Since you’re searching for a hack squat alternative, I’ll assume a few things are true about you.
First, you want to do the hack squat, either because it’s in a program someone else has put together for you, or because you’ve heard how well it works for building up your quads.
Problem is, you train at home and all you have is a barbell, power rack and a couple of dumbbells or kettlebells.
You want an exercise that works the same muscles as the hack squat, but doesn’t require the use of a machine.
Or maybe your gym does have a hack squat machine, but you don’t want to use it. You find the exercise tough on your knees, especially when you go all the way down.
You still want bigger quads, but you don’t fancy the idea of wrecking your knees in the process.
The Hack Squat: An Overview
Before I show you my favorite substitutes for the hack squat, I want to take a quick look at the exercise itself.
The video below shows you how to do the hack squat, as well as explaining some of the most common mistakes people make when doing the exercise.
One of the main benefits of the hack squat is the fact it’s relatively easy to do. That’s because it’s a machine-based exercise that keeps you on a fixed path.
The upper body stays in a fixed position, while the legs and hips do most of the work. All you need to do is focus on moving the weight from point A to point B, and working your leg muscles as hard as possible.
The Hack Squat: Muscles Worked
The hack squat is a highly effective way to train the quadriceps, which is made up of four different muscles:
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Intermedius
- Rectus Femoris
Of the four, the hack squat works mainly vastus medialis, vastus lateralis and vastus intermedius, all of which are involved in knee extension.
Rectus femoris is recruited, but not to the same extent as the other three muscles that make up the quads.
The hamstrings and gluteus maximus are also involved, but to a lesser degree.
Hack Squat Alternative Exercises
Both the regular squat and the hack squat work many of the same muscles. The main difference is that the conventional squat recruits more of the posterior core muscles than the hack squat.
Specifically, I’m talking about the spinal erectors, which run up either side of your spine.
That’s because as you squat down, your upper body inclines forward. Then, as you stand up, your upper body returns to a more upright position. And it’s the muscles in the trunk, the spinal erectors in particular, that are doing much of the work .
- Rest the bar across your traps and keep tight hold of the bar.
- Step back from the rack and place your feet flat on the floor, roughly shoulder-width apart.
- In this stance, your toes should point slightly outwards rather than straight ahead.
- Brace your abs before starting the descent.
- Your knees and toes should point in the same direction while you descend.
- Maintain the natural arch in your lower back throughout the exercise.
- Squat to a depth that feels right for you, which may be slightly above or slightly below parallel
- Straighten your legs and return to the starting position.
In terms of their effects on the quads, the free-weight squat and the machine hack squat have much in common.
In one study, researchers compared muscle activity during a number of different leg exercises :
- Hack Squat
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Zercher Squat
- Sumo Squat
As you can see in the table below, the extent to which the thigh muscles and glutes were activated during both exercises was very similar. Erector spinae, however, was working a lot harder during the squat compared to the hack squat.
With traditional back squats, the barbell is behind the neck, resting across the traps. But with the front squat, the barbell is in front of the neck, sitting across the front of the shoulders.
One of the benefits of the front squat is that you get similar levels of muscle activation in the quads as you do with the back squat, but with less weight, meaning smaller compressive forces on the knee [3, 4].
The downside is that resting a heavy barbell across the front of your shoulders can be extremely uncomfortable.
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What’s more, in order to stop the bar falling off your shoulders, you need more of an upright torso compared to the regular back squat.
However, various upper body muscles, which have to work very hard to maintain that upright torso, can fatigue before your legs do, potentially causing you to terminate a set prematurely.
- Position yourself so the bar rests across the top of your shoulders near the base of the throat.
- The front squat can feel awkward at first, as the bar can end up pressing on your neck.
- Step back from the rack and position your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Your toes should point slightly outwards rather than straight ahead.
- Take a big breath of air and brace your abs.
- As you descend into the squat position, keep your elbows up to stop the bar sliding forward.
- Don’t allow your knees to cave inwards as you squat down.
- Squat as deep as you can, with the goal of working your quads through a full range of motion.
- Stand straight back up to return to the starting position.
Safety Bar Squats
Another squat variation is the safety bar squat, which is a hybrid between front and back squats.
The safety squat bar has cambered ends and two handles with a pad on each one. There’s also a pad where the bar rests across your shoulders.
Because you maintain more of an upright torso, the safety bar squat is easier on the lower back than traditional back squats .
Barbell Hack Squat
If you don’t have access to a power rack, the barbell hack squat also serves as an effective replacement for hack squats done on a machine.
Named after Estonian strongman and professional wrestler George Hackenschmidt, the barbell hack squat is a little like a deadlift, but with the bar positioned behind the body rather than in front.
On the upside, this exercise requires very little in the way of equipment.
All it takes is a barbell and some weight plates. This makes it ideal if you’re training at home in a spare room or garage gym.
And if you get stuck at the bottom of a rep, you can just let go of the weight.
The main downside is that grip strength can be a limiting factor. That is, if you’ve got strong legs and a weak grip, your grip will give out before your legs do.
The solution is to use some lifting straps.
The argument against the use of straps is that you’re missing out on an opportunity to strengthen your grip. Which is true. If grip strength takes priority ahead of developing the quads, then by all means avoid the use of lifting straps.
Problem is, if grip strength is limiting the amount of weight you lift, your legs aren’t going to grow as quickly as they otherwise would have done while you’re waiting for your grip strength to catch up.
If you do want some lifting straps, I use and recommend Harbinger Big Grip Lifting Straps. They’re a lot better than lifting straps made from cotton, mainly because they have a rubber strip that prevents the bar from slipping.
- Think of this exercise like a deadlift, only with the bar behind your body rather than in front.
- With your feet roughly hip width apart, bend down and grab the bar with an overhand grip.
- Keep your knees pointing in the same direction as your feet throughout the movement.
- Your hips should stay low and your shoulders high.
- If your grip isn’t strong enough, use lifting straps. I like Harbinger Big Grip Lifting Straps, mainly because they have a rubber strip that prevents the bar from slipping.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat can also serve as a highly effective substitute for the hack squat.
Research shows that the Bulgarian split squat hits the quads, glutes, and even hamstrings to some degree [5, 6]. It also compares favorably to the traditional squat when it comes to improving lower body strength .
Because it’s a unilateral exercise, where you train one leg at a time, you get an effective lower body workout while minimizing spinal compression.
This makes it extremely useful for lifters with back problems that prevent them doing barbell back squats with heavy weights.
Because you’re training one leg at a time, it’s also a good choice if one leg is stronger than the other, and you want to eliminate any imbalance in strength from one side of the body to the other.
The downside is that the Bulagrian split squat is a lot harder to do than the hack squat, mainly because of the lack of stability. Some time and practice will be required before you’re able to do it properly.
- Place the rear foot on something stable like a bench.
- Practice doing the exercise without dumbbells using your body weight for resistance until you get the hang of the technique.
- Play around with the position of both feet until you find a stance that allows you to perform the exercise with proper form.
- The foot in front of your body should point straight ahead.
- Maintain a vertical torso or lean slightly forward throughout the exercise.
- Make sure the front knee tracks in the same direction as the foot.
Like the hack squat, the landmine squat is an effective way to train your lower body.
The exercise is a little like the front squat in the sense that the weight is in front of you, but it’s a lot less uncomfortable than holding a barbell across your shoulders.
Some people also find that the landmine squat tends to feel easier on the joints, especially the knees.
You can also pick up a landmine attachment relatively cheaply, which can be attached to a floor or power rack, making the landmine squat a good choice if you have a home gym set up in your garage or spare room.
- Place one end of the barbell in a landmine attachment.
- Rest the other end of the barbell on a bench so it’s easier to lift when you start the exercise.
- Load the opposite end of the bar with weight plates.
- Take hold of the bar with both hands and get under the bar.
- Drive up to a standing position.
- Play around with your foot placement until you find a position where you feel strong and stable.
- With your torso leaning slightly forward, start your descent.
- Squat to whatever depth is right for you (a 90-degree angle at the knee is a good place to start if you’ve never done the exercise before), then return to the start position.
- Sit down on the machine and put your feet on the foot plate.
- Your feet should be roughly shoulder width apart, with the toes pointing slightly out.
- Start with your feet placed roughly in the center of the platform, not too high and not too low. If your feet are too low, it can lead to pain in your knee joints. If they’re too high, you’re not working the quads as hard. Play around with your foot placement until you find a position that feels right for you.
- Straighten your legs and release the safety catches.
- Grab the handles, then lower the platform by bending your knees. Use a range of motion that’s as large as possible, but doesn’t hurt your knees or cause you to round your back.
- Make sure your knees follow the direction of your toes throughout the movement. Don’t let your heels come away from the platform.
- Push the platform back to the starting position by straightening your legs.
The leg press and the hack squat do have a number of things in common.
Like the hack squat, the leg press is a highly effective way to train the quads, but with less involvement from the trunk compared to squatting
The weight is also guided on rods, so all you need to do is focus on pushing the weight up and down. The main difference is that with hack squats, your feet stay in one place while your body moves up and down. With the leg press, your body remains stationary, and your feet move up and down.
Like a hack squat, the leg press is relatively simple to do. You just push the platform away from you, then lower it under control back to the starting position. This makes it a very beginner-friendly movement.
The main downside with the leg press isn’t so much with the exercise itself, but with how many people do it.
They tend to load it up too much weight, and end up performing the exercise through a shortened range of motion. Either that, or they round their backs at the bottom of the movement (common in those with poor flexibility), which isn’t doing your spinal discs any favours.
If you are concerned about damaging your back, do the leg press using one leg at a time. This makes rounding the lower back a lot less likely.
Single-Leg Leg Press
Smith Machine Squat
The Smith machine has guide rods that keep the bar in a fixed path, which makes the exercise easier from a technical point of view. This can be a benefit if you’re just getting started.
Squatting in a Smith machine can also feel safer than squatting with free weights. That’s because there are multiple hooks in place from top to bottom, so if you get stuck you can re-rack the bar with a twist of the wrist.
But compared to squatting with free weights, the Smith machine does have some downsides.
For one, the Smith machine doesn’t work the muscles as hard as the regular squat. In one study, muscle activity during the barbell squat was around 40% higher when compared to the Smith machine squat .
And because it locks your body into a fixed path, some people also find that the Smith machine squat doesn’t feel right.
All things considered, I think you’re better off using the regular barbell squat as a hack squat substitute. But if free weights aren’t an option for whatever reason, the Smith machine squat is a viable substitute.
- Stand in a Smith machine with a shoulder-width stance and the bar resting across your traps.
- Position yourself so that your feet are directly underneath the barbell, rather than out in front.
- Your toes should point out at a slight angle rather than straight ahead.
- Maintaining the natural arch in your lower back, bend at the knees and squat down to a knee angle of 90 degrees or below, depending on what the correct squat depth is for you.
- Return to the starting position by straightening your legs.
Resistance Band Goblet Squat
As well as a resistance band, the goblet squat can also be done by holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest.
What About Cable Hack Squats?
One exercise that’s often touted as an effective substitute for the hack squat is the cable hack squat.
Here’s what it looks like:
At first glance, the cable hack squat looks very similar to the hack squat. You’re bending and straightening the legs, while your torso remains upright. That’s almost exactly the same action you get with the regular hack squat.
Here’s the problem:
One of the benefits of the hack squat compared to the regular squat is that it takes your upper body out of the movement, and lets you focus on working your quads.
But with the cable hack squat, the resistance is actually pulling your body forwards, with the spinal erector muscles in your back working very hard to stop you being pulled over.
If you want to target your quads, you need the resistance to come from directly underneath you, rather than out in front.
You can see what I mean in the video below, which shows an exercise called the belt squat.
The belt squat was invented by powerlifter Louie Simmons after he injured his back and was unable to squat.
Removing the load from the shoulders puts the emphasis on the legs with less load on the spine compared to the regular squat .
In short, cable hack squats aren’t a great substitute for hack squats. If you’re training at a gym that doesn’t have a hack squat machine, you’re better off doing squats, front squats, the Smith machine front squat, Bulgarian split squats or the leg press.
Hack Squat: Popular Questions
Can I hack squat instead of squat?
The hack squat and barbell squat have a similar effect on the quads. However, the hack squat doesn’t work the muscles in the torso or hips as well as the regular squat. If you want to do hack squats instead of squats, you’ll need to include other exercises in your workouts to hit those muscles.
How do you do a hack squat with dumbbells?
The problem with using dumbbells to do a hack squat is that the large muscle groups in your thighs and hips need to be challenged with a relatively large amount of weight if you want them to grow.
Problem is, most people aren’t strong enough to hold that amount of weight, and their grip will give out well before their legs do. If you want to use dumbbells to train your quads, then a single-leg squat variation, like the Bulgarian split squat, would be better than hack squats.
Are hack squats bad for your knees?
Hack squats aren’t inherently bad for your knees. But they do have the potential to cause knee pain, depending on how deep you go, how much weight you use, and how you perform the exercise.
If your knees do hurt when you do the hack squat, try placing your feet a little further forward on the platform, focus on pushing through the heels, shorten the range of motion (i.e. don’t go as deep) and train with a lighter weight for higher reps.
While the hack squat is an effective way to train your quads, it’s not always practical. Many gyms don’t have a hack squat machine. And if you’ve got a home gym set up in your garage or spare room, a hack squat machine isn’t a particularly efficient use of space.
Some folks find that the hack squat causes knee pain, particularly if their legs are long and skinny. The pros of having bigger quads don’t outweigh the downsides of their knees giving them grief.
However, there are a number of hack squat alternatives that will give you much the same results as the hack squat machine, but without the downsides. Give each one a try, and find what works and feels right for you.
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