While the hack squat is a highly effective lower body exercise, not every gym has a hack squat machine. And if you’ve got a gym set up in your garage or spare room, a hack squat machine isn’t a particularly efficient use of space or budget.
Today, I want to show you three exercises that work the same muscles as the hack squat, but don’t require the use of a machine.
For an exercise to serve as an effective dumbbell substitute for the hack squat, it should:
- Work your legs while allowing you to maintain an upright torso
- Challenge the muscles in your hips and thighs through a large range of motion
- Provide a relatively high level of stability
There are two exercises that fit the bill. The third exercise ticks a couple of boxes, but falls short on the stability side of things.
All three exercises do have some limitations compared to machine hack squats, which I’ll get to in a moment. But they’re as close to the hack squat as you’re likely to get without splashing the cash on a hack squat machine.
Foam Roller Dumbbell Hack Squat
First up, we have the foam roller dumbbell hack squat, an exercise that has a number of things in common with the regular hack squat.
For one, you’re bending and straightening your legs while your torso remains upright, which is exactly what happens on a hack squat machine.
Balance isn’t too much of a problem, because you’ve got the foam roller to lean against.
With a regular back squat, most people will need to lean forward as they descend in order to stay balanced. This brings the spinal erectors — cable-like muscles that run up both sides of your spine — into play.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.
The upright torso position can be a benefit if you have lower back issues that are exacerbated by regular back squats.
Because there’s a wall behind you acting as support, you’re able to work the muscles in your hips and thighs through a large range of motion.
Not everyone can get that deep with regular squats, as not everyone is built in such a way that allows them to squat arse-to-ankles with a heavy barbell across their back.
The main downside with the foam roller dumbbell hack squat (and many leg exercises performed with dumbbells for that matter) is that grip strength can be a limiting factor.
That is, your grip will give out before your legs do, which in turn is going to mean a slower rate of leg growth.
One solution is to get some lifting straps, which allow you to hold on to a heavier weight for longer.
Personally, I like 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.
You can also use a resistance band to make the exercise harder, as shown in the video below.
Banded Hack Squats
Dumbbell Pendulum Squat
The dumbbell pendulum squat is a little like the hack squat in the sense that you can work your quads through a large range of motion with minimal involvement from the lower back.
It’s usually done in a gym using a pendulum squat machine. However, with a little creativity, it is possible to do the exercise without a machine.
In the video above, Gareth Sapstead attaches a dipping belt wrapped around his torso to a strap anchored securely to the wall, which helps to keep his body upright. His feet are also positioned on a slant board.
As well as holding a couple of dumbbells, he’s also wearing a weighted vest to add load.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat, also known as the rear foot elevated split squat, can also work well as a dumbbell substitute for the hack squat.
Just like the hack squat, your torso stays upright throughout the exercise. Because you’re working one leg at a time, it’s easier to challenge the muscles in your hips and thighs without having to terminate a set because your grip isn’t strong enough.
The main downside with the split squat, and where it differs from the previous two exercises, is the lack of stability.
Because you’re working one leg at a time, balance can be a limiting factor, and it can take a few weeks of regular practice before you’re able to do the exercise without wobbling around.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you make dumbbell squats harder?
The first option is to wear a weighted vest, which can typically add between 10 and 30 kilograms (22-66 pounds) in load. The extra weight is going to make dumbbell squats a much more challenging lower body exercise, without grip strength being a limiting factor.
Option number two is to slow the exercise down. A slightly slower rep tempo, with each rep lasting 5-6 seconds (2-3 seconds to lift the weight and 3 seconds to lower it), will make dumbbell squats a lot more challenging.
Are hack squats bad for your knees?
The hack squat has the potential to be bad for your knees, depending on what sort of shape your knees are in and how you do the exercise.
However, there are many potential causes of painful knees, and the hack squat can bother some knees but not others.
Every exercise has a benefit-to-risk ratio that will vary depending on the exercise in question, the person doing it, and how it’s being done.
If you find that the hack squat does cause your knees to flare up, play around with the position of your feet and/or the range of motion.
Moving the feet a little further forward, and/or reducing the depth of the squat can help to alleviate any knee pain associated with the hack squat.
If you're overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting advice out there, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.