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Pop your head into any commercial gym, and you’ll almost certainly see lifters developing their legs using the hack squat and the leg press.
So, what are the differences between the hack squat vs leg press? The main difference between the hack squat and leg press is the number of muscles engaged in each exercise. The hack squat recruits the core and spinal erector muscles, in addition to the quads and hamstrings. The leg press solely uses the quads and hamstrings.
Hack squats are loaded on the shoulders, with the lifter having to squat down and stand up to perform the exercise. The leg presses are loaded via a platform the lifter pushes away while lying down.
I’ve enjoyed using the hack squat and leg press in my lower body workout routines for years, and I find them both effective. However, everybody is different, and I’ve found that one particular exercise is sometimes better for a particular client.
In this article, I’ll thoroughly explain the difference between a hack squat and leg press, including how, why, and when to program each exercise into your training regimen. Finally, I’ll instruct you on how to perform each movement correctly while considering their pros and cons and avoiding common mistakes.
After reading this article, you'll be able to identify whether the hack squat or leg press is best for you based on your fitness needs and goals.
Differences Between the Hack Squat vs Leg Press
At first glance, the hack squat and leg press appear to be similar movements concerning the muscle groups they target, but there are some key differences that you should understand if you want to develop the muscle and strength of your legs.
While these exercises are comparable, they aren’t interchangeable, so the answer to the question, ‘Is a hack squat the same as a leg press?’ is no!
It’s true. They both target the quads and glutes. However, they each apply load to the lifter differently and have unique supporting muscle groups that assist during the exercise.
There are 4 main differences between the leg press and hack squat:
- Weighted Used
- Muscles Worked
The first key difference between the leg press and hack squat is the required equipment.
The hack squat machine consists of a backrest and shoulder pad assembly that slides up and down a set of tracks on either side of the machine with a platform at the bottom. The machine keeps the lifter leaning backward at a 45-degree angle throughout the movement.
On the flip side, the leg press has several machine variations. The less common version places the lifter seated with their feet directly in front of them, requiring the lifter to push the platform horizontally away.
The more common leg press machine has the lifter laying down against a back pad, with their legs angled upwards at a 45-degree angle — pushing the platform away to perform the exercise.
For more, check out the differences between the leg press and the squat.
In the hack squat and leg press, the lifter is leaning back at a 45-degree angle and laying down with their legs up at 45 degrees, respectively. Since the lifter and machine also move horizontally during these exercises, there is a significant change in the biomechanics of the movements.
Consider this: the lifter is fighting entirely against gravity when performing a squat or a bench press. In both cases, the bar is (ideally) moving straight down and directly back upwards.
However, the lifter is not only moving in a vertical plane during the hack squat and the leg press. There is also some horizontal movement of the lifter or load throughout these movements. Because of this, the machines in both exercises support a portion of the weight loaded, and higher weights can be lifted.
3. Weight Used
Now let’s look at the hack squat vs leg press weight load and capacity. The load is supported on the lifter’s shoulders in the hack squat. While there’s also a mix of vertical and horizontal travel of the lifter during this exercise, the weight is still loaded axially (on the back).
In turn, the weights lifted in the hack squat will be greater than those lifted in the back squat. That said, the axial load supported by the lifter must not overwhelm the strength of their torso musculature, which presents a potential limiting factor.
On the other hand, the leg press does not present this problem as the legs entirely support the load. Since the torso musculature does not present a limiting factor whatsoever, significantly higher loads can be lifted in the leg press.
Learn more about the hack squat in my article on Is The Hack Squat Harder?
4. Muscles Worked
The leg press and hack squat machine predominantly target the quads and glutes. The hamstrings and calves are also slightly active in both movements to assist with hip and knee extension, respectively.
However, the abdominals and spinal erectors (back muscles) work harder during the hack squat due to the axial loading demands placed on the torso muscles.
Check out my article, where I discuss how you can modify the leg press to use your glutes more.
Hack Squat: How To, Tips, Mistakes, Muscles Worked & Who It’s For
Hack squat exercises are machine-based compound movements that target the quads and glutes and closely mimic the back squat due to the axial loading (i.e. the load is on the back).
Pros of The Hack Squat
Some of the pros of the hack squat are:
- Developing a strong pair of quads is extremely helpful to your performance in the back squat, as they’re often the limiting factor for most lifters
- If you have a back injury requiring less spinal loading, the hack squat is probably the right choice. While it doesn’t remove axial loading entirely, it certainly reduces it.
Cons of The Hack Squat
Some of the cons of the hack squat are:
- You may feel discomfort in your shoulders. Depending on the weight you’ve loaded on the machine and the design of the pads, you might feel excessive pressure and/or discomfort.
Since it doesn’t entirely eliminate spinal loading, those with sensitive backs might be unable to perform the hack squat pain-free. Try it before loading on any weight if this situation applies to you.
How To Do a Hack Squat
Here’s how to perform a hack squat:
- Step into the footprint of the hack squat machine
- Place your shoulders against the shoulder pads
- Set your feet in your regular squat stance
- When ready, stand up and disengage the stoppers
- Put your hands on the hand grips by your shoulders
- Descend by bending at your knees
- Stop once you’ve reached parallel or slightly below
- Push the platform away to stand up
- When your set is finished, re-engage the stoppers
Looking for hack squat alternatives? Check out the Best Hack Squat Alternatives.
Technique Tips For a Hack Squat
Here are some hack squat tips to help you with your technique:
- Experiment with different rep ranges. As a compound exercise using multiple muscle groups, you’ll benefit most from the hack squat by loading it in the rep range most conducive to your goals. Sticking in the 3-8 rep range will likely give you the greatest strength gains, and the +8 rep range will probably give you a greater hypertrophy stimulus.
- Want to emphasize your hamstrings more? Use a higher foot placement on the platform with a wide stance, and push your knees out as you perform the exercise. This stance won’t let your knees travel as far forward as they would normally, reducing the demand on your quads and shifting it to your hamstrings instead.
- Want to focus more on your glutes? Put on a glute loop or glute band (click to check today’s price) and place your feet in a wide stance on the platform. As you perform the movement, you’ll have to drive your knees out against the band to avoid having them collapse in — making your glutes work overtime.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Hack Squat
The most common faults in the hack squat are:
- Not having a standardized range of motion. Ensuring all reps are brought to the same depth is important in order to apply proper progressive overload. To facilitate this, you can either slow down at the bottom or pause at the bottom of each rep to ensure consistency in your range of motion.
- Going too low. Yes, deep reps will help build your quads, but you don’t want your heels to lift up off the platform to make that happen. The key is to descend as low as possible while maintaining full contact with your heels on the platform. Read my tips on how to squat deeper.
Resting too long at the top. It’s common for lifters to bang out most of the reps for their set, then begin taking extended breaks at the top with their knees locked. Doing this too often makes it more difficult to compare your sets, as the tension is shifted off your quads when your knees are fully extended.
Bonus tip: If you also find your heels rising when you perform the back squat, check out my article on How To Fix Heel Rising During Squats (7 Tips).
Muscles Used: Hack Squat
The primary muscles used in the hack squat are the:
The secondary muscles used in the hack squat are the:
- Spinal erectors (back muscles)
The hack squat requires significant knee and hip flexion (bending). These actions require the quads and glutes to fire for the lifter to stand up.
If the lifter descends below parallel, the adductors will assist greatly to help with hip extension (straightening). The calves will also be recruited more in this position to assist with ankle and knee extension.
Finally, the abdominals and stabilizer muscles along your spine (spinal erectors) contribute slightly to maintaining the integrity of the torso throughout the exercise.
I wrote a full guide on the muscles used in the squat and different variations of the squat.
Who Should Perform the Hack Squat?
The hack squat is a relatively safe exercise for most lifters (including beginners). However, it’s important to get your form right to avoid injuries. Those who have suffered from a lower back or knee injury should avoid the hack squat until fully rehabilitated. The leg press is a better option if you’re dealing with a lower back injury.
Those who are powerlifters or strongman athletes would perform the barbell squat better than the hack squat, but there’s no reason not to supplement your free weight training with the hack squat every so often.
Leg Press: How To, Tips, Mistakes, Muscles Worked & Who It’s For
The leg press is a machine-based exercise that works the quads and glutes with minimal demand placed on the upper body.
How To Do a Leg Press
Here’s how to set up a leg press:
- Lay down on the leg press machine and put your feet on the platform
- Set your feet in the same position as your squat stance
- When ready, push the platform to straighten your legs
- Disengage the safety catches
- Bend at your knees to lower the platform towards you
- Stop once your thighs are at or below parallel
- Push the platform away and back to the starting position
Bonus tip: Many lifters experience clicking and popping noises while they lift — this phenomenon is called crepitus. It’s usually harmless, and rarely is it ever painful. If it annoys you, try out different stance widths and toe angles to see if it goes away.
Looking for an alternative to the leg press? I wrote an article on the Best Leg Press Alternatives.
Technique Tips For a Leg Press
Here are some leg press tips to help you with your technique:
- Be open-minded in trying different foot placements. Most lifters will place their feet in their usual squat stance, which is probably the best. However, you need to be willing to adjust your stance width and toe angle if you don’t find your original stance comfortable. You might find that a completely different foot placement feels stronger.
- Want to hit your quads more? Take a narrower stance and place your feet lower on the platform. While this will require decent ankle mobility, it also targets your quads more due to greater forward knee travel.
Bonus tip: If you want to hit your quads more but can’t get deep enough due to fewer mobile ankles, throw on a pair of squat shoes. The raised heel will assist in letting your knees travel forward and emphasize your quads more.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Leg Press
The most common faults in the leg press are:
- Not going low enough. To maximize the development of your quads, you want to encourage lots of knee flexion (bending) by going as deep as possible with your reps. Ensure that you at least get your thighs to parallel or (preferably) below parallel.
- Setting the pad angle too high. The back pad angled too high might feel good because you can lift more weight as the range of motion is reduced. However, the shortened distance the platform must travel means you work your quads less, and your lower back will be more likely to round.
- Having your lower back round at the bottom. When your low back rounds, it’s usually in an attempt to sink your reps deeper. Since most lifters use the leg press to emphasize their quads, feeling this exercise in your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, low back) means the main purpose has been missed. Plus, not using proper form in the leg press (or any exercise in your leg day routine, such as sumo or regular squats) can increase the risk of injuries.
I wrote another guide comparing the leg press vs squat, explaining that you might not need to do both exercises.
Muscles Used: Leg Press
The primary muscles used in the leg press are the:
The secondary muscles used in the leg press are the:
The high degree of knee and hip flexion (bending) that happens in the leg press makes the quads and glutes the main movers in this exercise.
When below parallel, the adductors kick in significantly more to help the lifter extend (straighten) their hips on the ascent. Lastly, the calves also assist to a small degree to extend the ankles and knees.
Check out my other article discussing the different foot placements for leg press.
Who Should Perform the Leg Press?
The leg press is a much better option than the hack squat for beginner lifters. As long as you’re uninjured, you won’t have trouble using the leg press, and it’s an ideal exercise to target your quads and hamstrings without recruiting too much of your glutes and calves.
Hack Squat vs Leg Press Weight Used?
Depending on which of your lower body muscles are strongest, you might be able to lift more weight in the hack squat than the less press or vice versa. However, most people can lift more weight in the leg press than they are in any squat variation, including the hack squat. This is partly because the leg press machine offers more stabilization than the hack squat.
Hack Squat vs Leg Press for Quads?
Both the hack squat and leg press target the quadriceps muscles. The hack squat is a well-rounded lower-body exercise that works the anterior and posterior leg muscles and the core. The leg press primarily targets the quads, so isolating the anterior lower body muscles is better.
Tips to Improve Your Leg Workouts From A Trainer
Here are some simple tips to improve the effectiveness of your leg workouts:
- Fuel your workouts with pre-workout carbohydrates and post-workout meals that are rich in complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.
- Always warm up and activate your lower body muscles before you begin your leg workout.
- Prioritize rest and recovery days to support your body in muscle tissue repair.
- Perform compound exercises at the start of your workout to get the most ‘bang for your buck.’
- Perform bilateral and unilateral exercises in your leg workouts to ensure a strong and balanced physique.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the hack squat better than leg press?
Neither the hack squat nor leg press is superior to the other. They’re both beneficial lower body exercises for building muscle and strength and which one you choose largely comes down to your preferences and the equipment available in your gym.
Should I do the hack squat and leg press on the same day?
You can perform the hack squat and leg press during the same workout. The hack squat enables you to mimic a barbell squat and activate most of your lower body muscles. The leg press adds volume to your workout and pushes you to failure.
Can I replace the hack squat with the leg press?
I wouldn’t recommend completely replacing the hack squat with the leg press machine because the former targets more muscles than the latter and has more carry-over to the barbell squat. However, there’s no harm in occasionally interchanging the two as part of a larger leg training program.
So, is the leg press the same as squats? No, these lower body exercises are different, although there is a lot of overlap between the two.
Whether to perform the hack squat or leg press will depend mostly on your overarching training goal. Powerlifters may perform the leg press or the hack squat to assist their main compound lifts, as might bodybuilders. They’re great for supplementing your strength training and increasing your workout intensity, volume, and effectiveness.
Hack squats are a better choice if you want an exercise that is more specific to the back squat or you simply prefer this machine to the leg press.
Leg presses are a better choice if you want to avoid spinal loading entirely, remove any trunk and/or upper body musculature from assisting, or you just enjoy this exercise more than hack squats.
Ultimately, when comparing the leg press vs hack squat, neither of these leg exercises has an inherent advantage over the other. It depends on which will match your goal and training preferences the most.
Related Article: Leg Extension vs Leg Curl: Differences, Pros, Cons.