Fun fact — the hack squat machine wasn’t named for its rule-breaking potential in the weight room. While you can’t hack through the firewalls of physiology (you still need to eat well, recover properly, and train hard if you want to build muscle), you can use the hack squat machine to build a mighty-impressive pair of wheels.
The machine’s name originally comes from famed strength pioneer George Hackenschmidt, known for his ingenuity with the barbell. The modern-day hack squat machine puts a practical twist on Hackenschmidt’s barbell-based acrobatics of ages past.
So, if you happen to have a hack squat machine sitting pretty in your gym, you need to know how to work with it. Here’s how you can use the hack squat machine to crack the code on leg day.
How to Use the Hack Squat Machine
Here’s the long and short of it; you can’t use the hack squat machine if, well, there isn’t a hack squat machine in your gym.
Hack squat machines come in various shapes and sizes, but all serve the same purpose. Look for a large piece of equipment with a flat, rectangular foot plate. Hack squats also have a tall backrest and, usually, handles near where your head is supposed to go.
Step 1 — Load Your Plates
The hack squat machine is set up for you to use conveniently; there’s little preparation required other than deciding how much resistance you’ll need. Start by sliding some weight plates onto the stems of the machine for resistance. Or, you can practice the movement with no added weight at all until you get used to the technique.
Coach’s Tip: You can actually load the stems of a machine like the hack squat with an unequal amount of weight if you want; the machine will apply the load equally.
Step 2 — Set Your Stance
Once you’ve calibrated your desired resistance, hop into the machine. Put your back against the backrest and grab the handles. Your head should fit comfortably between the shoulderpads. Then, place your feet up onto the foot plate; the large sheet of metal by the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Go for your typical squat stance to begin with and fiddle as needed. Place your feet slightly further out than you think is necessary.
Step 3 — Squat
Once you’re set up against the backrest and have your feet where you want them, push against the foot plate to release the sled from where it rests against the safety handles. Then, remove the railguards by adjusting the lever (there should be one on the side of the machine near your head or hips).
Once the sled and backrest are free to move, slide down into a deep squat position. Use the foot plate to brace your lower body. Once you’ve reached the end of your range of motion, push into the plate hard, contracting your quads along the way, to return to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: You can terminate the set from a “standing” position by re-engaging the rail guard lever.
Hack Squat Machine Sets and Reps
Despite its wonky and eccentric design, the hack squat machine is an exercise station like any other.
Resistance training machines don’t generally offer as much flexibility as free-weight compound exercises in terms of how you use them to reach your goals, but there’s still some wiggle room. Try out these sample set-rep schemes to make the hack squat work for you:
- For Leg Strength: Go for 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps with a heavy weight and long rest periods.
- For Hypertrophy: Try 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps with a moderate weight and rest.
- For Muscular Endurance: Hit up 3 sets of 15 reps with a light weight and short rest to really get your heart rate up.
Common Hack Squat Machine Mistakes
Certain weight room machines may look intimidating, especially if they’re large and intricate like the hack squat. Make no mistake, though; the station is designed for ease-of-use and isn’t as scary as it might look.
Regardless, there are a couple of tidbits that you should keep in the front of your mind while you work with the hack squat station.
Setting Your Feet Too High
Your foot position during the hack squat is likely to require some experimentation, even if you’re a proficient free-weight squatter already. You’ll generally find that the higher up on the plate you place your feet, the less ankle range of motion you’ll need.
However, put your feet too high, and you run the risk of diminishing your force output, or even having your hips leave the backrest. Start by placing your feet roughly in-line with your knees or slightly “ahead,” and tweak from there.
Letting Your Hips Rise
If your stance isn’t properly aligned when using the hack squat machine, you run the risk of your hips leaving the security of the backrest.
Your body will generally find the most efficient posture to generate force against a solid surface; this usually means stacking all working levers (the joints that bear load) in a line. If your feet are placed too far up the plate, they may fall out of alignment with your hips.
To compensate, you may feel your pelvis or lower back drift off of the backrest while you exert effort. This is a major no-no for the hack squat machine. Find a stance that allows you to keep your hips and torso firmly connected with the seat at all times.
Using Your Arms
Technically speaking, most if not all hack squat machines come with convenient, ergonomic handles for you to grab onto while you work your legs. Grabbing these handles tightly can help you brace your upper body against the sled and may allow you to work harder.
However, don’t get caught up in trying to “push” against the handles with your arms to move the weight. Moreover, definitely don’t get into the habit of placing your hands onto your knees and assisting yourself that way.
Either of these techniques can distract you from generating force through your lower body, significantly dampening the efficacy of the exercise.
Hack Squat Machine Variations
Exercise machines — even plate-loaded stations like the hack squat — aren’t the most versatile pieces of equipment out there. They’re generally designed to help you perform one specific motor function safely and with as much weight as you want.
Still, you can make some small tweaks to the hack squat machine. Give these variations a try.
Reverse-Band Hack Squat
The hack squat machine is generally hardest when you push out of the “hole” and through the middle of the range of motion. It becomes easier as you get closer to locking out your knees.
If you’re a creative gymgoer, you can improve the resistance curve of the exercise by attaching resistance bands to the station. When properly fixed, the “reverse band” hack squat applies extra tension to the top of the movement that you’ll definitely feel in your quads.
Hack Squat Good Morning
In some cases, you can also put a real twist on the hack squat machine’s “intended” use and transform it into a posterior chain movement instead.
Some gymgoers like to stand on the foot plate and lean against the backrest to replicate the standard good morning exercise. This variation works your hamstrings and glutes, taking your quadriceps out of the equation altogether.
Take note that this technique may place some extra stress onto your lower back. If you do want to experiment with it, start off with no weight loaded onto the stems of the station and work up slowly.
Hack Squat Machine Alternatives
Hack squat not your jam? No problem. There are plenty of viable alternatives for you to use instead. These movements mimic the general motor pattern and muscle recruitment of the hack squat station, but, well, without the actual station itself.
Smith Machine Hack Squat
The Smith machine shares a hallmark feature with the hack squat station; they both have an on-rails design. So, you can hop into the Smith and set yourself up to mimic the same motor pattern you’d perform in the hack squat machine.
The two exercises are remarkably similar both in preparation and execution. However, there’s no backrest for you to support your spine against, so you’ll have to brace your core pretty hard for this one.
The hack squat machine might not feel right for you, no matter how you set your feet up. But if you want to load up your legs safely in a machine, you can simply turn to the tried-and-true leg press instead.
The leg press is nearly identical to the hack squat with regard to muscles involved; the real difference is that you’re working from a seated horizontal position, rather than a “standing” vertical one. You can load up a bit heavier on the leg press, too, but you may not get the same range of motion at the knee or hip as you would on a good hack squat station.
Pendulum Squat Machine
Exercise machine engineering has come a long way since the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding in the 1970s and 1980s. If you happen to have a pendulum squat station in your gym, count yourself lucky.
You can think of the pendulum squat as a hack squat with an improved resistance curve. The machine is specifically designed to mimic the same effect you’d get from resistance bands; the pendulum squat applies more tension as you stand up, rather than the resistance diminishing naturally.
Muscles Worked by the Hack Squat Machine
Exercise machines like the hack squat, unfortunately, aren’t stellar full-body training options. They’re usually designed to help you perform one discrete motor function really, really well. Here are the muscles most involved when you work with the hack squat station.
The hack squat is a squat, first and foremost. Like all squat variations out there, your quadriceps will perform the vast majority of the work for the duration of your set, since most of the anatomical movement comes from the knee joint upon which your quads attach.
Quadriceps engagement generally increases as you squat deeper. (1) So, if you want the maximum return on your investment with the hack squat, make sure you’re sinking as low as you comfortably can.
Your glutes come into play any time you extend your hips, including when you use the hack squat machine.
However, due to the design of most hack squat stations, your glutes may not be in a prime position to help you stand up fully; you’ll generally get the most glute engagement in the bottom half of the squatting motion, while your gluteal tissue is in a lengthened position.
You can expect some limited hip adductor stimulus during the hack squat as well. Your adductors sit on the lateral aspect of your thigh, close to your groin. They usually help you draw your leg inward toward your midline, but can also assist with knee and hip extension during squatting movements.
Benefits of the Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat machine has a lot going for it. If you’re in the market for a new mainline leg movement, you may want to consider the benefits it offers.
Easy to Learn
Above all, the vast majority of resistance training exercises are simplistic in nature. The design of the station actively performs the correct motion for you while you ratchet up or dial down the difficulty.
As such, the hack squat is a great introductory squatting tool — once you get the hang of the levers and rails, of course.
Safe to Load Heavily
The design of the hack squat makes it both safe and effective to load heavily with lots of weight, provided you can fully control the machine throughout a complete range of motion.
Many hack squat stations have fail-safes at the bottom of the rail that will prevent you from collapsing onto your legs should you reach muscular failure. Moreover, the rail guard lever is easily accessible while you’re lifting, so you can terminate the set quickly if needed.
Accessible in Most Gyms
You can’t use an exercise machine that you don’t have access to. Luckily, the hack squat station is a staple in nearly every commercial gym. As long as your gym has a robust free weight area, you’ll generally find a hack squat as well. Look for it near the squat racks or leg press stations.
Who Should Use the Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat machine is a bodybuilding staple, but it isn’t reserved for the muscle-minded only. If you fall into one of these camps, consider giving the hack squat machine a go.
As a beginner, you should experiment with a diverse array of exercises for each muscle group. Not only does this help you develop comprehensive muscular stability, but some research indicates that varying your exercises in the gym will be more effective for gaining strength early on. (2)
Get familiar with a wide assortment of movements such as the hack squat machine and you’ll be well-prepared for a long and healthy gym career.
Bodybuilders need to grow muscle. To grow muscle, they need to apply tension. To apply tension, they need to work hard through a large range of motion; safely.
The hack squat hits all these beats and then some. It may only come second to the leg press in this regard, but if you’re pursuing more muscle mass, the natural squatting pattern offered by the hack station might edge out the leg press.
Powerlifters train to move the most weight possible on three competitively-judged exercises. One of which includes the standard barbell back squat. That said, plenty of powerlifters dabble in alternative or accessory exercises, if only for the novelty.
If you train for strength, consider using the hack squat as your primary accessory movement for the squat. You can hammer your leg strength with it without having to pay heed to an intricate setup protocol or maintaining precise technique.
Can You Hack It?
The gym floor can be a scary place. After all, it’s packed to the brim with convoluted, imposing machinery. Make no mistake, though — you’re not in an industrial warehouse. Gym machines are designed to help you move better, get stronger, and grow muscle safely.
The hack squat is no different. If you can find it in your gym, give it a whirl. The feedback you’ll get from using it will let you know if it’s right for you. Chances are, it’ll light your legs up after only a few good reps.
Still wondering about the hack squat? That’s okay. Here are two common questions you may have about the machine, answered.
Is the hack squat machine safe for my back?
Yes. As long as you use the machine as intended and make reasonable choices regarding how much weight to work with, you should have no problem on the hack squat.
In fact, the backrest may even reduce some of the load that is usually applied to your lumbar spine during free-weight squatting movements. This will, of course, vary from person to person.
How low should I go when using the hack squat machine?
If you want to squeeze the most juice from any movement, you should strive for a full range of motion. On the hack squat, this will generally mean sinking low until your hips are deeper than your knees. However, don’t force anything; particularly if you’re new to exercise or are working through an injury.
1. Gorsuch, J., Long, J., Miller, K., Primeau, K., Rutledge, S., Sossong, A., & Durocher, J. J. (2013). The effect of squat depth on multiarticular muscle activation in collegiate cross-country runners. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 27(9), 2619–2625.
2. Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., Aihara, A. Y., de Souza Leão, A. R., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(11), 3085–3092.
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