The hack squat — named for its credited creator George Hackenschmidt — was popularized in the early 1900s. It looks almost more like a backwards deadlift rather than a traditional squat. How is that possible? The hack squat is a rear-loaded squat performed with the barbell behind your legs. However, it places a big emphasis on your quads, making it a great accessory to your main lower body lifts.
Unlike the back squat, the hack squat allows you to squat with a barbell without putting load on your spine. If you’ve got back issues, it will let you target your quads and legs without demanding quite so much from your upper body.
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The position also helps you keep your torso upright, engaging your core to protect your spine. With the weight behind your body, you’ll be training your midfoot and heels to push into the floor — an important carryover skill to other standing barbell exercises. For everyone from beginners to experienced bodybuilders, here’s everything you need to know about the hack squat.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
- How to Do the Hack Squat
- Hack Squat Sets and Reps
- Common Hack Squat Mistakes
- Hack Squat Variations
- Hack Squat Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Hack Squat
- Benefits of the Hack Squat
- Who Should Do the Hack Squat
- Frequently Asked Questions
The position of your arms, shoulders, and stress on your grip strength are different from your conventional squats and deadlifts. You’ll likely need to start with a lighter weight to get used to the movement. Even at a lighter weight, the hack squat will really burn out your quads — so go easy on them to start.
Step 1 — Set Up Barbell and Stance
Set up your barbell on the ground. Stand in front of it. Step your feet shoulder’s width apart with the backs of your heels touching the bar. Put your arms at your sides outside of your legs. Reach them back slightly, extending your shoulders. Retract your head, brace your core, and push your feet into the floor to build tension at the top of the lift.
Step 2 — Hinge to Grab the Barbell
Pull your shoulder blades back and down without flaring your ribs. Hinge at your hips, letting your knees come slightly forward as you squat down. Grab the barbell behind you with an overhand grip. Push your feet into the floor and your outer thighs into your arms. Widen your grip to accommodate your body shape as needed. Tuck your chin and lift your chest without extending your spine.
Step 3 — Push Down to Stand Up
Keep your chin tucked, ribs down, and chest slightly up. Pull your shoulder blades back and down and maintain a neutral spine. Drive your midfoot and heels into the ground. Exhale and stand up. Squeeze your glutes at the top as you come into full hip extension.
Coach’s Tip: Engage your core to resist movement through your spine as you stand up, and keep your knees tracking out.
Step 4 — Squat Down with Control
Inhale as you squat down with tension. Drive your hips back and down until your barbell touches the floor behind you. Let your knees come slightly forward over your ankles. Maintain a stiff core and neutral spine. Hold this tension at the bottom before standing up again.
Coach’s Tip: Try to get your thighs at least parallel to the floor at the bottom of the squat. You can elevate your heels on bumper plates if you are limited in ankle or hip mobility to help you reach depth.
If you’re looking to build muscle mass, strength, or endurance, you’re going to need to vary your sets and reps accordingly. Stressing your muscles at different loads for different amounts of time will help you reach your intended goals.
The hack squat is great for building your quads. If your goal is hypertrophy, you’ll be at a middle rep range with a manageable weight. For endurance, think lighter weight at higher reps. To build strength, you’re going to lift heavy for less reps. For all goals, it’s important to use progressive overload in your program, gradually increasing your load, intensity, and volume one at a time.
- For Muscle Mass: Perform four sets of eight to 12 reps. The weight should be challenging but moderate enough that you are able to complete one to two more reps at the end of each set.
- For Strength: Perform five sets of five reps. Add extra plates to your barbell to increase the weight. Complete your sets with good form, leaving zero reps in the tank to really build strength. Rest for three to five minutes between sets.
- For Endurance: Try three sets of 20 reps with minimal rest in between sets. Add lighter weight to your barbell so you can finish your high rep scheme.
Flexing or Extending Your Spine
It’s important to engage your core to resist movement of your spine when under load. In the hack squat, it’s common to flex your spine (round your back) on the way down, letting the weight pull you too fast.
Conversely, extending your spine (arching your back) too much on the way up when you try to keep your chest up is also a mistake. Instead, keep your shoulders back, ribs down, head retracted, and maintain a neutral spine by firing up your core.
Going Too Heavy Too Soon
If you’re used to squatting heavy and are new to the hack squat, you may understandably assume you can squat heavy weight right away. Instead, give yourself time to build the mind-muscle connection in this new position.
Going too heavy too fast can cause extra stress on your spine and make it difficult to maintain good form, potentially creating a greater risk of injury. Going in with a base level of strength means you’ll likely build up to a heavier weight quickly, but start light to hone your technique.
Heels Not Staying Down
Because of the rear loaded weight, it can knock you off balance if you lose the connection between your heels and the floor on the descent. Really try to push your heels into the ground. If there’s a mobility issue, grab some bumper plates to elevate your heels so they stay connected with your base of support.
If you’re enjoying the hack squat and want to switch things up, try some of these variations.
Machine Hack Squat
If you’ve seen a hack squat machine at your gym, try it out for a more controlled experience. The machine is set up to get you in a back squat position, so you’ll still have a rear-loaded weight, though it will be above your shoulders.
Heels-Elevated Hack Squat
Try elevating your heels on bumper plates for the heels-elevated hack squat. If you notice your heels coming off the ground when you squat, this position will aid your mobility to help you squat to parallel. You can also elevate your heels even if you can keep them on the ground, it will allow you to squat deeper and really burn your quads out.
Kettlebell Hack Squat
The kettlebell hack squat is an advanced variation that requires a ton of control, balance, and mobility. It’s performed with your heels off the ground (balancing on the balls of your feet as you squat all the way down, holding a kettlebell behind your back.
Try this out with your bodyweight first. Only add a kettlebell when you’re ready.
If you want to work the same muscles and get the quad burning benefits of the hack squat but need something a little different, try out some of these alternatives.
If you’re a complete beginner, don’t have equipment, or are looking for a great isometric alternative to the hack squat, try the wall sit. The hack squat burns your quads by squatting to at least 90 degrees and staying upright through your spine. The wall sit lets you hold the bottom position of the hack squat. All you need is your body and the wall.
Slide down so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your back against the wall, tuck your chin, and squeeze your core and glutes. Press your feet into the floor. Try holding for 30 seconds to start. Get ready to feel your quads burn.
The landmine squat is anteriorly loaded, unlike the hack squat. But the attachment to the floor offers similar benefits to help keep your torso upright without overly stressing your spine. It’s an easier position for your arms and will definitely get into your quads. You can elevate your heels to get a bit deeper, too.
Be sure to brace your core. Use the arm position to help you stay as tall as possible through your chest and spine without flaring your ribs or overly extending your spine.
The barbell hack squat looks like a deadlift with the bar behind you, although it is a squat. A sumo deadlift isn’t a squat, but having your feet stepped out wider than your shoulders will target your quads and help you stay more upright — like the hack squat.
If you’re a beginner, try this with a light kettlebell to start. For advanced lifters, you may be able to pull a bit heavier in a sumo deadlift than a conventional deadlift. Try a deficit sumo deadlift to pull more and improve your mobility.
When performing the hack squat, you want to make sure to engage the correct muscles. Irradiating tension through your muscles helps you protect your joints and lift your weight. The hack squat is a lower body compound exercise, but your core will be working hard, too.
The position of the weight in the hack squat will put a greater emphasis on your quads and your anterior chain during this lift. The four muscles of your quadriceps are the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
The quad muscles are responsible for flexing your knees on the descent of the squat, and extending your hips on the ascent.
The hack squat will also work your hamstrings and posterior chain, though not as much as other exercises like the deadlift. The hamstrings consist of your biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
Like the quads, they also help to flex your knees and extend your hips. It’s important to engage your hamstrings in the hack squat for full body engagement and tension.
Pushing through your feet and heels in the hack squat will help you feel your glutes. The gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius make up this powerful muscle group. Strong glutes help to stabilize your hips and knees in the hack squat, allowing you to lift weight safely.
Your glutes also aid in hip extension. Stand up powerfully in your hack squat and feel your quads, hamstrings, and glutes all work together in hip extension.
The core consists of your transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis on the front of your body. It also includes the internal and external obliques that wrap around your body. The posterior core muscles include the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum (QL), and latissimus dorsi.
In the hack squat, you want to engage all of your core muscles to help protect your spine from shifting under load. Your erector spinae and QL will help protect your low back, and your lats help you to hold the bar with tension.
Build Your Quads
Try out a bodyweight hack squat and you’ll immediately feel your quads burn. That’s because you’re holding the weight down and behind you with your feet stepped to shoulder-width distance. If you’re training for hypertrophy, you can get in lots of reps at a moderate weight to get some serious definition.
Less Load on Your Spine
Barbell back squats and front squats are powerful lower body exercises that also require a ton of upper body mobility and strength. They are loaded to put a lot of weight on or in front of your spine, particularly your upper back. If you want to squat heavy with a barbell while giving your upper body a break, the hack squat can be a beneficial choice.
Improve Athletic Performance
If you’re a runner or other athlete that needs to run fast, hack squats can benefit your sports performance. You’ll be solely focusing on moving weight with your lower body. It’s going to strengthen your legs, glutes, and feet.
The emphasis that the hack squats put on your quads carries over to running. Stronger quads help propel you forward faster. Your glutes and feet also work hard in hack squats, and you want to have proper foot mechanics as well in other athletic activities or speed training.
While the hack squat is a bit easier on your shoulder mobility than a front squat or back squat, it’s still putting your shoulders in an extended position. Holding weight back there can improve their mobility.
The hack squat also requires hip and ankle mobility, and performing it correctly can improve those, too. The position of the bar forces you to hinge into your squat, working your hips, and getting a nice stretch through your hamstrings. As you keep your heels flat on the ground and squat to parallel or below, you’ll be working your ankle dorsiflexion as well.
For beginners new to lifting and squatting, the hack squat can help you learn the proper squatting form by keeping your torso up and forcing some core engagement without a heavy load. It’s also a great way to learn how to hip hinge, a crucial skill for training that can be really difficult to learn at first.
Because of the placement of the bar, you need to hinge your hips a bit before squatting down. Beginners can learn this movement without a barbell at all. Grab a broom stick or PVC pipe to hold behind your back and go through the motions.
Bodybuilders do a lot of isolated exercises to target specific muscles to make them pop and grow. It’s also important for them to do compound exercises and to keep their whole bodies moving well together. Functional movements like the squat come into play here.
With the extra emphasis on quads, the hack squat is a great option to keep up your functional training while targeting your individual muscles.
Powerlifters focus on increasing their one-rep max in the squat, deadlift, and bench press. The hack squat is a great way to lift a little heavier while targeting their quads and legs without taxing your upper body too much.
Building extra leg strength on the hack squat over time will carry over into your main lifts and help you reach your powerlifting goals.
It’s Not a Hack
The Hack squat is a posteriorly loaded squat that lets you focus on your quads and legs without overly taxing your upper body and spine. It’s generally important to train and challenge your shoulder mobility, but the hack squat allows you to squat heavier without the intense shoulder position of a back squat or front squat.
Try it out and add it to your program whether you are new to training, trying to build muscle, or overall get super strong.
Still have more questions about the hack squat? We’ve got answers.
Are hack squats bad for my back?
Everyone’s body is different, but hack squats are generally a little easier on your back than other types of loaded squats. There isn’t a direct load on your spine, so your core and stabilizing muscles don’t need to work quite as hard. This means that the hack squat may actually be a good option for athletes who want to give their backs a break.
Is the hack squat better than the barbell back squat?
Better is relative, and it depends on your goals. The barbell back squat requires your entire trunk to stabilize your trunk. Your shoulder mobility will be working and your upper body does a lot in addition to your legs and lower body. If you want to focus on your full body, think of the hack squat as an addition to your program.
Can I use the machine to do hack squats instead of a barbell?
The machine hack squat is a stable variation to the barbell hack squat. It’s technically not the same movement, since the weight is above your shoulders. It’s also a fixed position that requires very little stabilization or core engagement. It’s perfectly fine to use the machine, but if you want to train the true movement and are able to, try a barbell or other free weights.
Featured Image: Fitman Performance / YouTube