Hack Squat vs Leg Press: Differences, Pros, Cons

If you are looking to work your quads, you will need to do hack squats or leg presses. Of course, you could do both as they are equally effective in this region of the body. However, there are differences between the two.

Depending on your level of fitness, any previous injuries, and the equipment you have at your disposal, one or the other may be better suited to you to help you reach your fitness goals.

Walk into any gym and you have probably seen lifters work on their legs using hack squats or leg presses. No matter how much you want to bulk up, you should never skip leg day. The last thing you want is a muscular top half of your body and two stick legs poking out! 

Leg workouts are important for numerous reasons. Your leg muscles are some of the largest in your entire body and building strength here can have a significant positive effect on your metabolism.

Research shows that exercising the leg muscles can help release growth hormones that increase size and mass over time. You can improve your ability in cardiovascular exercise as well as lifting because stronger legs equal improved endurance and core strength.

Which is better for your legs though? A hack squat or a leg press? Both exercises are excellent additions to your leg day but for the best results, you should use them to finish off a routine in order to target your quadriceps alone.

We are going to talk about the differences between hack squats and leg presses as well as some other movements that you could use to build muscle in your legs and get those defined muscles in your legs. We will discuss how to implement these exercises into your routine and find out the pros and cons of each. 

Read on to find out all you need to know about hack squats and leg presses!

Hack squat vs leg press

With so many muscles in your legs, it is vital multi-joints are moved regularly. The workout that targets nearly all of these muscle groups in your legs typically uses up your whole routine or at least most of it. Two exercises that target all these main muscles are the hack squat and leg presses.

Hack squats are loaded heavily on your shoulders. This is when the lifter has to squat down and then stand up to complete the squat. Leg presses are loaded by a platform where the lifter pushes away while laying down on the exercise bench. Both target the quads brilliantly as well as the glute muscles.

Hack Squat

“I can’t walk today!” We’ve all said this or heard someone say this after a strenuous leg workout the day before. Even though it can be very painful, this pain means gain!

One of the best ways of working your leg muscles is through hack squats. The hack squats are thought to be the ruler of all leg moves.

Although you can do a regular squat with only your bodyweight, you can also use dumbbells and free weights. The hack squat is just another variant of squats that use a barbell.

Hack squats can also be done using a machine. This looks similar to an overhead press machine and it is recommended you start with these hack squat machines to ease you into a routine.

A freestanding barbell hack squat can feel quite unusual for beginners who are not used to the range of motion involved.

Leg press

Although comparable, the leg press is different in quite a few ways. This is a distinctly different workout which many lifters prefer to use because it enables you to eradicate your lower-body muscle fibers. 

Leg presses target your hamstrings, glutes, and quads. Glutes are harder to target as you are unable to perform a full hip extension because your body is at a 90 degrees angle.

This lack of movement makes it very difficult to work on the glutes and upper hamstring muscles compared to the hack squats which can target these areas specifically.

Unlike hack squats, leg presses allow you to rest your body to a greater extent which helps your lower body muscles far more.

Leg squats are quite an easy exercise as the backrest supports your body much more while your core is not activated. However, your quadriceps will get a harder workout due to a limited range of motion.

A great aspect of leg presses is how you can target different parts of these quad muscles by just changing your foot position on the platform.

The differences

At first glance, you can be forgiven for believing hack squats and leg presses have similar movements when targeting certain muscle groups.

However, there are four main differences between these exercises. 

  1. The equipment you use
  2. The weights used
  3. The biomechanics
  4. The muscles worked on

The equipment 

The hack squat machine includes a backrest for support and a shoulder pad. This slides back and forth on tracks on either side of the machine via a platform at the bottom.

You are kept leaning at a 45-degree angle throughout the whole range of movement, activating your core and various leg muscles.

Leg squat machines allow you to take a seated position so your feet are directly in front of you. This requires you to push the platform at your feet away in a horizontal manner.

The most common position is when you lay down against the back pad with your legs pointing upwards at a 45-degree angle. You then push the platform away to complete the exercise.

The weights 

When you perform a hack squat, the whole load is supported on your shoulders. Your back takes a lot more strain as you move vertically and horizontally with this weight upon your shoulders.

This means the weight lifted during a hack squat should be more than that of a back squat. It is important that the axial load that you support is not too heavy for your torso to handle as this can cause possible injury and limit your workout.

The load during a leg press is entirely different. This is supported by the legs so your torso isn’t activated whatsoever. This allows you to lift much higher weights compared to hack squats.

The biomechanics

Many people confuse hack squats and leg presses because of the angle lifters are positioned at. Hack squats require you to lean back at a 45-degree angle while leg presses require the same angle but lying down.

Both you and the machine move horizontally during the process resulting in a large change in the biomechanics of your movements.

When you perform a squat or a leg press, you are pushing against gravity the whole time. This means that the machine’s bar should be moving straight up and back down again.

As we now know, however, there are also some horizontal movements as well as vertical movements during these exercises. Due to this, both machines support only a portion of the loaded weight so heavier weights can then be lifted.

The muscles used

Both hack squats and leg presses principally target the quads and glutes. Both exercises activate additional areas such as the hamstrings and calves as these help you extend your knees and hip properly.

Many people try to stay away from hack squats because of the added pressure they apply to your back. Your abdominals are also used extensively in this exercise because of the heavy axial loading that weighs upon your torso muscle groups.

Pros of doing hack squats

As we have stated, the hack squat is regarded as “the ruler of all leg moves.” Muscles used in this workout include the quadriceps, the glutes, the calves, the adductors, the abdominals, and back muscles (spinal erectors). 

Hack squats require a significant amount of hip flexion and knee bending. Trust us, as soon as you try this exercise, you will feel your glutes and quads fire like never before.

If you go below parallel, your adductors get to work by helping your hip straighten accordingly. Your calves will also work harder in this position as they assist your knee and ankle’s extension.

Your abdominal muscles and back muscles help with keeping your torso aligned and in the correct position throughout the workout.  

There are a few main benefits of doing hack squats. As well as targeting different muscle groups, they have two main pros. 

  1. Hack squats help build your quad muscles significantly. Having strong quads help your performance increase when doing back squats. Most lifters are limited due to weaker quads so as these grow stronger, your performances will improve a lot.
  2. Hack squats can be done if you have a previous back injury that requires less spinal loading. Compared to leg presses, the axial loading is reduced significantly limiting the risk of injuries.

Cons of doing hack squats

As with most exercises, hack squats have some negative aspects. Again, there are two main cons when doing these squats.

  1. They can cause discomfort in your shoulders. This depends on the amount of weight loaded onto the machine and the design of the shoulder pads. Too much weight can result in a large amount of pressure and discomfort throughout your shoulders and shoulder blades. If you already have problems in this area, it is recommended you limit the use of hack squats.
  2. Hack squats can cause pain in those with more sensitive backs. Although spinal loading is limited, it is not eliminated. It is advised you try the machine out first before you load anything onto it to ensure it is safe for you to use.

Pros of doing leg presses

You generally use fewer muscles when performing a leg press. The muscles used are predominantly the quadriceps, the glutes, the calves, and the adductors.

When you perform a leg press, your knees, and hip bend significantly. This is where your quads and glutes step in by being the central movers during the exercise.

As with a hack squat, if you go below parallel, your adductors will start working far more to help you straighten your hip upwards. Your calves then work to a small extent to help your ankles and knees extend.

The main benefits of doing leg presses are a little different to hack squats. These include:

  1. Helping build stronger glutes and quads. This will help your lower body become more muscular and thicker resulting in a much narrower looking waist. If you have ever wanted that X-frame athletic physique, leg presses, as well as broad shoulders, will get you looking in top physical shape sooner than you thought.
  2. To stand up when doing a back squat, you need very strong quads. Achieving muscular quads will allow you to keep moving above parallel and maintain a high velocity when you come out of the bottom of your squat. Overall, this will help you complete your lift.

Cons of doing leg presses

Unfortunately, there are some cons but they are not as big as you may think.

  1. The leg press isn’t as specific when targeting muscles as the hack squat. This is due to your body’s position on the machine as you don’t use as many muscles at once. This is the reason some lifters stay away from leg presses as they won’t get their desired results from them.
  2. It is possible to hear unfamiliar sounds from within your knees. This can include clicking and loud pops but, usually, this is nothing to worry about. It is a common sound, especially when you first get onto the machine.

How to do a hack squat

Now that you know the pros and cons of hack squats and leg presses, you may be wanting to try them out for yourself.

Here is how to perform a successful hack squat:

  1. Find the footprint of the machine and step into this area
  2. Lean back with your shoulders places against the shoulder pads
  3. Position your feet into a regular squat stance (feet outside the knees)
  4. When you feel ready and confident, stand up and then disengage the stoppers
  5. Place your hands on the grips close to your shoulders
  6. Bend your knees and descend slowly
  7. Once you reach parallel or a little below this mark, stop
  8. Now push the platform by your feet away to stand up
  9. Re-engage the machine’s stoppers when you finish your set

Doing this exercise will burn at first but after some time, your stabilization will improve for a much better deadlift. Remember you can alter your foot’s placement to target different areas of your quads.

You may find it a little difficult at first when doing hack squats but there are some techniques to help you.

  1. You can change up the range of reps you do. Compound exercises, such as these, target multiple muscle groups so it is best to load the machine to the rep range that suits your goals best. 3-8 reps should help you gain strength quicker while any more than this may result in greater muscle building for a more athletic exterior.
  2. If you wish to focus on your glutes more you can try using a glute loop or a glute band. You should place your feet in a wide stance on the platform and push your knees out against the band as you perform the action. Your glutes will work much harder when doing this.
  3. If you want your hamstrings to stand out more, you should position your feet higher on the platform with a wider stance. Then push your knees out as you perform the movement. Your knees won't be able to move as much in this position meaning your quads won’t need to be used as much. This results in your quads working overtime.

How to do a leg press

If hack squats are not for you, let's have a look at how to do a leg press.

  1. Lay down on the leg press machine
  2. Place your feet on the platform
  3. Set your feet in a squat stance position
  4. When you feel ready, push the platform for your legs to straighten
  5. Now disengage the machine’s safety catches
  6. Next, bend your knees so that the platform is lowered towards you
  7. Once your thighs are at parallel or below, stop
  8. Finally, push the platform away from you and back into the starting position

As with hack squats, these may feel alien to your body at first so here are some techniques to help you on your way to muscular glutes.

  1. Try various foot placements. As we mentioned earlier, moving your feet around can work different areas of your muscles. Most lifters tend to place their feet in the typical squat stance. This is recommended if you are a beginner. On the other hand, if this is uncomfortable, you will need to adjust your stance width and foot angles. Try a few stances before you find the most comfortable for you and the one that feels strongest.
  2. If you are looking to predominantly target your quads, position yourself into a narrower stance and then place your feet lower on the platform. This will target your quads as your knees will need to move forward at a far greater amount.

Common mistakes

You mustn’t put yourself at risk of injury with these exercises. Here are some mistakes to avoid when doing each exercise.

Hack squat

  • Don’t go too low - Don’t let your heels lift from the platform. Move slowly downward while your knees maintain full contact with your heels on the platform
  • Not pausing at the bottom of a rep - You should perform a brief pause here to make sure your range of motion is consistent
  • Resting too long at the top - Doing this makes it more difficult to complete your reps as tension is taken away from your quads

Leg press

  • Not moving low enough - Ensure your thighs are at parallel or below parallel by bending your knees sufficiently
  • Rounding your lower back at the bottom - This won’t activate most muscles and renders the rep pointless
  • Pad angle is set too high - This means your quads are worked far less resulting in a rounded lower back

In summary

While many strength trainers prefer to leave out hack squats and leg presses from their routines, there are significant benefits from doing one or the other.

If you want to build strong quads and upper leg muscles, these are some of the best exercises you can do.

Hack squats may not be the easiest but they build balance and help your mind for harder workouts. Leg presses are quick exercises that should be incorporated into any HIIT regime. 

If you’re looking to build those squat muscles, add hack squats into your leg day routine but if you want a no-frills leg workout, the leg press is the one for you. 

Kevin Harris
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