Sports Training

Hack Squat Vs Squat – Which is Better, Harder, Safer? Benefits & Alternatives

Today, there are many resources for learning how to train.

Most people know that to make their chest grow they should perform bench presses, or that, to widen their back, bent over rowing is a good option.

But something very interesting happens when we talk about leg training. Many people don't know, or don't want to know, how to train them correctly to optimize their results.

That's why today we will compare two important leg exercises: the back squat and the hack squat.

All the scientific sources that back the claims made during this article will be attached at the end of it.


The Back (Normal) Squat

the-back-normal-squat

The back squat , or rather known as the normal traditional squat, is one of the most performed lower body exercises in the world. This exercise can serve different purposes and provide all kinds of benefits if performed correctly.

During the following section we will analyze this exercise in depth based on the scientific data we have about it to date.


Benefits of the Squat

Benefits of the Squat

We believe that the traditional back squat should be a main exercise in anyone’s training routine if your goal is to gain strength and muscle mass. Below, we will mention some of the advantages that this exercise will offer if you include it in our strength training routine:

Free Weights Go a Long Way

Free weights go a long way

In October 2020, Int J Environ Res Public Health. published a study comparing machine-based exercises with free weights.

These are the results that were obtained regarding leg training

Take a deep breath that fills your abdomen with air and tighten it hard.

Descend in a controlled manner by bending your knees and keeping your torso upright until your buttocks reach the height of your knees.

- Push the floor down with your feet.

When you reach the angle mentioned above, push the floor down by extending your legs again until you return to the starting position. Now exhale.:

In this image we can see how 10 weeks post-intervention, the group that trained with free weights (FW) obtained significantly greater strength gains compared to the group that used machines (M).

I like mixing squats with exercises like bench presses (dumbbell bench press or barbell bench press) or the single arm French press so the use of weights in my squats is a welcomed addition.

Compound Exercises Are Better than Isolated Ones, at Least for Strength and Vo2 Capacity

Compound exercises are better than isolated ones, at least for strength and VO2 capacity.

In 2017, Paoli et al. compared in a study the effectiveness of compound exercises with that of isolated exercises.

This is a rather controversial study in the world of training, but there are some reliable data that we can obtain from the study

"Whilst both groups significantly increased cardiorespiratory fitness and maximal strength, the improvements in MJ group were higher than for SJ in VO2 max, bench press 1 RM , knee extension 1 RM and squat 1 RM." says the abstract.

Although the differences in physical composition were not significant, the improvements in strength and VO2 capacity in the group that performed compound exercises were clearly superior, especially for lifts such as the squat.


A Lot of Stabilizer Muscles Are Involved on The Squat

A lot of stabilizer muscles are involved on the squat

The squat primarily engages the knee extensor and hip flexor muscles.

However, being a compound exercise, it will also train many other muscles such as the lower back, the back of our legs (hamstrings, especially in the low-bar variant), our glutes, and our core.

By involving several muscles synergistically, we will be able to manipulate higher loads.

"Our data suggest that high-load training results in greater neural adaptations that may explain the disparate increases in muscle strength despite similar hypertrophy following high- and low-load training programs."

This states the abstract of the study "Greater Neural Adaptations following High- vs. Low-Load Resistance Training" published in 2017 by Jenins et al.

This again demonstrates, but from a neurological point of view, the increase in strength gains when manipulating higher loads.

In fact, this study is based on measuring the 1RM of knee extensor exercises.


The Right Execution of the Squat

The Right Execution of the Squat

Like all free weight exercises, the squat can be complex to perform at first. Practice will be what perfects our technique.

To perform a squat you will only need a barbell with weights and a rack. The steps to perform it are as follows:

Place the Rack Supports in The Right Position

Before we even place ourselves under the bar, there is already something we should not miss.

To perform a back squat correctly we need the power-rack supports to be at a height that requires us to perform a "mini-squat" when lifting the bar from the rack. What we must avoid at all costs is placing the supports in a position that is too high, requiring us to stand on our tiptoes to remove it.

This practice may seem harmless when you start practicing this exercise, but once you are handling loads that challenge your balance, this could cause an accident that is best avoided.

Get in position

Stand in front of the bar and grip it wider than shoulder width. Then, without letting go of the bar, position yourself underneath it, placing it on top of your shoulder blades.

Squeezing the bar against your back (you don't need to hurt yourself by squeezing too hard), remove it from the rack and take two short steps back.

Squat

Take a deep breath that fills your abdomen with air and tighten it hard.

Descend in a controlled manner by bending your knees and keeping your torso upright until your buttocks reach the height of your knees.

Push the floor down with your feet

When you reach the angle mentioned above, push the floor down by extending your legs again until you return to the starting position. Now exhale.

This video explains how to do squats in detail:


Two Common Squat Mistakes - how To Solve Them

As we already said, this exercise can be complicated to perform at first.

Therefore, we will dedicate this section to review what are the most common problems when performing the squat and what are the solutions to them.

Knees Bending Inwards

Knees Bending Inwards is a mistake people do when doing squats

This is one of the most common problems faced by trainees beginning to perform the squat. Often, this is due to a lack of strength in the knee extensors.

The first thing to do when faced with this problem is to reduce the load. Chances are that it is too high if our knees are shaking.

However, there is also the possibility that it is our technique that causes our knees to bend inward when we perform a squat.

A cue that is helpful in this case is to not only push the floor down, but also to push the floor out to the sides, as if we want to push the ground apart.

Lifting Your Hips First

Lifting the hips first is another mistake people do when doing squats

This is a very common mistake when performing heavy squats. We don’t want to turn our squat into a sort of deadlift with the barbell over our shoulders.

This means that we don't want our hips to lift before our torso in the concentric phase of the squat. This could lead to injury to our lower back.

To avoid this Ed Coan (Powerlifting living legend) recommends a very particular and seldom heard cue: "Push your shoulders back up."

Coan recommends that we focus on simply pushing our shoulders up when we start to push with our legs.

This will help our hips simply follow the movement of our torso as we push the floor down with our feet.

The knees should remain stable throughout the lift and should point in the same direction as the feet.

Now that we know the benefits of including the normal variation of the squat in our routine, how to perform it and how to avoid common mistakes during its execution, let's take a look at the next exercise that concerns us.


The Hack Squat

The Hack Squat

The hack squat is an excellent machine-based exercise for the lower body.

This is a movement similar to the back-squat that’s meant to train the same body parts. 

However, these exercises also have several differences and the hack squat does indeed offer some unique advantages.


Benefits of the Hack Squat

Benefits of the Hack Squat

Hack squats come with many benefits, here we explore a few of these benefits.

The Back Is Supported During the Movement

When performing a hack squat, we will keep our back against the support throughout the entire repetition. This will help us if in the free weights squat we tend to flex our back.

More Quadricep Focused

Another benefit of the hack squat is that the machine will guide our range of motion. This will mean that our stabilizer muscles will not play such an important role and the work will be more focused on our quadriceps.

Less Overall Risk

Using the hack squat machine will also solve any stability issues we may have using free weights. The movement will be linear and guided by the machine. There is no chance of losing balance, which is possible using a barbell.

Being machine-based, the hack squat tends to be a less risky exercise.

Hack Squat Machines Allow for Movement Variation

A hack squat machine is excellent in the fact that does it not only guide you through the movement safely, but it also allows you to target different areas of the quads and glutes.

Reverse hack squats can be performed on the standard hack squat machine simply by switching up your starting position. Reverse hack squats allow you to target different areas of the muscle by stimulating the muscles from different angles. This exercise, although more challenging to perform correctly, can be incorporated into any trainees strength training regimen.


How to Execute a Hack Squat

How to execute a hack squat

To perform this exercise we will need a hack squat machine. This is a machine that you will find in most commercial gyms.

The steps to perform it are as follows:

  1. Lean your back against the back of the machine and place your shoulders under the pads.
  2. Position your feet shoulder width apart.
  3. Lower your hips until you reach a 90° angle.
  4. Push down on the floor with your feet and push up with your shoulders until you reach the starting position.

Here is a video of how to do hack squats:

Being an exercise that is performed with a machine, the execution of the hack squat will be much simpler than its free weight counterpart.

This will also allow us to relax more on the technical side, free weight exercises require coordination and swinging, machine exercises tend to do so to a much lesser extent.

When performing a hack squat, we do not usually find errors that have to do with the exercise in particular, but the errors are usually on the side of the "Ego-Lifting",

Some trainees take advantage of the technical ease of machine exercises to overdo it with the weight, and find ways to compromise their technique on these exercises that they shouldn't have to.


Hack Squat vs Squat - Which is better?

hack-squat-vs-squat-which-is-better

After looking at the benefits of these two exercises and leg training, and in general, in a scientific manner, we can conclude that the back squat with free weights will be more beneficial to our strength, and potentially hypertrophy, goals than the hack squat.

However, the hack squat will be an awesome exercise to use as an accessory in your leg routine at a higher rep range than the back squat, and after performing the latter.

If we are going to perform either of these two exercises, especially the back squat, we must be especially careful with our form so that we don't risk injuring ourselves.

Related Readings:

Resources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7662789/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5447067/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28611677/
  4. https://www.shape.com/fitness/tips/how-do-hack-squats-machine
  5. https://testing.stack.com/a/squat/

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