How To Do Hack Squats

Plus foot placement variations and hack squat alternatives.

The hack squat machine is a great addition to traditional squats for building bigger, stronger legs. Of course, that is if you know how to do hack squats properly!

In this article, I walk you through hack squat form and execution. As well as how to target different parts of your legs simply by changing your foot position.

And don’t worry, you can still get the benefits of hack squats without a machine. I also show you several hack squat substitutes.

How To Do Hack Squats

What Is A Hack Squat

Hack squats are an exercise that works the leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps. Usually, this exercise is performed on a machine with a weighted sled that travels up and down on angled rails.

As the name implies, hack squats are similar to free-weight squats. And at first glance, it may seem like an inverted leg press. However, there are key distinctions between these exercises.

Hack Squat vs Squat

The main difference between the hack squat and barbell squat is your back. With regular squats, your torso tilts forward and puts some of the load on your lower back. Whereas hack squats put almost no load on the lower back muscles1.

By reducing upper body involvement, you put more weight on your legs. Therefore, the hack squat provides better lower body isolation than squats.

However, barbell back squats are still a better exercise for overall lower body development, core stability, and athleticism.

Hack Squat vs Leg Press

Both the leg press and hack squat involve sleds that move on rails. With the leg press, you sit in a padded seat and push the sled up with your feet. Whereas the hack squat has a padded sled on your back.

However, it’s the angle of your back relative to your legs that makes these exercises different. On the leg press, your torso is forward so your knees come to your chest. While your back stays upright on the hack squat.

As a result, leg press works more glutes and hamstrings while hack squats emphasize the quads.

Hack Squat Machine

Hack Squat Benefits & Limitations

Pros

  • Less stress on the back compared to barbell squats
  • More upright body position compared to leg press
  • Limited movement path better isolates lower body
  • Excellent for targeting quadriceps
  • Safety stops for working to failure without a spotter
  • Large platform for multiple foot position variations

Cons

  • Not as good for building overall strength compared to squats
  • Puts more stress on your knees compared to squats or leg press

How To Do Hack Squats

To perform the hack squat exercise, you need to understand how the machine works. Here are the basic steps to do hack squats:

  1. Load the desired weight plates on the sled (it’s best to start with no weight if you’ve never done this exercise)
  2. Get into the machine by placing your feet on the platform and your back and shoulders on the pads
  3. Unrack the sled by pushing up on the shoulder pads while pulling in on the handles
  4. Squat down by bending your knees and lowering your hips toward the floor
  5. Extend your legs to push the sled back up to the starting position
  6. Perform the desired number of reps
  7. Rerack the sled by pulling out on the handles as you gently lower it onto the hooks

Machine Hack Squats Video

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Hack Squat Form

With the safety stops and rails, the hack squat is a relatively safe machine. But it’s still important to use proper form to prevent injury and get the best results for your effort.

  1. Start with your feet halfway up the platform about shoulder-width apart – I’ll explain alternate foot positions in the next section
  2. Keep your back flat on the pad at all times
  3. Don’t let your hips roll forward off the pad at the bottom of the range of motion – if you can’t go low enough, work on hip mobility
  4. Don’t lock your knees out completely at the top of the movement

Hack Squat Muscles Worked

As a squatting movement, the hack squat involves most of the muscles in your legs. Including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

But hack squats place a greater emphasis on the front of your legs or the quadriceps. The quads are a group of 4 muscles called the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris.

Hack Squat Muscles Worked

Hack Squat Foot Placement

Where you place your feet on the platform also affects which muscles are used most during a hack squat. You could have your feet high or low, wide or narrow, and angled in or out.

Feet High vs Low

Placing your feet higher on the platform shifts more of the load to the glutes and hamstrings. While placing your feet low on the platform puts almost all of the load on your quads.

Hack Squat Foot Position High vs Low

The reason has to do with the position of your knees relative to your toes. When your feet are high on the platform, your knees stay behind your toes.

This angle results in more hip flexion at the bottom of the movement. And extending your hips as you push up is what activates more glutes and hamstrings.

Hack Squat Feet High Muscles Worked

You can do more weight when your feet are high on the platform since you’re using more muscle groups. But I should also point out, that lifting heavier weight doesn’t always result in the gains you want. 

On the other hand, keeping your feet lower on the platform causes your knees to go over your toes. This reduces hip flexion and increases knee flexion. So you’re using almost exclusively the quadriceps muscles.

You’ll find that you can’t do as much weight with your feet low. But you’re better off using less weight with your feet lower on the platform if your goal is to build bigger quads.

Of course, you can do heavier weight and still target your quads by putting your feet about halfway up the platform.

Hack Squat Feet Low Muscles Worked

Feet Wide vs Narrow

Another factor in foot placement is width. Placing your feet wider than shoulder-width uses more inner thigh. While feet closer than shoulder-width works more outer thigh.

Generally, I recommend a narrow stance where your feet are shoulder-width apart or closer. This keeps the load squarely on the quads.

Hack Squat Foot Position Wide vs Narrow

Toes Pointed In vs Out

Finally, you can also angle your feet in or out. This foot position is most relevant when you have your feet low and close together on the platform and you’re engaging your quads.

Pointing your toes in works more of the vastus lateralis or the outer sweep of your quad. While pointing your toes out works the vastus medialis or the teardrop above your knee.

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Hack Squat Alternative: How To Do Hack Squats Without A Machine

By now you should see the benefits of adding the hack squat exercise to your leg workout routine. However, many gyms don’t have a hack squat machine. And you definitely won’t have one in your home gym.

For this reason, I put together several hack squat substitutes that you can do with free weights or a Smith machine. You can even do hack squats at home!

Barbell Hack Squat

With this hack squat alternative, all you need is a standard barbell. This exercise is similar to a deadlift, except the bar is behind you.

Start with the bar on the floor. Next, step back so your calves touch the bar and bend down to grab it with an overhand grip. From here, stand up by extending your knees while keeping your back straight.

While this does put a little more load on your quads, your back still tilts forward like a traditional squat. So this variation is my least favorite hack squat substitute.

Dumbbell Hack Squat

To set up a dumbbell hack squat, you’ll start by standing with your back to a wall. Next, place a foam roller or other round object behind your back. Now grab a dumbbell in each hand and put your feet 12-18″ out from the wall.

From this starting position, squat down until your upper legs are about parallel with the floor. Then extend your legs to stand back up. Placing plates or shims under your heels can help to activate more quads.

This variation forces your back to stay flat and upright relative to your legs. So I think it’s a better substitute than barbell hack squats.

Smith Machine Hack Squat

A Smith machine is technically still a machine. But it’s a super common piece of equipment found in nearly every gym. So it’s a good option for a hack squat alternative.

To do a Smith machine hack squat, set up the bar as if you were going to do a normal back squat. But then step forward so your feet are 12-18″ out in front of you. Now squat down until your upper legs are about parallel with the ground.

This exercise takes a bit of balance. Also, make sure you keep your back totally straight and upright through the whole range of motion.

Landmine Hack Squat

If you’re not familiar, a landmine is a stable base that attaches to one end of a barbell allowing the other end to pivot like a lever. To do hack squats with a landmine apparatus, start by putting the end of the barbell on your shoulder.

With your back to the base, step your feet out about 12-18″ in front of you. From here, squat down to about 90 degrees and extend back up to the starting position.

Reverse Hack Squat

This variation also requires a hack squat machine. But it’s worth mentioning because it can have some added benefits for building strength and improving lifts like the back squat.

To do a reverse hack squat, you stand in the machine backward with your face towards the pad. From here the movement is essentially the same as a regular hack squat, except the leg mechanics are slightly different.

With a reverse hack squat, your hips can move back as they would in a barbell squat. But your back stays upright and your knees are more forward in relation to your toes.

This body position and range of motion combines the benefits of traditional squats and the regular hack squat. You have a more natural movement path but you also get better quad activation.

Check out the video below for more details.

Conclusion

With a basic understanding of how to do hack squats, you can use this exercise to blast your quads and build bigger legs. Even without a machine!

Plus, now that you know how foot position changes the muscle worked, you can even target specific parts of your quads. Such as the teardrop above the knee or the coveted outer sweep.

However, you shouldn’t use hack squats as an excuse to avoid barbell squats. Instead, use both hack squats and back squats to compliment each other as part of a complete leg day workout routine.

For more helpful tips on exercises, workouts, and all things fitness, check out some of my related articles below!

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