10 Best Hack Squat Alternatives For Strong Legs (Tips and Videos)

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Often associated with burning quads, aching glutes, and DOMS, the Hack Squat is the go-to machine for bodybuilders on their designated leg day.

Its ability to rapidly increase muscle mass in the quads and glutes is a big draw for many gym-goers seeking the sought-after X-frame.

Laying the lifter against a back pad at a 45-degree angle, the hack squat can provide an excellent leg workout, while reducing the stress on the upper body and spine. 

The back pad effectively removes the need for self-stabilization whilst performing the exercise. This reduces injury risk and places more load and development on the glutes and quads.

Unfortunately, my own gym is one of many that tend not to see the benefits of investing in expensive hack squat machines. So, I'm left to look for alternative exercises to build strength in my quads and glutes. In this article, I’ll take a look at what I think are the 10 best hack squat alternatives.

The 10 best hack squat alternatives are:

You can do these hack squat alternative exercises to target the same muscles and grow your legs. These are all listed below with coaching tips and video demonstrations to follow along.

Muscles Used In The Hack Squat

It goes without saying that any alternative exercise needs to target the same muscles as the hack squat.

The hack squat primarily targets the quads and glutes. Because of the significant flexion in the knee and hip, the quads and glutes are used to drive yourself upwards from the squat position.

Hamstrings, calves, and abs are also activated in a hack squat, although this is significantly less compared to the glute and quad activation. The main role of these muscles is to assist in the knee and hip extension as you come up from the squat. 

What Makes A Good Hack Squat Alternative?

In an alternative, the key aspect we will be looking for is glute and quad activation. One of the great things about the hack squat is that it provides stability assist. This means you can overload the weight to really push the quads and glutes to their limit. An ideal alternative will also support stability and allow for weight overload. 

The assistance provided by a hack squat machine makes it a great workout for beginners. It helps guide the lifter to using the correct form and supports the weight whilst you stand in position. An ideal alternative will not be intimidating to beginner lifters. 

It’s important to consider the movement pattern in a hack squat, and whether the alternative can bring the lifter through a similar movement. This movement pattern will also help activate similar secondary muscles including hamstrings, calves, and abs.

So, now we know what makes a perfect alternative. In no particular order, let’s take a look at the 10  best alternatives to a hack squat I’ve selected. 

10 Best Hack Squat Alternatives

These hack squat alternatives work the same muscle groups and duplicate a similar motor pattern.

1. Barbell Hack Squat

The barbell hack squat is probably the most similar movement to a machine hack squat. It’s actually an identical movement but without the assistance of the machine and not at a 45-degree angle. It does lack the ease and assistance provided by the hack squat machine but is more effective at improving balance.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand in front of the barbell, feet shoulder-width apart and flat on the ground.
  • Squat and grab the barbell with both hands.
  • Extend the knees and hips, bringing yourself to a standing position whilst lifting the bar.
  • Lower by slowly bending the hips back, and let the knees come forward.
  • Lower until the bar grazes the floor, then repeat.

Coach's Tips

Maintain a straight back

As you lower and come back up it can be tempting to arch your back, particularly as the barbell hack squat doesn’t provide the back support that a hack squat machine does. Try to lock your core as you perform the exercise to avoid this.

Use a power rack

If you are struggling try and use a power rack to help you maintain the right form, keep a straight back, and take some of the load off. Once mastered you can progress to using a standard barbell.

2. Leg Press

Often mentioned in the same breath as a hack squat, the leg press works the same primary muscles as a hack squat. It also uses a 45-degree angle much like the hack squat, thus supporting a portion of the weight loaded.

It’s a really simple machine, and probably more straightforward to use for those who find the hack squat intimidating or difficult. Furthermore, you can really pile on the weights with the leg press as your legs are entirely supporting the load.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Take a seat in the machine and place your feet on the platform.
  • Grasp the handles at the side and push the platform away to disengage the supports and begin your set.
  • Slowly lower the platform by bending your knees. Continue until the angle between the upper leg and the calves is just below 90-degrees.
  • Push the platform away with your heel until your legs are almost straight. Do not lock the knees.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of sets.

Coach's Tips

Keep back and hips stable

By maintaining your stability you ensure the tension and workload stays with the legs, supporting muscle development and growth of the quads and glutes.

Avoid locking the knees

Keep a slight bend in your knees on the extension. This increases the loading and time under pressure for the quads, again supporting muscle growth.

3. Barbell Back Squats

A famous old exercise considered a core part of your leg-day. As you drive upwards out of the squat position, the quads and glutes are the primary muscles activated making it a great alternative to the hack squat.

The back squat not only overloads the legs but also demands extra effort from the abs and torso, promoting full-body mobility and stability. This also means you will have to use a lower weight compared to many other leg exercises.

Much like the barbell hack squat, it is a lot harder to achieve the correct form compared to using a hack squat machine.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand feet flat with the barbell held behind you, resting on the base of the neck above the shoulder blades.
  • Lower yourself by bending the hips back and letting the knees come forward. Keep going until your legs make a 90-degree angle.
  • Slowly extend the knees and hips as you bring yourself to a standing position.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Lift the toes

Lifting your toes as you drive upwards forces you to push through the heels and mid-foot. This increases the load on the glutes and quads.

Maintain a straight path

Use a mirror to check your form remains straight. It’s common for lifters to fall forward or have their hips shoot upwards from the bottom, both of which can be detrimental to muscle development and increase injury risk.

4. Barbell Front Squat

A good variation of the back squat, the front squat distributes the load differently thus placing high demand on the quads and glutes. It replicates a hack squat by forcing the lifter to push their knees further forward to maintain balance and an upright position.

It’s not an easy exercise to master, but once it’s a staple part of your leg workout can help with balance, performance, posture, and muscle growth.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Place feet flat, shoulder-width apart. Rest loaded barbell across the upper chest. Push elbows forwards and use hands to stabilize bar (not grip tightly).
  • Hinge at the hips and bend the knees to lower yourself into a squat position. Keep going until your legs make a 90-degree angle.
  • Drive upwards pushing knees out and extending hips.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Engage the core

It’s essential to utilize your abs when performing a front squat, ensuring the back does not arch and form remains correct. 

Keep the elbows up

Keeping the elbows up makes sure the bar stays put and the weight cannot pull you forward risking injury. If struggling to hold the bar, consider using a cross grip position (see video) until comfortable and have the correct form.

5. Belt Squat

A popular alternative to the hack squat as it replicates the upright torso and knees forward seen in the hack squat. It’s generally performed using a belt squat machine although variations can use a landmine attachment, cable machine, or boxes and a dip belt.

The support provided by a machine means that the upper body is removed from the reckoning, allowing you to push without worrying about the spine and shoulders. The activated muscles closely resemble that of a back squat, with a specific focus on the quads.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Place feet on platform minimum of shoulder-width apart and secure belt around the waist
  • Lift lever to engage weights and slowly lower self into a squat position. Hinge at the hips and push knees outwards.
  • Drive heels into the platform and bring yourself to a standing position by extending the hips.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Lift toes while ascending

Drive through your heels by lifting toes as you begin your ascension. This places maximum load on the quads and glutes, supporting muscle development.

Opportunity for variation

You can vary which muscles are targeted with a different stance, or just mix things up by using different apparatus as mentioned above.

6. Goblet Squat

Using a dumbbell or kettlebell, the goblet squat is a user-friendly alternative to the hack squat. It’s often used as a stepping-stone to more advanced squats such as those using a barbell and is great for beginners trying to perfect their form.

The weight distribution and angles mean the goblet squat places a high demand on the quads and glutes. The big benefit is that it can be done from home or a gym without the need for much (or any) specialized equipment.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Grab a single dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it at chest height.
  • Hinge at the hips and bend the knees as you slowly lower yourself into a squat position. Keep going until hips are below knees.
  • Return to starting position by pushing the floor away with feet. Extend hips and remain upright throughout.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Keep elbows tucked in

Tucking in your elbows can reduce the strain on your wrists by providing more support for the weight. This lowers the risk of long-term injury.

Actively lift chest and weight during ascension

Try to keep the weight at chest height as you rise. This will help prevent the hips from shooting backward and keep the load on your quads.

7. Barbell Lunge

Another staple leg exercise popular with athletes and bodybuilders. Lunges primarily target the quads and enhance balance, posture, and mobility. It also targets glutes and hamstrings providing a good, all-around leg workout. 

The lunge can be done with a kettlebell, dumbbells, or bodyweight if you are unable to access or not confident using a barbell. The barbell does allow you to overload the exercise beyond what bodyweight and dumbbells can offer, so it’s great for strength and muscle-focussed rep-ranges.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Place the barbell on the base of the neck above shoulder blades. Place feet flat and hip-width apart.
  • Step forward keeping back flat and vertical.
  • As you step, allow the back knee to lower towards the floor. The front leg should be at a 90-degree angle with the knee directly above the ankle.
  • Push back towards the standing position using the front leg.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps. Be sure to do an equal number of reps on each leg.

Coach's Tips

Practice proper form using lighter weight

Form is imperative on a forward lunge to avoid injury and load the correct muscles. Be sure to practice using a lighter weight before overloading. 

Keep knee above ankle

Maintain the load and pressure on the quads by not letting the knee drift beyond the ankles and end up over your toes.

8. V-Squats

The v-squat (also known as a hammer strength v-squat) primarily targets the quads, with hamstring and glute activation also common. 

Like the hack squat, this machine features a back pad and foot platform which makes it useful for finding and maintaining the correct form. It’s often viewed as a great machine for beginners who may be just starting out on their fitness journey.

Whilst it doesn’t activate the glutes as much as the hack squat, the overload that can be put on the quads is a massive benefit of the v-squat.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Place feet shoulder-width apart on platform, and shoulders underneath the provided pad. Place back up against back pad.
  • Grasp the handles provided at approximately shoulder height.
  • Slowly drive upwards whilst pulling the handle that is holding the weight.
  • Lower self by bending hips back and letting knees come forward. Keep going until your legs make a 90-degree angle.
  • Raise by driving feet into the platform, extending hips and knees. Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Keep feet shoulder-width apart

Too wide a stance on this machine can cause lower back issues, leading to injury and reducing muscle development.

9. Safety Bar Squats

Not always doable as not everyone has access to a safety bar. If you do though, it’s a brilliant alternative for hack squats. If you were to create a fusion of front and back squats, you’d probably end up with safety bar squats. 

Despite being loaded on your back, a safety bar allows for a more upright angle and trunk stability, thus less pressure on the back compared to back squats. It targets similar muscles to the hack squat, with a little less activation of hamstrings.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Rest loaded barbell evenly on the upper back. Use grip for stability.
  • Stand with feet slightly wide of shoulder-width, and slowly lower into a squat position. Hinge at hips, lock core, and push knees outwards. Lower until legs are 90-degree angle or lower.
  • Return to standing position by driving through heels, extending hips and knees.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Alternative to back squat

If you struggle with the back squat or feel as though you might injure yourself, the safety bar squat is a great alternative to build some strength and balance whilst squatting. This can then provide you with the confidence to move onto back squats.

Versatile and functional

You can use the safety bar to perform exercises beyond just the squat. Its design makes it a great piece of equipment for performing a wide variety of leg exercises including Zercher squats, good mornings (normal, seated, or single leg), front & back lunges, split squats, hip thrusts, etc.

You could probably do the whole workout just using the safety bar, although a few people may take issue with you for hogging the machine!

10. Barbell Deadlifts

Not quite a direct comparison to a hack squat as it doesn’t work the quads quite so aggressively. It is more versatile than a hack squat though and works many more muscles.

If you cannot hack squat because of a knee injury then a deadlift is perfect for you. It’s low impact and very effective at developing huge legs. The biggest con is that it’s quite difficult to get the correct form. 

A lot of practice with lower weight is recommended at first.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Place the barbell on the floor in front of you. Stand with feet flat, mid-foot under the bar, and hip-width apart.
  • Bend over to reach for the bar without bending legs and keeping arms straight.
  • Bend knees to allow for lowering the body, straighten lower back, and lift chest. This is your start position.
  • Stand up straight whilst gripping the bar, make sure the bar is in contact with legs throughout ascension.
  • Bend knees to return to starting position. Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Breathe

Try to control your breathing as you perform these, inhale at the bottom, exhale as you go up. This helps maintain your form and lift more weight.

Maintain straight lower back

Rounding or arching your back can cause serious injury when lifting heavy weights. Be sure to focus on keeping it straight when correcting your form. Lifting smaller weights at first will help you to perfect your form before facing the heavier weights.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Is The Best Hack Squat Alternative?

All alternatives differ slightly from a hack squat (otherwise there would be no point in them existing) so it’s difficult to pick out the best one. 

The barbell hack squat is closest to mimicking the movement pattern, but the weight distribution and load mean you cannot lift as much. The leg press puts similar overload on the quads but doesn’t replicate the movement pattern of hack squat. So, they all have their pros and cons, and if you can incorporate them all at some stage of your monthly workout you will feel (and see) the benefits.

What’s The Best Alternative If I Can’t Hack Squat Because Of A Knee Injury?

The deadlift is very low impact and doesn't put much strain on the knees in the same way a hack squat does. This is the best if you are protecting against an injury and still want to develop muscle.

I’m Worried About My Form When Performing Squats, How Do I Perfect It?

Watch yourself perform them using a mirror, or record yourself and compare the video to a YouTube clip of someone using the right form. It’s best to start out with a lower weight on any new exercise and perfect the form. Then you’ll be ready to smash out reps with a huge weight!

Final Thoughts

So there we have it, 10 alternatives for when you can’t hack squat. Whether it’s because there’s no machine at your gym, the machine is too busy, your knee is struggling with the weight, or you are just bored of hack squatting, there are lots of other ways to work your quads and glutes.

So next time you’re in the gym, why not have a go and see which exercise works best for you among these hack squat alternatives.

References

Clark, D., Lambert, M., & Hunter, A. (2012). Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 26(4), 1169-1178. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e31822d533d

Evans, T., McLester, C., Howard, J., McLester, J., & Calloway, J. (2019). Comparison of muscle activation between back squats and belt squats. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 33(1), S52-S59. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000002052

Goršič, M., Rochelle, L., Layer, J., Smith, D., Novak, D., & Dai, B. (2020). Biomechanical comparisons of back and front squats with a straight bar and four squats with a transformer bar. Sports Biomechanics, 1-16. doi: 10.1080/14763141.2020.1832563

Gulick, D., Fagnani, J., & Gulick, C. (2015). Comparison of muscle activation of hip belt squat and barbell back squat techniques. Isokinetics And Exercise Science, 23(2), 101-108. doi: 10.3233/ies-150570

Sarto, F., Franchi, M., Rigon, P., Grigoletto, D., Zoffoli, L., Zanuso, S., & Narici, M. (2020). Muscle activation during leg-press exercise with or without eccentric overload. European Journal Of Applied Physiology, 120(7), 1651-1656. doi: 10.1007/s00421-020-04394-6

Vecchio, L. (2018). The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift, and bench press. MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy, 3(2). doi: 10.15406/mojypt.2018.03.00042

DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.

About The Author

Jules Silvera

Jules Silvera is a Sport and Exercise Psychology MSc graduate and qualified squash coach. His work in sport psychology has involved working with elite & Olympic athletes in swimming, taekwondo, and Rugby League, developing psychological resilience and dealing with issues surrounding sport entrapment. He believes in enhancing athlete functionality, with special expertise in strength training, HIIT, and psychological skills training and is currently researching for a PhD centered on developing youth athletes in elite sport. He currently works as a Head Squash Coach in the UK, developing and training England-ranked and county-level juniors, as well as working with grassroots players.

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