Hack Squat Machine vs. Barbell Hack Squat

Whether you’ve been doing hack squats for a while or you’re new to the exercise, you want to know how machine hack squats and barbell hack squats stack up. Maybe you’ve only had the chance to try one style so far. But which is actually better for you?

The machine hack squat and barbell hack squat look like two completely different exercises but they truly work toward the same goal. In this article, we’ll dive into the difference and the pros and cons of each.

What is a Hack Squat?

The hack squat is a variation of the squat which places the weight low and behind the lifter, providing different benefits than the traditional barbell squat, where the weight is usually placed across the shoulders.

The hack squat is a targeted lower body exercise that can be performed using a hack squat machine or a barbell.

Using a machine to perform hack squats requires specialized equipment. A hack squat machine requires the user to lay back at a 45-degree angle and use leg drive to move a weighted sled. Since there’s no other machine that can really fill this function, you have to have a hack squat machine in your gym to perform the exercise without a barbell.

Using a barbell to hack squat is performed by placing a weighted barbell behind the legs and lifting the barbell off the ground. Think of it like a deadlift except the weight is behind your legs instead of in front.

What Muscles does the Hack Squat Work?

Like the back and front squat, the hack squat targets the quadriceps. Specifically, the hack squat targets the muscles in the front of the thigh. A good set of hack squats will leave your quads burning from the workout.

While quadriceps also activate the glutes and calves, the primary focus of the exercise is on the quads. However, the hack squat is a compound exercise that uses several joints and muscle groups due to the hip hinge motion. It works several large muscle groups, especially when performed with a barbell.

Machine vs. Barbell

When you look at someone performing a hack squat using a machine, then someone doing barbell hack squats you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re doing completely different exercises. Side by side, the two exercises look nothing alike.

The machine hack squat and barbell hack squat may look completely different but they work toward the same goal. Let’s break each lift down a bit further so you can try both variations for yourself.

How to Perform the Machine Hack Squat

Proper machine hack squat form is crucial in order to target quadriceps muscles and protect your knees from injury. Here’s how it’s done:

  • Place your back against the hack squat machine. Retract your shoulder blades and keep your back straight.
  • Place your feet about shoulder width apart. By placing your feet a bit further forward on the footplate you will ensure that when you sink into the squat you move into a sitting position. If your feet are placed too far back (heels close to the ground) your knees will be pushed forward over your toes at the bottom of the squat, which places unhealthy strain on your knees.
  • Grip the machine handles. Press up and unhook the safety bars.
  • At a slow, controlled rate sink down into a squatting position (your thighs should be parallel or lower). If your thighs do not reach at least parallel your leg muscles will not fully engage, and you’ll be cheating yourself of the hack squat benefits.
  • Push up fully, but do not extend or lock your knees.
  • Repeat for the desired repetitions.

Benefits of Machine Hack Squat

The benefits of machine hack squats are definitely worth the effort. Although the machine hack squat is similar to the barbell variation it does some things more effectively than its free weight cousin.

  1. Exclusively target quadriceps to encourage muscle development.
  2. Can be performed with one leg to correct or prevent muscle imbalances.
  3. Correct foot placement on the machine can prevent knee injury more easily than free weight exercises.
  4. Exclusively targets leg muscles, so any upper body injuries or weaknesses that could hamper leg the exercise are taken out of the equation.

How to Perform Barbell Hack Squat

The barbell hack squat is a totally different beast than the machine hack squat. If you’ve only performed one variation, review the rules of form before trying the other style.

  • Place a barbell with appropriate weight behind your legs. Warm up with an empty bar. Then, begin training with about half the weight you would deadlift.
  • Place your feet shoulder width apart. It’s okay to for your toes to point outward at about a 30-degree angle.
  • Make sure the barbell is not too close to your lower legs. While you don’t want to allow the bar path to travel far from your body, it can be very painful to scrape your Achilles tendon on a knurled barbell.
  • Get into a squat position. Make sure to push back into a sitting position. Do not allow your knees to push forward over your toes.
  • Grab the barbell with either a double overhand grip or a hook grip (one overhand, one underhand).
  • Lift the weight. To do this, drive up through your legs while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Keep your back straight and straighten your waist at the same time you straighten your legs.
  • At the top of the hack squat, the barbell should be at the back of your thighs just below the glutes.
  • Slowly lower the bar back to starting position on the ground.
  • Repeat for desired repetitions.

Benefits of Barbell Hack Squat

The barbell hack squat is a compound exercise, providing benefits that go beyond just the lift. Here are a few benefits of barbell hack squats that the machine version doesn’t share:

  1. Engages stabilizer muscles to complete the lift. These small muscles used during free weight lifts protect and strengthen joints.
  2. Engages back, shoulder, and forearm muscles, as well as leg muscles,  to complete the lift.
  3. Because it uses several muscle groups, the barbell hack squat triggers increased testosterone production, which enables even more muscle and strength development.
  4. Trains and improves form for other foundational exercises such as deadlifts and regular squats. If you’re struggling with standard squats, add hack squats into your routine and you’ll blast through plateaus.

The Verdict: Machine or Barbell?

Both machine hack squats and barbell hack squats are great lower body exercises. They can be a welcome addition to leg day when finding the motivation to lift can be a bit more difficult.

While you may want to know who wins in a head-to-head comparison of machine hack squat vs. barbell hack squat, the answer is truly situational. While you may choose one today, your decision might change tomorrow.

Here are reasons to pick one over the other.

When to Choose Machine Hack Squats

Machine hack squats sacrifice some of the benefits of compound exercise that engage several muscle groups but there are several occasions where you may choose to go the machine route.

  1. Injury/Rehab: If you’re recovering from a lower-body injury (such as knee injury), or have been battling back injury, machine hack squats can be a great starting point. With correct foot placement, they help reinforce good form and keep you safe.
  2. Rebalancing Muscles: While many lifters hail the benefits of free weight and compound exercises, the truth is compound exercises give you the most opportunity to overcompensate with stronger muscles and neglect weaker ones. This can happen despite your best efforts. Performing single-leg machine hack squats can help correct these deficiencies.
  3. Accessory Lift: If you’re performing a routine with several heavy compound lifts, a machine hack squat can be the perfect addition to round out the workout. Beginning a leg workout with squats and deadlifts is draining, and performing another heavy compound lift can result in bad form due to tired muscles. Machine hack squats come in as a great isolation exercise to add to a routine like this.

When to Choose Barbell Hack Squats

Barbell hack squats won’t isolate the quadriceps as completely as the machine lift, but they provide a host of compound exercise benefits. Here are the reasons you might opt to add some barbell hack squats next time you lift.

  1. Activate Several Large Muscle Groups: The barbell hack squat is a total body exercise. The compound movement of hip hinge, leg drive, and back straightening works the body from head to toe. Fully tensing muscles at the top of the lift fires the glute muscles. Maintaining grip on the weight while keeping your shoulders back works the shoulders and trapezius. If your program lacks compound exercises, add the barbell hack squat.
  2. Improve Squat and Deadlift Performance: Squats and deadlifts are two of the most foundational exercises in any lifter’s arsenal. As such, they’re two that lifters struggle with most often. Facing a plateau in performance can be frustrating. Barbell hack squats use the quads, glutes, and hips slightly differently than back squats and deadlifts, but increased strength and muscle control here will improve your form and your potential in both of these exercises.
  3. Develop Stabilizer Muscles: Because free weights are after all…free, your body has to work harder to maintain control of the weight you’re lifting. Barbell hack squats have no track to guide them. You’ll be forced to engage small muscles in the legs, back, and shoulders to perform the exercise. This sort of exercise builds muscles that protect joints and prevent injury long-term, although they can be too strenuous when initially recovering from injury.

While we often preach the virtues of free weight, compound exercises at Fitness Day One, the fact is isolation exercises and machines can be just as valuable for overall health. If you’re doing hack squats of any kind you’re already miles ahead of the “chest and arms” lifters. Choose the right one for your routine and add some more horsepower to your leg day lift.

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