Hack squats are a monster for building quads in the gym. Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to do this exercise on a Smith machine like a champion. Next stop, Quadtown!
The hack squat is one of my all-time favorite squat variations.
Thanks to the nature of the exercise, your back stays straight (less risk of injury!) and the focus is placed almost entirely on your legs.
As a result, you can maximize the activation of your leg muscles, improve hip and knee mobility, and see some serious strength gains with far fewer sets and reps!
But what do you do if you don’t have a hack squat machine? Are you just out of luck and unable to do hack squats?
Well, if you’ve got a Smith machine in your gym or home gym, that’s everything you need to do hack squats like a boss!
In this guide, we will look over how to use the Smith machine to rock out with hack squats.
Let’s jump right in.
Hack Squats – Overview
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how do to hack squats on the Smith machine, I think it’s important that we take a closer look at what hack squats are and why they should be a staple of your regular Leg Day sessions.
The hack squat is a squat variation that typically uses a machine that restricts your movement to a single plane of motion (up/down, sometimes at an angle).
The hack squat machine uses a weighted sled that travels on a sliding rail, with the weight resting on your shoulders as you squat. But because you’re pressing your upper body against the sled’s cushion, your lower back is virtually eliminated from the equation and your legs do all the work.
The hack squat muscles worked include:
- Quads (rectus femoris, vastus medialus, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius)
- Calves (to a very limited degree)
- Abdominal muscles (to a very limited degree)
The position of your body (pressing backward against the sled’s cushion, typically at an incline) isolates and targets your legs with maximum efficiency for maximum hypertrophy.
You’ll find that hack squats aren’t as good for overall fitness as, say, front or back squats.
As I discussed in my hack squat vs back squat article, the fact that you have to struggle to stay balanced doing free weight squats means your secondary stabilizer muscles work along with your legs. This leads to better overall strength and balance in a wider range of motion beyond just the standard squatting movement.
However, one of the main benefits of hack squats is that it isolates your legs, effectively removing the secondary stabilizer muscles from the equation.
Isolation may not be as good for overall fitness, but it does wonders to maximize muscular growth. Hack squats are one of the best squat variations for building monster quads.
Some of the other benefits include:
- Excellent hamstring activation. At the bottom of the squat, when your knees are bent, your hamstrings do a lot of the work of starting to push you back up. It’s an excellent exercise to strengthen your hamstrings while still targeting the quads.
- Better abs strength. Your back may be largely removed from the equation, but your abs have to contract throughout the full squat motion. As a result, you’ll see real improvement in your abs strength.
- Focus on form/posture. Because the weight is sliding along the rail, it can only move in a single plane of motion (up/down) and so there is no additional struggle to maintain your balance. It’s much easier to pay attention to your form and posture throughout when working with machines like the hack squat or Smith machine.
- Great knee and spinal stabilization. One 2020 study compared a number of different squat types (including Zercher, hack, front, back, and sumo) and found that the hack squat is the most effective at increasing knee and spinal stabilization, strengthening the muscles that support these critical joints.
As you can see, there are a lot of amazing reasons to love the hack squat!
But what if you don’t have a hack squat machine at home? Don’t worry! As long as you’ve got access to a Smith machine, you’re all set.
You see, the Smith machine functions pretty much exactly the same as the hack squat machine. Its weight slides along a fixed rail, moving only in the up/down plane of motion.
While it’s not designed specifically for the hack squat, it doesn’t take much to adjust your posture/form to use the Smith machine to knock out as many sets of hack squats as you want.
How to Do Hack Squats on a Smith Machine Like a Pro
Alrighty, here is a step-by-step breakdown of how to do hack squats on the Smith machine:
Step 1: Set up right. You’ll want to set the barbell on a hook/cradle at roughly shoulder height (or just below). Load up with enough weight to feel the burn without overloading initially.
Trainer’s Note: Never start out at max weight with any new exercise! That’s how you injure yourself, or learn improper form. Work light at first, master the form, and only then add weight.
Step 2: Adopt the right stance. With a regular squat, your feet are typically placed directly beneath the barbell. However, for hack squats, you want to shift your feet forward, placing them 10-15 inches in front of your hips.
Read this post on the best foot position for hack squats to learn how you can master the proper foot placement for this exercise.
Step 3: Lean back and lift. Lean back against the bar and press upward with your legs to lift the barbell from the cradle/hook. Adjust the placement of the barbell so it rests directly across the back of your shoulders. NEVER rest it on the back of your neck—that’s how you risk spinal strain!
Note: If you have a barbell pad, use it! It can help to reduce strain on your spine and make the exercise much more comfortable.
Step 4: Squat. Bend at the knees and keep your back perfectly straight as you squat. It will feel like you’re sliding down a wall, with your upper back pressed against the barbell. Let your legs do all the work of lowering you slowly and under control. Lower until your knees reach a 90-degree angle, with your thighs parallel to the floor.
Step 5: Push back up. Squeeze your quads and extend your knees to push your body back up from the squat. Focus on feeling your glutes and hamstrings, too, especially at the lowest part of the exercise.
Note: You may feel a bit of tension in your knees as the lower quad muscles press against them. If you experience knee pain, try stopping your descent before the 90-degree angle, or shifting your feet slightly.
Step 6: Pause at the top. Once you reach the top of the exercise, pause for a 1-count before lowering once more. Make sure all of your movements are controlled, and give yourself a momentary pause between reps to avoid bouncing or jerking.
Step 7: Repeat as desired. Ideally, you’ll work in the 4-6 rep range for building power, 8-12 rep range for building strength, and 15-25 rep range for building endurance. Add or remove weight as desired, and aim for at least three sets of hack squats.
Smith Machine Hack Squats – FAQ
What are some alternatives to Smith Machine hack squats?
Heck, you can even turn it around and try the reverse hack squat facing the machine instead of with your back to it.
If you’re working with free weights, the same exercises are equally effective, but you get more overall muscle engagement rather than isolation, which leads to more functional fitness.
Of course, there are always the leg extension machines, which help you to isolate your quads as effectively as the Smith machine hack squat.
Granted, it’s not the best option for your knees (it can increase joint strain), but if you don’t have a Smith machine or hack squat machine, it’s a good fallback option.
Do Smith Machine hack squats help to improve regular squats?
Absolutely! While this exercise is intended to isolate your quads, you still build serious leg muscle power by performing hack squats. When it comes time to perform regular squats, you’ll find your quads can bring a lot more to the table and generate significant amounts of power.
You may have to pay more attention to the other muscles involved in regular squats—such as your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and obliques—because they aren’t recruited as effectively in hack squats.
However, thanks to the increased power in your quads, you’ll see massive improvement in your regular front/back squat performance as a result of the time you put into hack squats!
The Bottom Line
Of all the leg machines at the gym, the Smith machine is one of the most versatile—and effective.
You’ll find that using it to do hack squats allows you to add variety into your workout without needing to add another machine to your home gym setup.
As long as you follow the instructions above and pay attention to your form and posture throughout, you’ll have no trouble adapting the Smith machine to do hack squats.
The next time you head to the gym, slide into the Smith Machine and take your legs to Quadtown.
More Hack Squat Guides Like This:
🏆 Best Hack Squat Machines for Home and Commercial Gyms. Ready to take leg day to the next level? Here’s a look at the best hack squat machines for home and commercial gyms.
7 Benefits of Hack Squats (Plus Disadvantages, Muscles Worked, Form Tips). The hack squat is a killer squat variation for lifters who want to take leg day to the next level. Here’s your complete guide to the benefits, muscles worked, and form tips for the hack squat.