“What in the heck is a hack squat?”
If you’re asking yourself that, you’re not alone. This type of squat uses a specific squat machine found in gyms.
But what if you primarily work out in a home gym? How are you supposed to do hack squats, and more importantly, why would you want to?
What hack squat alternatives are going to get the most bang for your buck?
Glad you asked. Let’s dig in.
What Is a Hack Squat?
A hack squat is a machine-based exercise using, well, a hack squat machine. It’s the one that has your feet braced against a platform, big pads on your shoulders, and you slide up and down in a braced squat movement.
Unlike a typical barbell back squat, a hack squat involves stabilization. So traditional barbell back squats use a lot of your core/trunk muscles, which is great for a full-body exercise.
But if you want to really zero in on your quads and hamstrings, removing that extra work of balancing means you can sometimes lift heavier and make more progress on your leg day.
What Muscles Does the Hack Squat Work?
No matter what type of equipment you use, the hack squat works these muscles primarily:
Yes, you’ll work your abs some with this movement, but again, it’s not as much trunk activation as traditional squats.
Any Special Benefits to Hack Squats?
Here are a few of the best hack squat benefits.
Easy to Perform
Because hack squats are a machine-based exercise, they take a lot of the guesswork out of your form. The rails will guide your movement so you can really focus on lifting and lowering with your legs.
This also makes hack squats great for beginner lifters.
That said, you can’t completely forget about exercise technique: you still need proper foot placement to lower yourself down past parallel and to pay attention to your body. But for the most part, it’s difficult to do hack squats wrong.
Safer than Barbell Squats
Doing hack squats can be safer than a traditional barbell back or front squat.
If you fail your squat (i.e., you can’t complete a rep) when using a barbell, you have the very real danger of getting crushed underneath it. (This is why always using a power rack is a good idea.)
The hack squat machine, on the other hand, has built-in safety catches you can lock in to catch you if you can’t complete your rep.
Gentler on Your Back
Say you have an old back injury or your lower back just simply isn’t as strong as you’d like. A hack squat can help you complete your sets by providing back support via the backboard.
Again, you still have to maintain good form, but you don’t have to worry as much about a lower back tweak bringing your leg day to a premature end.
What Makes a Good Hack Squat Alternative?
To make this list, a good hack squat alternative exercise must work the same muscles as a hack squat: namely, with the primary focus on the glutes and hamstrings.
The best hack squat alternatives should also use the same movement pattern, meaning you’re not going to substitute deadlifts for your hack squats. The primary motion should still be going through the full range of motion of hip and knee extension.
The 12 Best Hack Squat Alternatives
Alright, we’ve gotten to the meat of the post: the top 12 hack squat alternative moves to keep in your routine.
1. V Squats
A V squat is very similar to a hack squat, except it uses a machine with a slightly different angle — you’re standing more upright in a V squat. It makes a good hack squat substitute if your gym happens to have this machine instead of the hack squat machine.
- Stand in the machine with feet shoulder-width apart on the platform and your shoulders directly beneath the pads. Grab the handles on the sides of the pads. This is your starting position.
- Drop down until about your thighs are about parallel to the floor with a 90º angle at your knee joint. Keep your head and torso upright throughout the movement.
- Press into your feet to use your glutes and quads to rise back to starting position.
To really target your glutes, narrow your feet slightly and move them closer to the bottom of the platform.
2. Goblet Squats
One of the best things about a goblet squat is how versatile it is in terms of equipment. While a lot of the hack squat alternative moves require a piece of gym equipment, to do goblet squats, you can use a kettlebell, a dumbbell, or anything heavy to hold in front of your chest.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart with the weight between your feet. Bend down to pick it up, using your legs to lift the weight. Hold it in front of your chest with both hands against your collarbones.
- Brace your core and inhale as you sink into the squat. Keep an upright torso throughout the movement with a gentle curve in your low back. Exhale as you press into your feet into the ground to stand back up.
To avoid sore wrists, keep your elbows tucked into your sides, so the weight you’re holding is better supported through your arms.
3. Front Squats
Front squats are yet another excellent type of free-weight squats that don’t require a machine or any gym equipment. They’re similar to goblet squats in that you hold the weight of your choice against your chest.
- Approach and load the barbell in a front rack position. Or alternatively, pick up your dumbbells and brace them against your chest, at your collarbones. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, your hands outside of your shoulders, and elbows high. This is your starting position.
- Inhale to brace your core and descend into the squat. Keep your knees in line with your toes and your hips back and down. If you can, break parallel where your hips descend past your knees.
- Exhale and press firmly into your feet to rise back to a standing position.
Some folks find they have wrist pain when doing a front squat. If that’s you, try crossing your arms in front of you, so you’re holding the barbell in an overhand grip instead of underhand.
Or, you can check our best front squat alternative list.
4. Barbell Hack Squat
Yep, a barbell hack squat is a thing. It’s a very similar movement that works similar muscle groups as a hack squat, except with no need for a hack squat machine.
For a barbell hack squat, you hold the bell in a different way. Check out the video and the how to for more.
- Stand with the barbell on the floor behind you. Keep your calves very close to the bar but not quite touching.
- Squat down to hold the bar. Important: don’t round your back so your glutes are high in the air. Keep a straight, neutral spine and squat over the bar (it is a barbell squat, after all).
- Take the slack out of the bar and take a deep breath in. Exhale as you stand up, bringing the bar with you behind your legs. Make sure your shoulder blades are pulled back and tight throughout the entire movement.
- Lower the weight back down to the ground and go again.
This particular form of barbell squat has the weight placed in a way you might not usually lift, i.e., behind your back. Start lightly until you’ve got the movement pattern down.
5. Leg Press
Leg presses are a great hack squat alternative. The leg press machine is pretty common in gyms, so if you don’t have a hack squat machine, you can substitute it with leg presses.
- Choose the weight plates appropriate for your strength level. Adjust the back pad and the footplate so when you sit down in the leg press machine, your knees form roughly a 90º angle. (See the video for a great example of this.)
- Keep a neutral spine, grab the handles of the machine, and exhale when you press through your heels to push the footplate away from you. Don’t lock your knees.
- Inhale as you allow the footplate to come back to you (don’t just let it fall back with no resistance). You don’t want the weight plates to clang together when you release.
Don’t have access to a leg press machine either? Try Bulgarian split squats, or a lunge with your back foot elevated (more on this exercise below). Make sure to keep your torso upright so you target those quads.
6. Landmine Squat
No one ask me why it’s called a “landmine squat” besides the fact that the barbell goes into a “landmine” attachment on a squat rack.
Otherwise, don’t get too caught up in the name and instead focus on including this free-weight squat version in your routine.
- Position your barbell in your landmine attachment and rest the end you’ll be lifting on a bench (see the Pro Tip section for a note on this). With the heels of your palms together beneath the bar and your fingers stacked on top, get into a squat position beneath/behind the end of the bar. Make sure the bar is tucked into your chest.
- Exhale and press into your heels to lift the bar off the bench. At the top of the rep, you should lean forward slightly. As long as you maintain an upright torso and neutral spine, you’re okay.
- Inhale on the way down and repeat.
If you’re new to lifting, start by doing a landmine squat on a bench. If you’re a bit stronger and have the movement pattern down, you can do these hack squat alternatives from the floor.
Ah, the classic lunges. From time immemorial, lunges have had their place in the world of leg exercises, and for good reason. They work the leg muscles quickly and efficiently.
- From a standing position, take a step forward that’s slightly longer than your normal stance. Your forward leg is the one that’s working. If you feel a little off balance, widen your stance as if you’re standing on train tracks rather than being super narrow.
- Exhale and, with a vertical torso, sink down so the knee of your non-working leg almost touches the floor. Inhale to press yourself back up to standing.
If lunges are old hat to you, try walking lunges. It adds an element of stability to the movement that isn’t present with static lunges. Plus, you can always hold dumbbells or something else heavy to up the challenge.
8. Safety Bar Squats
There’s an argument in the fitness community that every gym should have a safety squat bar. Whatever you feelings about safety bar squats, they make a great alternative to the hack squat.
A safety bar squat is like a barbell back squat, except the bar has shoulder pads and handles that come over your shoulders. This makes a safety bar squat a great hack squat alternative if you’re struggling with form or have low back pain.
- Load your barbell with an appropriate weight and be sure to put a collar on the bar. Grab the handles and put your head through the yokes on the bar. Make sure the handles are in a neutral position (not too high or low). Step back and get into your squat stance with feet a hip width stance apart.
- Take a big breath in as you lower into your squat position. Exhale as you press into your feet to return to start.
This move is easier on your back if you have previous back issues, so keep it in mind.
9. Hatfield Squats
Once you’ve mastered the safety bar squat, it’s time to try a hatfield squat. The hatfield squat targets similar muscles as safety bar squats, and even uses the same equipment, but the difference is you’re not holding the handles of the safety bar itself.
- Follow the same set up as the safety bar squat. Instead of holding the handles of the bar, you’ll hold the handles on the power rack.
- Balancing the bar on your back, with a light grip on the handles, perform a squat.
This move, as well as the safety version above, make great stepping stones to build strength to get to a full back squat.
10. Belt Squats
If you’re lucky enough that your gym has a belt squat machine, you can build intense lower body strength without risking any spinal compression from loading your squat on your upper back.
This makes a belt squat a great alternative to the hack squat in that if you have any sort of back problems, it removes that obstacle.
- Strap yourself into the belt squat machine. Keep your feet at about shoulder width or slightly narrower, depending on what feels best for you.
- With hands lightly braced/gripping the bar of the machine, descend into your squat.
If you don’t have a belt squat machine handy, you can try looping a resistance band around your waist and something very, very sturdy. Just be careful with this DIY approach to avoid injury.
11. Bulgarian Split Squats
We mentioned the Bulgarian split squat above, so let’s dig into it now.
- Find something solid to brace your back foot on, about 12–16 inches off the ground.
- Step a full stride away from the bench and rest the top of your back foot on it. Your ankle should be off the edge of your ledge.
- Inhale as you lower the knee of your working leg toward the ground. Try to keep your front knee at a 90º angle.
- Exhale as you push through the planted foot to drive back into starting position. Your spine should be in a neutral position (don’t hunch your shoulders).
- Repeat on the other leg.
Elevating your back foot means you can lower more than a normal lunge. If you want to add weight, start with lighter weight until you get the hang of this move.
12. Free Weight Squats
Free weights are an extremely versatile way to up your squat game. Whether you do a dumbbell front squat, some barbell back squats, or even a barbell hack squat, free weight squats are where it’s at.
It’s basically any squat movement that doesn’t use a machine. (The video/how-to below is for a dumbbell squat, but you can adjust the steps for whatever weight you have, including a front squat.)
- Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your legs. Your legs should be shoulder width apart. Look straight ahead of you and keep your spine neutral.
- Follow previous squat technique instructions, including bracing your core, inhaling on the way down, and exhaling as you press back to start.
Free weights like dumbbells or back squats use more stabilization than hack squat machines, so take care with your balance and core strength on these moves.
Hack squats are a great, safe, and easy to learn exercise to get your legs exploding with muscles.
But, with these hack squats alternatives you’ll be able to attack your leg muscles from with about the same movements and just enough angles to get even better results.