How to Do Hack Squats with Proper Form
- Adjust the machine to the correct height and place your shoulders against the shoulder pads.
- Put your feet on the plate, slightly in front of the base of the sled and about shoulder width apart.
- Extend your legs and disengage the sled’s locks.
- Inhale, brace your core lightly, and squat down as deep as you can with good form.
- Reverse the movement with control, and extend your legs again until you’re back in the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
Text and graphics from the StrengthLog app.
What is the Hack Squat?
The hack squat is something of an in-between of the barbell squat and the leg press: the upright body position and the emphasis on your quads mimic that of the squat (or even the front squat), but the stability of the machine is similar to that of the leg press.
Hack Squat Benefits and Drawbacks
Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of the hack squat.
- Easy to do it right. Most hack squat machines are fairly easy to use, and it is generally pretty easy to learn how to do the exercise with proper form.
- Safe and stable. You won’t need to worry about keeping the balance or moving the weight in a certain path – the machine takes care of all that. In addition, many hack squat machines have safety locks or brakes that you can pull if the weight gets too heavy and you need to get out.
- Full focus on the muscle worked. The stability of the machine means that you can focus fully on your working muscles, which might be beneficial for muscle growth. For many, this is hard to do in more complex free-weight exercises like the barbell squat.
- One size doesn’t fit all. Not every hack squat machine fit every person. It might be the case that the particular machine your gym has doesn’t fit your body type, which might lead to discomfort or an increased injury risk.
- Stability. Yes, this is the same point as in the list of benefits above, because stability is a double-edged sword. The hack squat machine enables you to work your muscles without having to think about balance, but that also means you won’t get the balance and coordination training like when you are lifting free weights.
Hack Squat Foot Placement and Muscle Activation
Two studies that I’m aware of have investigated how muscle activity in the hack squat changes with different foot positions.
The different foot positions you can use are generally:
- Wide or narrow foot placement
- High or low foot placement
- Toes pointed forward or slightly outward
Typically, placing your feet high on the footplate leads to a higher glute activation, while a low foot position leads to a higher quad and calf activation. There doesn’t really seem to be much of a difference between placing your feet wide or narrow or pointed forward or slightly out, so do whatever feels comfortable for you.1 2
Hack Squat vs. Squat
The hack squat is a great alternative to the traditional free barbell squat for building your leg muscles and lower body strength.
Because the weight and your body are supported in the machine, your core muscle activation is lower in the hack squat machine than in a free-weight squat. This includes your abs, obliques, and lower back.3
So what difference does this make in the training effect of the two exercises?
Both exercises are great for building your leg muscles and increasing your lower body strength. The hack squat machine enables you to focus a bit more on the working muscles which might be good for bodybuilding purposes. In comparison, the free squat will give you more practice at muscle coordination and creating stability throughout your body, which might be beneficial for expressing your strength in real-world settings such as strength and power sports.
Because of the stability in the hack squat machine, it might also be easier to learn, especially for persons with compromised balance or mobility (such as older individuals, for example).
Hack Squat vs. Leg Press
What’s the difference between the hack squat machine and the leg press?
While both exercises are similar in form and training effects, there are some small differences in muscles worked caused mainly by the differences in torso angle and foot placement.
- In the leg press machine, you are typically more flexed at your hip and your feet are generally placed a bit higher on the foot plate. This will emphasize your glutes and adductors slightly more than the typical hack squat machine.
- In the hack squat, your upper body is generally more upright in relation to your lower body and your feet are generally placed more directly under your hips. This will emphasize your quads and calves slightly more than the typical leg press.
Of course, by altering your foot placement in both exercises you can affect which muscle is emphasized, but the points above are the general differences.
One last point: since the leg press typically places a little lower stress on your quads they are a little easier on the knees, which might be valuable if you are having problems with them.
Hack Squat Alternatives
If you don’t have access to a hack squat machine or don’t want to use one, what are some hack squat alternatives?
Barbell Hack Squat
A lesser-known variant of the hack squat (but that actually shares the same name) is the barbell hack squat.
This old-school exercise is similar to the barbell deadlift, with the difference that the barbell is placed behind your legs instead of in front of them. This forces you into a more upright position and shifts most of the work onto your quadriceps, unlike the deadlift which is more of a posterior chain exercise.
How does the barbell hack squat compare to the regular barbell back squat? One study found similar quad muscle activity in the two exercises, but lower erector spinae and gluteus activation in the barbell hack squat.4
Depending on how you’re built, barbell hack squats might be difficult or uncomfortable to do. But if you can do them, you have another great quad exercise in your toolbox.
Landmine Hack Squat
The landmine hack squat is a variant of the regular landmine squat, with the difference that in the landmine hack squat you turn your back towards the barbell. This will put greater emphasis on your quadriceps.
Smith Machine Hack Squat
The smith machine squat is already similar to the hack squat in that it has a fixed bar path. With the small adjustment of moving your feet out slightly in front of the center of gravity (like in the picture below), the similarity is even larger.
Reverse Hack Squat
A final hack squat variation is to simply reverse your position in the regular hack squat machine, meaning that you face the machine instead of leaning your back against it.
Because forward travel of your knees will be restricted in this position you will have to shoot your hips back instead, which will work your glutes and adductors more.
Frequently Asked Questions
We’ll wrap this article up with some frequently asked questions.
- What are hack squats good for?
- Are hack squats as good as squats?
- Why is the hack squat so hard?
- What can I replace hack squats with?
What Are Hack Squats Good For?
The hack squat is an excellent exercise for strengthening and working your leg muscles, such as your quadriceps, glutes, and adductors. Because of its stability and fixed line of movement, you don’t need to worry about balance and can focus on the muscles worked.
If you are having troubles with regular squats or have issues with balance and mobility, the hack squat can be a good squat alternative.
Are Hack Squats as Good as Squats?
The hack squat is probably as good as squats when it comes to building your leg muscles and increasing your strength in the lower body. However, hack squats won’t give you the balance and stability training that free barbell squats do.
Why Is the Hack Squat so Hard?
The hack squat can be perceived as hard because of the intense focus it places on the muscles worked. It is difficult to cheat and let other muscles take over the work in the hack squat, which is why you might experience a degree of muscle exhaustion in this exercise that you don’t normally reach.
What Can I Replace Hack Squats With?
Depending on the goal, you can replace hack squats with several different exercises.
Here are some alternatives.
Hack Squat Variations:
Other Exercises That Work Similar Muscle Groups:
Want to read more about building your glutes or quadriceps?
Check out our in-depth training guides:
- How to Train Your Quad Muscles: Exercises & Workout
- How to Train Your Glute Muscles: Exercises & Workout
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Sep;33(9):1552-66. Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jul;22(4):1059-65. Analysis of muscle activation during different leg press exercises at submaximum effort levels.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S60-S69. Trunk Muscle Activation in the Back and Hack Squat at the Same Relative Loads.
- 10th International Conference on Theory and Application of Soft Computing, Computing with Words and Perceptions – ICSCCW-2019 pp 859-865. Evaluation of Muscle Activities During Different Squat Variations Using Electromyography Signals.