Hack squat and leg press exercises are beneficial compound exercises for lower extremity strength training as well as for targeting an increase in muscle build up and hypertrophy. Although these exercises target the same muscle groups such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, it is important to note its key differences.
In the hack squat exercise, the weight is loaded on the shoulder as the individual squats and stands back up to lift the weight. With that, it does not only activate the legs but the upper body as well. On the other hand, the leg press exercise mainly focuses on the leg muscle groups since weight is loaded on the lower extremities.
Both exercises will be dissected and its muscle activation differences, alongside its advantages and disadvantages, will be discussed. Additional safety tips and techniques will be shared in this article as well.
The hack squat exercise is performed in a standing position with the weight loaded on the individual’s shoulder, as we have learned earlier. A hack squat machine is composed of a back rest angled 45-degrees for back support, shoulder pads, and a platform to which both lower extremities are placed.
This exercise is a great beginner exercise if an individual plans on performing more challenging squats such as the front and back squats. With hack squat machines, the shoulder control and movement needed for stabilization is decreased because of the back support assistance and limited front and back muscle recruitment.
The hack squat is also an exercise that must be perfectly executed before transitioning to the traditional barbell squat exercises.
How to Correctly Perform a Hack Squat
To correctly and safely perform a hack squat, these must be followed:
- Position your back against the back rest and place your shoulders below the shoulder pads.
- Position your lower extremities on the platform while making sure that they are a shoulder width apart with your toes slightly pointed outward.
- Place your arms on the handles and detach the safety bars followed by straightening your lower extremities but leaving a slight bend on the knees.
- Slowly lower yourself while maintaining a straight head posture. Continue doing so until the angle formed by the upper leg and your calves has reached 90-degrees or slightly less. Inhale while doing this step.
- As you exhale, start going up by pushing the platform with the heel of your foot. Do this until the legs are only slightly bent. Avoid locking your knees. This is one complete set of the exercise.
As mentioned earlier, not only are the lower extremity muscle groups activated but also the upper body. With the hack squat, the weight is placed directly on top of the shoulder and thus sits directly on top of the body’s center of gravity.
The hack squat is composed of hip and knee flexion thus activating both the quadricep and hamstring muscle groups. Because of the significant hip extension required to perform and lift the weight, the gluteal muscle groups are also activated and set in motion.
The hack squat mainly strengthens the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Additional muscles activated are the gastrocnemius and soleus, collectively known as the calf muscle. The calves are activated during ankle plantarflexion which is performed when the heel and ball of the foot pushes the platform to lift the weight.
The hip adductor muscles, which are the muscles found in the inner thighs, are also activated to assist hip and knee extension movements. With stronger hip adductors, comes better balance.
During the hack squat, the core is also engaged including the back extensor muscles to maintain the stability needed to fully lift the weight.
- As compared to leg press, to be discussed next, there is a better gluteal participation and engagement.
- This exercise is also great at targeting the vastus lateralis muscle or the outer quadriceps.
- They activate the muscles of the torso as it also engages both the abdominals and back extensors to stabilize and support the weight that is placed on the shoulders.
- Individuals with back problems and injury history are not advised to include this exercise in their program because of the weight placed directly over the body’s center of gravity. Adding weight on the upper body means that there is an increase in axial loading which may lead to spinal problems and may aggravate existing issues.
- Discomfort is experienced because of the pressure and weight placed on the shoulders.
- Keep your back flat on the back rest of the machine and avoid lifting it off as doing so will potentially injure your back.
- When bending the knees during the squat, avoid overextending your knees beyond your toes as this leads to greater forces on the knee joint which can result in injury and pain.
- Do not lock your knees when straightening them back during the lift as this may result in knee problems because of the repetitive friction and weight loading.
- Do not directly point your toe forward, keep it slightly pointed outward, because it may cause problems in the knee cartilages.
- Inhale upon bending the knees and exhale when lifting the weight. It is important to follow this because valsalva maneuver must be avoided when performing exercises that require greater effort. Intrathoracic pressure may occur during valsalva maneuver and will result to an increase in blood pressure.
- You can integrate this exercise in your program by performing them in 3-5 sets with about 5-10 repetitions each set. Perform the exercise slowly to fully activate the muscles and do not be in a rush. Remember to always focus on and master the correct form first before adding more weight to avoid potential dangers.
As what we have learned earlier, the leg press exercise is performed in a sitting position with the weight applied and loaded on the lower extremities. The most common machine used in leg press exercises consist of a reclined back pad and a platform that is angled 45-degrees upward to which your lower extremities will be placed.
Leg press exercises are performed against gravity and since the upper body is not involved, meaning there is no threat to the spine because of axial loading, a greater amount of weight can be placed. Since the core is not activated, an individual is inclined to a better lower extremity control.
How to Correctly Perform a Leg Press
These steps must be followed to correctly and safely perform a leg press:
- Sit and position your lower extremities on the platform that is angled in front of you. Make sure that your feet are a shoulder width apart in a medium stance.
- Detach the safety bars and slowly extend the knee to push the platform and create a 90-degree angle between the body and the lower extremity. Remember to keep your knees slightly bent. Do not lock your knees.
- Slowly lower the platform as you inhale until a 90-degree angle is formed between the upper and lower legs.
- Push the platform with the heels of your feet to activate the glutes and with the balls of the feet to activate the quadriceps group. Therefore, pushing the platform with both parts of the feet will activate both groups. Do this while exhaling.
- Reattach safety bars to avoid accidents.
The compound movement of leg press is composed of hip and knee flexion. With these motions, the quadriceps and hamstrings muscle group are activated just like in the hack squat. However, since the hip is already positioned in extension, there is limitation in the gluteal muscle activation.
The leg press exercise mainly focuses on the quadriceps muscles and is proven to be the exercise that will greatly involve and activate the vastus medialis or the inner thighs.
Widening the distance between both feet can also strengthen the hip adductors. The calves are also activated during ankle movement.
- You can relax your upper body and less back injuries can come out of it.
- With leg press, you can add greater weights on the load because it does not pose a risk on your back and spine.
- This has a lot of variations to target different muscle groups.
- Perfect for beginners as it is easier to do and perform.
- Because you can easily add more weight during this exercise, you might end up overdoing it and injuring yourself. This may lead to knee injuries.
- Pops and clicks can be heard during knee movements. This is called crepitus and it is not something you should worry about unless it comes with pain.
- Keep your back flat on the back pad and do not lift your hip off to avoid back injuries.
- Make sure to always leave your knees slightly bent.
- The valsalva maneuver principle must still be followed. Inhale when lowering the platform and exhale when pushing it forward to avoid overexertion. Exhaling while lifting a heavy weight, whether performing leg presses or not, will prevent overexertion of effort.
- To target the glutes, place your feet higher on the platform to increase hip extension moment. To target the quadriceps, place your feet lower on the platform to incease knee movement.
- Integrate this exercise into your program by performing 3-5 sets with 5-10 repetitions. You may increase the exercise repetitions to 12-15 considering that the load is light and the sets remain at 3.
Although these exercises are closely related to each other by means of their target muscle groups, they are not the same. The addition of both exercises into your program will greatly improve your lower extremity strength and increase its volume and mass.