Despite the growing popularity of functional fitness, there are still a number of good reasons why you should train with resistance machines. Primarily, fixed-path machine exercises are ideal for effectively targeting hart-to-hit muscle groups.
The hack squat is a prime example. It works the entire lower body – including the glutes, hamstrings, and calves – as well as the core. The primary focus, though, is on the quads.
A hack squat is a squat done with the support of a machine, which has a weighted sled that travels on angled rails. It’s a compound movement, so it recruits many joints and muscles to do the job, and requires core stability.
It’s useful for developing muscular strength and endurance, and is one of the most effective lower-body exercises around.
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Hack squat benefits
The hack squat involves standing on the machine’s foot plate, leaning back onto the pads at an angle, with the weight placed on top of you by positioning yourself under the shoulder pads. The weight is pushed away from you as you stand up.
It looks similar to an inverted leg press, although there are distinctions between these exercises. While both involve a sled that moves on rails, with the leg press you push the sled with your feet while with the hack squat the sled is on your back. Also, your torso is forward on the leg press, so your knees come up to your chest, while your back stays upright on the hack squat.
As a result, the leg press works more glutes and hamstrings, while hack squats emphasise the quads.
The hack squat also differs from the regular squat, in which your torso tilts forward and puts some of the load on your lower back. In comparison, hack squats put almost no load on the lower back muscles. Instead in puts more weight on your legs, providing better lower body isolation than squats.
As a squatting movement, the hack squat involves most of the muscles in your legs, including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. But unlike other squats, hack squats place a greater emphasis on the front of your quads. You can emphasize different leg muscles depending on where you place your feet on the platform. You could have your feet high or low, wide or narrow, and angled in or out.
For example, placing your feet higher on the platform shifts more of the load to the glutes and hamstrings. Conversely, placing your feet low on the platform puts almost all the load on your quads.
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Advantages of hack squats
- Excellent for targeting the quads.
- Less stress on the back than barbell squats.
Disadvantages of hack squats
- Not as good for building overall strength as squats.
- Puts more stress on your knees than squats or leg presses.
How to do a hack squat
Personal trainer and physiotherapist Jonathan Cooke gives a step-by-step guide to performing the hack squat…
- Set up by positioning the shoulders under the shoulder pads and keeping the upper, middle and lower back in contact with the back rest.
- Foot position on the platform is highly individual because of individual anatomy and ankle, hip and knee mobility, so select a foot position (width and height) that is comfortable and can allow for a full range of movement.
- Think about maintaining three equal points of foot contact (both side of middle of feet and middle of rear foot) when lowering and rising
- Under control, push the knees outward when lowering through the eccentric phase, which will externally rotate the hips, making it much easier to descend to squat depth. Setting up with the feet turned outward will help the hips rotate outward.
- For breathing, inhale through the descent and exhale when rising.
- Use an external focus cue and drive the platform away from you when rising from the bottom position, while pushing through the three points of foot contact
- Let the knees gently push over the toes when lowering to achieve depth and increase knee bending.
- In terms of squat depth, lower depths of 140 degrees knee bend may offer greater growth in the adductors and glutes compared to lesser squat depth of 90 degrees knee bend, although squatting to 90 degrees knee bend is optimal for quad growth compared. Importantly, only squat to a depth where the back of the pelvis can remain in contact with the pad and the feet can remain flat on the platform. Also, limit squat depth if experiencing any pain in the knees or hips.
- For safety, do not lock the knees at the top of the squat; instead leave a slight bend in the knees.
Hack squat variations
“The hack squat is a relatively safe machine with safety stops, so you can work to failure without a spotter,” says Cooke. “But make sure you use proper form to prevent injury and to get the best results.
“The most common variation to this exercise is the reverse hack squat, where you stand in the machine backward with your face towards the pad. Your hips can move back as they would in a barbell squat but your back stays upright, and your knees are more forward over your toes.
“This body position and range of motion combines the benefits of traditional squats and the regular hack squat. You have a more natural movement path but you also get better quad activation.
Jonathan Cooke is a personal trainer and physiotherapist based in Edinburgh who operates JC Fitness personal training, a team dedicated to using science-backed coaching to help people elevate the results in their fitness journeys. Check out his YouTube channel.
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