The hack squat and leg press are two of my favorite lower-body exercises for building the legs. In fact, I program both of these exercises more than back squats for general strength and hypertrophy.
You’re likely no stronger at performing leg presses and hack squats, but do you know their differences and when you should use each? I love having the leg press versus hack squat discussion because there are so many ways to approach it.
If you can better understand the “why” behind each exercise, then you can use them more efficiently for your leg growth goals. I’ve been a coach for over 10 years and this is how I approach this programming topic.
Note 1 — Leg Press Is Great for Volume
If your goal is to accumulate as much volume as possible for your legs with heavier loads, then you’ll typically find that it’s easier to do so with the leg press.
This can be great for lifters and athletes who want to build the capacity in which their legs can produce force and strength. For beginners wanting to build a foundation, the leg press can be awesome.
Note 2 — Hack Squats Can Be Awesome for Targeting Muscle Groups
If you’re working to bias muscle groups like the quads and adductors then the hack squat can be an awesome tool. While you can bias muscle groups with both exercises, I often find the hack squat to be a little more efficient.
The ranges of motion you can work through on most hack squats are typically a little greater than leg presses due to the knees. Keep in mind, that this isn’t always the case, though, as your anatomy and machine will matter here.
Note 3 — When In Doubt, Experiment With Both
Throughout my training and coaching career, it’s been interesting to experiment with hack squats and leg presses for different goals. There’s typically an ebb and flow in which each exercise will be best.
I’d suggest programming each for set amounts of time with specific goals to test which you respond best to. For example, you may find your quads respond better to leg presses over hack squats for certain contexts. Experiment and have fun.
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Hack Squat Vs Leg Press Differences
From a programming and application context, I think there are three major differences that most lifters will want to keep in mind regarding the hack squat versus leg press.
Author’s Note: As you read this article, remember that leg press and hack squat machines can vary. This does matter and it can change certain elements of each machine and how you’ll respond to using them.
Difference 1: How Each Exercise Loads the Legs
In most leg presses, you’ll be seated with the load under the feet and lowering the weight down to you. In most hack squats, you’ll be standing with the weight resting on the upper body and squatting to bring the weight down.
In the leg press, you’re lowering weight and then pressing it away with the back braced into a stable seat. For the hack squat, you’re squatting the weight down on a fixed track and replicating a more traditional squat pattern.
This changes the eccentric (descent) and concentric (ascent) loading patterns and it shifts the demands of each exercise. This change in loading patterns is why you’ll typically find that it’s easier to leg press more weight than hack squat.
It’s easier to brace against something and push away with the legs versus squatting weight down with your bodyweight, too, especially when a hack squat has an angle and track that has more friction.
Difference 2: Ranges of Motion Can Differ
In general, you’ll be able to access deeper ranges of motion in the hack squat compared to the leg press. Note, this is NOT to say you can’t access a sick range of motion in the leg press.
That said, since the hack squat has you set up in a more traditional squat position, you can typically hit deeper end ranges of motion while feeling more stable which is often a limiter in back squats.
For beginners, I love using the hack squat as a tool for helping them feel comfortable working through the end range of motion in their squat. You have a pad to brace into to fully focus on what the lower body is doing regarding your hips, ankles, and knees.
In the leg press, your seat can play a large role in your range of motion. For example, if the seat is more upright, then you’ll find that your hips and knees will be the limiters in the ranges of motion you can access.
When the seat is more reclined or you use a wider stance so the knees can clear the torso, that’s when you’ll find deeper ranges of motion that you can access in the leg press.
Difference 3: Goals of Each Exercise Can Vary
As you gain experience in your lifting career, you’ll naturally learn when to use the leg press and hack squat based on what you’re trying to accomplish. This starts to matter more as you get more specific with your goals.
For example, when you’re a beginner, simply leg pressing and hack squatting more with adequate intensity will be beneficial for building strength and hypertrophy.
Once you start to focus on isolating muscle groups and specific training outputs such as using the leg press or hack squat to build your back squat, that’s when you’ll start to notice a trend in which exercise will be best for you.
Leg Presses Can Be Great For…
- Lifters who want to move the most weight possible at higher volumes. In sum, the leg press can be great for building lower body capacity with heavier loads for more reps.
- Lifters who want to bias the glutes, quads, and adductors with heavier loads. With the leg press, it’s typically easier to consistently modify your range of motion. By adjusting your foot placement you can isolate different muscle groups.
- Beginners who want to build their lower-body capacity and general leg strength.
- Lifters who want a high lower-body stimulus without loading the back. This can make the back squat a dynamite variation for those taking a block off of axial-loaded squats (squats with a load on the spine).
Hack Squats Can Be Great For…
- Lifters who want a high lower-body training threshold that replicates the squat but takes the load off of the spine. The hack squat will be closer to a traditional squat than a leg press.
- Lifters who want to bias the quads and adductors. The hack squat can be awesome for biasing different muscle groups and I find this bias is most relevant for hypertrophy and squat-focused goals (ex: using the hack squat for adductors for back squat growth).
- Beginners who want to practice working through deeper ranges of motion with more stability. In the hack squat, we can access deep ranges without worrying about balance and stability at end ranges.
- Lifters who want a high lower-body threshold that more closely replicates the range of motion that you’ll get from a barbell squat.
Another factor to consider between the goals and how you use each exercise is the fatigue that can come with each. Some lifters find that the hack squat is more fatiguing than the leg press when working at similar intensities.
If you’re self-programming, this is something you’ll want to consider to ensure you’re working within intensities that make sense for your goals and programming needs.
Hack Squat Vs Leg Press Similarities
Despite the hack squat and leg press having a ton of nuance that makes them different from one another they also have some similarities to keep in mind.
Similarity 1: Great for Legs, In General
The first and biggest similarity between the leg press versus the hack squat is they’re both fantastic for building the legs. This is not an article designed to make you build a bias towards one exercise over the other.
Both can be great for building the quads, adductors, and glutes, and will also passively build muscles like the calves, tibialis anterior, and smaller lower body stabilizer muscles.
When in doubt, if your goals revolve around building your leg strength and focusing on leg hypertrophy, then you can’t go wrong with leg pressing and hack squatting more.
Similarity 2: Both Take Direct Load Off of the Spine
Another similarity between the leg press and hack squat is that they’re both lower-body exercises that take loads off of the spine. This can be great for lifters who want a block or two off of squats that load the spine more directly.
This can be great for managing nervous system fatigue while keeping your lower-body training stimulus high on the quads, adductors, and glutes depending on the variation you’re performing.
Outside of fatigue, these variations can also be great for working around injuries depending on what you’re working through. With injuries and discomfort, always ease into each exercise and work through ranges of motion slowly.
Which Is Better for Beginners?
The leg press and hack squat can both be great for beginners for slightly different reasons. The leg press can be great for building overall leg strength and improving one’s capacity to move weight.
The hack squat can be great for teaching squat mechanics and improving mobility passively by giving beginners a little more stability when accessing end ranges of motion.
Which Is Better for Strength?
The hack squat and leg press are both awesome for increasing strength. Keep in mind, that the rate at which these exercises improve your strength will be heavily reliant on programming variables like the sets, reps, and intensity you’re using.
Which Is Better for Hypertrophy?
Similar to strength, the leg press and hack squat are both fantastic options. These exercises will be best for developing the quads, adductors, and glutes, and building overall leg mass in general.
When in doubt and you want to pack on leg mass, you can’t go wrong with programming and performing more leg presses and hack squats!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q:Are the leg press and hack squat okay for the low back?
Q:Is the hack squat or leg press better for glutes?
When discussing the topic of the leg press versus the hack squat I think it’s best to reverse engineer. Ask what exactly you’re trying to accomplish and cross-reference this is the machines you have available.
As you progress throughout your training career, it’s normal to gravitate toward one of these exercises over the other depending on what you’re after.
You’ll also learn how different machines can play a role in your adaptations. For example, there is A LOT of “less than optimal” leg press and hack squat machines out there.
If you have additional questions about these exercises, drop a comment below or reach out to via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).