If there was an official list of best-loved machine leg exercises, we’re confident sled hack squats would rank near the top. That’s not because they’re any better than freeweight barbell squats or the many other notable variations, per se. But perhaps it’s the combination of an angled design (pretty much a reclined squat), full body support, and ergonomic arm position that makes it attractive to many gym-goers.
While you won’t activate as many stabilizer muscles or engage the core to the same degree as you would balancing a loose barbell on your upper back, sled squats are a purely leg-focused lift.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Legs
- Type: Hypertrophy and strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Sled machine
- Difficulty: Intermediate
How To Do The Sled Hack Squat
We’ll assume some of you are attempting sled hack squats for the first time and if so we have a few tips to help you succeed. It may also be helpful to watch the short video demonstration that we provided below the written instructions. If you have used a sled hack machine before then we hope this guide will also provide you some value.
Beginner tips: Before adding weight to the machine, determine if it needs to be adjusted up or down for your height and make sure that you know how to use the safety levers that allow you to move up and down freely. There are different types of sled hack machines so don’t be afraid to ask someone or read the instructions if located somewhere on the equipment.
Step 1: The setup
Facing away from the machine, step up onto the footplate, place your back flat against the padding and secure your shoulders underneath the cushioned arms.
Step 2: Foot placement
This will vary depending on the person but we typically recommend placing your feet roughly shoulder width apart and turning the toes slightly outward.
Pro tip: Keep your feet lower on the footplate to emphasize more of the quadriceps, and higher up on the platform to target more of the hamstrings. Although both muscles will get worked regardless of where you place your feet.
Step 3: The squat!
We’d say you’re ready to start squatting!
Before you descend into a squat, place your head back against the pad, tense your core muscles, disengage the safety levers and then grab onto the shoulder support arm handles. Slowly drop your butt down until both legs are at or slightly below parallel to the foot platform. Drive through your heels and midfoot until your legs are fully extended.
Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Check out the video demonstration below to see how it’s done.
Here are some things to avoid when performing sled hack squats.
Going too heavy
Machine exercises can be a double edged sword. On one hand you don’t have to balance and stabilize the weight leaving you to focus solely on the lift. But with that often comes the temptation to load the exercise too heavy, resulting in a shortened range of motion and over assistance from other muscles groups to help compensate. This can also be a problem if you have less than optimal knee health or pain.
Inconsistent foot placement
While it’s not a crime to vary your foot placement on the machine platform, at least make sure to have some consistency. If you’re going to place your feet higher up on the platform, you should know that it will emphasize the hamstrings. Therefore, you need to structure your leg routine to equally hit both the quads and hamstrings to prevent muscle imbalances. In other words, have some structure in your training.
Smith Machine Hack Squat Benefits
Why should you choose to include Smith machine hack squats in your leg workouts?
Better than freeweight back squat…
Don’t let anyone make you feel like freeweight exercises are the only way to make gains. Sure, they’re a necessary component of a well-rounded fitness regime and have their advantages, but they’re not always the best option. Many times taller lifters will shift their hips too far back and as a result, they’ll feel the freeweight barbell back squat more in their lower back and less on their quads. It becomes more of a good morning than a squat.
Being able to position your feet out in front of your body during a Smith squat can be a gamechanger for these individuals because it allows them to remain more upright in a more comfortable and ergonomic angle for their bodies.
Makes training more exciting
When you have an arsenal of different exercises or are open to including new movements in your workouts it really does make it easier to walk into the gym and perform near or at your best, consequently resulting in continued gains and progress.
The sled hack squat is one of the variations that you look forward to, however, it ultimately comes down to the individual.
No balancing a bar
Free weight squats require an additional level of focus to keep the bar in place, and evenly balanced whereas machines don’t which makes it such an attractive option. The bar is fixed and pre-balanced so that all you need to do is load and go!
So why do Smith machine squats oftentimes get a bad rap?
Uses less muscular stabilization
Freeweight movements are often considered superior to other forms of exercise overall because they require heavy use of stabilizer muscles. This is believed to result in better overall development and yeah there’s probably some truth to that (1). However, when it comes to hitting the primary muscle groups (e.g., pectoralis major, gluteus maximus), machines will allow you to lift heavy and stimulate those areas for max gains. In one study where volunteers performed both variations for comparison, the Smith machine squat one-rep max lift was higher than that tested by the freeweight squat due to less stabilizer requirements (2).
Smith hacks may not allow you to lift as much weight compared to a conventional Smith squat but you get the idea.
Both a pro and con depending on who you ask. Some people are totally against Smith machine squats while it’s a saving grace for others. Being restricted in your movement means you have to adjust to the design of the machine but then again, it’s nice to be locked in where you can rely on a machine to hold you in place.
But when it comes to functional strength development, freeweight squats win hands down. That’s because with machine exercises you’re missing the raw nature of a compound, multi-joint lift. You can get great results by incorporating both.
Check out these awesome sled hack squat variations that involve a similar setup and movement patterns.
1. Reverse hack squat
For every gym rat who loves to lie face up on the hack squat machine and stare at the mirror (nothing wrong with that), there are those who prefer to face the machine. It’s more like a conventional squat position.
To do it:
- Stand with your heels on the bottom part of the platform and your toes on the floor pointed slightly outward.
- Lean forward into the machine so that your shoulders are underneath and at the edge of the padded arms. Grab onto the handles for support. Do not press your chest and hips into the machine but rather keep your butt back and torso leaned slightly forward as you normally would during a squat.
- Drop your butt straight down into a squat and then push into the platform using your heels to stand back up in the starting position.
Check out this explanation and demonstration of the reverse hack squat by legendary trainer Charles Glass. Bonus: Try stiff-legged deadlifts on the hack squat as also shown in the video example below.
2. Varied stance
Place your feet closer together to emphasize more of the outer quads and use a wide stance may stimulate more of the inner quad muscles and adductors.
3. Smith machine hack squat
You can also replicate the hack squat on a Smith machine and to be honest, it’s a great variation. Like the hack squat machine, you can move your feet forward in front of your body which you cannot do with a freeweight barbell squat. The Smith variation may not be as ergonomic compared to a specially designed hack setup, but it is an option, and it does work well.
The feet should be roughly 1-1.5 feet in front of your normal squat stance to really benefit from this movement.
4. Barbell hack squat
While more awkward than the Smith machine hack squat, the barbell hack squat is the perfect choice for when you don’t have access to a machine or you like challenges. It’s actually more like a deadlift but while holding the bar behind your back (backloaded deadlift) and your quads will get absolutely torched with this variation.
5. Belt squat
If you want to replicate a loaded upright squat without the weight resting on your upper back and loading the spine then the underrated belt squat is a movement you should consider. And more like the hack squat, your feet can be positioned in front of your body.
A dipping style belt is worn around the waist and attached to the loaded floor squat implement. These machines typically come with some sort of handles for support.
6. Leg press
Leg presses are similar to a hack squat in some ways especially because your back is supported through the movement. Therefore, while both do engage the core muscles, it’s not to the same degree they would during a freeweight variation.
But that’s also advantageous because these types of exercises focus on building pure strength and consequently, heaps of muscle growth.
How To Program Sled Hack Squats In Your Workouts
A versatile movement, sled hack squats can be used for different purposes which makes it advantageous over other exercises. You can utilize it as a warmup, primary compound movement, or finishing exercise. It also makes for the perfect choice on those days when you want to hit the legs hard and heavy but aren’t up to doing freeweight variations.
If you’re just starting out, you may not need to add extra weight as training on a new implement may be challenging enough.
Sets and reps
While it depends on your training experience, we’ve included a few sets and reps range recommendations based on common training suggestions according to specific goals. Although, we always suggest using different rep ranges for the best overall gains.
- Strength: 3-5 sets x 4-7 reps
- Hypertrophy: 2-4 sets x 8-20 reps
- Muscle endurance: 15+ reps
As we always say, squats and its variation are a total body movement. There’s not a single major muscle that doesn’t help to either lift, support, or stabilize during the exercise. In this section, we’ve included brief descriptions of the muscles involved in the sled hack squat.
- Gluteus Maximus – The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and it makes up most of the butt and hips. It’s responsible for movement of the thigh, hip extension, and supporting the trunk.
- Quadriceps – The quads are a large and powerful group of muscles consisting of four heads – femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedialis. They flex the hips and extend the knees such as during most athletic activities or bending down and standing up. You don’t want to skip leg training and miss out on the aesthetic and performance benefits that you get from strong quads.
- Hamstrings – Consisting of semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris, the hamstrings do opposite the quads, extending the hips and flexing the knees. The short head of the biceps femoris only crosses the knee joint and not the hip like the other hamstring muscles.
- Adductor magnus – Located in the medium compartment of the thigh, adductor magnus is the largest adductor muscle that draws the thigh inward toward the center of the body. The adductor magnus also assists in extending the hips and medial rotation of the thigh. Its muscle fibers are located anteriorly and posteriorly meaning it can function at both sides.
- Calves – Calves are the lowermost leg muscles and highly genetic based. The calves flex when you point the toes down which is how you activate these muscles. They’re also sporty muscles that play an important role in explosive physical activities.
- Core/abs – The muscles of the midsection include abdominals, obliques, and spinal erectors. Abs crunch the pelvis and ribs toward each other, obliques twist the torso and the back extensors allow us to stand up from a bent over position.
So if you always wondered what that sled looking machine is in your gym, it’s one of the best leg building movements and we highly recommend using it… just make sure not to get too addicted. Make sure to include other squat variations and freeweight exercises in your training for the best results for well rounded leg development.