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March 27, 2022
Named after George Hackenschmidt, the hack squat has become one of the more popular leg exercises in the gym, even if people don't actually know the exercise they are doing is called a hack squat. We'll get into what a hack squat is and why they're so awesome below. But this article is not about that. In fact, the major focus of this article is on the best hack squat alternatives.
While hack squat machines are pretty standard now, not every gym has one; and if they do, there can sometimes be a line to get to use it. Besides, if you've been reading SET FOR SET for any length of time now, you have heard us say before that variety is critical for consistent growth over the years. It's always a good idea to have a variety of movements that can be swapped out. So, with that in mind, we want to provide you with the best hack squat alternatives.
In this article, you'll learn:
Besides the leg press, hack squats are probably the best machine-based exercise. The hack squat machine is a large apparatus that's composed of a foot platform and a sliding or levered back rest that sits and moves at an upward angle. The back rest has pads for the shoulders and handles to grab onto. The machine can be loaded by either a weight stack or placing free weight plates on the sides which are attached to the moving back rest.
A trainee will situate themselves on the machine so that their feet rest on the foot platform and their back sits on the sled. Starting in an upright position with the body extended, the trainee will then squat down, allowing the sled to slide down. The trainee will then extend at the knees to push the sled up, thus doing a squat.
The hack squat is a total lower body exercise and will produce some massive legs. However, it is most famous for its role in producing awesome quads. That's right, due to the biomechanics of the movement, the hack squat can create a fantastic set of quadriceps. The reason behind the high activation of the quadriceps is due to the positioning of the feet and sled.
During a normal back squat, the hips will be pushed back while the knees come slightly forward as the weight goes down. Because of this, the hips will flex and close while the torso leans forward. With that comes greater hip flexion, the concentric portion requires significant hip extension which is driven by the posterior muscles. This means the hamstrings will get considerable stimulus and depending on the position of the barbell, will be more or less involved.
The biomechanics of the hack squat is quite different as the back is pinned against the sled. This means the only way the sled can go down is by the knees flexing. In other words, the primary movement that moves the sled is leg extension which is driven by the quadriceps. While the glutes and hamstrings will still get some significant activation, the quadriceps are the primary movers.
Note: A lot of people use the hack squat machine in reverse (facing towards the back rest), which is called a reverse hack squat, and that changes up the muscles emphasis.
Many "great alternative" articles will randomly list other exercises without considering how they relate to the main exercise. That's not what we are going to do. We will give you the best alternatives to hack squats specifically and how they replicate the many benefits of hack squats. When looking at the primary benefits of the hack squat, we find that there are really two factors that a hack squat alternative should have.
While we love the hack squat, as mentioned, there are times when having some other exercises to replace it can be instrumental. Here are the best hack squat alternatives:
The front squat is an excellent lower-body exercise and is an equally awesome alternative for the hack squat. The front squat gets its name due to the fact the barbell is placed on the front side of the body and held on the shoulders and clavicle. Compare this to the back squat where the barbell sits on the lifter's back. This altering of the bar's position has a major impact on the biomechanics of the lifts. Since the bar sits on the front of the body, the lifter must maintain an upright torso to keep the bar from falling. This results in two significant benefits; they just so happen to be very similar to the two primary benefits of the hack squat.
The first benefit of front squats is that when compared to the back squat, they require significantly more fore output from the quadriceps. Similar to the hack squat, the torso remains at virtually the same angle throughout the movement. This means little hip flexion and maximum knee flexion resulting in higher quadriceps activation. In fact, the movement of the front squat looks very similar to the hack squat machine, except the body is standing up and down, not at an angle.
At the same time, the torso is in an upright position which means less force is placed on the back. While the back squat is perfectly safe when done correctly, it can still generate high amounts of force on the back. This can be too much for individuals recovering from an old injury or just need to rest their back. Therefore, the front squat will be used instead as less force is placed on the back.
The sissy squat is one of the best compound exercises to isolate the quadriceps. In fact, it's arguably the best exercise for monster quads. Unfortunately, not many people do them because they either don't know about them or they don't know how to perform them correctly. We'll go over it here briefly but check out this article which is entirely dedicated to it.
Anyways, there are two versions of the sissy squat; one that's purely bodyweight and one that uses a straightforward machine that is used to simply brace your legs. Both of them are great and are generally done using zero loads (because they are hard with just the bodyweight alone!).
The bodyweight sissy squat is usually done by first holding onto a brace and then progressing to unassisted. Do yourself a favor, start easy. To perform the bodyweight version, come up on your toes while holding onto a brace of some sort. You will then let your knees come forward while allowing your torso to fall backward. For lack of better words, it looks like you're doing the limbo. Keep coming down as far as you can until you feel you have reached a spot where you won't be able to come back up. Now focus on extending your legs which will pull your body up. Repeat for the desired reps, but we advise starting with very low reps.
The machine is a little different as it's performed by "locking" your legs in a brace. A sissy squat machine will generally be composed of a leg pad with a foot holder in front. You place your feet so that your toes are under the holders and your legs tight against the pad. Next, you simply sit back until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Be sure to keep your torso as vertical as possible. One of the most significant errors is that a trainee will go to sit back but then flex their hip and bend forward in what looks more like a back squat. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's not what we're trying to do here. Maintain an upright torso so that your shins and torso are parallel and vertical while your thighs are parallel with the ground.
One of the best hack squat alternatives is simply doing a hack squat with a barbell. While most trainees will perform the machine hack squat, there's actually a barbell hack squat. In fact, this was the original version, as George Hackenschmidt was performing these way back in the early 1900's, long before any workout machines were ever invented. This is a great exercise to have in your toolbox as you don't have to worry if there's a line for the hack squat machine or if your gym even has a hack squat machine. They'll have a barbell (and if they don't, leave immediately!), so you're all set.
The barbell hack squat actually looks like a 'behind the back deadlift', which is actually how some people may refer to it. Regardless, that is what it looks like. You will place a loaded barbell on the ground and then stand in front of it so that the barbell is behind your back. Next, you will bend down to grab the barbell and then sit back. This will put in what looks to be a sitting position. Again, when looking at the body mechanics, the barbell hack squat will look very similar to the body mechanics of the hack squat machine. The main difference is that your back will be supported by the sled during the machine hack squat while there is no support for the barbell hack squat. Regardless, this positioning will put you in a highly similar position, eliciting very similar muscle activation.
It should be noted that there are two ways the barbell hack squat is usually performed. In the original method, a person squats down but then comes up on their toes, similar to the sissy squat. This creates even greater knee flexion and extension, theoretically meaning significant activation. At the same time, this method uses considerably less weight due to biomechanics. The other method, which is more commonly seen, simply has the individual perform the barbell hack squat with the foot normally planted on the ground. The latter method is simpler and also allows a heavier load to be used.
A plie squat is an awesome squat variation to really isolate the quadriceps. The plie squat is basically a squat that uses a very wide stance, similar to a sumo deadlift. A trainee will spread their legs, open their hips, and then externally rotate their hips so that their knees align with their toes. They will then hold the weight out in front of them to hang the load, making dumbbells or kettlebells the preferred choice. One excellent method is to use a heavy dumbbell but have it flipped up on one end. This allows the lifter to grab one end with both hands.
After deciding on what loading apparatus to use, you're ready to execute the movement. Again, the final execution can be performed on either the toes or on flat feet. Going up on the toes elicits greater muscle activation with a minimal load, making it an excellent choice for any lifter who wants to be careful with their back. On the other hand, performing a plie squat with flat feet allows a heavier load. Either way, the load used is generally light regardless. As the lifter descends, the knees will track out towards the feet while maintaining an upright torso. At the bottom position, the top of the quads will be parallel to the ground.
The plie squat is a great hack squat alternative that can be used to generate high amounts of volume for muscle hypertrophy. Therefore, this movement is generally seen towards the middle or even end of a workout session.
Related: Best Dumbbell Exercises for Quads
Many people might be surprised to see a deadlift as a great alternative to the hack squat. However, if you were to look at the biomechanics of a conventional deadlift and a sumo deadlift, you would see that they are actually very different and have their own distinct muscle activation. While the deadlift is much more posterior dominant, the sumo deadlift is actually a quad-dominant exercise.
The sumo deadlift's set-up is very similar to the plie squat above as it is performed with a very wide stance with the hips externally rotated. The lifter will then flex the knees to come down while maintaining an upright torso creating a body position very similar to the other exercises on this list. This means a sitting position where the legs and torso are vertical at the bottom position. Again, this provides the two primary benefits of the hack squat:
In fact, the sumo squat is commonly suggested to lifters who may be recovering from a back injury. As it's a deadlift, most people are able to use a relatively higher load making this a perfect hack squat alternative for strength.
We wrote an in-depth article on how to perform the sumo deadlift correctly here.
The goblet squat is a great squat variation for beginners and long-time lifters alike. The goblet squat is often used by trainers to help correct mobility issues for new lifters who find squatting awkwardly. For various reasons, some not fully understood, when most people perform a goblet squat, many of their form issues are instantly fixed.
So, what is a goblet squat? A goblet squat is performed by holding either a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of the body by cupping your two hands together. In essence, your hands make the shape of a goblet that holds the apparatus (kettlebell or dumbbell). The hands are held close to the chest and the trainee will then perform a squat in a very similar way as the front squat. Because the load is in front of the body, the torso must remain vertical so as not to drop. Again, this means that there is minimal hip flexion and excessive knee flexion. Therefore, you get the same benefits of the hack squat, which means prioritizing the quadriceps and less stress on the back.
The belt squat is the last great hack squat alternative. In reality, the belt squat is simply an awesome exercise that everyone needs to be doing anyway. One of the unique things about the belt squat is its versatility. The belt squat machine is really just a loading mechanism (loads the waist) that allows you to perform different exercises.
What makes the belt squat such an awesome piece of equipment is that the load is attached to an individual's waist rather than being placed on the back.
A belt with a cable is attached to the waist of a lifter. This belt then runs through a series of pulleys where it is connected to some sort of loading mechanism. There are also belt squat machines that are loaded with a belt and a chain that attached to a free weight system.
Either way, this allows a trainee to perform any variation of squat he wants with the comfort of having the hands free and zero stress on the back. This is what makes the belt squat so special. You can load your muscles relatively heavy yet have next to zero stress on the back; perfect for days you want to get more volume, but your back has had enough!
As mentioned, the belt squat machine can actually be used to perform various movements, including squats, lunges, and, yes, hack squats. If you want to perform hack squats with the belt machine, be sure to position yourself so you are squatting down with your shins remaining perpendicular to the floor.
The Hatfield squat is a classic movement that has primarily been practiced in the world of powerlifting and strength sports. However, everyone could benefit from it, and it makes a great hack squat alternative.
The set-up for the Hatfield squat is a bit more complicated than the other exercises. To perform this hack squat alternative, you'll need a rack, barbell, and a safety squat bar. Rack the barbell so that it sits at a height just below your chest. It doesn't need to be exact, and you can find the most comfortable position as you practice the movement. You will then set up the safety squat bar at its normal height for squats.
Come up to the rack and situate the safety squat bar on your back. However, instead of holding onto the handles, you'll hold onto the racked barbell as the safety squat bar rests passively on your back. While holding onto the racked barbell, you will then squat down.
While you can perform the squat in various ways, there is a method to simulate the biomechanics of a hack squat. Since you are holding onto the barbell, allow your butt to go back farther while maintaining an upright torso. Remember to keep your shins vertical so that the majority of flexion occurs at the knees. At the bottom position, you should look like you are in the infamous "sitting position". You will then drive your body up until full extensions.
Yet again, the quadriceps will receive greater activation due to limited hip flexion. At the same time, little to no stress is placed on the back. Just what you want for an awesome hack squat alternative.
The hack squat allows an individual to perform the movement with heavyweight and high reps.
The exercise looks like this:
Other Good Hack Squat Alternatives (Quad-Centric Exercises):
You can program any of the hack squat alternatives on any lower body day as usual. If you do design your splits using a push/pull model, assign the hack squat and hack squat alternatives to be done on "push" days. Again, while the hack squat will train every lower body muscle, it's main emphasis is the quadriceps.
If you do a standard bro-style split, you should be sure to pair the hack squat with a great lower body hamstring-focused exercise such as the Romanian deadlift. This is merely to ensure that you train every muscle evenly and don't develop any type of deficit.
Make note that some of the exercises listed above are better suited for strength training with heavy loads, while others are better suited for lighter loads for muscle hypertrophy. Still, some are able to go both ways. Therefore, it definitely wouldn't hurt to perform one strength variation and one hypertrophy variation in any given workout in order to hit every variable.
The hack squat and its variations are some of the best ways to effectively train the quadriceps. You cannot only target them effectively, but you can also target them with heavy loads. Even the smaller exercises, such as plie squats, still allow you to train with decent weight. The point being, if you haven't been treating your thighs to these awesome exercises, it's time to start doing real training for your quads. You not only have the hack squat to blast your legs, but you now have 8 of the best hack squat alternatives there are. Your quads are gonna love it (or hate it depending on how you look at it).
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