Hack Squats vs Barbell Squats: Which is Better for Building Muscle?

Check out this comparison between two common lower body exercises.

Hack squats vs barbell squats. This is probably a question you wondered in your life. Which one of these common lower body exercises is best for stimulating muscle growth on your legs? Let’s take a deep dive into it and help you choose one or the other.

When it comes to building muscle, one of the age-old debates in the fitness community revolves around the choice between hack squats and barbell squats. Both exercises target the lower body, but each comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between hack squats and barbell squats, examining where, how, and why you should incorporate one or the other into your training routine.

The information below is based on a video recently shared by Mike Israetel. Dr Mike Israetel, PhD in Sport Physiology and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization, is a well-respected professor in the bodybuilding community. He doesn’t only talk about workouts and fitness tips, he often dives deep into health and nutrition.

Before diving into the comparison, it’s important to note that Dr. Mike Israetel offers insights throughout this discussion. As an advocate for achieving peak physical condition, Dr. Mike shares valuable information on how to maximize gains and live your best life.

Hacks for Bigger Legs

Hack Squats vs Barbell Squats: Which is Better for Building Muscle?

Barbell Squats

Let’s start by breaking down the benefits and drawbacks of barbell squats. Barbell squats are a foundational compound movement that engages various muscle groups, making them an efficient choice for overall lower body development. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to perform a classic barbell back squat:

1. Set Up the Barbell:

  • Begin by adjusting the height of the squat rack to match your shoulder level.
  • Load the appropriate weight plates onto the barbell. Beginners may start with just the bar to practice the movement before adding more weight.

2. Position Yourself Under the Bar:

  • Stand facing the barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart. Ensure the bar is at the correct height for your shoulders.
  • Duck under the bar and position it across your upper back, resting it on your trapezius muscles. Ensure the bar is centered on your back.

3. Grip the Bar:

  • Reach up and grasp the bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width. Your palms should be facing forward, and your elbows should be pointing down and back.

4. Unrack the Bar:

  • Stand up and step back from the rack, making sure your feet are in a stable position and aligned with your shoulders.

5. Set Your Stance:

  • Position your feet shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider, with your toes pointing slightly outward. Finding a comfortable and stable stance is essential.

6. Brace Your Core:

  • Take a deep breath and brace your core. This helps stabilize your spine and protect your lower back during the lift.

7. Initiate the Descent:

  • Begin the squat by pushing your hips back, as if sitting into an imaginary chair. Simultaneously, bend your knees and lower your body straight down.

8. Maintain Proper Form:

  • Keep your chest up and your back straight throughout the movement. Aim to descend until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground or lower, maintaining a full range of motion.

9. Drive Through Your Heels:

  • As you reach the bottom of the squat, push through your heels to drive the weight back up. Focus on engaging your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

10. Exhale at the Top:

  • Once you’ve reached the top of the movement, exhale and squeeze your glutes to fully extend your hips.

11. Rack the Bar:

  • Walk the barbell back to the squat rack and carefully rack it.

Some key benefits of barbell squats include:

  1. Quadriceps Focus: Barbell squats effectively target the quads, along with engaging the glutes, adductors, and lower back.
  2. Real-world Strength: As a ballistic movement requiring balance, barbell squats contribute to real-world strength and sports performance.
  3. Versatility: Barbell squats accommodate different body sizes and proportions, offering a wide range of variations, such as high bar, low bar, and front squats.

Despite their numerous advantages, barbell squats come with their own set of challenges:

  1. Technical Mastery: Barbell squats require time and effort to master due to their technical nature. Learning proper form is crucial to prevent injuries.
  2. Systemic Fatigue: Barbell squats can induce high levels of systemic fatigue, potentially impacting other areas of your training.
  3. Limitations for Some Body Types: Individuals with shorter torsos and longer femurs or limited ankle mobility may find barbell squats less ideal for quad growth.

Moreover, barbell squats may not be the most effective choice for those seeking high-repetition training, as breathing can become a limiting factor beyond 15 reps.

Ultimate 100 Rep Glute Workout Reasons Why You Need Strong GlutesSource: Your House Fitness

Hack Squats

Now, let’s shift our focus to hack squats and their unique attributes.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to perform a hack squat:

1. Set Up the Hack Squat Machine:

  • Adjust the footplate to a position that aligns with your shoulder width. The angle of the footplate can also be adjusted based on your comfort and target muscle engagement.
  • Load the appropriate weight onto the machine. Beginners may start with lighter weights to familiarize themselves with the movement.

2. Position Yourself on the Machine:

  • Stand on the machine’s platform with your back against the pad and your shoulders positioned under the shoulder pads.
  • Place your feet on the footplate shoulder-width apart, or adjust to a stance that feels comfortable for you.

3. Adjust Your Body Position:

  • Ensure your back is firmly against the pad and your shoulders are securely positioned under the shoulder pads.
  • Grip the handles on either side of the machine to maintain balance.

4. Set Your Stance:

  • Position your feet on the footplate, ensuring your toes are slightly pointed outward. The placement of your feet can vary based on personal preference.

5. Brace Your Core:

  • Engage your core by taking a deep breath and tightening your abdominal muscles. This helps stabilize your spine during the movement.

6. Descend into the Squat:

  • Lower your body by bending at the knees while keeping your back against the pad. Aim to achieve at least a 90-degree bend in your knees to ensure a full range of motion.

7. Maintain Proper Form:

  • Keep your chest up, shoulders back, and avoid rounding your back during the descent. This ensures proper muscle engagement and reduces the risk of injury.

8. Drive Through Your Heels:

  • Push through your heels to extend your knees and return to the starting position. Focus on engaging your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes during the ascent.

9. Exhale at the Top:

  • As you reach the top of the movement, exhale and squeeze your quadriceps and glutes to fully extend your hips and knees.

10. Repeat:

  • Perform the desired number of repetitions, maintaining control throughout the movement.

Here are some of the benefits of performing hack squats:

  1. Quad Emphasis: Hack squats excel at isolating the quads, providing a targeted stimulus for quadriceps growth.
  2. Reduced Fatigue: Compared to barbell squats, hack squats induce less systemic and axial fatigue, making them suitable for higher-volume training.
  3. Variation: While hack squats lack the versatility of barbell squats, they offer variation in rep ranges, allowing for effective quad targeting with sets ranging from 5 to 20 reps.

Despite their advantages, hack squats also have limitations:

  1. Limited Variation: Hack squats offer fewer variations compared to barbell squats, limiting overall exercise selection.
  2. Height Restrictions for Short Individuals: Some hack squat machines may not provide a deep stretch for shorter individuals, potentially limiting their effectiveness.
  3. Frictional Component: The frictional component in hack squats can make the concentric phase harder and the eccentric phase easier, affecting the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio.

Strategic Recommendations Based on Fitness Levels

Now that we’ve explored the intricacies of both exercises, let’s tailor our recommendations based on different fitness levels.

For Beginners:

For those embarking on their fitness journey, mastering foundational movements is key. As such, beginners are encouraged to focus on barbell squats to develop general movement competency with free weights. This foundational approach sets the stage for a solid fitness base, making it easier to transition to machine-based exercises later.

For Intermediates:

Intermediate individuals have the flexibility to benefit from a combination of both barbell squats and hack squats. This phase allows for exploration and customization based on specific training needs. Whether aiming for overall lower body development or prioritizing quad hypertrophy, a thoughtful blend of both exercises can yield optimal results.

For Advanced Individuals:

Advanced lifters, who have honed their skills and achieved mastery in free weight movements, may find hack squats to be a more precise tool for quad hypertrophy. Their ability to manage fatigue and tailor their training to specific muscle groups makes hack squats a strategic choice. Additionally, incorporating pre-exhaustion techniques with hack squats before barbell squats can further optimize quad stimulus.


In conclusion, the choice between hack squats and barbell squats is not an either/or decision but rather a strategic consideration based on individual goals, fitness levels, and preferences. While barbell squats provide a robust foundation for overall lower body strength, hack squats offer precision targeting for quad development with reduced fatigue.

Ultimately, a balanced approach that strategically integrates both exercises into a well-structured training routine will likely yield the best results. Whether you’re a beginner striving for foundational strength or an advanced lifter seeking precision in muscle growth, understanding the nuances of these exercises empowers you to make informed decisions on your fitness journey. Remember, the key to sustainable gains lies in a thoughtful and

For a more detailed explanation on this battle between hack squats vs barbell squats, you can watch Mike Israetel explain it in video format below. In it, Israetel goes deeper into the nuances of each exercise and compares them side by side and analyses what is best for you for hypertrophy training.

Happy training!

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