I added hack squats to my leg day routine — here’s what I learned

a woman using a hack squat machine
(Image credit: Getty/Vladimir Sukhachev)

As a runner, strong legs are important when it comes to getting faster and avoiding injury. Yet in an attempt to mix up my leg workouts and add some weight to my barbell squats, I jumped on the hack squat machine. What is a hack squat machine, and are hack squats better for you than barbell squats? Read on to find out more. 

A hack squat works the entire lower body, targeting the calves, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. You’ll also be using your core to keep your body stabilized as you squat. The hack squat, whether done on a machine or using a barbell, will put a greater emphasis on the front of your legs, so you’ll work your quads hard during this one. 

Looking for more leg day inspiration? Check out this 7-move kettlebell workout that builds bigger legs, 5 exercises that build your lower body using dumbbells, and what happened when this fitness writer tried the Emi Wong slim legs workout.

What is a hack squat? 

A hack squat is usually done on a machine in the gym that looks somewhat like an upright leg press. The hack squat machine has an angled platform that you stand on, and a moveable backrest, with shoulder pads and handles, that slide up and down as you squat. Although every hack squat machine is slightly different, here’s how to do a hack squat:

  • Load the weight to the racks attached to the back and shoulder pads. You’ll often find you can lift more weight during a hack squat than you would doing a barbell squat, but if you’re new to the move, it’s a good idea to start with little or no weight to get used to the machine.
  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart, and adjust the shoulder pads if you need to.
  • Release the safety handles and squat down, bending your knees until they are at a 90-degree angle.
  • Pause here, then push back up from your feet into your starting position.

a man using a hack squat machine

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

I added hack squats to my leg day routine — here’s what I learned

In an attempt to build stronger legs as I get ready for my next marathon training cycle, I added hack squats to my routine. Here’s what I learned: 

My legs worked harder

I soon realized that using the hack squat machine meant I didn’t need to use my core to stabilize my body during the squat. This meant I could load more weight onto the machine, and really feel the effect of the weight in my quads as I completed my reps. I don’t have the best grip strength, so will often find it difficult to increase my weight if I’m doing squats with a barbell, or dumbbells (here are the best adjustable dumbbells for weight training at home), but the hack squat machine removed this challenge. 

As noted above, a common mistake with the hack squat machine is adding too much weight too soon — if you’re not doing the full range of motion, you won’t get the benefits from this exercise, so be sure to start light and build up. 

It made me really focus on my form

The joy of using the hack squat machine is that you can really nail your squat technique. Coaches often recommend hack squats for beginners and it’s easy to see why — by removing the load on the upper body and core, you can really strengthen your legs in this move. In my normal squats, I often struggle to lower my body down and get my knees at a 90-degree angle, so I appreciated spending some time on this. 

I’ll probably be sticking to barbell squats in future

As a runner, I’m very quad-dominant, so hack squats probably won’t be a regular part of my routine going forward, as I need to target my glutes and hamstrings more. Even though I kept my abs engaged throughout my reps on the hack squat machine, I didn’t feel them working as hard as they would with barbell squats. Traditional squats are a compound movement, meaning you’re targeting multiple muscle groups at the same time, and I’d rather get more bang for my buck when training my legs.

Looking for more workout inspiration? Here’s how to do lateral squats, how to do Bulgarian split squats, and why you shouldn’t do a squat challenge

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.