Barbell Hack Squat Vs. Back Squat [The Best Leg Exercise]

The barbell hack squat is a very effective lower body lift designed to target the quadriceps muscle. However, the back squat is a compound lift that works several muscles in the lower body, core, and back. If your goal is to build lower body muscle and overall fitness, the back squat is the best choice. If you want to isolate your quads to increase their strength, size, and definition, incorporate barbell hack squats into your routine.

Barbell hack squat vs back squat

Are Barbell Hack Squats the Same as Back Squats?

Barbell hack squats and back squats are very different exercises. When performing the barbell hack squat, the weighted bar is placed behind you on the floor. You then lift the weighted barbell from the floor to perform each repetition.

  • During a barbell hack squat you lift a loaded barbell from the floor with the weight behind your legs.
  • To do a back squat you must balance a weighted barbell across your shoulders, behind your head, and do a squatting motion.
  • The different weight placement of these two exercises causes them to have very different advantages and drawbacks.

When performing a back squat, the loaded barbell is balanced across your shoulders, behind your head. You then perform a squatting motion and rise back up, balancing the weight the entire time. The difference between lifting a weight from the floor during the hack squat versus balancing the weight on your shoulders during a back squat makes these two exercises very different.

What is the Barbell Hack Squat?

The barbell hack squat is a free-weight version of the machine hack squat you may be familiar with. Before beginning hack squats, you should know how the barbell hack squat stands against the machine hack squat. To do the barbell hack squat:

  • Stand with the loaded barbell behind your legs. It should be close enough to touch the backs of your calves.
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Drop down into a squat position.
  • With your arms outside your legs, grip the barbell with an overhand grip (with palms facing behind you).
  • Rise up from the squat position, lifting the barbell up behind your legs.

Rather than a traditional squat, the barbell hack squat actually has much more in common with the conventional deadlift. The quadriceps muscles are targeted much more specifically by moving the bar behind your legs for the hack squat versus in front during a deadlift.

What is the Back Squat?

The back squat, sometimes called simply the squat, is a compound lift designed to build several key lower body muscles. Although there are many squat variations, the back squat is considered one of the most foundational exercises in any weightlifter’s arsenal. To perform it:

  • Support the bar in a squat rack. The bar should be racked 1–3 inches below your shoulder height.
  • Step under the barbell so that the weight rests at the base of the neck, across the rear of your shoulders.
  • Set your feet slightly more than hip width apart.
  • Stand to unrack the bar and step back.
  • With your feet set, eyes forward, and back straight, sink into a squat position until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Power up to standing position, using your legs and hips rather than your back.

As you can see, the back squat and barbell hack squat have radically different forms. Because they’re two very different exercises, it’s a good idea to question which is most effective and how each should be used in your lifting routine.

Battle of the Quads: Barbell Hack Squat Vs. Back Squat

Now that we’re familiar with both the barbell hack squat and the back squat, it’s time to dig deeper. What are the benefits of each exercise? Which is safer? How does each exercise fit into a lifting program, or is one truly not worth the effort? We’ll answer all these questions and more below.

What Muscles Does the Barbell Hack Squat Work?

The barbell hack squat primarily targets the quadriceps, which is the group of four muscles that make up the front of the thigh. In fact, in this study of squat variations, the hack squat ranked second for quadriceps activation, just behind the front squat. This makes it more effective for working your quads than the back squat.

  • The quadriceps are the primary muscles worked by the barbell hack squat.
  • The barbell hack squat targets the quads more effectively than back squats.
  • Secondary muscles used during the barbell hack squat include the hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, forearms, and trapezius muscles.

Although the hack squat mostly targets your quads, the other major muscles in your lower body are recruited during the lift as well. This includes the hamstrings (back of the thigh), glutes, and hip flexors. Additionally, because you are lifting the weight from the floor, your grip strength will be tested, as well as your trapezius muscles.

What Muscles Do Back Squats Work?

While other lower body exercises predominantly target one muscle, squats are often considered a total body workout. Not only will you get an intense workout for your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors—you’ll also work the muscles in your core and lower back.

  • The muscles in your legs—quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors—are all recruited during the squat.
  • Your core, lower back, and stabilizer muscles are used to balance the weight across your shoulders during back squats.
  • Performing squats builds cardiovascular fitness and burns calories.

Back squats rank extremely high among lifts for cardiovascular intensity and calories burned. You’ll work the muscles in your lower body while you build overall fitness and core strength.

Do Back Squats Provide a Better Workout than Barbell Hack Squats?

Because back squats are such an intense workout, they are rightly considered an indispensable lift in almost every training program. The compound movement of the squat provides an incredible workout for several large lower body muscle groups. If you are going to perform a single lower body exercise, there’s a great argument to be made that squats should be that exercise.

  • Back squats are an essential lower body lift. They are more versatile than barbell hack squats.
  • Back squats increase the size and strength of several major lower body muscles.
  • Barbell hack squats are a quad-specific exercise that is less essential than the back squat.

Barbell hack squats are not quite as indispensable as back squats. Rather than a calorie-burning total lower body workout, hack squats are best viewed as a compound lift that targets the quads. If you wish to build strength, size, and definition in your quads specifically, barbell hack squats are better than back squats. For overall fitness and lower body strength, back squats are better.

Is the Hack Squat Safer than the Back Squat?

The same scientific study that determined hack squats provide better quad activation than back squats also remarked that the hack squat might be “a good choice for better knee and spinal stabilization.” In short, the barbell hack squat places less stress on the knees and lower back than other squat variations, including the front squat. If you are rehabbing an injury or suffer chronic knee or lower back pain, barbell hack squats are less likely to cause injury than back squats.

  • Hack squats are the safest squat variation for preventing knee and back injury.
  • Barbell hack squats reduce the load on the lower back, helping to cut down on injury risk.
  • Back squats place a large amount of force on knee joints, which may lead to injury.
  • There is a greater chance of suffering back injury during back squats compared to barbell hack squats.

Back squats are excellent for working several muscle groups, but the high position of the weight during a back squat places shear force on the knees, resulting in knee pain for some lifters. Additionally, using the core muscles to stabilize the weight during back squats makes it more likely to suffer a lower back injury during back squats versus hack squats.

Is the Hack Squat Easier than the Back Squat?

The traditional squat is one of the most challenging lifts to perform correctly. It recruits many small stabilizer muscles and requires active attention to form. In comparison, the barbell hack squat is easier to learn and perform correctly.

  • The back squat is more difficult to learn and perform correctly than the hack squat.
  • Because it requires so many muscles and intense attention to form, back squats are best performed early in a workout.
  • Due to the fact it is a simpler lift, hack squats can be performed as a secondary lift during a lower body workout.

Because back squats are such a rigorous exercise, plan to perform them as the first exercise of your workout. That way, you can take advantage of a fresh mind and fresh muscles. This will keep you safe and give you an incredible workout. Hack squats can be worked into your routine as the second or third lift in your routine, since they are less taxing.

When Should You Prioritize Back Squats Over Barbell Hack Squats?

If you are a beginning weightlifter, it’s best to prioritize back squats over barbell hack squats. Most foundational weightlifting programs, such as Stronglifts and Starting Strength include the back squat but leave out the barbell hack squat. This is because back squats build lower body strength evenly, as well as overall fitness.

  • You are a beginning lifter looking to build strength and fitness.
  • You want to perform exercises that build several large muscles in one movement.
  • Your goal is overall lower body fitness.

If you are an experienced lifter and want to follow a program that includes the essential lifts for fitness, strength, and muscle development, back squats are a better choice than hack squats. They activate more muscles and provide a balanced workout that leads to exceptional lower body fitness.

When Should You Do Barbell Hack Squats Instead of Back Squats?

If you suffer from chronic knee or back injury or are currently rehabbing such an injury, barbell hack squats are a far better choice than back squats. The reduced load on the knees and back will allow you to get a lower body workout with less risk of injury. Because barbell hack squats target the quads so well, they are one of the best exercises to add if you want to build strength and muscle in your quadriceps specifically.

  • You are recovering from back or knee injury
  • You want to focus on developing strength, definition, and/or size of your quads
  • You have plateaued on other lower body lifts.

Another great reason to start doing barbell hack squats is if you’ve stopped advancing at back squats, deadlifts, or other foundational lower body lifts. The increased focus on the quads during barbell hack squats will boost the strength of lagging muscles and improve your performance at other lifts.

Which is Better: Barbell Squat or Hack Squat?

The back squat is the holy grail of lower body lifts because it does so much good for your body. Keep them in your routine unless you are suffering from a knee or back injury that makes back squats painful or harmful.

  • Back squats are a more functional and beneficial exercise than barbell hack squats.
  • Only perform barbell hack squats instead of back squats if you need to recover from injury.
  • Consider adding barbell hack squats alongside back squats to build stronger quads

However, if you want to build stronger quads and progress faster at squats, incorporate hack squats into your workouts 1–2 times per week. Adding the hack squat to your lifting program will build your quadriceps more effectively than back squats alone.

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