6 Highly Effective Hack Squat Alternatives (With Pictures)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

A machine based compound exercise known for being a somewhat safer alternative to the traditional barbell squat, the hack squat is considered a staple of many lower body workouts for athletes and physical therapy patients alike.

However, this is not always the case, as certain health conditions or training requirements may necessitate that the hack squat be substituted with an alternative exercise just as effective or superior in terms of muscular hypertrophy, strength conditioning, and central nervous system adaptation stimulus.

As such, the best possible alternative exercise candidate for the hack squat is either one of its few variations or another type of compound lower body exercise tangentially related to the basic squat movement, all of which will provide a similar type and level of training stimulus.

How to Substitute the Hack Squat in a Workout

Generally, the hack squat’s place in a workout is either as a secondary compound exercise meant to induce a majority of the training stimulus or as the only compound exercise wherein it is the main source of hypertrophy and strength conditioning for the exerciser.

With such an important role in the workout session, it should be no surprise that substituting the hack squat will require an equally intense and effective compound exercise (or set of isolation exercises) in order to retain the same muscular hypertrophy and training stimulus without the drawbacks normally associated with the hack squat.

This will usually involve a lower body exercise that activates the majority of the muscle groups present therein, including that of the quadriceps femoris, hamstrings, gluteus muscles and calves to some extent.

hack squat machine

In the event that the subsequent alternative exercise to the hack squat is of a lower intensity or is instead a set of isolation exercises targeting each individual muscle recruited in the hack squat movement, changes in the workout routine itself will be required.

Generally, these will take the form of additional exercises that activate the same muscle groups in an auxiliary manner so as to maximize the benefits of the workout session without reaching the point of overtraining or injury.

If, instead, the exerciser finds that they cannot add additional isolation exercises to supplement their workout session, it is also possible to intensify the alternative exercise by way of adding additional repetition volume or a higher level of resistance.

Who Should Find an Alternative to the Hack Squat?

Though it is entirely possible for any regular gym goer to alternate out the hack squat in their workout routine if they so desire, certain circumstances, athletic goals or health conditions may necessitate that the hack squat be substituted out - each reason with its own unique requirements of the subsequent alternative exercise.

The most common reason for an exerciser to substitute out the hack squat would be in the case of chronic or acute knee joint injuries, with the majority of lower body compound exercises serving to aggravate or even induce such injuries and as such precluding the use of the hack squat and similar movements from use.

hack squat bad form

In this case, it is best for the exerciser to first consult a physical therapist or other medical professional so as to understand the severity of their injury and what sort of exercises are possible for their own particular ROM (range of motion).

Other reasons an exerciser may wish to change out the hack squat in their workout routine is the desire for more stabilizer muscle group activation, as the use of the hack squat machine takes a significant amount of the resistance and work away from these muscle groups due to the more stable nature of its weight, and thus resulting in less training stimulus being imparted therein.

And though not quite a necessity but nonetheless still a valid reason, individuals finding themselves either bored of or uncomfortable with the performance of the hack squat may instead wish to use an exercise that is better fit to their particular biomechanics or exciting in nature.

For instances such as this, the best alternative exercise to the hack squat is entirely up to their own personal opinion, and therefore it is advisable for the exerciser to simply try out as many alternative exercises as they desire so as to find the most suitable fit for them.

Variations of the Hack Squat

While certain alternative exercises to the hack squat are just as effective in inducing the sort of muscular hypertrophy one would accrue through regular use of the hack squat, there is no doubt that the closest possible exercises to the hack squat itself would simply be that of a variation therein.

As such, while the following hack squat variations are different in equipment involved or their movement pattern, they will nonetheless activate the same muscle groups and often result in a similar type and level of training stimulus.

1. Reverse Machine Hack Squat

Simply an ordinary hack squat but with the exerciser positioning themselves in such a way that they are facing the padded portion of the machine (with their buttocks pointing in the opposite direction) so as to increase gluteus and hamstring muscle group activation further than the traditional hack squat can achieve.

This comes with the drawback of the exerciser placing themselves in a less secure position, thereby increasing the risk of injury, especially in regards to the ankle joint as it is stretched in a manner that may be quite precarious for individuals without significant flexibility in that area.

reverse hack squat

Despite this, the reverse hack squat is nonetheless an excellent variation of the hack squat for exercisers that either find that the hack squat machine is rather uncomfortable for their own personal biomechanics or those that desire more significant lower body posterior chain dynamic contraction.

Due to the similarity in intensity and the fact that the reverse hack squat utilizes the exact same equipment, the workout program of the exerciser will require no additional alteration and they may perform the same volume of repetitions as they would with the traditional hack squat exercise.

2. Barbell Hack Squat

Considered to be significantly more intense and advanced than the machine based hack squat, the barbell hack squat is best reserved for exercisers or athletes wishing to take their training to the next level - both in terms of complexity, intensity, as well as rate of perceived exertion.

barbell hack squat

This is primarily due to the fact that the barbell hack squat, unlike the traditional hack squat, makes use of free weight exercise equipment and as such places a more significant amount of resistance on the stabilizer muscle groups normally left at the sideline during the machine based hack squat.

In addition to this, the fact that the barbell of the barbell hack squat is placed in a position beneath the exerciser that renders more tension on the spinal column and knees and therefore presents a distinctly higher chance of injury if performed in the wrong manner.

In terms of volume of repetitions, the barbell hack squat may be used in a far lower repetition range than what would be found in an ordinary set of hack squats, primarily due to the higher intensity of the barbell hack squat but also to spare the connective tissues of the exerciser excessive injury risk.

Squat Alternatives

In the event that it is the hack squat itself that must be substituted and not a particular characteristic of the hack squat, other types of squat exercises may instead be used - all of which come with their own share of pros and cons, making the following exercises only suitable for certain circumstances.

3. Traditional Barbell Squat

Considered the king of lower body strength building exercises, the barbell squat in its traditional form is among one of the best possible compound leg exercises, especially as an alternative to the hack squat for the purposes of athletic training and bodybuilding.

This, however, is not entirely true if the exerciser is substituting the hack squat in order to avoid worsening or inducing injuries related to the lower back, hips, knees, or any other joint related to the motion of a squat.

barbell full squat

If this is not the case, though, the barbell squat should otherwise be at the top of any exerciser’s list as a potential replacement for the hack squat, albeit of a more intense and quadriceps femoris focused training stimulus.

Generally, the majority of intermediate to advanced level training programs incorporate the barbell squat in the repetition ranges of three to eight, somewhat lower than what the hack squat is normally performed with during most workout programs.

In combination with a more quadriceps focused muscular activation pattern, this makes the barbell squat best suited for exercisers wishing to improve not only the strength and size of their posterior chain but also their leg strength in its entirety, something only aided by the free weight nature of the barbell squat.

4. Leg Press Machine

Another machine based lower body compound exercise with a significantly lower risk of injury than other free weight leg exercises, the leg press machine is considered the more quadriceps femoris muscle group focused cousin to the hack squat.

This is due to its more concentric focused movement, wherein the exerciser pushes away the resistance instead of lowering themselves such as is the case with the hack squat machine - a distinction that not only reduces the risk of injury but also activates the quadriceps in a larger capacity. 

leg press machine

The leg press may act as a direct alternative to the hack squat for exercisers seeking a distinctly similar type of training stimulus with a reduced usage of stabilizer muscles and less weight being loaded onto the spinal cord while still retaining some level of muscular training stimulus.

When substituting out the hack squat with the leg press exercise, the exerciser may use the exact same volume of repetitions and loading scheme, though some small changes to the weight used may be needed as the angle of resistance and loading is changed due to the different positioning of the exerciser themselves.

5. Front Squats

The front squat is an intermediate level compound exercise noted for being unusual due to the placement of the bar atop the exerciser’s clavicles or chest shelf, resulting in significantly altered form mechanics that bring the exercise’s muscular activation pattern closer to that of a hack squat rather than a traditional squat.

barbell front squat

This places the front squat near the top of the list of possible alternative exercises to the hack squat, especially if a free weight exercise that does not make use of any sort of exercise machinery is what is required of the circumstances.

In addition to the usual muscle groups involved in the majority of leg exercises such as the quadriceps femoris, hamstrings, calves and gluteus muscles, the front squat will also place a moderate amount of isometric training stimulus on the abdominals, erector spinae and biceps brachii - requiring significant alteration in the exerciser’s workout program.

As such, while the front squat is no doubt an excellent free weight alternative to the hack squat, it should be best left to those exercisers with access to an athletic coach’s services, or one whose experience in resistance training is sufficient enough to allow for such an exercise substitution to occur.

6. Zercher Squats

A far more advanced squat exercise that takes many form cues from the front squat, the zercher squat is less an alternative to the hack squat as it is a direct progression, requiring not only significant training experience but also high levels of muscular strength throughout the entire body.

zercher squat

As is clued in by its name, the zercher squat places the barbell in the crook of the exerciser’s elbow, requiring significant arm strength and connective tissue conditioning alongside its rather complex form often compared to the front squat, though with significantly different weight loading.

As such, the zercher squat may be used as an alternative to the hack squat for exerciser’s seeking a more intense exercise, or one that takes a significant amount of the weight away from the lower spinal column, reducing the chance of injury in that particular area.

Much like other complex exercises, it is best for the exerciser to first consult with a coach as well as a physician prior to performing a zercher squat, especially if transitioning from the far less difficult hack squat.

References

1. Clark, David R.1; Lambert, Michael I.2; Hunter, Angus M.1 Trunk Muscle Activation in the Back and Hack Squat at the Same Relative Loads, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2019 - Volume 33 - Issue - p S60-S69 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002144

2. Delgado, Jose1; Drinkwater, Eric J.1,2; Banyard, Harry G.1,3,4; Haff, G. Gregory1,5; Nosaka, Kazunori1 Comparison Between Back Squat, Romanian Deadlift, and Barbell Hip Thrust for Leg and Hip Muscle Activities During Hip Extension, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2019 - Volume 33 - Issue 10 - p 2595-2601 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003290

3. Kubo, Keitaro1; Ikebukuro, Toshihiro1; Yata, Hideaki2 Effects of 4, 8, and 12 Repetition Maximum Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Volume and Strength, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2021 - Volume 35 - Issue 4 - p 879-885 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003575

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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