Love ’em or despise ’em, squats are one of the most renowned leg exercises out there for a reason: They enhance potency and steadiness in your quadriceps and glutes, and they assist you practice a movement pattern you execute on a daily basis, such as when you ascend from the sofa or descend low to stroke your dog. And the hack squat — a trendy variation you perform on a machine — is no exception.
But how does the hack squat compare to its machine-free counterparts? Here, fitness professionals share the largest advantages the exercise has to offer and break down how to execute a hack squat to achieve those benefits. Trust, you don’t want to disregard this leg-strengthening maneuver.
How to Perform a Hack Squat
The hack squat machine appears somewhat like a reversed leg press machine, explains Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., an ACE-certified personal trainer and the host of the All About Fitness Podcast. To utilize a leg press machine, you sit on a fixed seat and push your feet against a weighted, moving platform that’s above you. Conversely, to utilize the hack squat machine, you’ll stand on a fixed platform (facing away from the machine) below shoulder pads, then lower your buttocks down to the platform as if you were doing a traditional squat. Since the weight is evenly distributed across your shoulders and you’re capable of heavily loading the machine, the hack squat functions much like a barbell back squat, says Lauren Saint-Louis, an NSCF-certified strength coach and Tier X Coach at Equinox, who illustrates the maneuver below.
A. Stand in a hack squat machine with feet shoulder-width apart and placed in the upper section of the platform, shoulders and hips resting against the backrest, and hands holding onto the handlebars.
B. On an inhale, bend knees to descend until thighs are parallel or just below parallel with the floor, keeping shoulders and hips pressed against the backrest.
C. On an exhale, exert pressure through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.
The Key Hack Squat Advantages
Although the hack squat appears fairly simplistic, the lower-body maneuver offers numerous benefits for your lower body and joints.
Isolates the Quadriceps
One of the biggest advantages of performing hack squats: developing robust and powerful quadricep muscles (the muscles at the front of your thighs), says Saint-Louis. “They separate the quad muscles for ideal growth,” adds McCall. ICYDK, the quad muscles contribute to the movement and stabilization of the knee cap, hip flexion, and regulation of gait, so it’s important to keep them strong and healthy, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Plus, hack squats can assist bodybuilders and figure athletes in achieving the particularly formidable-looking quads they need to excel in their sport.
Unlike squats performed with free weights — which require substantial core stability on your part — hack squats maintain a stable position for your upper back and hips, explains McCall. “The hack squat can isolate the position of your body, so it’s much more stable,” adds Saint-Louis. “So you can load it really heavy [without] having to focus on staying upright.”
And that added stability is also what makes the hack squat a less risky alternative to barbell back squats, especially if you’re new to the weight room, according to the experts. “Hack squats are likely safer than barbell squats since you don’t have to balance free weights and can’t fall backward or forward,” says Wilson.
Doesn’t Require as Much Ankle Mobility
Typically, the foot platform is angled away from you so that your toes are slightly farther from your body than your heels, positioning your body as if you are doing traditional squats with weight plates under your heels. “This [angle] reduces your need to have lots of ankle mobility in order to correctly perform the movement,” adds Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., the CEO of the Applied Science & Performance Institute and a member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Translation: The hack squat can be beneficial for individuals who have limited ankle mobility and don’t feel completely comfortable performing other heavily loaded squat variations, says Saint-Louis.
Hack Squat Muscles Worked
As previously mentioned, your quadriceps perform the majority of the work during hack squats, although your glutes also play a role, as stated by Saint-Louis. Your hamstrings and core are involved but have a minor role, she adds. Keep in mind that the machine provides ample stability, so your core doesn’t need to exert as much effort to keep you upright. As your hips remain fixed, your knees take on most of the workload, and your hamstrings don’t need to extend the hip joint. However, it’s important to note that an excessive emphasis on your knees may not be beneficial. McCall explains that if your hips and knees don’t move in sync, there is a risk of knee injuries from overuse or over-flexing the joint.
Due to the increased stability provided by the machine, hack squats involve a different movement pattern compared to traditional squats, where the hips move back while the knees bend simultaneously, says McCall. Consequently, other squat variations distribute the workload more evenly among your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
Various Ways to Perform Hack Squats
Because the hack squat machine places your body in a fixed and stable position, it can be challenging to modify and progress the exercise, according to Saint-Louis. However, there is one variation of hack squats that you can incorporate into your workout routine. If you don’t have access to a hack squat machine, you can also simulate the movement using another common piece of gym equipment.
Variation: Face the Machine
To add more challenge to your glutes, you can try a reverse hack squat, where you stand facing the machine instead of away from it. In this position, your hips aren’t restricted to a specific range of motion since your shoulders and feet are the only points of contact with the machine. Wilson explains that this shift in posture shifts the focus from your quadriceps to your hamstrings and glutes. Keep in mind that this variation may be more difficult to execute if you have limited ankle mobility, as most hack squat machines have angled platforms. You will need decent ankle mobility to perform the squat with your feet flexed toward the floor.
Variation: Use a Smith Machine
Not all gyms have a hack squat machine available, but you can replicate the hack squat motion using a Smith machine, as suggested by Saint-Louis. Instead of standing directly beneath the bar, you will position your feet slightly ahead of the bar and lean back slightly, resting the bar on your upper back. This technique will target your quadriceps in a similar manner to hack squats, but your hips will have more freedom of movement.
Common Mistakes in Performing Hack Squats
For the most part, your form for hack squats will be similar to traditional squats, but you will need to adjust your foot placement slightly on the hack squat machine. Saint-Louis advises ensuring that your feet are placed a bit further up on the platform, so when you squat, your knees and hips form a proper 90-degree angle, and your knees remain aligned over your heels.
If your feet are situated in close proximity to your torso, your knees may protrude beyond your toes whilst you perform a squat, which will potentially impose an additional strain on your knee articulations.
How to Include Hack Squats in Your Workout Routine
And don’t forget to descend as low as possible in your squat, working through your entire range of motion, says Saint-Louis. “If there’s any moment to squat deep, the ideal moment would be on the hack squat machine because you have so many controlled factors,” she explains. In other words, you don’t have to worry about toppling over or getting stuck in your squat with a heavy barbell if you were to descend too far to return to standing.
Before you integrate hack squats into your exercise program, you’ll first want to master the standard bodyweight squat and a front squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell, which ensures you’ll have the correct movement pattern down pat, says Saint-Louis. If you’re dealing with lower back problems or have any existing injuries, you should consult your doctor first to confirm you’re safe to squat with heavy loads, she says.
Once you receive the all-clear, add the hack squat to the beginning of your strength workouts, which ensures you’re not too fatigued to lift heavy, recommends Saint-Louis. Aim to do four sets of about 12 repetitions or, if you want to put your muscles to the test, try pyramid sets. Begin with a set of 20 repetitions at a light weight, then increase the load and perform 15 repetitions, and continue the process for another two to three sets, suggests Saint-Louis. If you want to get the most benefit from the hack squat machine, consider incorporating both standard hack squats and reverse hack squats into your routine so you give some attention to your hamstrings and glutes as well.
Just know that hack squats “don’t necessarily enhance the function of your hips and knees working together,” says McCall. “Fixed-path machines aren’t necessarily bad, but sometimes they restrict normal or optimal joint function—and this is one of those cases.” (Experts generally agree that most workout machines can be risky or ineffective for the same reason.) Translation: Your body reaps a more comprehensive benefit from other, unrestricted types of squats, like bodyweight squats, goblet squats, or barbell squats.
Want to give your quads a little extra boost? Try performing your usual squats (whether that’s with a barbell or dumbbells or just your bodyweight) with 10-pound weight plates beneath your heels to mimic the hack squat position. But if hack squats get you seriously excited for leg day, go ahead and incorporate them into your regularly scheduled programming.
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