The barbell hack squat and front squat are both excellent lower-body lifts that focus primarily on your quadriceps muscles. While the front squat is scientifically proven to provide better activation of the quads, it demands a lot from your core muscles. Many lifters experience fatigue in the lower back during front squats, causing their form to fail during the lift before they’ve achieved an optimal workout. This also leads to an increased risk of injury when performing front squats vs. barbell hack squats. Hack squats isolate the leg muscles, allowing you to lift heavy weight with much less risk of injury.
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What is a Barbell Hack Squat?
Many lifters are only familiar with the hack squat as performed on specialized hack squat machines. The barbell hack squat is best described as a deadlift variation. It is similar to a conventional deadlift, except the barbell is positioned behind your legs instead of in front of your legs. To perform a barbell hack squat:
- Position the weighted barbell on a lifting platform, as you would for a traditional deadlift.
- Stand in front of the bar, with the barbell touching the back of your calves. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
- Sink into a squat position with your thighs parallel to the floor.
- With your hands outside your thighs, grip the barbell in an overhand grip.
- Lift the bar from the floor as you stand upright, bringing it up close behind your legs.
- Tighten your glutes as you move into a standing position.
- Slowly lower the bar to the floor, keeping the bar close to the back of your legs as you do so.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
What is a Front Squat?
A front squat is performed by holding the barbell across the front of your deltoids, at your clavicle, then performing a squat. Unlike a traditional squat, where the weight is balanced on the rear of the shoulders, the front squat requires you to hold the weight in front of you. To do a front squat.
- Rack the barbell slightly below shoulder height in a squat rack.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar by placing your palms beneath it and guiding the bar onto your deltoids, maintaining a steadying grip.
- Balance the bar across the front of your deltoids, not your arms themselves.
- Slowly sink into a squat position until your legs are parallel with the floor.
- Power up from your squat, maintaining an upright torso to keep the bar secure.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
The video below demonstrates the front squat with the traditional power lifter’s grip. However, you can perform front squats with your arms crossed and raised straight out in front of you. The arms-crossed method is a more comfortable grip for many lifters.
Barbell Hack Squat Vs. Front Squat: Head-to-Head Comparison
Now that we’re familiar with both squat variations, let’s determine which is best. We’ll discuss the different muscles activated by both exercises, the injury risk associated with each one, the level of difficulty associated with performing the movement properly, and which one builds more muscle. Finally, we’ll determine whether the front squat or barbell hack squat is the better exercise.
The quads are the primary muscle targeted by both the front squat and barbell hack squat. With the hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and calves used as secondary muscles. In this regard, the two exercises are very similar.
- The 4 quadriceps muscles (muscles in the front of thigh) are the primary target of both front squats and hack squats.
- Glutes, hips, hamstrings, and calves are used as secondary muscles in both exercises.
- Barbell hack squats provide a workout for the trapezius muscles and grip, while front squats do not.
- Front squats activate core and lower back muscles that are largely ignored by hack squats.
Because barbell hack squats are a deadlift variation that requires you to lift the bar from the floor, they provide a workout for your grip (forearms) and the trapezius muscles (tops of your shoulders). The front squat does not utilize these muscles. However, the front squat requires your core muscles, especially those in your lower back, to work very hard to control the weight held in front of you. The front squat puts more stress on the core than the traditional squat. IN comparison, the hack squat does not target the core or lower back.
You have a much higher risk of injuring yourself by performing a front squat than a hack squat. Because the weight is held high and in front of you during a front squat, your lower back is forced to work very hard to maintain control of the weight. The front squat has the highest chance of causing a lower back injury of all the squat variations. In addition, some lifters experience pain in their shoulders or wrists while performing front squats.
- Front squats carry a higher injury risk than barbell hack squats.
- Lower back injury is commonly caused by front squats.
- Shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain can result from front squats.
- Hack squats put less pressure on the spine than other squat variations, greatly reducing injury risk.
Barbell hack squats put less load on the spine than other types of squats, including front squats and regular squats. This makes hack squats a great way to achieve an incredible quad workout while avoiding back injury. If you struggle with a back injury, choose hack squats over front squats.
The front squat is a difficult exercise to perform correctly. Plus, the injury risk increases if it is performed incorrectly. Hack squats, in comparison, are much easier to do with correct form. If you are a beginner to strength training, you’ll typically have a much simpler time perfecting the mechanics of the hack squat comfortably.
- The front squat has an extremely high degree of technical difficulty, making it tough for beginning lifters.
- Front squat form may deteriorate during workouts due to core fatigue. This increases injury risk.
- Hack squat form is relatively easy to learn.
- Fatigue rarely leads to form failure when performing hack squats.
Front squats demand a lot from your core muscles to maintain an upright torso throughout the lift. It is typical for your core to fatigue before your legs during a set of front squats. This can cause your form to fall apart. You may tilt forward, placing dangerous leverage on your lower back and increasing your risk of injury. Since your legs are isolated during a hack squat, you can lift until your quads are fatigued without risking injury.
According to this scientific study of squat variations, front squats provided the best quadriceps activation out of 6 types of squats, including the hack squat. So, there truly is no better way to work your quads than to start doing front squats. In comparison, spinal load and stress on the erector spinae (lower back muscles) were the lowest during the hack squat. This evidence led researchers to believe the hack squat is the best choice for knee and spine stabilization.
- Front squats target the quads more effectively than hack squats.
- Hack squats are better for knee and spine stabilization than front squats.
- Front squats are perhaps the best lower body exercise for targeting your quads.
- Hack squats may help reduce the chance of knee injury.
It’s important to note that in this study, participants were asked to perform sets of 6 reps at 60% of their maximum lifting weight. Why is this important? Because working muscles at 67–80% of your 1-rep max for 8–12 reps is the sweet spot for muscle hypertrophy (building muscle size and definition). When performing front squats at a higher weight for more reps, there’s a larger chance of failure due to core fatigue, meaning you may not get a full quad workout before your lower back muscles force you to give up.
- Because front squats can cause upper body fatigue you may not achieve a complete quad-targeted workout.
- Hack squats allow you to isolate legs, eliminating failure due to fatigued secondary muscles.
In comparison, the barbell hack squat targets the legs exclusively, allowing you to complete a quad-tiring workout. This means that you can use barbell hack squats to reach muscle hypertrophy more easily than you can with front squats. By eliminating the strain on your lower back associated with front squats, you can use hack squats to raise the ceiling on your quad workouts.
Verdict: Should You Do Front Squats or Barbell Hack Squats?
Hack squats beat front squats in our head-to-head. Why do we stand behind this?
- Hack squats and front squats both primarily target the quads, but the hack squat does not put strain on the lower back at the same time.
- There is a much lower injury risk with hack squats than front squats.
- Barbell hack squats are easier to learn.
- Maintaining good hack squat form throughout a set is easier.
- While front squats provide more quad activation, core fatigue may lead to a less complete quad workout than what’s achieved with hack squats.
This is not meant to damn front squats to the abyss. If performed correctly, front squats are safe and extremely effective. They truly do activate the quads more fully than other squat variations. However, if you can only prioritize one, focus on the barbell hack squat.
How to Use Front Squats and Hack Squats Together for the Ultimate Quad Workout
Rather than pick barbell hack squats or front squats, consider combining both for a quad workout that’s second to none. We recommend warming up, then performing front squats while you’re still fresh. This should prevent dangerous core fatigue and ensure you maximize the benefits of front squats.
- Perform front squats as the first exercise of a quad-focused lower body workout.
- Move on to 2–3 supplemental leg workouts.
- Finish with hack squats to achieve an unbeatable quad workout.
Bookend your leg workout by finishing with hack squats. Because they isolate the legs, hack squats are a great way to end with a low-injury-risk movement. Before you leave the gym, perform hack squats to finish the job the front squats started. You will work your quads more completely than by doing just one exercise. The increases in strength, tone, and muscle mass will be worth all the hard work.