The leg press and the hack squat are both lower-body exercises that work out your quadriceps. But depending on your fitness level, injury history, and equipment availability one might be better-suited than the other to help you reach your fitness and bodybuilding goals.
Either of these exercises are a great addition to your next leg day, but they’re best used to round out the rest of your routine and give your quadriceps some targeted attention. We’ll talk about some of the other moves you should be using and how you can use hack squats and leg presses to build strength and ripped muscles in your legs.
Read on for all you need to know about the hack squat, how it compares to the leg press, and how you should fit it into your leg day routine.
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What is a Hack Squat?
Squats are a classic leg exercise used by weightlifters to build strength in their lower body. Here’s how you can perform a regular squat:
- Start with your feet about shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly outward.
- Clench your core and then move your butt backward as if you were about to sit down.
- Make sure your knees are bending because of the sitting motion and not the other way around.
- Stop lowering yourself when your thighs are parallel with the floor and your knees are more or less even with your toes.
- Push through your heels to return to the starting position.
You can do a regular squat using just your bodyweight or you can use dumbbells or freeweights. The hack squat is one of several squat variations that use a barbell.
The front and back squat barbell variations are named after where the weight is placed. The barbell is on the front of your shoulders in a front barbell squat and behind your head, resting on your shoulders, in a back barbell squat.
The hack squat is a bit different. You can do it with a hack squat machine, which looks a little similar to an overhead press machine. It’s highly recommended to begin with the machine because the form of a freestanding barbell hack squat can feel a little strange to beginners unfamiliar with the move.
Follow these steps to complete a freestanding barbell hack squat:
- Get into the starting position for a regular squat with a barbell just behind you.
- It might help to elevate your heels a bit by putting them on small weight plates.
- Curve your back and drop your arms down until you can hold the bar with both. If this feels very close to a backward deadlift, you’re doing something right.
- Next, lift the bar up and stand straight. Now that you have the bar suspended, you can proceed with squats as usual, returning the barbell to the ground after the set is done.
Hack squats are great for quad activation where they’re responsible for all the work. They’ll also help you improve your stabilization for a better deadlift.
If you can find a hack squat machine, you won’t have to worry about the awkward movement of a freestanding barbell hack squat and for beginners, there will be a reduced risk of injury. You’ll also be able to alter how the hack squat is targeting your quads by changing up your foot placement on the machine.
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Muscle Activation in Hack Squats
If you’re trying to build muscle in your legs generally, the hack squat might not be for you. Hack squats don’t engage the trunk muscles as much as back squats do, so they won’t be as effective at improving your athletic performance.
While hack squats target the quadriceps most of all, they also require some other muscle groups in your lower body like the hamstrings, glutes, and adductor muscles. The more you drive through your heels to complete the squat, the greater the workout for your hamstrings and glutes. Hack squats improve balance by strengthening the adductor muscles.
Your calves are also included in a hack squat movement. The reduced stability of a barbell hack squat presents a greater risk of injury to your hip flexors, which are essential to the movement.
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Pros of Barbell Hack Squats
Hack squats with a barbell have the following advantages:
The leg workout you get from hack squats will build strength in your quads and in the lower part of your posterior chain. The greatest burn will be on the front of your legs where your quadriceps are, but since you’re also working your glutes and hamstrings, you’ll wind up with better stability and lower-body strength.
Build a Better Quad Sweep
Barbell hack squats put your outer quadriceps to work. That’s the part that bulges out about mid-thigh on fully developed and muscular legs. The outer muscle of your quadriceps that flares out, the vastus lateralis, is called the quad sweep. Hack squats are a great way to get a bulging vastus lateralis.
More Upper Body Engagement
While the barbell hac squat won’t get your upper body ripped, the fact that it involves your hamstrings and glutes somewhat means your posterior chain and upper body aren’t completely at ease throughout the exercise. This can help build strength for other compound exercises like deadlifts that also activate the posterior chain.
No Need for a Machine
Hack squats with a machine offer a very similar workout, but knowing how to do a barbell hack squat can save you time if the hack squat machine isn’t available or if you don’t have access to one at all. That makes them much more convenient and possible for people who have small home gyms with barbells but not huge machines.
Cons of Barbell Hack Squats
Although these are some fantastic benefits that make barbell hack squats a great leg day exercise, this move also has some disadvantages:
Requires Balance & Control
Both leg presses and machine-assisted hack squats give added support with lower back pads and shoulder pads. Barbell hack squats make you responsible for your own balance and you have to have the right form to complete them the right way. The good news is, since they work out your adductors, doing barbell hack squats will give you better balance and make doing barbell hack squats easier in the future.
Aggravates the Knees:
During the lower parts of this move, your knees will be under considerable strain. For most people that’s all part of working out at the gym, but for people with bad knees or knee injuries, the barbell hack squat might not be the best exercise. Bending low with all the weight behind you sometimes makes people want to push up with their knees instead of up through the heel.
There’s lots of potential for the barbell to hit your calves, Achilles’ tendon, or the back of your thighs at various points in a hack squat. Holding up a barbell behind you is also not as intuitive as having it up on your shoulders, so you might feel a bit more limited in terms of the amount of weight you can handle when you start doing back squats.
Risk of Shoulder and Wrist Injury
Doing a hack squat with freeweight like a barbell leaves your wrists and shoulders vulnerable. When you’re picking up the barbell, you have to pull your shoulders backward and lower down to grab the bar without rounding your lower back and sticking your butt out or you could leave with a new shoulder or wrist sprain.
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Machine Hack Squats
Before the hack squat machine was invented, the barbell hack squat was the only move in town. These days, many people prefer to use a machine when they do hack squats because the machine makes it easier to change the amount of weight.
Although these machines restrict the range of motion of your back and other lower-body muscle groups like your hamstrings and glutes, that does allow them to also target your quadriceps more effectively. You’ll also be much more likley to perform the hack squat with the proper form than if you were using freeweight like a barbell.
What is a Hack Squat Machine?
If you know what a leg press machine is, you basically know what a hack squat machine is. They’re kind of like mirror images of each other – where a leg press machine has a small platform above the user that can be pushe with the lower body, hack squat machines have a top section that’s manipulated with the upper body.
The top of a hack squat machine has shoulder pads and hand grips. Although the weight is no longer just behind your legs like it would be in a freeweight barbell hack squat, pushing through your heels on a hack squat machine will still activate your quadriceps.
Barbell Hack Squats vs. Machine Hack Squats
Dedicated bodybuilders and lifters who have been at it for a while are more likely to prefer barbell hack squats because lifting any kind of bar will help them get better at deadlifts and other kinds of squats. They’re also more likely to have strong adductors and stabilization muscles which translates into better control over the bar, so freeweight hack squats aren’t as intimidating.
Beginners are still better off using the machine to do hack squats, especially if they haven’t had time to learn the proper form for hack squats or regular squats. We already discussed the potential for injury if you do a freeweight barbell squat incorrectly. Since machine hack squats reduce this risk, many long-time gym rats still prefer to use the machine.
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How Often Should I Do Hack Squats?
Unlike some high-intensity compound exercises like deadlifts, pull-ups, and standard squats, hack squats aren’t going to completely wear you body out. The quads are doing most of the work, after all.
So if you want to either build a nice quad sweep or just get good at hack squats for their own sake, there might not be much reason for you to concentrate completely on hack squats. They target your quads first and foremost and, while barbell hack squats do also hit some muscles in your inner thigh, these aren’t the best exercises for hitting multiple muscle groups on leg day.
Hack squats are best used to round out the rest of the leg exercises in your routine. There are other great exercises that will give you a leg-blasting lower-body workout, such as Romanian deadlifts, lunges, and other squat variations. But the hack squat, especially the machine hack squat, is a less intense way to get quadricep activation after more difficult leg exercises.
The Leg Press
Leg presses are done using a dedicated leg press machine. They’re fairly simple exercises that also give your quadriceps a great workout. However, because of the back rest and the angle of the leg press machine, your core will not be activated.
Les presses have some degree of glute and hamstring activation, but they don’t activate your adductors and stabilizer muscles in quite the same way as a barbell exercise does.
Nonetheless, the leg press also has a more limited range of motion for your quadriceps which means they will get an even tougher workout than they do with a hack squat. You can also change your foot position on the lower platform of the leg press machine to target different parts of your quadriceps.
How to Perform a Leg Press
The leg press process is pretty straightforward. Here’s a step-by-step for a perfect leg press:
- Take a seat in the leg press machine with your feet flat on the platform above you.
- Disengage the platform supports so the weight is on your feet and then extend your legs until they are straight.
- Inhale as you lower the platform and exhale as you push it back up to the starting position. That’s one rep.
As you can see, there’s not much technical knowledge required to do a leg press. As long as you set the right weight, you should be able to get a nice quad workout without any fuss.
A wider position works the inner thigh muscles, a narrow one works the outer thigh muscles, a high foot placement hits the glutes and hamstrings more, and a lower position will put the quadriceps to work.
Pros of Leg Presses
There are a few things that make leg presses a great leg exercise:
The machine supports your back, making it easier to perform leg press reps without the risk of injury of freeweight and standing exercises. There are also hand rests. Overall, leg presses are just more comfortable than many other leg day exercises.
Build Well-Rounded Legs
If you alternate between some of the foot positions we mentioned before, you can build out all the quadriceps of your outer and inner thighs, glutes, and hamstrings. Change it up every 2 – 4 weeks and you’ll hit all those muscles. Since it’s so easy to change, the leg press is a surprisingly versatile leg exercise.
Great for Beginners and Circuit Training
Since it’s comparatively so much easier to hop on a leg press machine and get right to work, newcomers to the gym lifestyle as well as anyone who needs to alternate exercises quickly like circuit trainers or HIIT enthusiasts can all benefit greatly from the leg press.
Helpful Hint: Newcomers can also use our 90-Day Beginner Challenge Fitplan to get the hang of things!
Cons of Leg Presses
Leg presses do pose some disadvantages, though.
Gym rats may not mind, but leg presses aren’t the best exercise for people who do their workouts at home or anywhere else without lots of heavy equipment around. Even if using the machine is a simple task, the fact that the leg press requires it limits the convenience factor quite a bit.
The simple mechanics of the leg press machine mean that you can easily be performing the move incorrectly and still push the weight up the same as if you had the proper form. This can lead to an imbalance in the workout where you build one leg up more than the other. You could also round your back too much without realizing it, possibly leading to injury.
Easy to Overdo
Many people put way too much weight on their leg press machine because it feels like they can handle it. Since your upper body is basically disengaged, it feels like you can handle just about anything on a leg press machine. But in fact, you could be risking serious knee injury. With leg presses, it’s always best to go for high rep counts than a single-rep max.
Hack Squat vs. Leg Press
Both of these exercises are great for targeting your quadriceps with some secondary hamstring and glute activation. In terms of building your balance and perfecting a slightly more convenient move, the hack squat wins. But the leg press has more variables, more simplicity, and a lower risk of injury.
If you’re aiming for an ideal quad sweep, the barbell hack squat is a great option. Leg presses can also help you target your vastus lateralis by changing your foot position. Hack squats build better jump performance than leg presses.
Leg presses are without a doubt the better option for beginners and people who are trying to fit lots of different exercises into their leg day routine. But the hack squat can still be used occasionally to round out that routine and to master the form for other squat exercises.
Many strength training enthusiasts prefer to leave hack squats and leg presses out of their routines entirely, but they’re missing out on a great opportunity to target their quadriceps and build up great upper leg muscle. The hack squat might not be the easiest move, but it builds balance and helps train your brain for more mindful workouts.
Leg presses can be done so quickly that no HIIT or leg day routine should be complete without them. Both the hack squat and the leg press are best used to round out exercise plans that already target the posterior chain, the calves, hip flexors, and core muscles with other exercises.
If you’re looking for a no-frills leg exercise, the leg press is your best option, but if you want to keep building your squat skills, go for the hack squat on your next leg day.
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