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Hack Squat: Exercise Videos + Variations (2019)

hack squat banner image

What is the hack squat? The hack squat is the killer quad exercise missing from your leg day routine. It’s performed on an exercise machine that stabilises your upper body and core muscles, allowing the quads to take on the majority of the stress of the movement.

Even if you’re a familiar face in the gym, you still might struggle to build big quads with compound movements like squats and deadlifts alone. To see serious development in the size and strength of your quad muscles, find the hack squat machine in your gym and follow our video guide to executing this movement perfectly.

Why should you do hack squats? Check out the hack squat benefits below and you’ll be convinced. We’re not suggesting that hack squats are a replacement for regular back squats by any means, keep reading for our hack squats vs squats comparison to see how they both fit into your exercise routine.

If you’re looking for an easier or more advanced hack squat alternative, stick with us for all of the best alternatives and variations of this exercise.

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How to Do A Hack Squat

To get the most out of this exercise, its best performed on the hack squat machine. If you want to try this exercise in your home gym or just without having to queue for the machine in the gym, bear with us because we’ll explain how to do some hack squat alternatives and variations, like the barbell hack squat, further on in this post. But first, here’s how to do a hack squat on the machine.

 

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Set-Up and Equipment:

The hack squat machine is a pretty intense exercise for your quads, so make sure that you do some warm-up exercises first.

Load weight onto the machine – start reasonably light and increase weight as you become more comfortable with the movement.

Starting Position:

hack squat machine images

  • This is the front hack squat, so step onto the machine and stand on the foot platform with your back facing the back pad.
  • Position your shoulders under the shoulder pads and make sure your back is flat against the support.
  • Put your feet flat shoulder-width apart in the middle of the foot plate.
  • Point your toes slightly outwards.
  • Grab the side handles (also known as the safety bars) and disengage them. This usually involves moving the side handles from facing forwards to pointing out at a diagonal.
  • Extend your legs to stand up so but don’t lock at your knees – this is your starting position. 

Execution: 

  • Keeping hold of the safety handles, inhale and slowly lower the weight by bending at the knees.
  • Squat down until the angle between your upper and lower leg is just less than 90°.
  • In this position, your knees should be pointing in the same direction as your toes, and there should be a straight line from your knees to your toes. Ensure that your knees do not pass your toes as this will put a lot of unnecessary stress on the knee.
  • Hold the squat position at the bottom of the movement for a second.
  • Exhale, contract your quads, and slowly raise the weight back up.
  • Push through your heels to straighten your legs (without hyperextending your knees), until you reach the starting position.
  • That’s one rep.

Once you’ve completed the recommended sets and reps, engage the safety bars and then step off the machine.

Sets, Reps, & Weights

For strength building, we recommend a 5x5 training system for this exercise so, 5 sets of 5 reps. Perform the 5x 5 training system with around 85% of your 1 rep max and you’ll see results. 

You could also use the hack squat as a pump exercise to warm up the legs, mainly the quads, before a barbell squat. To do this, do 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets with a lighter weight – we recommend 65-70% of your 1 rep max.

If you’re new to weight training, pick a reasonable weight that you can lift safely, and with proper form for the full set. How much weight you use completely depends on your fitness and strength, so start off low and find a resistance that you’re comfortable with.

Remember that the hack squat machine itself will add to the resistance (exactly how much it weighs varies from machine to machine), and the movement is less of a compound movement compared to the standard squat, so there is more stress on the main muscles worked. But, the nature of the exercise does mean that there’s less pressure on the spinal column, so if you have good quad strength initially you’ll be able to load more weight, and gain more strength!

Hack Squat Muscles Worked graphic

Main Muscles Worked: Quads.

Secondary Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Calves, and Glutes.

Tips for Your Hack Squat Form

Pause in The Squat Position

how to do a hack squat image

The pause at the bottom of the movement (in the squat position) will increase the intensity of the hack squat as it increases the amount of time that the targeted muscles are under tension. The more time under tension, the more effective the hack squat will be for building muscle.

Don’t Lock Your Knees

Benefits of Hack Squat Machine graphic

In the starting position and at the end of each rep, your legs are extended. One of the most important tips for your hack squat form is that you should avoid hyperextending, or locking out, at your knees when your legs are ‘extended’. Avoiding knee hyperextension will keep the tension of the movement on your quads.

But more importantly, not locking out at your knees will be preventative of injury. Knee hyperextension puts a lot of stress on the knee, particularly the knee joints. Putting unnecessary stress on the knee by locking out at the top of a hack squat could lead to ligament damage, resulting in an ACL, PCL or cartilage injury.

Keep Your Head Up 

hack machine graphic

It’s vital that you keep your back and your glutes against the padded support throughout the entire execution of this exercise. Keeping your head up throughout the entire movement will help you to keep this form. Avoid letting your head slip forwards away from the support. Keeping the correct form will minimise the risk of injury from the machine and ensure that you reap all of its rewards.

Do the Full Movement 

What is a Hack Squat graphic

Partial reps, or half reps, are effective for some exercises, however, they’re not appropriate for the hack squat. To get the most of the hack squat, exercise the full range of motion of the movement. For this exercise, partial reps will add more stress onto the knee and won’t put as much tension on the muscles. By doing the full range of motion, you’ll see more of the benefits and less of the injury risks.

Hack Squat Variations

Barbell Hack Squat

For a hack squat alternative that doesn’t require a big piece of exercise machinery, try barbell hack squats. This is the traditional version of the hack squat, so it’s not an easier variation by any means. It’s a free-weight exercise so it doesn’t isolate the quads quite as well as the machine does, but you will still see its benefits in the form of sculpted leg muscles. The barbell hack squat benefits those who want to workout from a home gym or don’t want to wait around for the machine to be free. Here’s how to do it!

barbell hack squat image

Starting Position:

  • Stand in front of a loaded barbell in a squat.
  • Position your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Grab the barbell with an overhand grip (your palms should be facing backwards), positioning your hands shoulder-width apart.

Execution:

  • Contract your quads and lift the bar, pressing into your heels to drive the lift.
  • Extend your knees and drive your hips forwards to lift the barbell.
  • Pause at the top of the move for a second.
  • To lower the barbell towards the ground, squat down by bending at the knees and pushing the hips backwards.
  • Pause when your thighs are almost parallel to the ground and then repeat the lift movement.

Sets, Reps, & Weights 

We recommend a 5x5 training system, exercise 5 sets for 5 reps using around 85% of your 1 rep max.

You can use the barbell hack squat as a pump exercise before barbell squats, too. To try this, do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps using 65-70% of your 1 rep max. 

Muscles Worked 

The main muscle worked by this exercise are the quads. The secondary muscles recruited are the Glutes, Calves, and Adductor Magnus.

The barbell hack squat isn’t executed on an exercise machine, so it recruits the gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles) and the hamstrings as stabiliser muscles. This is free-weight hack squat alternative, so it also recruits the core muscles and it works the traps to stabilise the lift.

Reverse Hack Squat Machine

For a more advanced variation, try the reverse hack squat machine. Opposed to the front hack squat, the main reverse hack squat muscles worked are the hamstrings and the glutes.

reverse hack squat image

Starting Position: 

  • Once you’ve loaded the hack machine, stand on the foot platform with your chest facing the support pad.
  • Hook your shoulders underneath the shoulder pads.
  • Place your feet should-width apart on the platform.
  • Extend your legs to push the shoulder pads up and disengage the safety bars.

Execution:

  • Holding on to the shoulder pads, slowly lower the weight by lowering yourself into a squat.
  • When your upper legs form a 90°angle with your lower legs, hold the position for a second.
  • Drive the weight back up by pushing through your heels.
  • Extend your legs until you return to the starting position, ensuring that you don’t lock at the knees.

Sets, Reps, & Weights

Execute this exercise using a 5x5 training system. Do 5 reps per set for 5 sets with around 85% of your 1 rep max.

To use this exercise as a pump exercise to warm up the quads, we recommend 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets with around 65-70% of your 1 rep max.

Reverse Hack Squat Muscles Worked

The main muscles worked by the reverse hack squat are the Hamstrings and the Glutes, this movement also recruits the Calves and Quads as secondary muscles. Only the shoulder and the feet are in contact with the machine, which means that there isn’t as fixed a range of motion for this exercise. Because of this, the movement also engages the core muscles.

Dumbbell Hack Squat

If you’re looking for an easier hack squat alternative, it’s worth trying the dumbbell hack squat. This exercise is a great way to build lower body strength with nothing but a set of dumbbells. If you only have access to a pair of kettlebells, the kettlebell hack squat is a thing too, just follow the instructions below and be aware that a kettlebell variation will be a little more challenging. 

dumbbell hack squat images

Starting Position:

  • For an easy hack squat alternative, stand upright with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length.
  • To put more emphasis on the quads, stand with each of your heels raised on a platform or weight plate and your toes on the ground.

Execution:

  • Lower your body by flexing your knees and your hips.
  • To make sure that the movement emphasises the quads, keep your upper body straight and upright.
  • Keep the dumbbells at arm’s length.
  • When your thighs are close to parallel to the ground, pause for a second.
  • Push yourself back up, extending your knees and hips until you are upright. 

Sets, Reps, & Weights

We recommend 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets using 65-70% of your 1 rep max. 

Main Muscles Worked: Quads.

Secondary Muscles Worked: Hamstrings and Glutes. 

Although this is an easier hack squat alternative, we’d say that the barbell variation is the safer option for your lower back. The barbell hack squat position forces you to keep your upper body straight, whereas it’s possible that you’ll round your back as you get tired whilst exercising a dumbbell hack squat. If you have a lower back injury, try a barbell hack squat, or if there’s a trap bar at your gym the trap bar deadlift is a killer quad exercise that protects your lower back. You can find our trap bar deadlift exercise tutorial here

Single Leg Hack Squat

If you’re serious about having quads that look like they’ve been carved by the gods, try the single leg hack squat. This unilateral movement is an advanced exercise that’s executed on the hack squat machine.

Load the machine with as much weight as you can manage for your less dominant leg. Even if the dominant side can manage with a particular weight, there’s a risk of injury if you overload the weaker side of your body.

single leg hack squat image

Starting Position:

  • Load the hack machine.
  • Stand on the foot platform with your back against the support pad.
  • Hook your shoulders under the shoulder pads.
  • Position your feet hip-width apart in the middle of the platform and then lift your right foot off the platform.
  • Holding on to the side handles, extend your left leg to push you the weight up off the stack and move the side handles to disengage the safety bars.
  • Stand with your left leg extended without locking the knee. 

Execution:

  • Lower the weight by bending at the knees into a squat position.
  • When your left leg forms a 90°angle between your upper and lower leg, hold the squat for a second.
  • Push the weight back up to the starting position, contracting the quad muscles as you extend your leg.

When you’ve completed the recommended sets and reps, engage the safety bars and step off the machine.

Sets, Reps, & Weights 

This exercise is a great pump exercise, you can use light weights for a great leg (mainly quad) warm up. We recommend 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps with 65-70% of your 1 rep max.

For the first set, complete all reps on the same leg. For unilateral exercises, start with your non-dominant side. After the first set, take a short break and swap legs, executing the same number of reps and using the same amount of weight as you did for the first set.

Main Muscles Worked: Quads.

Secondary Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Calves, and Glutes 

Leg Press

The leg press is another quad-targeting exercise that can be used either alongside or instead of a hack squat. The hack squat muscles worked are pretty similar to those of the leg press, both emphasise the quads but also recruit the Calves, Glutes, and Hamstrings.

Starting Position:

HACK SQUAT VS LEG PRESS starting position

  • Sit on the leg press machine with your back and your head against the back of the seat.
  • To really emphasise the quads, position your feet around shoulder-width apart towards the bottom of the foot plate.
  • Position your toes so that they’re pointing outwards slightly and ensure that your knees are in line with your toes and facing the same direction. If your knees are further forward than your toes, your feet are too low on the footplate. 

Execution:

hack squat vs leg press

  • Drive your feet into the foot platform to push the weight, slowly extending your legs at the knee.
  • Pause when your legs are extended (never hyperextend the knee) and hold the weight for a second.
  • Contract your quads and slowly flex your knee to lower the footplate back towards the starting position.
  • Pause just before the weight is stationary to keep tension on the muscles, then repeat the movement.

Sets, Reps, & Weights

For this exercise, we recommend 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets.

When it comes to the recommend weight for this exercise, it’s important to mention that the leg press is very easily overloaded. It’s easy to fake strength for this exercise, and whilst you might think that how much weight you’re using is impressive, it actually disadvantages the range of motion and most importantly – muscle gain! For that reason, do this exercise with 65-70% of your 1 rep max. 

Muscles Worked

The Quads are the main muscles worked for the standard leg press, and the secondary muscles are the Calves, Glutes, and Hamstrings.

You can adjust your foot position to change the main muscles worked. Taking a wider stance will work the inner thigh muscles whilst a narrow stance will mainly target the outer thigh. The lower you place your feet on the platform, the more the exercise will work the quads. You can shift the emphasis onto the glutes and hamstrings by placing your feet higher up on the platform. 

For a full and rounded leg workout, combine hack squats with a leg press that targets the glutes and hamstrings. 

Hack Squat Benefits

Quad Development

Benefits of Hack Squat Machine for quads

If building the size of your quads is your goal, you can’t really go wrong doing hack squats. The hack squat machine isolates the quads, leading to serious benefits for aesthetics and strength.

When we talk about the quads, we’re referring to the quadriceps – the group of four muscles at the front of the thigh. The best of the hack squat benefits is its ability to carve these quad muscles specifically. For ultimate quad development, the hack squat should be a part of your leg day routine.

The design of the hack squat machine means that the core and upper body muscles aren’t recruited, removing the potential for these muscles to cause weaknesses in your squat form. Because of this, you can focus on getting your thighs parallel to the ground and get maximum squat depth. This means one thing – the hack squat benefits your quads more than a free-weight squat.

Hack Squat Foot Position

Narrow stance hack squat graphic

Obviously, the hack squat machine is great for isolating the quads. The hack squat benefits for Quad hypertrophy and strength are immense, another one of the benefits of this exercise is that you can change your hack squat foot position to emphasise different muscles. If you want to be more specific in the part of the quad that you’re training, you can emphasise either the inner or outer quad by adjusting the position of your foot on the platform.

A narrow stance hack squat will emphasise the outer quads. To see more of a benefit for the outer part of your front thigh, position your feet close together and towards the bottom of the foot plate.

Taking a wider stance will better recruit the inner quads and will involve the hamstrings and the glutes more. The higher the position of your feet on the platform, the more the hack squat will emphasise the glutes.

Can Train One Leg at A Time

 Hack Squat Form graphic

One of the benefits of hack squat machine is that you can train one leg at a time. The single leg hack squat is a unilateral exercise, you can use it to train one leg at a time to avoid or correct muscle imbalances.

You may not even be aware, but a lot of the time the dominant side of your body takes on more of the load of a bilateral exercise (like the regular hack squat) compared to your non-dominant side. This means that the dominant side of your body works harder, causing the muscles on your non-dominant side to become weak. This is a muscle imbalance. Even if it isn’t visibly noticeable, it’s important to correct muscle imbalances because they can cause injury.

Unilateral exercises like this single-leg hack squat variation are a great way to correct muscle imbalances. Training one side of your body at a time forces both sides to work equally. An important thing to remember when executing the single leg hack squat is that you should load the machine with as much weight that you can manage with your non-dominant side, regardless of whether you can go heavier with your dominant side. Overloading weak muscles has huge potential for injury. Stick with us for our video guide to the single leg hack squat and give this exercise a try.

Lift More 

Barbell Hack Squat Benefits for muscle benefits

The hack squat machine provides the movement with stability and support, so if your quads are strong enough, you can load the machine with a lot of weight. Hack squats on the machine force a fixed range of motion and they don’t recruit stabiliser muscles, so one of our favourite hack squat benefits is that you can use a lot of weight and see a lot of increases in hypertrophy and strength. For that reason, this is a great exercise for bodybuilders, or anyone focused on the aesthetic benefits of exercising.

Strengthen Your Knee

hack machine benefits for knees graphic

The quads are responsible for knee extension, so by working your quads and training the knee extension, the hack squat can strengthen the ligaments in the knee. By strengthening your quads, you’ll strengthen your knees, seem simple enough? Unfortunately, that’s not entirely the case.

It’s important to take this benefit with a pinch of salt. If you’re recovering from a knee injury or you want to work around an existing injury, this isn’t an appropriate exercise. The hack squat can build strength in your knee, but in order to execute this movement properly, you’ll need a decent amount of knee strength initially.

At the bottom of the movement, your knees are positioned quite far forward, so using heavy weights on the hack squat machine would put a lot of strain on the knee ad could cause damage or injury. For that reason, start off light and perfect your form and then slowly add more weight as you get more confident.

If you’re not confident that you have enough strength in your knees to safely execute this exercise, the leg press is a good hack squat alternative that won’t put as much strain on your knees.

Reduced Risk of Lower Back Injury

hack squat and lower back injury image

One of the benefits of the hack squat machine is that it stabilises your body meaning that your core and lower back muscles aren’t recruited. Another benefit of the machine specifically is that exercising on the machine makes it easy to get the right form. Both of these factors reduce the risk of lower back injury. Because the movement recruits the erector spinae muscles in your lower back a lot less than regular squats, the likelihood that you will injure your lower back is also reduced.

Hack Squat VS Squat

Hack Squat vs Squat image

You’re probably wondering what’s wrong with regular barbell squats? We’re not denying that barbell squats are the ultimate leg exercise. We rate them as one of the very best compound exercises because, with enough weight, they can even work your core and upper body muscles as well as the muscles in your lower body.

But you shouldn’t ignore the hack squat just because the barbell squat has a ton of its own benefits. The hack squat is a really effective exercise, it’s definitely worth a try – unless you don’t want big quads? In which case, maybe you’re in the wrong place.

If you do want to improve the aesthetic of your quads, the hack squat is definitely worth considering. So that you can weigh up hack squats vs squats and figure out where each of them fit into your exercise routine, we’ve done the comparison for you.

First, we’ve explained how to do regular squats – we know you probably already know this, but we don’t like to cut corners! So, stick with us, because after that we’ll explain all of the key hack squat vs squat similarities and differences.

How to Do A Barbell Squat

Starting Position: 

  • Stand up-right with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a loaded barbell on the top of your upper back.
  • Find a fixed spot to look at to keep your head up.

Execution:

  • Bend at the knees to move your body down.
  • As your squatting down, try to stop your hips from moving backwards and keep your torso out.
  • Stop lowering your body when your thighs are parallel with the floor.
  • In this position, make sure that your knees are in line with your toes.
  • Hold this squat for a second and then push through your heels to rise back up.
  • Extend your legs until you’re back in the starting position, ensuring that you don’t lock your knees.

Benefits of Hack Squat Machine

Main Muscles Worked: Quads.

Secondary Muscles Worked: Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Lower Back and Core.

Now that we’ve cleared up how to do a hack squat and a barbell squat with proper form, check out the similarities and the differences between the two.

Hack Squat VS Squat

The Movement

hack squats vs squats graphic

The movement is pretty similar for both the hack squat and regular squats. Speaking in basic terms, for both exercises, you squat down by bending at your knees, hold the squat position, and then push through your heels to rise back up. Using the hack squat machine forces your upper body to remain upright which changes the movement slightly, along with a few other things.

Relevant to the movement, the hack machine involves a fixed range of motion compared to the barbell squat which is a free-weight exercise. However, the fixed range of motion exercised on the machine forces an unnatural movement which can cause joint injuries if you use a lot of weight. 

For athletes, free-weight squats are the better choice because they allow you to train in a free range of motion. If your goal is to bulk up your quads, then hack squats are a good addition to your leg day workout.

Which Is Best for Beginners?

Hack Squat Benefits image

One of the benefits of working out on an exercise machine is that it’s easier to get your form and execute the movement properly. For that reason, we’d say the hack squat is a good choice for beginners. Its arguable that the machine makes this exercise easier than barbell squats, but it’s important to remember that hack squats are still a killer workout for your quads. No matter how much the machine assists in stabilising the movement, initial knee and quad strength are absolutely necessary. Exercise machines are brilliant but don’t go into a set of hack squats thinking that they’re going to be easy. If you’re a newbie at the gym, start off adding a small amount of weight to the machine and slowly increase the resistance as you get stronger.

Stabilising Muscles

A few of the differences that come up in the hack squat vs squat comparison are the result of differences between free-weights and exercise machines. One of the main differences is that the exercise machines like the hack squat machine provide stability for the movement. On the other hand, the free-weight barbell squat recruits upper body muscles to stabilise the body. The need for stabilising muscles during this back squat contributes to the difference in the hack squat vs squat muscles worked.

Because the machine provides stability, you can better focus on the lower body – mainly the quads – for the hack squat. However, not needing to activate any of the stabilising muscles during the hack squat makes the movement somewhat unnatural. In order to progress your muscle hypertrophy and overall strength by adding more and more weight to your hack squat, you’ll still need to do free-weight exercises to strengthen the key stabilising muscles. For this reason, hack squats are a great exercise but definitely not a replacement for barbell squats.

Muscles Worked

Hack Squat Muscles Worked image

For both exercises, the quads are the main muscles worked. For the secondary muscles, they both recruit the hamstrings, glutes, and calves, too. The hack squat and the barbell squat are both brilliant for building bigger lower leg muscles. But, squatting without the hack squat machine recruits a few more secondary muscles.

As we mentioned above, exercising with the hack machine adds balance and stability to the movement whilst barbell squats do not have the same support. Therefore, free-weight squats recruit the core muscles as stabiliser muscles, so they also work the abs and the lower back muscles.

Squats work the posterior muscles like the glutes and the hamstrings a lot more than a hack squat does. This is because the placement of weight and your position in the hack squat machine forces an upright position which keeps the main emphasis of the movement on the quads. Because the upper body remains upright and the lower legs are perpendicular to the ground at the bottom of the movement, the quads remain the main emphasis. Meanwhile, the glutes and the hamstrings are also recruited to drive your body upwards from the bottom of a barbell squat. So, although both emphasise the quads, the hack squat works them a lot more than the regular squat. If your goal is to bulk up your quads, go for the hack squat. For those with more general fitness goals, barbell squats are position.

So, Which Is Best?

Hack Squat vs Squat which is best image

Barbell squats are one of the best exercises you can do, they have tons of varied benefits and definitely deserve a spot in your workout. So why are we even suggesting that you consider a hack squat instead? Because we’re firm believers in having variation in your workout.

There isn’t any exercise worth replacing barbell squats, but that doesn’t mean that the hack squat isn’t worth doing! The main conclusion of this comparison is that the ‘best exercise’ is entirely dependent on individual fitness goals. If you want to target the quads specifically, the hack squat triumphs.

Before You Go!

If you enjoyed this exercise guide, check out some other quad-targeting exercises:

For more leg day inspiration, you can find exercise videos for the best calf building exercises here.

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Written by Abbie Watkins

Qualified Personal Trainer & Fitness Blogger

Abbie is a work-hard, play-hard qualified personal trainer and blogger. She loves a scenic run and a good upbeat exercise class. You can usually find her on the front row of a spin class on a Saturday morning.