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. 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. Here’s how to do hack squats with a barbell, plus a couple of helpful variations and alternatives as well.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBendis 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
[Read More: 12 Science-Backed Benefits of Squats You Should Know About]
The hack squat requires you to stand in front of the barbell and use an overhand grip with your arms behind you to hold it as you squat. 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.
Equipment Needed: You’ll only need a barbell and potentially some weight plates or bumper plates to perform the hack squat.
- Step 1 — 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.
- Step 2 — 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 to stand up.
- Step 3 — Once you’ve stood up, inhale to brace your core and then drop your hips back and down to sink into the squat. Keep your arms relaxed the whole time.
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.
Hack Squat Variations
If you’re enjoying the hack squat and want to switch things up, try some of these variations.
Machine Hack Squat
Why Do It: 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.
Equipment Needed: You can find a hack squat machine in most commercial gyms.
- Load the machine with extra weight plates if desired.
- Sit into the machine and press your shoulders into the shoulder pads. Your head should fit comfortably between them.
- Place your feet onto the plate in a comfortable stance. If you have limited ankle mobility, consider putting your feet higher up on the plate.
- Push into the plate to straighten your legs. Then, pull the lever or handle to detach the safety mechanism on the rail.
- Brace your core and bend your legs to sink down into a squat, then reverse the motion to stand up again.
Heels-Elevated Hack Squat
[Read More: The 13 Best Quad Exercises for Serious Strength and Size]
Why Do It: 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.
Equipment Needed: For this variation, you’ll also need some change plates or a low riser to elevate your heels.
- Stand with your heels on a pair of small change plates, a bit of rubberized matting, or anything stable with roughly an inch of height.
- Grab the barbell behind your back as you would for a standard hack squat.
- Brace your core and sink down into a low squat position, allowing your knees to travel forward freely.
Hack Squat Alternatives
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.
Why Do It: 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.
Equipment Needed: All you’ll need for the wall sit is, well, a 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.
Why Do It: The landmine squat is anteriorly (or frontally) 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.
Equipment Needed: To do the landmine squat, you’ll need a barbell and, ideally, a landmine fixture.
- Wedge a barbell into a landmine attachment or the corner of a wall.
- Lift the bar up to chest height and hold it clasped in your palms while putting your feet into a comfortable squat stance.
- Your feet should be behind your body; stand at a slight angle.
- From here, brace your core and sit down and backward with your hips, then stand back up.
Why Do It: 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.
Equipment Needed: Sumo deadlifts require a barbell and some weight plates. A deadlift platform is ideal if your gym has one. If not, consider using bumper plates.
- Assume a very wide stance with your toes pointed outward at roughly 10-and-2 on a clock face.
- From here, reach the bar by unlocking your knees, dropping your hips down, and gripping the bar with your hands directly below your shoulders.
- Flatten your back, brace your core, and fix your gaze somewhere on the floor ahead of you.
- Push into the ground with your legs, rather than pulling with your back, to stand up.
- Lock your hips and knees out and hold for a moment at the top, squeezing your glutes hard.
Who Should Do the Hack Squat
If you’re new to lifting, a bodybuilder, a powerlifter, or anyone in between, the Hack squat can be beneficial to add into your routine.
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.
Hack Squat Sets and Reps
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.
[Read More: The Best Hypertrophy Leg Workout for Bigger Muscles]
The hack squat is great for building your quads. If your goal is muscle 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.
Benefits of the Hack Squat
Hack squats, when performed and programmed correctly, offer lots of benefits. They’ll target your quads tremendously, but they can also give you mobility gains and help you lift heavier.
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 placement 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.
Muscles Worked by the Hack Squat
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.
Common Hack Squat Mistakes
Whether you’re new to hack squats or have been doing them for a while, it’s important to keep good form to avoid injury and make progress. Avoid these common mistakes when working your hack squat.
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.
[Read More: Are You Making These 5 Squat Mistakes? Here’s How to Fix Them]
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
The hack squat requires your feet to be about shoulder width apart. In other squats, you can go wider with your feet to help keep your heels down, reach depth and target your quads more.
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.
Still have more questions about the hack squat? We’ve got answers.
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.
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 workout program.
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