Hack Squat vs Leg Press: Muscles, Differences, Pros, Cons

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Nobody enjoys leg day.

Lactic acid build-up during the workout, sore muscles for days after the workout, and of course, none of the glamour that working out the chest, shoulders, and arms brings.

Yet those unfortunate enough to be on their nominated leg day often aren’t found far away from a hack squat vs leg press machine.

At first glance, and even upon use, these machines can appear to be working the same muscles.

Yet there are key differences between the two and each machine has unique benefits which makes them so popular amongst gym-goers.

So, what are the differences between the hack squat vs leg press? Hack squats involve the weight positioned on the shoulders and the lifter essentially squats down then up. The motor pattern is similar to a back squat but on an angle. The leg press has the lifter pushing the weight away while sitting or lying down. Both movements target the quads and the glutes as well as your core.

Let's get on to the detailed analysis of these two awesome exercises.

Differences Between Hack Squat vs Leg Press

Both machines primarily target the glutes and quads (Clark, Lambert & Hunter, 2019; Sarto et al., 2020), probably leaving us wondering if we can get away with skipping one for the day.

However, the way each machine applies the load differs, affecting which supporting muscle group assists the exercise.

There are 4 primary differences between the hack squat and leg press: equipment, biomechanics, weight used, and muscles worked.

1. Equipment

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking the leg press and hack squat are the same machine. They look rather like mirror images of each other, both with a platform on which the feet are placed.

Closer inspection however reveals a few differences in the equipment.

The hack squat machine is constructed with a back rest and shoulder pad which slides up and down a set of tracks either side of the machine. 

The back rest keeps the lifter at 45-degree angle whilst they keep their feet planted on a platform at the bottom (Davis, 2020).

On the other hand, the leg press machine lays the lifter down against a back pad whilst the lifter pushes a platform at their feet away from themselves, with their legs at a 45-degree angle (Malik, 2019). 

Other variations may have the lifter in a seated position, pushing the platform horizontally away although this is less common (Dewar, 2019).

2. Biomechanics

It’s all about angles here, as with both machines the lifter is at a 45-degree angle.

In the hack squat a lifter will be leaning back at 45-degree angle. Conversely, in the leg press the lifter is lying down with their legs at a 45-degree angle (Davis, 2020; Malik, 2019). 

This limits how much the lifter is fighting against gravity with both machines supporting a portion of the weight loaded. This allows for higher weights to be lifted compared to barbell or dumbbell squats.

3. Weight Used

Lifters using the hack squat often find they are unable to lift as high loads compared to the leg press.

This is due to which muscular structure is supporting the load (de Vos et al., 2004; Korak et al., 2018). In the hack squat load is supported by the shoulders thus if it overwhelms the strength of their torso muscles the lifter is unable to perform the squat.

Legs can carry more weight than shoulders, so when they are entirely supporting the load, as in the leg press, the lifter can carry much higher weights.

4. Muscles Worked

Of course, the important part in any exercise is what muscles we are actually working.

With both the leg press and hack squat the glutes and quads are targeted. 

Hamstrings and calves are also activated to support extensions (Da Silva, Brentano, Cadore, De Almeida & Kruel, 2008).  

The nature of the hack squat machine means it allows for little variation in the exercises.

However, both the abs and back muscles are activated due to the torso loading demands (Clark et al., 2019) along with adductors and calves which support lifters descent.

The leg press has the potential to place extra emphasis on the quads by placing your feet lower on the platform.

To really work the glutes you can place your feet higher on the platform (Da Silva et al., 2008; Martin, 2019). Both the adductors and calves kick in as support at different stages of the exercise.

What Is A Hack Squat

How To Hack Squat

Before we go any further, its important to understand how to perform the hack squat. The following step-by-step guide details how to perform a hack squat.

Step 1: Place the back of your torso against the back pad and both shoulders under the shoulder pads. Position legs onto the platform. Place arms on the side handles.

Step 2: Disengage the safety bar and slowly straighten legs. This will be your starting position.

Step 3: Slowly lower the unit by bending the knees. Continue until the angle between the upper leg and the calves is just below 90-degrees.

Step 4: Raise the unit by pushing the floor. Be sure to push away with your heel.  

Step 5: Slowly straighten legs and return to starting position. Don't lock out your knees here.

Step 6: Repeat for recommended number of repetitions.

Tips For The Perfect Hack Squat

To perform the perfect hack squat, and maximize glute and quad development, you can use the following performance tips (Escamilla et al., 2001):

  • Feet: Position feet shoulder width apart with toes slightly pointed out.
  • Knees: Avoid locking the knees.
  • Back: Always maintain a straight posture.
  • Performance:  Inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up.

If you are looking to emphasize the hamstrings more then you could place your feet higher up on the platform and hold a wider stance.

This will reduce the strain on your quads allocating it the hamstrings instead (Bourne, Williams, Opar, Kerr & Shield, 2017; van den Tillaar, Solheim & Bencke, 2017).

If you want to emphasize the glutes more, then consider using a glute loop or glute band and use a wider stance (Contreras, Vigotsky, Schoenfeld, Beardsley & Cronin, 2016; Page & Ellenbecker, 2019). This will create extra demand for the glutes.

Common Mistakes

One of the great things about using machines is that they are more forgiving if you don’t have correct form.

This is because their design pretty much forces you to have the correct body position.

However, there are still common mistakes that lifters make which can significantly impact on the quality of the exercise or cause injury.

Not Keeping Their Feet Flat

The lower you go, the more likely your heels will lift off the platform. While it’s important to go as low as possible to really work those quads, focus should be on keeping the heels on the ground as well (Hester, Conchola, Thiele & DeFreitas, 2014; van Dieen, Hoozemans & Toussaint, 1999). 

Locking The Knees At The Top

We all know that one gym goer who spends ages between reps on a machine.

It’s critical to reduce the amount of rest being taken at the top of each rep, this will help avoid the involuntary need we sometimes feel to lock our knees.

Locking your knees will reduce the tension on your quads. This means they aren’t working as hard and therefore aren’t developing to their maximum level (Senna et al., 2016).

Varying Depth Of Squat

Going the same depth on each squat is vital to apply proper progressive overload on those quads.

 By controlling the movement on the way down and even pausing at the bottom of each squat, this consistency can be achieved (van Dieen, Hoozemans & Toussaint, 1999).

Benefits Of Hack Squat

Now that we know how to perform an expert hack squat, we should learn why it is so beneficial.

1. Increases The Load On Your Legs

The hack squat puts your quads under extreme tension and under more weight than can be achieved with just a barbell (Clark, Lambert & Hunter, 2019).

Bigger and stronger quads can help with other leg exercises such as the back squat and deadlifts. Increased muscle mass in your quads can also support strength in your back as well.

2. Even Distribution Of Workload

The hack squat also distributes the workload more evenly than a traditional barbell.

This reduces the stress on the spine since the center of mass distributes the weight load.

3. Reduced Strain On Upper Body Movements

As only the lower back is in motion, the squat depth comes primarily from expansion of the thigh angle.

Therefore, there is no strain or weakness of upper body movements usually associated with squat depth.

4. Increased Athletic Functionality

As it requires some core stability and balance, the hack squat can develop the necessary skills required for jumps and fundamental athletic movements.

This makes it handy for developing all-round athletic ability, a useful trait for avoiding injury and maintaining general fitness (Savelsbergh & Wormhoudt, 2018; Strafford, van der Steen, Davids & Stone, 2018).

Cons Of Hack Squat

1. Upper Body Strain

The weight is being held on your shoulders during a hack squat therefore it is common to feel a strain in this area when performing a hack squat.

If this happens be sure to lower the weight slightly or rest for a moment to give your shoulders some relief.

2. Lower Range Of Motion

The hack squat forces you to work at a fixed angle significantly reducing the range of motion, therefore lacking development of all round movement.

The impact of this can be reduced by incorporating the hack squat into a routine that includes exercises with varying ranges of motion.

What Is A Leg Press

How To Leg Press

Much like the hack squat, the leg press is a pretty straightforward process. The following step-by-step guide details how to perform the leg press.

Step 1: Take a seat in the machine and place your feet on the platform. Adjust the weight accordingly.

Step 2: Grasp the handles at the side and push the platform away to disengage the supports and begin your set. Get accustomed to the safety mechanism here. 

Step 3: Slowly lower the platform by bending your knees. Continue until the angle between the upper leg and the calves is just below 90-degrees.

Step 4: Push the platform away with your heel until your legs are almost straight. Do not lock the knees. 

Step 5: Repeat for recommended number of sets.

Tips For The Perfect Leg Press

There are a few minor adjustments you can make to maximise the benefits gained from the leg press machine (Da Silva et al., 2008; Escamilla et al., 2001). 

  • Feet: Varying your foot placement can help maximize muscle engagement. Set the feet at the bottom of the platform with a narrower stance to increase the load on the quads. 
  • Tempo: Slow and controlled lowering of the platform is ideal for muscle development.
  • Back: Keep the lower back and hips stable to ensure the tension and workload stays with the legs.
  • Knees: Don’t lock the knees on extension, ensure there is a slight bend to increase loading and time under pressure for the quads.

Common Mistakes

The leg press is a simple machine and doesn’t take much thinking time to understand how to use it.

However, there remain a few common mistakes I have seen people make that can really reduce the quality of their workout and limit the development of their lower body muscles. 

Using Too Little Range Of Motion

Too often lifters will load up a ridiculous amount of weight on the machine, then proceed to pump out tiny reps with the platform only moving a couple inches.

It’s important to train each muscle through a full range of motion to maximize the amount of stimulation growth you can achieve.

Thus you should ensure the knees bend at around 90 degrees and extend fully without locking.

Pressing Weight Through The Toes

Consistently pressing the weight through your toes can place the knees under unnecessary stress.

Pressing through the heels instead will hit your quads more effectively and protect the knees from long-term damage.

Placing Hands On Knees

Its important to keep the lower back pressed into the pad at all times during the exercise, minimizing the stress on your lower back.

Placing hands on your knees can diminish your ability to do this, therefore always strive to grasp the handles provided.

Benefits Of Leg Press

So what is it that makes gym-goers head to the leg press so often? It comes with plenty of benefits that make it a great leg exercise.

Back Support

The machine provides excellent support for your back thus reducing the risk of injury that free-weight and standing exercises have.

This, in addition to having hand rests, make it one of the more comfortable pieces of equipment for lifters to use.

Versatility

The opportunity to use alternate leg positions mentioned before makes the leg press an extremely versatile machine. It can develop the outer and inner quads, the glutes, and hamstrings.

By varying different foot positions every 2-4 weeks you can hit all those muscles (Burt, Wilson & Willardson, 2007).

Lower Body Focus

Because there is no load on the shoulders or torso the leg press presents the opportunity to really overload the quads.

This makes it ideal for developing a thicker looking lower body for lifters who ae targeting that “X-frame” athletic look (Rossi et al., 2018).

Cons of Leg Press

Simplicity

The simple mechanics of the leg press can easily lead to some lifters performing the move incorrectly or with poor form and still being able to lift the same weight.

This can cause imbalance in the workout, with one leg getting more attention or limiting the development of the working muscles.

To avoid this practice the correct form using a lower weight first and build up gradually.

Strain On Knees

The leg press comes with inherent injury risk as well. Since the upper body is totally disengaged it does feel like you can handle anything, leading to some lifters putting too much weight on the machine.

Long-term, this can lead to serious knee injuries. To avoid this, it’s important to be aware of how much you are lifting and if it feels too heavy, lower the weight.

Frequently Asked Questions

I Feel Like I Need Extra Support For My Workouts, Which Machine Should I Use?

If you feel you need extra support then the leg press can act as a guide to proper leg and back positioning leaving you to focus on developing those quads.

The padded backrest even provides postural support, and you have hand rests to ensure your legs are doing the work.

Will The Hack Squat Build Core Muscle As Well?

Because you support the load with your shoulders, the hack squat machine works your legs and your core as you try to maintain balance through the exercise, making it a great all-round exercise.

As A Beginner, Which Machine Do I Use To Get Huge?

Both machines should have their place in your leg day workout as they do work slightly different supporting muscles. If you are a complete novice then the leg press is a simpler way to build up some basic leg strength before taking on the hack squat machine.

How Do I Avoid Injury Using The Leg Press Or Hack Squat Machine?

Read up on the correct form and watch tutorial videos. Once well versed on the correct form, start by using a low weight and build up as you get more comfortable using each machine. Remember you can probably lift more on a leg press than the hack squat. Bear this in mind when trying them out for the first time.

Can I Use The Leg Press To Burn Fat?

Yes, the leg press is suitable for burning fat. Load the weight just under your usual 10-rep max and do 8 Tabata intervals (20 seconds on 10 rest). When doing this form is not so important as your primary focus is burning fat and getting the heart rate up.

What About Hack Squat Alternatives?

Not everyone has a hack squat machine to hand, so if you’re looking to work the same muscles with basic equipment there are some alternatives. Barbell hack squats are most similar, goblet and v-squats will also give your glutes and quads a good burn.

What About Leg Press Alternatives?

V-squats will work as an alternative to leg press as well. Weighted wall sits and dumbbell walking lunges will give the quads a good workout too.

Final Thoughts

Both exercises are excellent for targeting quads and glutes, with secondary hamstring and calf activation. For building balance, perfecting convenient moves, and working supporting muscles the hack squat is excellent. But the simplicity and versatility of the leg press ensures it has its place when targeting lower body muscle development. 

For me, leg presses are an ideal option for beginners and lifters looking to fit lots of different exercises into their leg day routines. The increased load that they can offer also makes them highly effective at building muscle mass and developing thick quads.

Personally, I support any exercise that can affect all-round athleticism and functionality. The use of core and trunk muscles in the hack squat allow it to enhance jumping performance, stability and core strength whilst still developing muscle mass in quads and glutes. It does however lack the variation that leg press can provide when targeting specific muscles. 

So if what you are looking for is a straightforward, simple leg exercise to add to your workout, or you are just starting out on your bodybuilding journey then the leg press is an ideal exercise for you. If you want to enhance your squat skills and build all-round functionality, then jump on the hack squat machine next time you’re in the gym.

References

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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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