The hack squat is much different than the conventional free weight barbell squat. But both movements target the same primary muscle groups and the strength benefits are very similar as well. However, it’s beneficial to know what differentiates the two and how to incorporate the hack squat in your training regime.
Now, the hack squat is generally safe to perform for most people and it’s unique in that you’re at an angle during the movement. There are benefits to this which we’ll discuss but it’s hard to go wrong with the hack squat as it’s a viable alternative to the barbell squat. However, it’s definitely not a replacement, especially if you’re training for complete development.
Here’s some detailed information about this functional movement, with exercise instructions, and some neat variations…
The hack squat is a compound movement that works all lower-body muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and hip flexors) and the core muscles; which include the rectus abdominis and internal/external obliques.
The quadriceps are usually the main, target muscle during any variation of a squat. But the upper posterior chain (Backside of the body) of muscles are heavily involved as well.
So, the glutes and hamstrings are engaged, especially since you’re squatting the weight up using your heels. Calves are stimulated as a result and the core muscles play a big role in stabilization. But the hip flexor muscles also do a lot of work as they contribute to lower body exercises by default. (1)
Hack Squat Benefits
The squat is a beneficial exercise in general because it’s a lower-body strength and mass builder.
You can build as much muscle with the hack squat as you can with the barbell back squat, although trunk activation is not as prominent which we’ll explain further. But if you’re using a challenging weight while continuing to implement progressive overload, you’ll still activate the trunk muscles to an extent.
Now, athletes can use the hack squat for lower body development as well. But it’s not the best option if training for functional performance since this variation does not require as many stabilizer muscles. Moderation is important and using a combination of free weight and machines is ideal.
Again, the hack squat will increase lower body and posterior chain strength. You have the ability to lift maximal loads due to not having to stabilize the weight. Just be sure to incorporate some free weight stability training as well to improve functional strength and develop stabilizer muscles of the legs too.
Less spine stress overall
The hack squat is also beneficial because the weight load is distributed through your center of mass at an angle. This alleviates stress on the spine and allows more weight to be lifted overall.
Hack Squat Exercise Instructions
Feet should be in front of your knees with legs spread slightly wider than hip-width. Keep your feet higher up on the platform (not too high though) so that you’re squatting through your heels and not the balls of your feet. It’s generally safer for the knees if they don’t pass your feet during lower body compound exercises. So, keep your shins as vertical as you can.
Always warm-up with a few sets of 40 to 50-60% of your one-rep max before training heavy, as it’s important for your safety.
- Adjust the machine so that you’re shoulders are comfortably under the padding while standing on the platform.
- Slowly squat down so your upper legs are at or slightly below parallel.
- Squat back up through your heels into a standing position.
- Complete the desired number of reps.
Hack Squat vs. Back Squat
The hack squat (HS) differs from the barbell back (BS) squat in many ways. And according to studies, the BS elicits greater trunk activation than the HS. That’s because the trunk is highly supported at an angle against a backrest. (2, 3)
So, the back squat is actually better for trunk development and core stability. This is ideal for athletes which means free weights are preferred overall due to better stabilizer muscle development/maintenance.
But that doesn’t mean you should neglect the hack squat as it’s still a powerful exercise for building those wheels! Both variations will elicit similar results for pure strength and hypertrophy overall.
Some fitness centers do not have a hack squat machine. But no worries, there are some variations you can do to mimic the movement and they’re very effective.
Smith machine hack squat
The Smith machine is one of the most useful pieces of equipment available. You can work every muscle in multiple ways and you don’t need to worry about stabilizing weight.
- Set up the bar so that you’re comfortably beneath it similar to a barbell back squat.
- Angle yourself similar to the hack machine by stepping out and keeping your feet flat on the floor. You should be leaning back against the bar.
- Squat down to parallel or slightly below.
- Then push up through your heels and repeat for repetitions.
Barbell hack squat
The barbell hack squat is a free weight alternative if you don’t have access to a hack squat machine or even if you just want to switch things up a bit.
It actually more closely resembles a deadlift since you’re lifting from the floor but it’s very effective nonetheless.
Start with the loaded barbell on the floor and face away from it with your Achilles touching the bar.
- With your back straight, bend down and grip the barbell with arms slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart.
- Squat the weight up through your heels and thrust your hips forward as you pull. This will allow the weight to move smoothly up your posterior chain.
- Return the weight back to the floor but keep your core tight and immediately repeat the movement.
- Never arch or round your back as this can cause pain and injury.
- Use a weight that will not compromise good form and always make sure to focus on a mind/muscle connection for optimal results.
- Squat through your heels and never the ball of your feet. This is likely to result in knee issues especially if using heavy weight.
- Avoid using the hack squat as a primary lower body exercise. You don’t want to limit trunk activation so incorporate free weights as well.
- Start off light and gradually increase your working weights as you become stronger.
How To Add The Hack Squat To Your Workout Routine?
It’s entirely up to you. Utilize the hack squat along with your conventional squats, deadlift, lunges, or any other leg exercises. The hack squat can be used as a significant mass and strength builder as well so don’t think it’s inferior because it’s a machine movement.
Also, utilize different rep ranges based on your goals.
Strength – Stick with 3-6 reps using heavier weight. Utilize longer rest periods (2-4 minutes)
Hypertrophy – Stick with 8-15 reps using moderate-heavy weight. Utilize shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What muscles does the hack squat work?
The hack squat works the muscles of the lower body including the legs, hip flexors, and even the core muscles.
Is the hack squat an effective lower body exercise?
Absolutely! You can build big, strong legs using the hack squat machine as you can really load up the weight and challenge your lower body.
Is there an advantage of the hack squat over the conventional barbell squat?
As a matter of fact, there is. The hack squat allows you to focus more on the actually exercise rather than having to stabilize the weight which you’d need to do with the conventional barbell squat.
It may also be a safer way to lift maximum poundages.
Is the hack squat one of the best leg exercises?
It’s a very effective leg exercise and there’s no reason to not include in your lower body mass and strength-building routine.
Because you’re locked in during the movement, you don’t have to use your stabilizer muscles, therefore, you may be able to lift more weight overall which is a huge benefit.
The hack squat is a beneficial exercise you should consider adding to your leg day. It’s effective for building muscle and strength; plus, you don’t need to balance a barbell on your traps; which is appealing for many.
However, it’s no substitute for free weight training but it’s a viable option. And if your gym doesn’t have a hack squat machine you can always do one of the variations/alternatives above to get similar results.
So, try out the hack squat and experience for yourself just how functional it really is!