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5 Hack Squat Alternatives at Home

Hack squats are a funny exercise. They’re one I literally never program and in my head, I file them under ‘variation for the sake of it’. Whilst they’re not a useless exercise at all, I’ve never really seen a benefit in them that I can’t replicate in other ways.

Any of the benefits of a hack squat can be more effectively achieved with other exercises that don’t require the expensive hack squat machine… or the mess that is a barbell hack squat. 

I’ll show you my take on hack squat alternatives as a personal trainer with nearly two decades of excellent client results under my belt (none of which have come from using a hack squat!)

If you’ve read about hack squats and want to use them in your workout, but lack a hack squat machine, don’t worry. 

In this article I’m going to give you a list of hack squat alternatives that aren’t only effective, they’re actually better in my opinion.

Front Squat Strong Home Gym

What is a hack squat?

A hack squat is a machine-based leg exercise. The lifter stands in a machine with pads on their shoulders and ‘squats’ a weight up and down an angled sled. It’s effectively a leg press in reverse.

There are fans of the hack squat who will disagree with my claim that it’s a reverse leg press, but I’ve studied this extensively and I’m yet to find any evidence, biomechanically or otherwise, that disputes my claim.

Are hack squats good?

In the interest of fairness and balance, despite my initial criticism of hack squats there are a few benefits I can point towards…

  • Lifting to failure is OK because it’s machine based and is unlikely to cause any harm
  • There’s little/no technique required because it’s a machine movement
  • The lack of trunk engagement can help lifters with back issues

In my opinion though, even factoring these benefits in there are better alternative squat patterns. This is backed up by research as well. When a myriad of squat patterns were studied, researchers found that the hack squat had the lowest activation of the erector spinae (back muscle) and semitendinosus (muscle in the hamstrings). Thus, reducing their overall effectiveness and perhaps making them dangerous for people with knee issues. 

At the risk of getting a little geeky here (but hey, you come here for proper information, so I’m giving it to you), this is important because lower activation of the hamstrings is important for knee stability

Conclusions drawn from this research back up findings from previous research showing that trunk activation in the back squat was greater than the hack squat despite the same relative loads.

If you think back to my article on whether Smith Machines are dangerous, one of the issues raised was that Smith Machine squats don’t activate the hamstrings much so can potentially cause knee instability issues.

The hack squat has a similar problem…

If you’ve had knee issues in the past, I’d avoid hack squats almost entirely – certainly heavy ones.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, machines don’t improve athleticism and movement efficiency, so if your goal is to be more athletic, hack squats won’t help you much.

Is there a free weight alternative to a hack squat machine? 

Yes, there is a free weight alternative to a hack squat machine. But I would almost NEVER recommend it because I think it’s an exercise that only well-trained individuals can do safely and even then there are simpler, more effective alternatives.

The barbell hack squat requires a combination of hip flexibility and mobility, forearm strength, core strength, lumbar control and thoracic spine rigidity that a lot of people, (especially beginners) just don’t have.

I’ve seen plenty of people try it, but the technique is often a disaster. If you’re interested in the barbell hack squat though, here’s a short video on how to do it…

Hack squat alternatives

I’m aware that so far all I’ve really done is point out the failures of the hack squat as an exercise, without showing you better alternatives, but that’s about to change.

To replicate the hack squat we have to use a squat pattern with stability at both ends, so that will rule out anything requiring travel (walking lunges) or explosive patterns (plyometrics such as jump squats). I’ll also keep the exercises to ones that require equipment most home gym owners will have.

Back Squat Strong Home Gym

1. Barbell Front Squats

In my opinion, the front squat is arguably the most functional and important leg exercise of them all. It’s one that I feature in my own training and that of my personal training clients. It is fantastic for building leg strength, has excellent athletic cross over and it spares the lower back more than back squats.

Front squats recruit muscle as well as the back squat and may protect the knees slightly more than back squats, so could be ideal for those who have suffered knee issues in the past.

Equipment needed for barbell front squats:

How to do a barbell front squat:

  1. Hold the bar in the rack position – open hand grip, elbows up, chest up
  2. Take a breath in and engage the core – this keeps the lower back safer
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor
  4. Drive feet into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Barbell front squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Core
  • Glutes

2. Rear foot elevated split squats

Just like the barbell front squat, the rear foot elevated split squats are an excellent choice for replacing hack squats. The stable position of the foot allows for more squat depth, plus the single-limb nature of the exercise reduces strength imbalances between limbs.

The lighter weights involved help to address the lower back pain issue because there’s significantly less loading on the lumbar spine. Finally, the upright torso removes a lot of the lower back compression.

Equipment needed for rear foot elevated split squats:

How to do rear foot elevated split squats:

  1. Place the back foot on the bench behind you and hop your front foot ahead
  2. Hold the dumbbells at your sides and engage the core
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, bend your back knee towards the floor and lower the front thigh until it reaches parallel to the floor
  4. Drive front foot into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Rear foot elevated split squats muscles worked:

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core

Check out our leg curl alternatives for more safe ways to improve your hamstrings strength.

3. Safety bar squats

The safety bar squat is an interesting alternative to standard barbell squats. It changes the biomechanics of the movement and places more load onto the trunk. This results in greater activation of the upper back, reduces the overall load the lifter is able to squat, but protects the lower back through the movement.

The lower loads reduce the leg muscle activation, but it tests the torso more and protects the lower back. If this is a troublesome area for you, the safety bar might be the perfect solution. There’s also additional crossover benefits, in that the increased back strength can help with other lifts. 

Equipment needed for safety bar squats:

How to do a safety bar squat:

  1. Stand under the bar, keeping the pads on your upper back, not your neck
  2. Take a firm grip on both handles, breathe in and engage the core – this keeps the torso rigid
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor
  4. Drive feet into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Safety bar squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Core
  • Glutes
  • Upper back

4. Kettlebell front squats

A kettlebell front squat is a great alternative to the hack squat because it offers all of the benefits of them, whilst providing a single-limb challenge too. If you use two kettlebells (which I recommend for the added weight), you have to stabilize the kettlebells with the upper back and shoulders of each side, increasing the overall effectiveness of the exercise.

The kettlebell front squat combines excellent leg strength benefits with upper back strength and shoulder stability requirements. There’s also core engagement which improves athleticism and crossover benefits into other exercises.

Equipment needed for kettlebell front squats:

  • Kettlebells (ideally two, but it still works if you use one and alternative sides after a certain amount of reps)

How to do a kettlebell front squat:

  1. Clean a heavy kettlebell from the floor to chest height. Keep it ‘cradled’ on your chest with your elbow up high for support
  2. Keep your back upright, breathe in and engage the core – this keeps the torso rigid
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor
  4. Drive feet into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Kettlebell front squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Core
  • Glutes

5. Deficit Dumbbell Sumo Squat

The sumo squat is an effective exercise for training the quads – in particular the vastus lateralis which is the biggest of the quadricep muscles. The combination of simplicity of movement, plus the ability to tweak the exercise with equipment easily (you can switch the dumbbell for a kettlebell, and you can adjust the depth of the deficit) means it’s a great home gym hack squat alternative.

The addition of the deficit means that range of movement and time under tension are increased, which has a direct impact on muscle size, strength, function and mobility. 

Equipment needed for deficit dumbbell sumo squat:

How to do a deficit dumbbell sumo squat:

  1. Stand with each foot elevated on a plate or box to create a ‘deficit’
  2. Take hold of a dumbbell or kettlebell between the legs
  3. Keep your back upright and bend your knees, lowering the weight towards the floor
  4. Keeping the chest up throughout, continue the squat until your thighs reach (or break) parallel
  5. Stand back to the start position
  6. Repeat as many times as required.

Deficit dumbbell sumo squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Lower back
  • Glutes

Check out our deadlift alternatives for more safe ways to improve your lower back strength.

Hack squat alternatives – the bottom line

The hack squat is an exercise that remains popular in gyms around the world, but I hope in this article I’ve helped you to understand both its limitations and how it can be replicated easily. The exercises here won’t just give you new ideas, they’ll also improve your strength and athleticism compared to a hack squat.

In a home gym you won’t always have the space and budget to include every machine available, but that doesn’t mean your training has to be limited. Most of the exercise machines are flawed in multiple ways, so the free weight alternatives are a better alternative anyway.

At Strong Home Gym we will always give you the very best advice based on evidence, not opinion. That’s why you can trust us. 

Check out our leg press alternative article if you’d like more variations for quad exercises.

by Steve Hoyles
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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