Hack Squat vs Leg Press – Optimise Your Training

The hack squat and leg press are both classic leg training exercises for strength and hypertrophy.  But what are the differences between them?  Are they interchangeable? And which one is right for you?  In this hack squat vs leg press article we’ll be answering all of those questions to help you optimise your training.

Let’s jump straight in.

Hack squat vs leg press

The main difference between hack squats and leg press is the set-up.  Hack squats have you stood about 30 degrees beyond upright with the load placed across your shoulders, whereas leg presses have you seated, with the load supported by your legs at around a 45 degree angle.  This creates some unique differences in training stimulus.

Joints worked and ranges of motion

To understand these differences, firstly we must understand what joints and muscles are being used.

JointHack squat ROMLeg press ROM
HipLargeModerate
KneeLarge – Extra LargeLarge
AnkleLargeLarge

Hack Squat Demonstration:

Here’s a quick look at the hack squat performed will ful range of motion and great control throughout the movement:

Hack Squat

Technique Tips for Hack Squats

  1. Use a full range of motion, getting a deep stretch at the bottom of each rep
  2. Aim for good control throughout each rep, that means a slower eccentric (downwards) portion, potentially even a short pause at the bottom
  3. Although you can use anything from 5-30 reps for hypertrophy, most people do best with the hack squat in the 8 to 20 rep range.  Less than 8 reps tends to be too heavy for good control, and more than 20 reps tends to make your breathing the limiting factor rather than your quads.

Leg Press Demonstration:

Here’s a quick lookat the leg press performed with full range of motion and great control throughout the movement.  

Leg Press

Technique Tips for Leg Press

  1. Use a full range of motion, getting a deep stretch at the bottom of each rep
  2. Aim for good control throughout each rep, that means a slower eccentric (downwards) portion, potentially even a short pause at the bottom
  3. Although you can use anything from 5-30 reps for hypertrophy, most people do best with the leg press in the 8 to 20 rep range.  Less than 8 reps tends to be too heavy for good control, and more than 20 reps tends to make your breathing the limiting factor rather than your quads.

Muscles worked during a hack squat 

The main muscles worked during a hack squat are your quads and glutes.  There will also be a smaller degree of work for your hamstrings and calves.

Interestingly, your core and spinal erectors will also to work hard during the hack squat, as you’ll still be supporting a heavy axial load.

Muscles worked during a leg press

The main muscles worked during a leg press are your quads and glutes.  There will also be a smaller degree of work for your hamstrings and calves.

Unlike in the hack squat, your core and spinal erectors won’t need to do much work, as the leg press seated position provides the stability, and there isn’t the same axial (spinal) loading.

Hack Squat Vs Leg Press Weight Used

Since the leg press offers more support in the seated position, as well as delivering less axial (spinal) loading, you can typically lift more weight in the leg press than you can in the hack squat.

However, it’s worth noting that when you perform the leg press properly with low feet, a shoulder to hip width stance, a controlled tempo and a full range of motion, the amount you can lift goes down considerably, and the difference in weight between the two exercises becomes far smaller.

Considerations when choosing to opt for hack squat or leg press

Considerations for strength

Both the leg press and hack squat can be used to develop strength.  The leg press may potentially be slightly better, as you tend to be able to load more weight onto the leg press.

Within that said, it all depends on what you’re trying to get strong for.  If you’re a powerlifter, then your time would be better spent on squatting variations (tempo squats, pause squats, front squats, high bar squats, low bar squats etc) The same also applies if you’re a weightlifter.

If you’re trying to get strong for sports performance, then the same logic applies.  Both the leg press and hack squat may be useful, but they won’t be as useful or have as good a sports carryover as more dynamic movements such as squats or lunge variations.

Considerations for hypertrophy

The leg press and hack squat are both fantastic choices for hypertrophy (muscle size) training.  They both work the quads and glutes incredibly well, and use a similar movement pattern.

Practically speaking, I would consider the two exercises as variations in the category of ‘quad’ exercises.  I recommend that you try one of them for 4-8 weeks, see how it feels, and then swap it out with the other for the next 4-8 weeks.  You’ll probably find that they’re both great, or you might find that one gives you a far better SFR (Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio) than the other, in which case, that will be one of your ‘go to’ exercises in the future.

Considerations for power

Neither the leg press or hack squat is good for power development.  The machines both favour a controlled tempo, so I wouldn’t advise trying to perform any fast or explosive movements on them.  

If you want to develop power, I highly recommend using exercises such as squat jumps, bounds, broad jumps and box jumps.

Other training considerations

Axial (Spinal) Load: Axial load is fatiguing, and fatigue must be managed, especially in the context of performance sports.  This might mean that the leg press is a better choice of exercise for athletes than the hack squat.

Commonly asked questions

How often should I do hack squats?

I recommend doing hack squats 1 to 3 times per week, depending on your training priorities and ability to recover.  You’ll probably find that any more than this and you start to run into some serious recovery issues.

Are hack squats as good as regular squats?

Hack squats provide a different training stimulus to regular barbell back squats.  Hack squats won’t develop your stability, your adductors or your overall coordination as much, but they may allow you to target your quads more, making them potentially better for quad hypertrophy.

Is a hack squat or leg press better for glutes?

The hack squat and leg press are roughly the same when it comes to hitting your glutes.  Both exercises provide a deep stretch under load, which is a great signal for hypertrophy.

Can you get big legs with hack squats?

Absolutely, you can definitely get big legs with hack squats.  In fact, hack squats are known to be regularly used by some of the worlds top bodybuilders.

Summary

The hack squat and leg press have a different machine set-up, which leads to some differences in axial loading and total weight used.  However, both exercises share a very similar movement pattern, both exercises mainly work your quads and glutes, and both exercises have almost identical technique tips and ideal rep ranges.

As a coach, I would recommend that you simply see hack squats and leg press as variations that can be used for quad hypertrophy, including as ‘off-season’ general physical preparation work for athletes, powerlifters and weightlifters.

Experiment with both exercises, and after a few weeks choose the movement that feels best for you, and allows you to get the most stimulus for your quads with the least overall systematic fatigue.

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Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.