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August 28, 2021 10 min read

When it comes to routinely undeveloped muscle groups, the legs really take the cake. We all know that one guy with a massive upper body supported by scrawny,  chicken legs.

Needless to say, we don’t want to be that guy.

Strong, tree trunk legs provide a solid foundation to work with, both in the gym and in our daily lives. The stronger our lower body muscles, the faster we’ll run, the more explosive power we’ll have, and the more easily we’ll be able to transfer power between these muscle groups. So, how do we get these strong legs?

The squat is often brought up as one of the best all-around lifts you can be doing, let alone when it comes to the legs. However, the hack squat and the leg press also offer their own benefits, mainly in terms of developing the quadriceps.

Both movements come with their pros and cons and depending on your fitness level, the availability of equipment, and your range of motion, one of these will most likely be better for you than the other.

The Hack Squat

The benefits of the  conventional back squat are difficult to argue against. The squat is so ubiquitous and beneficial, that comparing a different exercise to a squat is basically saying it’s the best you can do for a certain body part.

Hack squats. 3D illustration

But one of the greatest benefits of regular squats is that they train a large portion of your body. Not only are your legs going to be feeling the burn, but so will your abdominals and other stabilizing muscles. When another exercise is called the “squat of the upper body” (for example), it means that it’s a movement that hits many different major muscle groups.

This allows for a well-rounded development that prevents certain body parts from lagging behind too much. It doesn’t hurt that the regular squat doesn’t need a machine—any amount of weight can be loaded (even with dumbbells), or just bodyweight can be used.

This is where the hack squat comes in: rather than using a barbell to complete the squat as a free weight variation, you’re going to be using a piece of equipment. This piece of equipment places the load up on your shoulders, just like a normal squat, but it removes the need for your stabilizing muscles in your core to do any work.

This places a greater emphasis on the quads and knees, removing the need for other muscle groups to do as much work.

The Leg Press

If the hack squat is a machine-progression of the conventional squat, the leg press is a progression of the hack squat. It’s also done using a dedicated machine, making it a relatively simple exercise to perform. Once again, the emphasis is primarily on the quads, since the core isn’t activated at all.

Inclined leg press. 3D illustration

There is also some level of hamstring and glute activation, but the range of motion is even more limited this time around. This limited range of motion emphasizes the quads even further than the hack squat. The ability for you to change your foot position also allows you to hit several different parts of your quads, depending on your goals and fitness level.

How to Machine Hack Squat

Hack squat machines will look different, depending on the make, but they all generally work in the same way. The weight will be on top of your shoulders, and you’ll probably be able to lift heavier than with a conventional squat, due to the increased stability.

  1. The starting position will have your feet placed flat on the plate of the machine. You should lean backward until you’re supported by the back pad. A key aspect is making sure that your feet are placed forward enough to allow you to enter into a deep squat. Much like in a conventional squat, they should be about shoulder-width apart, with your toes just slightly facing outward. You can allow for your knees to have a slight bend.
  1. You’ll want to continue by holding onto the bars that are located by the shoulder pads. Depending on the type of the machine, there may be a safety catch you need to first release. This is something you shoulder refer to the instructions to find out. Regardless, you’ll need to stand up to release the initial catch.
  1. Once you’re standing, hinge at the hips and slowly lower yourself down. Come down until your glutes become parallel with your knees, while the majority of your weight is taken through your heels. Pause at the bottom of the movement.
  1. After pausing for a count, drive through your heels and reverse the movement. You want to push through the glutes, heels, and legs—avoid pushing through the knees. Once you’ve gotten to the top, don’t lock out your knees. Instead, take a quick pause before inhaling and repeating the movement.

Common Mistakes with Hack Squats

Since you’re locked into the machine, there isn’t too much that can go wrong with the hack squat. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind certain things. You should obviously try to choose a good weight, so you’re not overexerting yourself while also challenging your body enough.

However, you also want to avoid going too low in the movement. You’ll know if you’ve gone too low when your heels lift off the platform—move down slowly while ensuring that your heels maintain contact with the machine. Other common mistakes are also fixed by going slow and steady and doing the movement with intention.

Don’t quickly jump out of the bottom of the rep, for example. Pausing at the bottom will help to keep your range of motion consistent throughout. At the same time, don’t rest too long at the top of the movement. Resting at the top will take away tension from your quads, making them more difficult to complete.

Hack Squat Pros

As a compound exercise that utilizes several important muscle groups, hack squats are a great addition to any workout regime—regardless of their specific benefits. However, there are some points to keep in mind if you’re deciding whether to include the hack squat into your next leg day.

The primary reason is quad development. Many weightlifters’ quads aren’t up to par, which affects other lifts and overall lower body gains. Improving your quad strength will help your explosive energy, your other big lifts (such as deadlifts and squats), and your running and jumping power. Since you don’t have to focus on stabilizing factors, you can better engage the quads.

Another factor is the diminished spinal loading with the hack squat, at least when compared to leg presses. This is particularly useful if you have a history of lower back injuries. Implementing the hack squat can help to limit the risk of future injuries while antagonizing past injuries less.

Hack Squat Cons

However, that doesn’t mean that hack squats are completely safe for those with back injuries. Although spinal loading is diminished, it’s not removed completely from the exercise. Before loading up a ton of weight onto the machine, it’s best to first see if it’s safe for your back (if you’ve had a previous back injury).

Hack squats also place plenty of pressure on the shoulders, since that’s where the weight is going to be located. If you’ve had previous shoulder injuries, it’s also best to wade into the waters slowly rather than jumping into the deep end immediately.

You’ll also need to factor in the design of the machine itself—some pads are more comfortable for certain people than other types of pads. It’s important to test the waters before loading too much weight.

How to Leg Press

First, you’re going to need to get yourself situated properly on the leg press machine. This means that your back and head should rest against the back support, comfortable. Your feet should be planted with heels flat on the footplate, spread about hip-width apart. Also, your butt should be flat against the seat of the machine instead of raised.

In terms of your legs, they should form a 90-degree angle with the knees. Skewing this angle and placing your feet too far up will emphasize your glutes more while placing your feet too low on the plate will place unnecessary  stress on your knees.

Your legs should also be directly over top of your feet, without caving in or outward.

  1. To begin, grab the handles to either side for support. Keep your back in a straight line and aligned with your head. Engage your abdominals and push the platform away from you. Drive through your forefoot and your heels, while your heels also remain flat on the footplate. Exhale as you push outward.
  1. As you extend your legs out, keep your head back as well, with your back flat against the back rest. Push out slowly but surely, rather than relying on any explosive power. Once you get to the top of the movement, you’re going to want to pause for a count.
  1. As you’re paused at the top of the motion, do not lock out your knees. Keeping them slightly bent, ensure that they’re neither caving in nor outward. As you inhale, slowly reverse the motion and bring the footplate back down into the starting position.
  1. As you do this, ensure that your back is flat against the pad and your feet are flat against the plate. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Common Mistakes with the Leg Press

Much like with the hack squat, the leg press is going to be relatively simple to perform since it’s done using a machine. Nevertheless, there are some things to keep in mind.

And again, like the hack squat, the biggest mistake you can be making is using a weight that’s too heavy. This will negatively impact your form which will get in the way of the gains you could be making. For example, your butt should be flat against the seat throughout the whole movement. If it’s raised off the seat, chances are that your legs are at an incorrect angle.

Another common mistake caused by a weight that’s too heavy is not having the proper range of motion. You want to follow through the entire exercise until just before your knees lockout, without having to lift your hips. A full range of motion will allow for all the necessary muscles to be involved.

Your hands should also remain on the handles, rather than staying on your knees. This will break your form, along with raising your head throughout the motion. Don’t snap your head forward as you push—this is normally a sign of using too much weight.

Finally, control your breathing. You’re not going to get very far if you hold your breath, so get into a rhythm and stick with it. Normally, it’s easiest to exhale as you push the weight up and inhale as you release it on the way back down.

Leg Press Pros

Like the hack squat, the leg press is done using a machine. This means your movement is delegated to a specific movement pattern, removing the need for stabilizers. This allows for a greater emphasis on the leg muscles. You can also include the fact that the leg press is highly customizable for a machine exercise.

For example, changing the foot placement on the plate will allow you to hit the quads in various ways, while also emphasizing the glutes, hamstrings, and inner thighs. This will depend on how high or low your legs are placed, and how far apart. Keep within safe parameters and switch every few weeks, and you’ll have a set of well-rounded legs.

The machine also offers a lot of back support, which allows for a more comfortable leg day exercise. This is not only a big bonus for beginners, but also for those who want to include it in a circuit training routine. The ease of use and comfort makes the leg press a great way to gas out your legs if you’re following a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program, for example.

Leg Press Cons

Although the leg press is useful, it does come with its disadvantages. These disadvantages mostly stem from the things that make the leg press so popular and useful: simplicity and comfort.

For example, it’s easy to overload the leg press because of the relative ease of pushing the weight. Without needing your stabilizers or upper body to do any heavy lifting, it’s all in the legs. Unfortunately, this can cause issues with knee injuries if you consistently overload.

Similarly, the simplicity of the movement makes it difficult to tell if you’re performing it with incorrect form. Not only could this lead to the overdevelopment of one leg over the other, but you could also be rounding your back out too much.

The Perfect Leg Exercise for Lifters

So, what’s the best exercise for your needs? Both the hack squat and the leg press will activate your glutes, hamstrings, but primarily focus on the quadriceps. The biggest difference comes with the complexity of the movements—the hack squat will challenge more of your balance and stability, even though it’s still locked in a machine.

If you’re working up to a conventional squat, the hack squat should be the choice for you. But the simplicity of the leg press also lends itself well to several important uses. For one, it’s great for beginners or for those just trying to put some extra volume on their legs during leg day.

It’s especially useful for including in HIIT routines when you’re trying to gas out your legs as much as possible. For bodybuilding needs that emphasize hypertrophy, the leg press is a useful tool. While not as useful for strength training, it will diminish the risk of injury and add a new flavor of squat variation into your lower body exercises.

Supporting Leg Workouts

By now, you should have all the information to make a good decision on whether the hack squat or the leg press is better for you. Implementing them in a well-rounded routine will get you the tree-trunk legs you want—and deserve. However, a strong and powerful physique comes down to a lot more than just simply choosing the correct exercises.

Far more important is the food you eat and the amount of rest you get. In terms of food, the leg muscles are large and are therefore going to require a lot of fuel in order to keep going and grow consistently. Most of your progress is going to come down to the quality of food you put into your body, and the ratio of macros you ingest.

For example, a solid diet should have healthy sources of protein, carbs, and fats. While there are diets that omit certain macros (keto, for example), the basic building block of wellness should consist of all three macros. The most important aspect is their quality.

Once you have the right exercises, a good workout plan, and a wholesome diet, the next step is making sure you’re  getting enough rest.

Again—the muscles in the legs are large. This means that you’re going to be able to work them a lot harder than certain other muscles, but it also means you’re going to have to give them enough rest.

Your muscles only develop when you give them some time to repair themselves, and so this is a key part of any workout routine. Your decision of whether to do hack squats or leg presses is going to give you that extra edge in the gym, but it’s the lifestyle that will help you maintain your gains while also consistently developing. Keep everything in mind, and powerful legs are sure to follow.