The hack squat and leg press are the go-to machine exercises after the classic squat when working out your lower body. These two compound movements are done with assistive machines that strengthen and develop your legs. But did you know that even though both provide similar benefits, they work your muscles in slightly different ways?
That means choosing the proper machine-based exercise for your specific goals can make all the difference in your leg training. Don't worry! We'll break down the differences between each exercise machine and help you make the best choice to optimize your leg workout.
Overview of Hack Squat vs Leg Press
The machine hack squat movement is one of the most popular squat variations. It's an upright leg exercise that activates multiple muscles in your lower body. Research shows that hack squats activate your muscle groups similar to back squats (1). However, using a machine with this squat variation places greater emphasis on your quads and knees, strengthening them more and better-inducing hypertrophy than others.
The leg press, on the other hand, eliminates your core and just focuses on your legs. It’s one of the best exercises for increasing leg strength (2).
The Leg Press Machine
The leg press machine has different variations, including the traditional (shown above), vertical - which has you pressing loads from your back as the base, and the horizontal leg press - which keeps you seated with an upright torso. Many of these are available in essentially every commercial gym you'll step into. The variation you will most likely see at your gym is the 45-degree leg press, which has you lying against a back pad with your legs angled upwards at 45 degrees. This machine can alter your foot width to work different leg muscles.
Leg Press: Pros and Cons
Pros of the Leg Press
- This routine is simple for beginners and is easy to learn.
- Lower risk of injury since it doesn’t require stability or balance
- Excellent isolation of the quads and other leg muscles.
- A good alternative for those with lower back pain and shoulder issues
- It’s safe to train to failure with this routine.
- Most people can lift more weight with a leg press than a squat.
- You can use the leg press to address strength or muscular imbalances by working one leg at a time.
- You can change your leg placements to target specific muscles better.
- Most commercial gyms have leg press machines.
- More comfortable than the hack squat because of the back support
- It targets the hamstrings better than the hack squat.
Cons of the Leg Press
- This routine is done with a machine which can mean a limited range of motion if your height is above average.
- It doesn’t build your abs or other stabilizing muscles.
- It’s easy to shorten your range of motion by using heavier weights, not working the muscles to their full extent.
- Different gyms have different leg press machines and variations in how they work your muscles.
- When performed seated, you can lift more weights, which leads to more spine compression than the hack squat.
How to Perform a Leg Press
Load your desired weight onto the leg press sled.
Adjust the back pad to the position most comfortable for you.
Get on the machine and put your feet on the platform. Appropriate foot placement will vary based on machine and goals, but generally you want to be about shoulder width apart.
Grab the handles on both sides of the machine to stabilize your upper body, then push the footplate away until the safety bar unlocks.
Lower the footplate by bending your hips and knees until your legs are at an angle of 90 degrees or below.
Keep your spine neutral, then push through your mid-foot and heels to extend your legs — without locking your legs at the top — and return the footplate to starting position to complete the rep.
Common Mistakes to Avoid with the Leg Press
You must go as low as possible to encourage enough knee flexion to target your quads to their full extent — parallel or lower. If you set your pad angle too high, you'll work your quads less, even though it'll feel good, and you'll be able to lift more.
Rounding your back at the lower point of this exercise will shift the focus from your quads to your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, thus missing the movement's primary purpose. In addition, adding too much weight will prevent you from doing the full range of motion necessary to work your quads.
The Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat machine will look different depending on its maker. However, they all generally work by putting the weight on your shoulders. You'll be able to lift more with the hack squat machine than with regular squats because the machine provides more stability.
Hack Squat: Pros and Cons
Pros of the Hack Squat
- It engages more muscle than the leg press.
- It gives better specific training for barbell squats.
- Lower risk of injury than other squats as it places a lower strain on the spine
- Great for beginners who want to learn how to squat
- Suitable for training to failure as the machine has safety catches
- It can be done with barbells, Smith machines, or even dumbbells.
- Better at training the quads than the leg press
- Putting the weight on your shoulders better distributes it.
Cons of the Hack Squat
- Hack squats with heavy weights can be harsh on your shoulders and back.
- This routine is complicated and can be challenging for beginners.
- The hack squat machine has you in a fixed position, which can be less comfortable for people of taller than average height.
- Hack squat machines are rare.
- You can’t train one leg at a time with this routine.
- It doesn’t train the stabilizer muscles as a barbell squat would.
- The risk of injury is higher with the hack squat than with the leg press.
How to Perform a Hack Squat
Put some weight plates on the hack squat machine and stand on the platform with your shoulders underneath the shoulder pads.
Get your foot position in the regular squat stance and then rise to disengage the stoppers.
Put your hand on the handgrips, brace your core, and descend by bending your knees.
Stop when your knees are 90 degrees or below, then slowly return to the starting position by pushing through your heels and midfoot to complete the rep.
Common Mistakes to Avoid with Hack Squats
Avoid cutting your reps short on this movement since it’s the only way to fully engage your lower body muscles. To help with this, pause slightly at the bottom of each rep. Moreover, don’t let your legs lift off the platform by going too low. Tension is shifted off your quads when your knees are extended, so don’t pause too much at the top. Also, don’t fully lock out your knees at the top of the movement to prevent injury and to keep the tension on your quads constant.
Main Differences Between Hack Squat and Leg Press
Now that you better understand how the hack squat and the leg press work, here are their main differences.
Biomechanics of the Exercise
In both hack squats and leg presses, depending on the machine, the user will lean back or lie down with their legs at an angle of 45 degrees. The biomechanics are similar, but the significant difference is gravity.
With the leg press, your entire body is under the weight pushing upwards against gravity, even though your legs are the focus. With the hack squat, your leg pushes your whole body and the weight on your shoulders against gravity, placing a greater strain on the knees.
The hack squat uses a hack squat machine with backrest and shoulder pads that slide up and down a set of tracks. The machine has the user leaning back at 45 degrees with a platform for standing at the bottom. The leg press machine is the most common.
In the hack squat, the shoulders support your load with the weight on your back. This causes you to engage your core to stabilize it. The weight rests on your quads and knees at the lowest point. With the leg press, the legs carry the load, excluding your torso from the lift.
The hack squat and leg press majorly target your quadriceps muscles and glutes. Both routines also activate your calves and hamstrings. However, the hack squat engages your back muscles and core muscles because of its axial loading.
When to Use Hack Squat vs Leg Press
The hack squat and leg press are great exercise choices for inducing muscle hypertrophy. They activate the quads and glutes using similar movements. However, slight differences could help you determine when to use which.
If strength training, the leg press might be slightly better, allowing you to load more weight than the hack squat. However, if you’re an advanced lifter, strength training with a hack squat is more specific and could be the better choice. The leg press is a better option when managing muscle fatigue, as the axial loading in the hack squat is exhausting.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are hack squats as good as regular squats?
Hack squats provide training that is different from barbell squats. They’ll develop your stability and coordination less but will place more emphasis on your quads.
How often should I do hack squats?
Doing hack squats about once or twice weekly is ideal, but it depends on your training priorities. Your ability to recover after is also important to consider the perfect volume.
Are hack squats bad for knees?
Hack squats are machine-supported, making them safe for your knees. However, a bad form of locking out your knees at the top movement or placing your feet too low on the footplate could lead to issues.
What’s better for improving the squat – leg press or hack squat?
Both exercises can improve your squat because they strengthen your quads. However, hack squats are more specific because of the movement's mechanism similarity.
Which exercise is better for athletic performance?
Since hack squats help you squat more and activate more muscles, they are overall better for athletic performance. But they’re more likely to cause injury.
Leg Press vs Hack Squat Conclusion
Ultimately, the leg press and hack squat have advantages and neither triumphs. They use a similar work mechanism, and both train your quad and glutes and are must-dos on leg day! Choosing which to use depends on your training priorities and personal preference.
If you have access to a commercial gym for your leg training, you can make regular use of both of these pieces of equipment during your lower body workout days.
If you have a home gym, you might be tight on space and budget to accommodate having both. If leg training is still a priority, maybe a leg press hack squat combo machine is the right choice for you.
Looking to add a leg press or hack squat to your home gym or commercial facility?
Clark, D. R., Lambert, M. I., & Hunter, A. M. (2019). Trunk Muscle Activation in the Back and Hack Squat at the Same Relative Loads. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 33 Suppl 1, S60–S69. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002144
Martín-Fuentes, I., Oliva-Lozano, J. M., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Evaluation of the Lower Limb Muscles' Electromyographic Activity during the Leg Press Exercise and Its Variants: A Systematic Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(13), 4626. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17134626