate the muscle in both machines, we are going to talk about the beginners who generally struggle with the right form and technique. 

Power rack vs smith machine on muscle isolation

Smith machine allows the lifter to focus on form and stability more than the free weights on the power rack. 

When you bench or squat heavy, all your focus is to push the weight but smith machine does the stabilization work for you to experience the superior form. 

Additionally, Smith machine also allows the lifter to try different foot placement while squatting (ex: hack squat) for particular muscle isolation. Smith’s machine also makes the front squats way more effective. 

Improved form and stabilization allows you to focus on better muscle contraction and isolation. 


Strength and stability

After all, we all workout to see the strength gains right?

Power rack vs smith machine on strength and stability

When it comes to strength, nothing can beat an old school barbell squats, but if you are training alone or without a spotter then it can be totally different scenario.

Training without a spotter can be a difficult task for the beginner or intermediate level lifters, in that case, the smith machine can help you achieve superior strength. 

Smith machines allow the lifter to rack the barbell at any point of time, thanks to multiple hooks. 

Because of the fixed path, the smith machine also protects the lifter from weight stabilization and balance. It’s easy to lift heavier on the smith machine which may help in better progressive overload. 

But no matter how much you lift on the smith machine, your trust strength can be tested with free weights only. That’s the reason powerlifters never squat on the smith machine. 


Injury prevention

Most of the people prefer to choose injury prevention methods over strength gains, right? For example, I would choose better strength gains over the tiny chance of injury, contrary to most of my friends, who would always choose the safer option. 

Every person has distinct priorities, I expect you to choose the best option according to your priorities.

Power rack vs smith machine on injury prevention

Power racks are designed to develop intense power that can never be achieved solely by the smith machine with a fixed path. Training with a power rack is a safe option but not as safe as a smith machine.

The most significant selling point of the smith machine is the fact that it offers a lot of safety hooks. The design of the smith machine makes it really effective training partner that not just helps in strength development but also saves the trainee from possible injury. 

Smith machine also gives you the ability to hook the barbell into several slots present on the frame. So if your muscle fails in the mid of lift, you can just hook the barbell without any worry.

Additionally, smith machine promotes good posture that saves the lifter from injury, its fixed path also protects the lifter from uncertain imbalance or destabilization. 


Limitations

Both the machines have their own limitations, let’s cover them in short. 

Power rack 

  • Safety arms need to be adjusted and used with proper technique. 
  • It’s bulky equipment that requires more room.
  • You might require special flooring for heavy power rack workouts. 
  •  It provides no support or stabilization while the exercise.
  • More suitable for the experienced lifters.

Smith machine 

  • Its fixed path is its biggest drawback as well. It restricts many natural movements.
  • Lack of versatility is one of the biggest reasons I would choose a power rack. 
  • Cant target full body. 
  • It can be quite costly in comparison to the power rack. 

Lets recap: 

FeatureSmith MachinePower Rack
VersatilityLimited exercisesVery versatile
Muscle IsolationWorks quite goodMore effective for compound lifts. 
SafetyVery safeLittle risky for beginners
Adjustable?Works in a fixed mannerA lifter can adjust its safety handles
CustomizationNot reallyLots of options available, can add pullup bars or pully. 

What’s best for a home gym? 

Who is it for? 

If you are at the gym then I would suggest you use both the machine for better strength and muscle gains. But if you are looking to buy a squat rack for your garage gym then here is the tip. 

  • Beginner or Intermediate: If you are a beginner or intermediate lifter then opting for a smith machine would be a safer choice. Added stability will help you develop greater strength.
  • Advance lifters: Advanced lifters already know what they require, a power rack will give them better flexibility to train with.

Check out the video of Jim Stoppani where he explains the benefits and limitations of squatting at the smith machine. Those who don’t know about Jim, he is the leading authority on exercise science, sports nutrition, and supplementation.


Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. 

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