Hack Squat vs. Deadlifts [Complete Exercise Comparison]

The deadlift and the hack squat are very different exercises. Hack squats target the quadriceps muscles in the front of your legs. Meanwhile, deadlifts build the glutes and hamstrings in the back of your legs. Although deadlifts are often considered to be more challenging, they are a more essential exercise than hack squats. It is best to use heavy compound exercises like deadlifts early in your workout, to build full-body fitness. Then, incorporate hack squats later in your workout to strengthen your quads.

Hack squat vs deadlift

What Type of Hack Squat are We Discussing?

For the purposes of this article, we will be comparing barbell hack squats to deadlifts. We will not be talking about machine hack squats. This a free-weight exercise head-to-head. If you’re unfamiliar with barbell hack squats, we have a guide to proper form in our barbell hack squat vs. front squat article. As a quick explanation, barbell hack squats look a lot like deadlifts except the bar is behind your legs throughout the exercise instead of in front of your shins.

What Deadlift Variation are We Comparing?

Through this article, when we say “deadlift” we are referring to the traditional barbell deadlift. There are many deadlift variations that can partially or drastically shift the focus of the deadlift onto other muscles. Covering all of these variations would muddy the waters. Remember, we are not referring to sumo deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, or Romanian deadlifts here.

Hack Squats vs. Deadlifts: Exercise Essentials

When you do a hack squat the barbell is positioned behind your legs. Meanwhile, during deadlifts, the barbell is positioned in front of your legs. What difference does this make? Let’s get into the details.

What Muscles Do Hack Squats Work?

Hack squats primarily target the quadriceps, which are the large muscles in the front of your thigh. The glutes are worked as secondary muscles during hack squats. Meanwhile, your calves, core, and hamstrings are engaged as stabilizers during the movement.

  • Primary muscles: Quads.
  • Secondary muscles: Glutes.
  • Stabilizer muscles: Hamstrings, calves, core.

Hack squats are so good at targeting the quads that we recommended them for those wondering if deadlifts work quads. Although the compound movement and grip of the hack squats works several muscle groups to some degree, it is much more of an isolation exercise than deadlifts or standard squats. Think of hack squats primarily as a quad-building movement.

What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?

Deadlifts primarily recruit your glutes and hamstrings to move the weight. Your hamstrings are the large muscle on the rear of your thigh. This makes deadlifts very different from hack squats, which mostly focus on the muscles in the front of the thigh.

  • Primary muscles: Glutes, hamstrings.
  • Secondary muscles: Erector spinae
  • Stabilizing muscles: Quads, calves, forearms, traps.

In addition to the glutes and hamstrings, the erector spinae muscles in your lower back are worked significantly by deadlifts. Because the weight is in front of your legs, your back has to work much harder during deadlifts than hack squats. Your quads, calves, and core act as stabilizing muscles during deadlifts. Because most lifters use heavier weight during deadlifts than hack squats, deadlifts also provide a workout for your forearm (grip muscles) and trapezius.

Are Deadlifts More Important than Hack Squats?

Deadlifts are a more essential exercise than hack squats because they are a compound lift that builds significant strength throughout your entire body. Plus, the muscle deadlifts build in your lower back is hard to replicate with other exercises. This is why you will see deadlifts in almost every weightlifting program.

  • Deadlifts are an essential weight training exercise.
  • Hack squats are an isolation exercise that are not as foundational as deadlifts.
  • Deadlifts build important muscle throughout your posterior chain and lower back.
  • Most lifting programs use back squats to build quad muscle instead of hack squats.

Hack squats are not as essential to a weightlifting routine as deadlifts. Most lifting programs include back squats, which target the quads almost as well as hack squats but also provide more benefits for core and stabilizer muscles. Hack squats are best added to a routine to specifically target your quads to build muscle there.

Are Deadlifts More Difficult than Hack Squats?

Deadlifts are not an easy exercise for most beginners. Learning proper deadlift form can be a challenge. Plus, it can sometimes be difficult to retain proper form as you progress to heavier weights. Although deadlifts can be intimidating, with time and patience you can develop good technique that provides total body strength benefits.

  • Deadlifts are a challenging lift that requires practice to master.
  • Deadlifts typically use heavier weights than hack squats, which can increase the challenge of the exercise.
  • Hack squats may feel unnatural at first, but they are easier to learn than deadlifts.

In comparison to deadlifts, hack squats are often easier to learn. At first, it may feel awkward to stand with the barbell behind your calves, but most lifters develop familiarity with the movement within a handful of training sessions.

Are Hack Squats More Dangerous than Deadlifts?

Hack squats are less likely to cause injury than deadlifts. This study showed that hack squats are a great choice for relieving stress on the knees and spine. Since back and knee injuries are probably the most common lifting injuries, hack squats provide an incredible quad workout with a very low injury risk.

  • Both hack squats and deadlifts are safe to perform when you use the proper form.
  • Hack squats reduce stress on the knees and spine, which are common injury points.
  • Deadlifts are associated with more injuries due to their difficulty and the heavy weights involved.
  • Keep in mind: deadlifts are more popular than hack squats, so that may be the reason that deadlift injuries are more common than hack squat injuries.

In comparison to hack squats, deadlifts are more likely to cause injury. However, most deadlift injuries are caused by improper form or attempting to lift more weight than you are ready for. When performed properly, deadlifts are a safe and effective exercise. That said, deadlifting with improper form does carry a risk of lower back injury.

How Should You Use Hack Squats?

Hack squats should be used to specifically build your quads through isolation. This means they fit best as the second, third, or even fourth lower body exercise in your routine. Begin with challenging compound lifts, such as deadlifts and/or squats, then move to hack squats to focus on intense quadriceps training.

  • Incorporate hack squats to isolate your quadriceps for focused muscle development.
  • Begin your leg workout with compound lifts (deadlifts, squats), and then move to hack squats.
  • If you want to specifically build bigger, stronger quads, hack squats are an excellent tool.

The fact that hack squats are performed with lighter weight and less challenging form makes them an ideal choice for the second half of your leg day. Even if your muscles are somewhat fatigued, you can still perform hack squats safely and effectively. So, if your quads are lagging behind your other muscles, use hack squats to increase the strength and mass in your quadriceps.

How Should You Incorporate Deadlifts Into Your Workout?

Deadlifts should be used as a primary lift during your leg day or back day. Because they are a challenging workout that requires strict form, perform them early in your workout, while you are still mentally and physically fresh. Not only will this keep you safe while lifting, it will also allow you to work several muscle groups to their fullest potential.

  • Perform deadlifts early in your workout, while you are fresh enough to perform them with precise form.
  • Check out our guide to the right amount of deadlift sets per workout.
  • Deadlifts are great as the first or second workout you do that day.
  • After performing deadlifts, you can move on to isolation exercises, such as hack squats.

After your active warm-up, it’s a great idea to start your leg day with deadlifts or traditional squats. Since deadlifts work your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, they will build the muscles along the back of your legs. Then, later in your routine, it’s a great idea to move on to hack squats so you make sure your quads also receive a full workout.

What’s the Difference Between Hack Squats and Deadlifts?

Hack squats and deadlifts are both excellent lower body workouts, however, they have several differences:

  • Hack squats are performed by lifting a loaded barbell from the ground with the barbell behind your legs.
  • Deadlifts require you to lift a loaded barbell from the ground while the barbell is in front of your legs.
  • Hack squats primarily target the quadriceps.
  • Deadlifts mostly engage the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
  • Hack squats are an isolation exercise used to build stronger quads.
  • Deadlifts are an essential exercise for building total-body strength.
  • Hack squats are usually easier to learn than deadlifts.
  • Deadlifts have more injury risk than hack squats, if you do not use proper form.
  • Hack squats should be performed late in your workout to isolate your quads.
  • Deadlifts should be done early in your workout.

Because hack squats and deadlifts are so different you don’t need to choose one or another. In fact, it’s a great idea to build a well-rounded lower body workout plan by using both exercises.

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