The hack squat is much different than the conventional free weight barbell squat. But both movements target the same primary muscles groups and the strength benefits are very similar as well. However, it’s beneficial to know where the two contrast 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. And 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 which 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 posterior chain (Backside of the body) of muscles are involved as well since a lot of the weight load is placed on the spinal erectors.
So, the glutes and hamstrings are indirectly engaged, especially since you’re squatting the weight through the heels. Calves are stimulated as a result and the core group of muscles plays a big role in stabilization. But the hip flexor muscles also do a lot of work as they are used as a hinge to propel the weight upward. (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 much less as we’ll explain shortly.
But if you’re using a challenging weight while continuing to implement progressive overload, you’ll still activate the trunk muscles effectively.
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.
The hack squat is also beneficial because the weight load is distributed through your center of mass. This alleviates stress on the spine and allows more weight to be lifted.
How To Do The Hack Squat? Exercise Instructions
The setup is unique because you’re actually using a machine rather than a barbell.
Feet should be in front of your knees with legs spread slightly wider than hip-width. Keep your feet high up on the platform so that you’re squatting through your heels and not the balls of your feet.
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.
- Move the safety lever up and slowly squat down slightly past parallel.
- Squat back up through your heels but avoid standing completely straight.
- Complete as many reps as desired.
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.
But that doesn’t mean you should neglect the hack squat as it’s still a powerful exercise for building those wheels! And that’s because both variations will elicit similar results for pure strength and hypertrophy.
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 slightly past parallel or slightly above depending on your ideal range of motion.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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