Man doing hack squat alternative
Fitness

8 Best Hack Squat Alternatives: Free Weight Or Bodyweight?

What are you going to do if you’ve got a great lower body move you want to use, but don’t have the equipment?

Today we’re talking about building great legs without a hack machine.

These alternative exercises are all about big quads, great movement, and the information you need to improve. Like the hack squat, these are all about building great quads!

Whether you’re working out at home or at the gym, you’re going to find a quad exercise that suits you perfectly!

What makes the best alternative to hack squats?

Replacing the machine

The main challenge of replacing hack squats is simply getting the mechanics down without the hack squat machine. The hack squat machine can be hard to find, as most gyms don’t stock this large single-use piece of equipment.

So, the goal is to find hack squat alternatives that don’t require tons of highly-specific equipment. It means having options for bodyweight and free weight exercise – so we’ve included both in today’s list!

Hitting the right lower body muscles

Hitting the right muscles is obviously a key to replacing the hack squat. It means you’re covering the same muscle groups and not leaving holes in your training.

This primarily means one thing: quad focus!

An effective hack squat is all about loading up the front of the thighs – the quadriceps – without worrying about stabilizing the weight. Taking out the posture means the hack squat can load the thighs without overloading the lower back or hips.

You’ll notice hack squat alternatives unload the hip and push the knee forward to make sure the quads are doing all the work!

Hack variation: finding the right movement

Hack squats are roughly halfway between the ‘front’ and ‘back’ squat.

This means you want to look for 2 key factors: hip flexion and knee flexion. These are operating at both of the joints the thigh muscles (quadriceps) attach to, covering the whole range and developing the muscle more effectively.

Long ranges of hip and knee extension are perfect for replacing the hack squat. This is why lunges and squats are the keys to better leg strength and muscle mass.

Weight and reps: getting specific

The best hack squat alternative will cover some of the same weight and rep schemes you’d see with the original. It’s a heavy compound movement and the leg muscles benefit from this heavy stimulus.

Single-leg exercises are great but they don’t tend to carry the same absolute weight.

Ideally, you want at least one heavy hack squat alternative in your lower body workout program. Even if you’re using lunges and Bulgarian split squats, some symmetrical work is great for stabilizers in the legs and hips.

8 Best Hack Squat Alternatives

1. Barbell Hack Squat

You don’t need a hack squat machine: you can always default to the original barbell hack squat variation. But it’s definitely not the barbell squat you’re familiar with!

This is a weird movement, but it’s the original hack squat as thought up by George Hackenschmidt. This old-time strength training exercise isn’t necessarily the best alternative to the machine, but it’s the original! 

I recommend practicing the barbell hack squat alternative on a smith machine or with a light weight. It’s a strange exercise to get used to.

  • Set up with a barbell behind yourself and feet hip-width apart and turned out slightly.
  • Bending the knee and hip, keep your lower back flat and reach down to grab the bar.
  • With a firm grip on the bar and the same flat back, press the floor away to stand up straight. Keep your weight through the middle of your feet throughout.
  • Slowly lower back to the floor by bending the knees. They will also need to travel forwards.
  • When the bar reaches the floor again, you’ve finished the rep.

2. Sissy squat

One of the best hack squat alternatives, this is all about burning the quads with just your own bodyweight.

The secret is just putting yourself in a mechanically difficult position. This trains the quads and glutes, strengthening the whole lower body but specifically the knees.

  • Set up near a sturdy object that can support some/all of your weight
  • Taking hold to reduce your bodyweight through the knees, remove your heels from the floor
  • Keep your glutes and core tight, bending the knees and pushing them forward while you lean backwards
  • Go as far down as you can with good balance, or until you feel a significant stretch in the quads
  • At that point, reverse the movement by straightening the legs, driving down against the floor, and returning to the start position

3. Goblet squat (raised heels +)

This exercise is the beginner’s best friend when it comes to leg training. It builds up all the postural muscles you need while strengthening the legs.

You can also raise your heels to make it a closer hack squat alternative. This makes it more quad dominant since more of the movement is coming from the knee joint.

  • Stand tall with a hip-width stance
  • Take a dumbbell or kettlebell in a ‘goblet’ position – pulled tight to your chest with an active upper body.
  • Begin the squat by moving your hips back and down, keeping the back flat and feet flat to the floor.
  • Go as low as you can with flat feet and an upright posture, pausing briefly at the bottom with active glutes.
  • Stand up by driving down against the floor – don’t let your hips shoot up or back. Keep weight over your mid-foot and an upright posture on the way up.
  • When you return to standing, you’ve completed the exercise.

4. Short lunge

This exercise takes a normal lunge and squishes it, shifting the focus away from the glutes and hamstrings and into the knee. This, obviously, means more quad focus and a better leg pump.

It’s also a great single-leg addition, which helps stabilize the knees and hips. This can be a great way of preventing knee and hip injury in the long-run.

  • Set up with your feet hip-width apart – you can perform this exercise with bodyweight or a goblet position (as above).
  • Take a short step forward so that the bottom of your lunge position produces 90-degree angles in both legs. You can try this out to find the right position for you.
  • With the appropriate stance, keep your core tight and glutes active, bend your legs so that your weight comes into your front foot.
  • Go as low as possible, focusing on balance in the front foot and an upright upper body throughout.
  • Reverse the movement by pushing down through the front knee/foot, making sure to maintain your posture.
  • When you’re back in the starting position, you’ve completed the rep.

5. Bulgarian Split Squat (BSSq)

The Bulgarian split squat can be done with or without weight. It can also be scaled with more range of motion before you even need to add weight. This makes the Bulgarian split squat perfect whether you have weights or not.

  • Taking a similar stance to your short lunge, elevate your back foot on a surface like a box or sofa.
  • Keeping your back hip open and your torso upright, lower yourself down by bending the front knee
  • Lower yourself with your balance in the mid-foot of the front knee. Allow your knee to track forwards and keep lowering as far as is comfortable.
  • From the bottom position, keep your hips square and push down through the front leg.
  • When you return to the starting position, you’ve completed the rep. Keep the front knee ‘unlocked’ to maintain quad tension into the next rep.

6. Front Squat

The front squat position changes the balance of the exercise, meaning a more upright position and increased forward knee travel. This puts the weight on the front of the legs, reducing the hip and hamstring involvement.

The front rack position requires a huge amount of mobility and stability – especially in the upper body. You should take a thorough warm-up before front squats and take your time. Building this mobility can take a long time – don’t rush into the front squat without taking time to get into safe, stable positions!

This means front squats are more quad-focused than the back squat. However, they are also much more challenging posturally and will require more mobility than a back squat. You may need to work up to these over time.

Setting the Front rack

  • Take a mid-grip on the barbell, roughly one thumb’s length into the knurling.
  • Place your feet under the barbell with a bend in the knees, and your back flat/straight.
  • Unrack the bar by quarter-squatting under it and pushing the elbows through. Think about rotating the bar back and elbows forwards.
  • The barbell should be resting on the deltoid muscles – you are not holding it with the hands. Your core and upper back should be holding/supporting the weight.

Squatting

  • Once you’ve taken the front rack position, set your stance at hip-width with a slight outward rotation.
  • Keeping the core active, ease your hips back and down. Keep your knees in line with your toes as you descend.
  • Squat as low as you can without losing control of your back, hips, or knees. Keep the front rack position active throughout.
  • Pause briefly in the bottom position (great for postural strength) before pushing the floor down to stand back up.
  • As you rise, keep the knees out and chest up. You can think about keeping the bar back to maintain upper back tightness.
  • Once you return to the starting position, you’ve completed the rep.

7. Cyclist squat

This uses a normal barbell back squat position but with a narrow stance and the heels raised. This is basically the best weight training hack squat alternative.

It offers massive quad focus with standard gym equipment. You can also use this exercise with any amount of weight, and progress it easily. This is exactly what you should be looking for!

Even if you don’t have a barbell, you can try an alternative exercise with a kettlebell or dumbbell in a goblet position. These are all great alternative exercises if you don’t have access to a hack machine!

  • With either a barbell on your back (like a normal barbell squat) or weight in the goblet position, raise your heels on a sturdy object.
  • Take as narrow a stance as is comfortable, making sure your weight feels secure through your feet.
  • Squat down by bending the knees and pushing them forwards. Keep an upright posture with an active core throughout.
  • Reverse the movement, pushing down and straightening the knees, until you reach the start position. The exercise is complete.

8. Narrow leg press

The leg press is a classic for building lower body strength. Like the hack squat, the narrow leg press will target the quads – but with a standard leg press machine.

With the feet narrow, the movement is all knee flexion. This lets you get a ton of quad training done at most gyms – the leg press is a pretty common sight!

  • Set up on the leg press machine with a lighter weight than usual.
  • Take a seat, making sure you’re well secured into the corner of the seat and your lower back is flat.
  • Place your feet as close together as is comfortable, somewhere near the middle of the foot-plate.
  • Press the foot-plate off, removing the supports. Make sure to keep a slight bend in the knees.
  • Lower the weight towards yourself by bending the knees. Control the descent deliberately.
  • Lower as far as is comfortable, but remember this is a shorter movement than a squat.
  • Reverse the movement by pushing against the footplate until you reach the starting position. Keep the knees slightly bent at the top and do not rest between reps.

Conclusion

Hack squats are a great quad-building exercise. Sadly, the equipment is rare and you’ll need alternatives at least sometimes.

The alternatives we’ve listed today are great, whatever your equipment options. If you can cyclist squat, leg press, or Bulgarian split squat then you can build great leg muscles. You might even build better stabilizer muscles along the way.

Like hack squats, these alternatives are great for preventing knee problems and building leg strength. Take time to build good movement patterns and focus on feeling the quads doing the work.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I use in place of hack squats?

Any knee-dominant movement is going to be a good replacement for the hack squat. These include cyclist squats, narrow-foot leg press, and the short lunge.

They offer great quad development without the hack squat machine. Some are bodyweight movements, some free weight, and one with the leg press machine. No matter what you have access to, you can get a great lower body workout!

How do you do hack squats without a machine?

There are 3 ways: with free weights, just using bodyweight, or with a leg press machine.

Bodyweight will require you to use exercises like the short lunge or Bulgarian split squat. These put all of your bodyweight on one leg, and make sure you’re getting enough weight to build muscle.
 
Free weights offer cyclist squats or front squats. These all shift weight into the front of the legs, producing better quad growth.
 
Finally, the leg press machine – with close feet – is a great beginner’s alternative to the hack squat!

Are hack squats as good as squats?

There’s a big difference between the barbell squat and hack squat.

The hack squat machine takes work off of the stabilizer muscles and hips, allowing you to focus on the quads. Obviously, this also reduces the strength gains in the glutes, core, and back.

Barbell back squats also develop the balance and co-ordination most people need. This means you shouldn’t write them off for complete thigh and glute development.

Hack squats aren’t as good as back squats for full-body development, but they do target the legs better. You can combine the two, or use back squats with a hack squat substitute outlined above, to get better results.

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