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Hack Squat Vs Leg Press: Which is Superior!?

February 07, 2024

Hack Squat Vs Leg Press: Which is Superior?

The fitness world is brimming with countless exercises, but few have been debated as extensively as the "Hack Squat Vs Leg Press"

Both are powerhouses when it comes to sculpting and strengthening the lower body. At a glance, you might even think, "Aren't they practically the same thing?" But a closer look reveals that the slight variations in machine setup can alter the muscle focus quite a bit.

So, here's the million-dollar question: which one tops the other? The answer is more complex than you might think. Much in the world of fitness, the "best" choice often rests on individual goals. Are you gunning for quad dominance or a well-rounded lower-body workout?

Today, we’re setting these two leg-building exercises side by side to unveil those nuanced differences. By the end, you'll have a clear picture, helping you decide where to channel your gym-time energy. Let the battle begin!


Hack Squat Overview

The hack squat is like the sophisticated cousin of the traditional squat we all know and sometimes...well, have a love-hate relationship with. While they share similarities, the hack squat introduces an intriguing twist.

Instead of the familiar feel of a barbell resting on your back, the hack squat places the resistance on a sled. This design not only eradicates the need to stabilize a hefty barbell but also offers a different take on muscle engagement.

Step onto a hack squat machine, and you'll notice your stance is upright yet tilted at a 45-degree angle due to the machine's design. It's a posture that might feel odd initially, but there's a method to the madness. The real force here? The shoulder pads. They press downwards, providing the resistance that challenges your muscles.

And here's the kicker: every ounce of strength you muster and build on this machine mirrors the traditional squat. So, any power gains here transfer seamlessly to your barbell squat. It's a win-win if you ask us!


How to Perform the Hack Squat

The hack squat, when done right, can be a game-changer for your lower body workout. The key? Ensuring your form is spot-on to reap its full benefits and avoid unwanted strain. Particular attention to the hack squat foot placement can spell the difference between an effective exercise and one that risks injury.

Here's a step-by-step breakdown:

  1. Start by cozying up to the machine, pressing your back against the pad, and tucking your shoulders beneath the shoulder pads.
  2. Position your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform, toes turned out just a smidge. Remember to keep your head up and back glued to the pad throughout the entire motion.
  3. Grip the side handles, take a deep breath, and release the safety bars, typically by tilting them diagonally.
  4. Stand tall with your legs straight but knees soft, setting the stage for your starting position.
  5. Now, descend by bending your knees, keeping your upper body tall and your eyes forward. Lower down until your thighs are shy of a 90-degree bend, less than parallel to the floor.
  6. Drive up through the heels, exhaling as you extend your legs back to start.
  7. Aim for the sweet spot in reps, keeping the quality of each one top-notch.


Hack Squat: Pros and Cons

While the hack squat has made a name for itself in the gym world for its ability to craft chiseled quads and a solid lower body, it's essential to know its benefits and potential downsides. Knowing what to expect can help you integrate it effectively into your training regimen, ensuring you reap the rewards and avoid pitfalls.

Below, we’ve broken down the pros and cons of the hack squat to provide a comprehensive view of this popular exercise.

Hack Squat Pros

Hack Squat Cons

●     Reduced spinal loading compared to the barbell alternative

●     Transferable strength between the hack squat and barbell squat

●     Great for building and strengthening the quads

●     Builds stabilizing muscles: abs and spinal erectors

●     A compound exercise targeting multiple muscle groups

●     Foot positioning flexibility emphasizes various muscles

●     Relatively easy to pick up and master

●     Full range of motion at both the knees and hips

●     Not every gym has a hack squat machine

●     It may be uncomfortable for taller athletes

●     The deep range of motion can stress the knees

●     Exert significant pressure on the shoulders

●     Reduced weight capacity compared to the leg press


While the hack squat is an all-star for many, it’s essential to consider these points to ensure it aligns with your fitness goals and physical comfort. If you're tall or have shoulder issues, you might need to approach the hack squat with a bit more caution. On the flip side, its ease of learning and ability to hone in on those quads make it a worthy addition to your workouts.


Leg Press Overview

The leg press is a go-to machine for those looking to hammer their lower body without the complexity of squatting movements. It's a bit like sitting down on the job — except this seat is part of a powerful resistance training tool. Unlike the hack squat, which begins with a quasi-standing position, the leg press has you sitting pretty as you gear up to challenge your legs.

Imagine this: You're locked into a comfy seat, facing off against a weight plate. That's where the magic happens. Here, it’s all about the push. The leg press calls for a mighty drive through your feet, propelling the weight away from your body. Think of it as the opposite of the hack squat; rather than shouldering the load, you’re thrusting it with your legs.

And don't let the seated posture fool you — the leg press is no light contender. Although it doesn't mimic a squat's natural movement, it's an excellent way to press (quite literally) your leg muscles into hefty action. With the leg press, it’s less about squatting down and more about pushing away, an action that targets your thigh and glute muscles with a vengeance.


How to Perform the Leg Press

Performing the leg press effectively means paying attention to detail. Here's a step-by-step guide to ensure you get the most out of this exercise:

  1. Sit down on the leg press machine and place your feet on the sled in front of you. A shoulder-width stance is a good starting point, with toes pointing slightly outward.
  2. Make sure your back and buttocks are flat against the seat and backrest. Adjust the seat if needed to find a comfortable starting position.
  3. Grasp the side handles or the seat edges, bracing your upper body.
  4. Carefully disengage the safety latches with your hands or straighten your legs if the machine design allows.
  5. Lower the weight slowly by bending your knees, keeping the movement smooth and controlled. Stop when your knees form a 90-degree angle, but don’t let your buttocks lift off the seat.
  6. Press through the heels and midfoot to push the weight back up, extending your legs without locking your knees at the top.
  7. Repeat the movement for your set number of repetitions, maintaining form throughout the exercise.


Leg Press Pros and Cons

The leg press machine is a staple in gyms for good reasons. It's an efficient way to pack muscle and strength in your lower body. But, as with any exercise, there are trade-offs. Here's a rundown of the advantages and drawbacks of adding the leg press to your workout regime.

Leg Press Pros

Leg Press Cons

●     Beginner friendly

●     A safer alternative to free weight exercises

●     Great overall lower body isolation exercise

●     Joint friendly. Less stress put through the lower back and knees

●     Easier to implement progressive overload

●     You can lift heavier weights, which can help with motivation

●     Bilateral and unilateral benefits. You can train both legs or one leg at a time.

●     You can target different muscles by varying foot positions

●     Great for hypertrophy training. You can train close to failure

●     Most gyms have some form of leg press machine

●     More hamstring recruitment

●     Limited functional application. It doesn’t translate well to sporting disciplines

●     Limited range of motion due to seated position (you can never achieve full hip extension)

●     It doesn’t target stabilising muscles like other squat alternatives

●     While lifting heavy weights can help with motivation, it’s a fine line between working with weights you can lift and ego lifting – which gets you nowhere!

●     Less transferable to the barbell squat

●     You can’t achieve full hip extension

Hack Squat V Leg Press – The Differences

After diving deep into the hack squat and leg press, it's time to put them side by side and unpack their differences. This comparison can serve as a guide for gym enthusiasts, helping them make an informed decision on which exercise best suits their goals.


Machine Type

Hack squat Vs Leg Press - Different machines

Let's start with the machinery. It's clear from the get-go: hack squats are to hack squat machines as leg presses are to leg press machines. They're as different as treadmills are from ellipticals, each designed for a specific kind of exercise.

When you step up to a hack squat machine, you'll notice its consistency across gyms. It's the steadfast equipment with a fixed angle, typically set at 45 degrees, where you load up the plates and get to squatting. On the flip side, leg press machines can be a bit of a mixed bag. They come in various forms, but for our purpose, we'll stick to the widely popular 45-degree type, where you recline and press up and away.

The hack squat machine keeps you on your feet, aligned in a modified standing position, guiding your form. In contrast, the leg press situates you on your back or in a reclined seat, with your feet high on a sled, challenging you to press the weight upwards.

The design of these machines dictates not only how you engage with them but also the muscles worked and the overall impact on your body.


Muscles Involved

Both the hack squat and leg press are powerhouses when it comes to targeting muscles of the lower body, but how exactly do they differ in muscle engagement?

Starting with the hack squat, its movement closely mirrors the classic barbell squat. When you perform a hack squat, you're firing up not just the big players like the quads, glutes, and hamstrings but also the calves, adductors, abs, and spinal erectors. Due to the weight being positioned on the shoulders, you'll also feel the burn in your back and shoulder muscles as they activate to support and stabilize throughout the exercise.

Now, switch gears and think about the leg press. It zeroes in exclusively on the lower body. Think quads, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors. Given its design, when you lower the weight towards you, your hips go into deep flexion. This means your glutes are seriously grinding to extend those hips back to the start. However, that deep hip flexion somewhat restricts how much your knees can bend, often halting at a 90-degree angle. This limitation means you’re your will be able to obtain a deep stretch on the glutes, but the stretch on the quads is limited.

In contrast, the hack squat takes those quads on a wild ride, allowing for deep knee flexion as the toes glide over the toes. Why does this matter? Well, working muscles in their lengthened state, as research shows, is a boon for muscle building (1).

The bottom line?

If bulging quads are on your wish list, the hack squat is your go-to. But if you're chasing glute gains, the leg press might just be your best friend. However, here's a pro tip: muscle targeting isn't set in stone. Play around with foot placement to shift the focus.

To dive deeper into this, check out these articles:

  1. Leg Press Foot Positioning
  2. Hack Squat Foot Positioning



When we're talking about "loadability," it's all about how much weight you can pile on. Let's size up our two contenders.

The hack squat machine is quite the beast, even when not fully loaded. Thanks to its movement pattern and the broad range of motion, you'll feel the intensity with just a few plates on each side. It's the quality of the exercise, and the depth you can reach that amplifies the difficulty, not necessarily the quantity of the weight.

Flip the script to the leg press, and you have a different story.

Because the machine has your back—literally—you can stack on weights that might make the hack squat blush. And there's something about pushing a stack of heavy plates that gives you that 'I'm the king of the gym' feeling. It's a serious adrenaline rush and motivation booster to see those numbers increase. Hitting personal records (PRs) on the leg press can give you that edge in strength and the mental game, as everyone loves to see progress in big, bold numbers.

So, if you want to test your limits with some heavyweight, the leg press is your heavyweight champion. But remember, while it's thrilling to push more weight, it's the hack squat that might be quietly sculpting your quad growth with less weight.


Range of Motion

Hack Squat Vs Leg Press - Range of motion

The term "range of motion" (ROM) is often used in fitness circles and for a good reason. Maximizing your ROM isn't just about being a gym show-off; it's fundamentally tied to muscle building.

Evidence points to a positive correlation between ROM and hypertrophy (2), meaning the more you stretch and contract a muscle, the more potential it has for growth, provided you're executing movements safely. But ROM doesn't stop at muscle growth; it also improves overall mobility and flexibility.

Now, when we put our two contenders in the ring—the hack squat and leg press—the difference in their ROM is stark. The hack squat shines in this area, allowing the knees to glide over the toes. This action achieves a full and deep movement at the knee joint. In addition, the hip joint gets its fair share of action, letting you sink deep into the squat, thereby stretching and contracting a myriad of muscles.

The leg press, while a fantastic exercise in its own right, has a few restrictions when it comes to ROM. The design of the machine means that you won't be achieving the same depth at the knee joint as with the hack squat. Moreover, because of the seated nature of the leg press, your hips remain flexed throughout, limiting their motion.

In summary, if a comprehensive range of motion is what you're after, the hack squat might edge out as the winner. But always remember, irrespective of the machine, safety should never be compromised in pursuing a deeper stretch or contraction.


Exercise Safety

Safety is paramount in any fitness regimen, a crucial aspect that can't be overlooked when comparing exercises. The hack squat and the leg press come out on top when considering the safety benefits they offer over traditional squats. The reduced spinal loading in both exercises minimizes the risk of back strains or injuries, especially for those with prior back issues or concerns.

Being machine-based, both the hack squat and leg press provide an inherent level of security and stability. This stability offers gym-goers the advantage of training their lower body intensely without the need for a spotter. It's a game-changer for those who train alone or prefer to challenge themselves without relying on external assistance.

One of the most significant safety features common to both machines is the inclusion of safety pins or stops. These mechanisms act as a lifeline if you find yourself in a sticky situation – like being unable to push the weight up and getting stuck at the bottom of your movement. With the safety pins in place, you can ensure that you won't be trapped or crushed, making both exercises not only effective for muscle growth but also safe for solo workouts.


Difficulty Level

Hack Squat Vs Leg Press - Difficulty level

Starting a fitness journey can be daunting, especially when considering complex exercises. Thankfully, both the hack squat and leg press serve as fantastic entry points for beginners. Opting for these exercises can be a strategic move for those hesitant to embrace the challenging barbell squat immediately.

The hack squat and leg press are foundational exercises to establish base strength. This base strength becomes invaluable when one progresses to more advanced moves, like the barbell squat. They not only familiarize beginners with the movement patterns but also bolster confidence in tackling heavier weights in the future.

While both exercises are beginner-friendly, there are slight variations in their complexity. The leg press, being a direct pressing motion, is arguably more straightforward. You're primarily tasked with pushing a weight away from you. The hack squat, on the other hand, involves the intricacies of a full squatting motion. This makes it a tad more advanced in comparison.

That said, the structured nature of the machines offers guidance and support, making the learning curve for both exercises quite manageable. Beginners can expect to grasp the nuances of these exercises relatively quickly, making them excellent additions to any workout routine, irrespective of one's experience level.


Exercise Availability

Gym equipment availability can often dictate the exercises you can incorporate into your routine. In the context of the hack squat and leg press, there is a noticeable difference in accessibility. While the leg press machine has become a staple in most gyms, the hack squat machine is only sometimes available. This disparity can be a determining factor for many, especially if one doesn't have the luxury of choosing between multiple fitness centers.

It's essential to remember that adaptability is a cornerstone of any effective fitness journey. Sometimes, it's about more than having the perfect equipment but making the most of what's available. So, if you're in a gym without a hack squat machine, don't be disheartened. Leveraging the leg press machine can still provide a comprehensive lower-body workout. After all, it's not the equipment but the effort and consistency that make the difference.


Joint Pressure

Navigating joint health in your workout routine is crucial, especially when selecting exercises that put a significant load on the lower body. The hack squat machine, with its capacity for deep knee flexion, can be a double-edged sword.

On one side, it promotes muscle engagement and enhances mobility and flexibility, which are great for muscle development and joint health. On the flip side, however, this deep flexion can exert considerable pressure on the knees. For those with a history of knee issues or existing vulnerabilities, this can be a serious concern, potentially exacerbating pain or injury.

The leg press, conversely, may offer a safer harbor for those navigating choppy knee-related waters. The seated position and fixed movement path can mitigate some of the direct stress on knee joints while still providing an effective lower-body challenge.

It's not necessarily about avoiding an exercise altogether but rather finding a variation that respects your body's history and its current capabilities. As always, it's wise to consult with a medical professional or a certified trainer to tailor a plan that's both safe and effective for your unique needs.


So, Hack Squat or Leg Press?

The eternal fitness question - hack squat or leg press? If you were hoping for a definitive answer, brace yourself for a little anticlimax.

The truth is, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, it’s about weighing up the relative advantages of each exercise against your unique requirements. The leg press benefits, for instance, might make it a favorable option for those with specific joint concerns or targeting glute development, while the hack squat could be the go-to for those seeking quad-dominant workouts.

To make the right decision, consider your fitness objectives, muscle target preferences, and what feels best and most sustainable for your body. After all, both exercises have their merits, and there's no rule against integrating both into your regimen. Indeed, by doing so, you can tap into the best of both worlds, reaping the rewards each has to offer. Your training journey is uniquely yours, so embrace the freedom of choice and find the blend that suits you best.


References & Further Reading:

  1. Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(4), 484–503.
  2. Schöenfeld, B. J., & Grgić, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. Sage Open Medicine, 8, 205031212090155.


Thomas D
Thomas D


Thomas is a dedicated fitness enthusiast with over 12 years of experience in the gym. As a level 2 qualified gym instructor, he combines his passion for working out and nutrition to help others achieve their fitness goals. Thomas stays up to date with the latest fitness research and follows the work of top experts in the field. With a balance of textbook knowledge and real-life experience, he provides practical guidance to help others reach their full potential.

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