The hack squat is an awesome exercise for building lower body strength and packing on mass in the legs. A lot of gyms have a hack squat, and in my opinion, they’re often underutilized.
Much like the leg press, the hack squat can be a great lower body builder because it allows you to push high intensities while limiting direct spinal loading. Plus, you can bias different muscle groups while performing hack squats to get more out of them.
Hack squats can be an awesome squat alternative when your goals revolve around leg strength and hypertrophy. This exercise limits spinal loading while allowing you to work through deep ranges of motion.
Setup and brace properly
To start your hack squat, set up in your machine and establish your foot position and anchor the hips and torso. Essentially, you want to make sure all of these areas are on lock before you lift the weight out of its lock.
Make sure the shoulders are comfortably pressed into pads and that your feet are fully grounded. Unlock your hack squat machine, then stand up and let the weight settle for a second or two.
I like to let the weight typically settle for a second and coach hack squats this way because it can help you physically prep for the task at hand. For example, if you’re going heavier, feel the weight to prep your brace more fluidly.
Descend into the hole
Based on the weight you’re using, brace accordingly and start to descend with your hack squat with a smooth and controlled tempo. Try not to dive bomb reps early in your set. Set a good tempo and tone.
As you start to hit your end range of motion, try to keep the feet anchored along with the hips and torso. Let your knees move naturally so you can clear them easily to get the most out of your range of motion.
As a rule of thumb, I try to keep the knees “forward” and try to avoid letting them sink back a ton when performing reps. Your mobility and machine can influence this, but in doing so, you’ll keep better tension on the legs.
Drive through the platform
Once you’ve hit your end range of motion, drive the feet into the platform keeping an even pressure throughout your foot. While doing this, continue to keep the hips and torso anchored.
I always suggest keeping a smooth tempo throughout the concentric, too. This can help you get more “feel” with this exercise and maintain a nice level of time under tension throughout your set.
At the top, lock out fully and squeeze the quads or stop just shy of full knee extension if it feels uncomfortable to fully lock out on your hack squat machine. This is machine dependent so play with the equipment you have.
Coach’s Note: Shout out to Coach Adam Miller from N1 Training for being a fantastic coach and bestowing his hack squat knowledge on me when I was training with him!
Hack Squat Benefits
The benefits that come along with a hack squat will be highly dependent on how you’re using them and what your goals are. Below are three general goals that everyone can expect to get from hack squatting.
1. Produce High Leg Stimulus With Limited Spinal Loading
The first benefit of the hack squat is that it can be a great exercise for hammering the legs without excessively loading the spine. This can be useful to mitigate overall fatigue, especially in the context of neural fatigue.
For example, in the back squat, you’ll get a high degree of direct spinal loading with heavier sets and high volume, and this can lead to a fair amount of fatigue depending on the context.
If your goal is mitigating fatigue and how much you need to recover while keeping your leg training intensity high, then the hack squat can be a fantastic exercise to explore and utilize.
2. Great for Building the Legs
If your goal is building your glutes, quads, and adductors, then the hack squat should be a staple in your program. This exercise can work as a main exercise for your leg day or as an accessory.
There are multiple training variables that can influence hypertrophy gains and the range of motion that you’re working through can be one of these key variables to keep in mind.
In general, it’s typically easier to work through greater ranges of motion on a hack squat compared to something like a back squat. Since we have an added level of stability in a hack squat we can more easily play with position to get more range of motion.
I’ll typically program exercises like the leg press and hack squat over barbell free weight lower body exercises when one’s main goal is focusing on building leg mass.
3. Good for Beginners and Working Around Injuries
If you’re new to the gym and your goal is building general leg strength then the hack squat can be your best friend. This exercise is typically super easy to learn and it doesn’t require a ton of fine-tuning when your goal is general strength development.
On top of being beginner-friendly, the hack squat can also be a useful exercise to explore if you’re working around injuries, especially injuries that are back-related.
For example, if you’re trying to limit how much weight you’re putting on your back, then it may be worth exploring hack squats to get a nice leg stimulus without aggravating an injury by doing something like a barbell front and back squat.
Hack Squat Muscles Worked
Hack squats are awesome because you can perform to bias different muscle groups as you get specific with your training. Below are the muscles hack squats train when you’re performing them from a balanced and general context.
Hack Squat Muscles Worked
- Gastrocnemius (calves)
*bolded indicates a higher degree of involvement
Coach’s Note: As we discuss how to bias different muscle groups below it’s important to recognize that your hack squat machine can play a heavy role in your efficiency here.
Not all hack squats are created equal and if it feels impossible for you to bias certain muscle groups with your machine then it may be worth exploring different options versus forcing uncomfortable ranges of motion.
How To Hack Squat for Quads
If you’re wanting to hack squat for quads, then you’ll want to ensure you’re setting up so the knees can translate as far as possible over the toes while keeping your feet planted.
In general, to bias the quads in a hack squat you’ll want to bring your feet further down on your hack squat platform and bring them about hip-width apart. This will help ensure that you’re lengthening the quads as much as possible which will place more stress on them.
When hack squatting for quads, try to keep the toes relatively forward or turn them out slightly if that’s more comfortable. This can help ensure you’re getting more “knees over toes”. Try to avoid pushing and driving the knees out.
If you find that you can’t get the setup right to hit your quads on your hack squat don’t be afraid to wear a pair of weightlifting shoes. This can help put your knees in an environment that feeds better into forward translation.
How To Hack Squat for Glutes
To bias the glutes with the hack squat you’ll want to adjust your feet and ensure you’re using a machine that is conducive to allowing you to move through a productive range of motion regarding hitting the glutes.
For example, if your hack squat has a harsher and more upright track then you’ll likely find that it’s more difficult to bias the glutes due to the machine’s resistance curve. That said, the hack squat can be super hit or miss for a true glute bias and your machine influences this.
To bias the glutes, keep the feet around hip-width apart and bring them up on the platform. The goal is to get as much stretch as possible on the glute max as you hit your end range of motion.
In general, machines with platforms that can be adjusted and hack squat tracks that run more diagonally will be better for this. You may also want to try leg pressing for the glutes if your hack squat doesn’t work.
How To Hack Squat for Adductors
One of my favorite ways to blast my adductors, especially with heavier weights is with the hack squat. In most cases, I find the hack squat to be more productive for hitting the adductors compared to barbell squats due to how easy it is to adjust your mechanics.
To target the adductors in the hack squat you’ll want to turn your toes out and keep your feet around hip-width apart and relatively lower on the platform.
When performing this variation, try not to drive the knees out and let them track forward and move based on your mechanics. You’ll likely notice a little more internal rotation with the knees as you pass and move through 90 degrees of knee flexion. This is normal.
If you find it difficult to keep the heel down while performing his variation, then opting for weightlifting shoes can be a strategic play for creating an adductor bias.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q:What are hack squats good for?
Q:Is hack squat better than squat?
Q:Why is the hack squat so hard?
Q:Can you do hack squats without a machine?
If your goal is building leg strength and mass, then the hack squat can be an awesome exercise to make a staple in your workout program. This exercise is fantastic for lifters at all levels trying to build their glutes, quads, and adductors.
On top of being great for hypertrophy, the hack squat can be a good pick for beginners and lifters working around injuries that can’t squat due to spinal loading.
If you have additional questions about the hack squat and how to perform them properly, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).