Exercise machines don’t get much love.
Yes, it’s true that free weight exercises like back squats and dumbbell presses are generally better for building real-world strength. That said, exercise machines can help you hone in on muscles that need some extra TLC.
In fact, if strong, athletic quads are on your wish list, it may be time to give the hack squat machine a second look. Here’s why.
The Hack Squat Machine Basics
You’ve probably strolled past the hack squat exercise machine at the gym without giving it much thought. To refresh your memory, this machine features a fixed platform that you stand on, and shoulder pads that you load your weight on before squatting.
To use the hack squat machine, you position yourself on the platform under the shoulder pads, facing outwards, and squat down.
Basically, the machine mimics the motion of a barbell back squat. However, the two moves work your legs slightly differently, says Yanyah Milutinović, a certified personal trainer at Performix House in New York City.
Hack Squats vs. Barbell Back Squats
Barbell back squats primarily target the glutes, hamstrings, hip adductors (inner thighs), core, and back. In order to nail them, you have to stabilize your entire body as you squat down and push back up against the barbell. If any of the target muscles don’t pull their weight, the entire move falls apart.
Meanwhile, “the hack squat machine lessens the need for balance and stability because you’re following the path the machine gives you,” says Nate Bahr, C.P.T., Anytime Fitness corporate personal trainer.
Because the machine stabilizes your back, your legs take on much more of the work, Milutinović explains.
Plus, most hack squat platforms are angled up about 45 degrees from the ground. This elevates your heels and helps you squat through a greater range of motion (a.k.a. deeper).
“Many people have trouble keeping their heels on the floor while performing traditional back squats,” Bahr says. “The problem could be that their ankles can’t flex that far.” The angle of the hack squat platform virtually eliminates this issue.
Squatting with elevated heels also shifts more emphasis on your quads, says Milutinović.
So, while the hack squat machine won’t help you build total-body strength and balance the way barbell squats do, consider it your secret weapon if you want to hone in on your quads.
How To Use Hack Squats To Grow Your Quads
To reap the most quad gains from the hack squat machine, Milutinović recommends utilizing drop sets.
Drop sets (in which you perform an exercise to failure, reduce the weight, and continue until you reach failure again) are a great way to sneak more volume (reps, sets) into your workouts without tacking on a ton of extra time. (According to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, increasing training volume is one of the best strategies for growing your quads, or any muscle.)
Here’s how to do it: At the end of a leg workout, do four drop sets of seven reps on the hack squat machine. Start with a challenging weight you can barely lift for the seven reps. After that first set, drop your weight by 20 to 25 percent and immediately perform your second set. Repeat the process for the third and fourth sets.
The key is to limit your rest between sets. Pause only for as long as it takes to adjust your weight, then move on. If you can, enlist a friend or training partner to strip away the weights for you from set to set. Otherwise, you can save time by deciding in advance how much weight you’ll use for each set.
“If you can push past seven repetitions in each set, your weight is too light,” Milutinović says. Notice how you feel during the drop sets and note any weight adjustments you’ll make next time.
Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat
Remember, drop sets and machine exercises are best saved for the end of your workout. “Your first exercises should be functional movements like squats and lunges,” Bahr says. This way, you can tackle these major movements while you’re still fresh.
“After those exercises, incorporate isolation exercises like hack squats to put high volume on the quads to improve muscle size,” Bahr adds. Your quads will thank you.