If you want a hack squat alternative, one that works the same muscles as the hack squat, but doesn’t require a hack squat machine, this page will show you what to do.
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, your gym doesn’t have a hack squat machine. You want an exercise that works the same muscles as the hack squat, but doesn’t require the use of a hack squat machine.
Or maybe your gym does have a hack squat machine, but you don’t want to use it. You find hack squats 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 because the machine keeps you on a fixed path. All you need to do is focus on moving the weight from point A to point B, and working your quads as hard as possible.
With the hack squat, the upper body stays in a fixed position, while the legs and hips do most of the work. This makes the hack squat a solid choice if you want to train your lower body without having to end a set because of fatigue in your lower back (which can happen with squats).
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. 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 Alternatives
The alternatives to the hack squat I’ve listed below work the same muscles as the hack squat, but don’t require the use of a hack squat machine. Depending on how you’re built, some may also feel a lot easier on your knees.
- Leg Press
- Single-Leg Leg Press
- Front Squat
- Barbell Hack Squat
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Smith Machine Squat
- Landmine Squat
1. Leg Press
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 muscles 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.
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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.
2. Single-Leg Leg Press
If you don’t have access to a leg press machine, another effective hack squat alternative is the regular squat.
Both the regular squat and the hack squat work many of the same muscles. The main difference is that the squat recruits more of the trunk musculature than the hack squat.
Specifically, I’m talking about the spinal erectors, those cable-like muscles that 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 .
In terms of their effects on the quads, the squat and hack squat have much in common.
The numbers below come from a study where 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, the extent to which the quads and glutes were activated during the squat and hack squat was very similar. Erector spinae, however, was working a lot harder during the squat compared to the hack squat.
- Back squat 59.5%
- Hack Squat 56.1%
- Back squat 56.3%
- Hack Squat 52.1%
- Back Squat 31.8%
- Hack Squat 32.1%
- Back Squat 31.8%
- Hack Squat 32.1%
- Back Squat 41.9%
- Hack Squat 20.9%
NOTE: The numbers above show average muscle activity, measured by EMG, as a percentage of maximum voluntary isometric contraction. All the exercises were performed with a weight equivalent to 60% of 1-rep max.
4. Front Squat
With the back squat, 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.
In order to stop the bar falling off your shoulders, you need to keep your torso in much more of an upright position.
The front squat hits the same muscles as the back squat, but does work the quads a little harder, making it a good substitute for the hack squat 
One of the other 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 .
The downside is that resting a heavy barbell across the front of your shoulders can be extremely uncomfortable. Muscles in the upper body, which have to work very hard to keep your body upright, can also fatigue before your legs do.
5. Barbell Hack Squat
If you don’t have access to a squat rack, the barbell hack squat also serves as an effective alternative to hack squats done on a machine.
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 plates. You don’t need a squat rack, leg press or hack squat machine, which 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 muscles involved in the barbell hack squat, 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.
6. Bulgarian Split Squat
The rear foot elevated split squat, also known as the Bulgarian squat or 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 back squat when it comes to improving lower body strength .
Unlike the front and back squat, the Bulgarian split squat allows you to train your lower body without loading the spine. This makes it extremely useful if you’ve got back problems that prevent you from squatting heavy.
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.
With the hack squat, you just push yourself up and down in a fixed path, and let the machine keep you stable.
But with the Bulgarian split squat, it can be tricky to keep your balance. Some time and practice will be required before you’re able to do it properly.
7. 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 alternative. But if free weights aren’t an option for whatever reason, the Smith machine squat is a viable substitute.
8. Landmine Squat
Like the hack squat, the landmine squat is an effective way to train the muscles in 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.
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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