The 4 Best Hack Squat Alternatives: How to Build Big Quads Without Stressing Your Spine

January 18, 2022

About the Author: Eric Bach Performance

Guest Post by Lee Boyce

Many lifters want to build muscular quads and a powerful lower body but struggle to squat safely and effectively. Enter the hack squat–and the following hack squat alternatives to help you build a high-performance body regardless of how well equipped your gym is.

What is a hack squat?

As seen below, this is a typical hack squat machine that you’ll most commonly find in commercial gyms.

hack squat, hack squat alternatives

 The hack squat is incredibly popular because you can load them heavily and assume a bilateral stance, similar to barbell squats. You can take advantage of a fixed path of movement (the machine is on tracks), and a reduced axial load, which can be a spine-saver.

What Muscles Does The Hack Squat work?

There’s no need to overcomplicate it here: hack squats are still a squat. They build your glutes, hamstrings, calves, adductors, abductors, and especially your quads with less stress on your spine.

How To Hack Squat


With hack squats, your feet are typically placed in an even bilateral stance, somewhere hip to shoulder-width apart. It’s okay for the toes to point slightly outward.

Ideally, a lifter will hold on to the handles placed at shoulder level, keep the feet flat on the platform (with the heels remaining on the surface at all times), and descend to a deep knee flexion that brings the joint angle to a minimum of 90 degrees – or ‘parallel.’

Since the quads are primarily knee extensors, the deeper the knee flexion is achieved, the more heavily the quads will be recruited on each rep. Most who perform the hack squat will notice the majority of the activation in the quads, but this could come at the expense of the knees’ health.

As an individual who has suffered a bilateral patellar tendon rupture (requiring double reconstructive knee surgery), I can speak from first-hand experience when I say that squat-based patterns can be very trying on the knees despite the use of good form and technique – especially if you have longer legs or a greater distance to travel. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the basic construction of the hack squat machine.

 

As you can see, the hack squat in its standard form relies on 90-degree angles.

The shoulder pads are at a 90-degree angle to the flatbed and its tracks, and, most importantly, the foot platform is positioned at a 90-degree angle to the tracks also. This can prove to be a bit less universal and inclusive when put under the microscope. 

For this reason, it’s worth exploring other variations of hack squats that may be able to make the mechanics and other particulars of the hack squat more forgiving for a greater amount of lifters to benefit from.

 

Simple To Use Hack Squat Alternatives

So you don’t have access to a hack squat. What other spine-saver squats can get you the same results?

Hack Squat Alternatives: Landmine Hack Squat 

Landmine hack squats have become more popular over the years.

Using a landmine set up to mimic a hack squat may put a slight damper on the amount of weight that can be lifted – but that’s allowable considering the hack squat movement as a whole is typically used as a hypertrophy tool and not a staple for increasing max strength efforts. With this in mind, the weight lifted is less relevant. The quality of the muscular contraction is infinitely more important.

To perform a landmine hack squat, a lifter loads one end of a barbell and either docks the free end in a sturdy corner or into a specialized landmine attachment to ensure the stability of the setup.

The lifter will then pick the loaded end of the weight up to shoulder level, and face away from the landmine bar.

It’s essential to place the feet in a position well out in front of the bar, so the upper back has the opportunity to lean right back against the plate. Put simply, if the bar was to be removed, the lifter should fall right backward, not able to keep balance. 

Using a comfortable foot width that promotes the best depth, the lifter descends by dropping the hips downward and letting the feet push forward into the floor. This constant tension will make for a knee-friendly pattern to hammer your quads.

Troubleshooting the Landmine hack squat:

Troubleshooting this exercise means getting ahead of potential issues with the setup:

Once the weight starts getting heavier, it can become a bit more of a hassle to get the weight from the floor up to the shoulder level, so it’s best to dock the bar on a high box instead of the ground for an easier transition.  

As you’ll see in the video, the plates’ size also matters. It’s less ideal to use 25-pound plates if they’re smaller than your 45-pound plates.

If you have bumper plates (which are all the same size as 45’s), it’s much more comfortable and creates a larger surface across which you can place your back.

If you only have iron plates that are many sizes, then try loading them from smallest to largest on the sleeve, so the biggest plate is the one that goes against the back. 

Hack Squat Alternatives: Heels Elevated Dumbbell Squat 

As mentioned, many lifters struggle to achieve enough dorsiflexion to make squat patterns (like the hack squat) a true quad builder due to insufficient knee flexion and overall range.

Similarly, if you squat with a wide, powerlifting stance, your squat is incredibly hip, groin, and lower back dominant. You can improve ankle dorsiflexion by using the heels elevated dumbbell squat and grow your quads faster.

Using a heel wedge, slant board, or if short on equipment, elevating your heels on plates, you can create adequate dorsiflexion and grow your quads.


All I did for this wedge is take a wobble board and prop it up securely by placing two hex dumbbells behind it, lengthwise. If you have access to some form of sturdy wood plank(s), it’s quite easy to makeshift a wedge in a similar fashion, given your gym doesn’t carry the real thing. Alternatively, order one online – they’re not hard to find.

 

How To Do Heels Elevated Dumbbell Squats:

Set up your wedge or makeshift wedge in a clear space, and make sure it’s sturdy. Place the dumbbells close to the wedge. Next, Stand right in front of the wedge, and pick up the dumbbells. Step back onto the wedge, making sure both full feet are on the wedge. Your toes shouldn’t be hanging off.

It’s okay to assume a duck-footed stance (heels together, toes outward). This will set you up for a great hit for the quads.  Keep the torso vertical, squat down.

Allow the knees to travel forward and press hard into the wedge with your full foot.

Hold the dumbbells by your sides and keep the arms long the entire time.

It’s okay if they drift slightly forward toward the bottom of each rep. This setup spares the shoulders of any excess stress since the hands aren’t up high. 

Aim for sets of 12-20 reps. These work best when the legs are already pre-fatigued from other lifts in your lower body workout. The lift’s geometry may be slightly different than a true hack squat on a machine, but the emphasis is all the same. 

Hack Squat Alternatives: Banded Leg Press 

For many lifters, knee or hip pain (especially in deep flexion) can put a damper on their ability to use the hack squat machine – or other similar exercises like the leg press or even squat.

With that said, using bands for a makeshift leg press setup can be the answer. A banded leg press allows for the forces to be lowest at deep flexion (where knees, hips, and spine are most vulnerable) while making for a great hit for the quads and glutes and a hell of a pump when using high reps – which I recommend.

You’ll also see that I’m not pressing the bands in a straight vertical line above my torso. Instead, I’m angling things away slightly to better simulate a 45-degree leg press or hack squat movement, and also to achieve a greater ROM/stretch to the bands.

Once you find the resistance level that works best for you, go to town. If it’s too light, do them one-legged. Problem solved. 

Hack Squat Alternatives: Just Do Other Accessible Quad Work 

There’s nothing wrong with ditching an exercise or its variations if it’s just plain not working for you after some trial and error.

My suggestions above get pretty creative – and they’re damn effective – but they can easily be subbed out in favor of some old classics to stimulate quad growth. 

  • Barbell front squats: The front-loading allows for a vertical torso to be maintained, meaning more knee flexion is required to perform the exercise. More knee flexion equals more quad involvement.

     

     

  • Short Stride Lunges: Simply shortening the stride on your walking lunges makes them a very quad-dominant movement. Enough said. To take them up a notch, consider duck lunges.

     

     

  • Reverse Nordics (band-assisted optional): This is a great choice for the stay-at-home crowd who are stuck amid gym closures due to COVID restrictions.


    A simple bodyweight exercise that takes advantage of the length-tension relationship, and becomes a rare quad-dominant exercise that trains them while the hips remain extended. There are no other quad exercises that do this (think about it!)

About The Author:
Lee Boyce

Lee Boyce is a former university level sprinter, a sought after personal trainer, an adjunct college professor, and the most prolific fitness writer in the world working today. He’s the owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems, and has been published over 1200 times in many of the world’s largest mainstream publications, including The Wall St. Journal, Men’s Health, T-Nation, Men’s Journal, SHAPE, STRONG Fitness Magazine, Esquire, and Oxygen, along with peer-reviewed journals like Personal Training Quarterly for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  Most recently, Boyce has been speaking around North America (and has plenty more speaking engagements lined up once COVID subsides). Follow @coachleeboyce on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and visit his website www.leeboyce.com.  

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