It’s not always easy to know which equipment you need to stock in your gym right off the bat. Some gyms operate under strict financial constraints, while others have smaller indoor spaces than they’d ideally like. In a perfect world, of course, you would be able to start with the most essential equipment and then expand to include more as your business also expands.
But where do you start? What are the essentials? And if you have to choose between a high-quality barbell cage, smith machine, or leg press machine to fill out your "lower body" equipment section, what’s the best choice?
All three have distinct benefits and drawbacks depending on your goals for your gym and what your clientele prefers. All three are available at price points ranging from the low hundreds for barebones models to five figures for top of the line flagships. And, all three can provide a killer leg workout for exercisers who use them properly.
The preferences of your members should (more often than not) dictate major decisions like these, but for gyms just starting out or those who have memberships across a lot of widely varying demographics, the following pro and con lists should help you sort out which piece of equipment will be best for your facility.
We’ll say it right off the bat: this option should be top priority for most gyms. If that’s all the information you need, you can stop reading at this point. Buy a barbell cage (also sometimes called a power rack) and don’t look back.
However, if you’re still on the fence, let’s examine the "why" behind that proclamation.
Topping the list of reasons, we have the sheer versatility of even the most basic barbell cage. The focus of this article is on leg workout machines specifically, but barbell cages go far beyond just squats. Exercisers can stay in the cage and get a full body workout with deadlifts, shoulder presses, and even bench presses if you provide a bench nearby.
Even if we’re only talking about squats, most people will still get the best, most effective leg workout in a barbell cage. Front squats and back squats are just a couple of common variations, in comparison to only smith machine squats or only leg presses that the other two pieces of equipment provide. Plus, lifting a free barbell requires all sorts of balancing and stabilizing muscle recruitment that a smith machine or a leg press just can’t replicate.
The point of doing squats in a barbell cage is so the user can start with the bar already at shoulder height and take advantage of "backup" safety bars in case he or she trips, drops the weight, or realizes halfway through a rep that the weight is too heavy to stand back up. So, in comparison to doing squats without a cage, this option is much safer.
However, of the three pieces of equipment we’re comparing, barbell cages do have the highest potential for injury. This is actually a negative byproduct of the above "pro," in that barbell workouts (and free weight workouts in general) force the user to provide their own stabilization and balance, as opposed to the machine doing that for them.
Some of this risk can be mitigated with the proper use of safety bars and barbell clips, but you can’t always rely on your gym members to take these precautions.
Leg Press Machine
This is the choice that wins when it comes to safety concerns. If you’re at all concerned about liability from injuries, or if you have a large demographic of elderly members or people rehabilitating injuries, the leg press machine will likely give you the least amount of trouble. Leg presses are relatively foolproof, and the seated position means exercisers are not likely to fall or stumble.
Plus, while barbell racks offer the most versatility, creative exercisers can definitely get a solid variety of movements out of a leg press machine by changing up the positioning of their feet and legs to prioritize different muscles, or even doing single-leg variations.
It’s worth noting that, while barbell cages and smith machines are often very tall to allow users to do exercises like overhead presses, leg press machines will be much easier to fit in a gym with low ceilings.
Leg presses are a one-trick pony. Even with creative variations on positioning, users still only get one functional exercise – leg presses – out of a machine dedicated to only this purpose. In contrast, both barbell cages and smith machines allow exercisers to do other movements.
Additionally, the ease with which users can add heavy weights to a leg press machine will vary based on the model. Ideally, choose one that uses a pin system to lock plate stacks in place, rather than requiring the user to load weight plates themselves. This further reduces the risk of injury. However, these models will also be more expensive than the basic weight-plate versions.
Smith machines offer much more variety than the leg press, though less than a full barbell cage. Users can squat, (and deadlift, to some extent) as well as perform overhead presses or bench presses with a bench.
Smith machines are often good for building strength without the need for a spotter. While barbell lifts are often unsafe to do without someone nearby to help in case of a mishap, smith machines can somewhat negate this risk by keeping the barbell moving in a set vertical track. You can’t really fall backward and drop the weight on yourself when you’re lifting heavy in a smith machine.
Sometimes, that fixed path that the smith machine uses isn’t comfortable for all users. Depending on a person’s physiology, he or she may need more horizontal movement in order to perform lifts with good form. As a result of having to lift with minorly compromised form, there’s a bigger risk of joint discomfort and possible injury.
Unlike lifting a free barbell, lifting a bar within a set vertical path doesn’t often mimic real-life movements. Therefore, while you can definitely build strength by using a smith machine, you will build more functional, everyday strength lifting a free barbell in a safety cage.