We’ve all seen those memes that show a guy or girl with a big upper body and tiny legs, which doesn’t look very appealing. That just goes to show… you shouldn’t skip leg day.
Not only do well-defined legs stand out, but they’re also crucial for building a solid foundation. A stronger lower body enables you to perform a wide variety of movements inside and outside of the gym.
Fortunately, there are several exercises you can utilize to build bigger and stronger legs. Two of the most popular leg exercises are the leg press and hack squat.
If you’ve ever wondered which exercise is better for leg development, then this article is for you!
Today we will be comparing and contrasting the leg press and hack squat. Specifically, we’ll dive into the benefits and disadvantages of each so you can decide which one is best for you.
We’ll also showcase when and how to perform these exercises, allowing you to get more from the movement and reduce injury risk.
Let’s dive into it!
Table of Contents
- 1 What’s the main difference between the leg press and hack squat?
- 2 Pros and Cons
- 3 When to Do an Exercise
- 4 Muscles Used
- 5 Exercise Form
- 6 Leg press vs Hack Squats: Which one is better?
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions about the Hack Squat and Leg Press
- 8 Other Exercise Comparisons
What’s the main difference between the leg press and hack squat?
The main differences between the leg press and hack squat are that the hack squat activates more lower body and core muscles and more closely resembles the barbell squat movement. The leg press can more safely be trained to failure, which may offer some hypertrophy benefits for lifters that train to failure, and places significantly less stress on the back.
If you have to pick one, then the hack squat will help you work more muscles simultaneously. If you want to avoid low back stress entirely, perform single-leg movements, or more safely train to failure, then the leg press is a better choice.
In reality, both can be effective movements in your training toolbelt and it may make sense to cycle them (i.e. perform one for a month or two, then switch).
While the hack squat works more muscles than the leg press, that doesn’t automatically mean doing the leg press is a waste of time.
A compelling case for the leg press is presented in this discussion on Mind Pump.
During a leg press, the lifter is in a seated position with their torso more forward. The lifter brings their legs close to their chest. Then, they push the weight away from their torso while the upper body remains stationary. The leg press primarily targets the quads and secondarily engages the glutes and hamstrings.
For the hack squat, the weight is loaded near the shoulders. In a traditional hack squat, the lifter is a lot more upright because they’re standing with their back, shoulders, and head braced against a vertical pad.
During a hack squat, the lifter is required to squat down and stand up in order to perform the movement. The hack squat primarily targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes and secondarily engages the core and calves.
Although both exercises can be used to build and strengthen the lower body, they each have pros and cons that you should be aware of.
So let’s jump into the comparison!
Pros and Cons
Leg Press Benefits
Here are some benefits of the leg press:
- The leg press is quite a simple exercise, it’s easy to learn, which makes it great for beginners who want to start strengthening and building their legs.
- The leg press doesn’t require balance, allowing for better isolation of the quads, hamstrings, and glutes as well as lower injury risk. Due to poor mobility, some people may struggle to maintain proper form with other leg exercises, such as barbell squats and lunges.
- Since the leg press helps improve quad strength and development, it’s a great assistance exercise for back squats.
- The leg press places less pressure on the lower back than hack squats, making it a good alternative for those that suffer from back or shoulder issues.
- The leg press is set up in a way that allows users to push to failure more safely than other leg exercises. Most leg press machines have a safety mechanism at the bottom that catches the sled in case you fail to lift the weight. However, this can also be said for hack squats.
- The vast majority of gyms have some type of leg press. Some are better than others, but nonetheless, you’re more likely to find one than not.
- Most people are much stronger on a leg press than a squat variation, so you will likely be able to lift more weight.
- The leg press gives you the ability to work one leg at a time. This is a great feature for anyone with muscular or strength imbalances and those that want to incorporate unilateral work into their training routine.
- If you want to target the quads or glutes/hamstrings more, you can easily change your feet placement on a leg press to do so.
Leg Press Cons
Here are some disadvantages of the leg press:
- The biggest con to the leg press is a simple fact that it’s a machine. Unlike free weights, machines are set up in a fixed position and limited to a certain range of motion. For most people, the leg press will work, but if you’re above or below the normal height range, then it may not fit your body very well.
- Since the leg press doesn’t require balance, it won’t strengthen your stabilizing muscles as much as a squat or lunge.
- The leg press can easily turn into an ego lift because you can shorten the range of motion and load up the weight, which may look cool on Instagram, but it’s not good for your gains.
- You need a machine in order to do a leg press, which some gyms may not have. Furthermore, not all leg presses are the same, making it difficult to track progress.
- The leg press doesn’t engage the core, glutes, or hamstrings as much as hack squats, so they may have less carry-over to back squats.
Hack Squat Benefits
Here are some advantages of hack squats:
- Hack squats engage more muscles, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, and calves, compared to a leg press.
- The movement pattern of a hack squat is very similar to barbell squats, so they will have better carry-over than a leg press.
- Compared to traditional barbell back squats, the hack squat places less strain on the spine, which may lower the risk of a back injury.
- Hack squats can significantly help build and strengthen your entire lower body.
- Compared to barbell squats, hack squats are easier to learn since they are not as complex, making them great for beginners that want to learn how to squat.
- Similar to a leg press, most hack squat machines have built-in safety bars, allowing you to safely train to failure without a spotter.
- There are ways to perform a hack squat with a barbell, smith machine, and even dumbbells. So even if your gym doesn’t have a hack squat machine, you can still incorporate them into your routine.
Unless noted otherwise, when we use the phrase “hack squat” we are referring to the machine variation of the lift, also known as the sled hack squat.
Hack Squat Cons
Here are some disadvantages of hack squats:
- Similar to the leg press, the biggest con of a hack squat is that it places you in a fixed position compared to a free weight exercise. Most machines cater to people that are of average height. So, if you’re shorter or taller than normal, then the machine may not suit your body very well.
- The hack squat places more loading on the spine and shoulders, which may be an issue for those with lower back or shoulder injuries.
- Unlike a leg press, hack squats are a bit harder to come by, so you may not even have the option to use one if your gym doesn’t have it. However, there are ways to work around this using other equipment.
- The hack squat doesn’t allow you to work one leg at a time, whereas the leg press does.
- Although the hack squat engages more muscles than the leg press, it still fails to strengthen the stabilizer muscles that a barbell squat would.
- The risk of injury might be higher for hack squats compared to the leg press since it is a more complex movement that uses more muscles.
When to Do an Exercise
When to do a Leg Press
Anyone that wants to grow and strengthen their quads without placing too much strain on their spine should consider doing a leg press. Typically, the leg press is performed on lower body days and done near the beginning of the workout.
Depending on your goal, the leg press can be programmed as a main compound movement or assistance exercise. If you’re more focused on improving your back squat, then doing that as the first exercise and placing the leg press later on in the session to add more volume is a good idea.
However, if your goal is primarily leg hypertrophy, then the leg press can serve as a replacement to a squat as the main compound exercise for the training session. Depending on how many days you train legs, you could do leg press on one day and squats on another.
When to do Hack Squats
Anyone that wants to grow and strengthen their quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, and calves, shoulder consider adding hack squats to their routine. Hack squats are typically performed on lower body workouts, near the beginning of the session. If you are limited on time, then the hack squat is preferable because it engages more muscles than the leg press.
Hack squats can be programmed as a main or assistance exercise depending on the individual’s goal. It’s important to note that hack squats and leg press can even be performed on the same day if an athlete wants to focus on overall leg development while still emphasizing their quads.
Since they are slightly different movement patterns, they actually complement each other quite well. However, if you have back pain, shoulder pain, or previous history of injury to these areas, then a leg press is a better option.
Leg Press Muscles Used
The leg press targets different muscles depending on your foot placement. If your feet are positioned low and closer together on the platform, the quads are going to be the primary movers.
If your feet are positioned high and wide, then the glutes and hamstrings will serve as the primary movers. With that said the muscles listed below as the primary and secondary will be based on a standard stance (hip-width and mid-platform).
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Intermedius
- Biceps Femoris
Hack Squat Muscles Used
The hack squat primarily targets the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but it also engages the core and calves.
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Medialis
- Vastus Intermedius
- Biceps Femoris
- Rectus Abdominus
- Transverse Abdominus
How to do a Leg Press with Proper Form
How to perform a leg press correctly:
- Loaded the desired weight onto the sled.
- On most leg press machines, you can adjust the back pad by raising or lowering it. So before starting the exercise, make sure it’s set up to where you’re most comfortable.
- Sit down on the leg press with your back and head against the pad.
- Place your feet on the platform. Flat-soled shoes work best for this exercise.
- For a standard leg press, your feet should be positioned in the middle of the platform using a hip-width stance.
- Grab the handles located on both sides of the machines. This will help stabilize your upper body and is necessary for un-racking and racking the sled.
- Start to push the sled away from you until you can unlock the safety bars.
- Once the safety bars are moved out of the way, take a deep breath in and begin to lower the sled by bending your knees and hips.
- Continue to lower the sled in a controlled fashing until your legs are at or below 90-degrees. Be careful not to round your lower back at the bottom portion of the rep, as this can put excessive strain on the back.
- Exhale while pushing through the heels and midfoot in order to extend the legs and raise the sled until you’re back at the starting position. It’s important to not lock your legs out at the top, so keep a slight bend in your knees.
- Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
Check out this video from Renaissance Periodization to learn how to do a leg press correctly and seven common mistakes to avoid.
How to do a Hack Squat with Proper Form
How to perform a hack squat correctly:
- Load the desired weight onto the sled.
- Enter the machine by stepping onto the platform and placing your back, shoulders, and head against the pad. You should have a slight bend in your knees, so you may have to adjust the sled up or down depending on your height.
- Your feet should be in the middle of the platform and hip-width apart. It’s ideal to wear flat-soled shoes for this exercise.
- Grab the handles located on each side of your body. Unrack the sled by unbending your knees until you are almost standing straight up. Move the safety bars out of the way before starting the movement.
- Take a deep breath before bending your knees and hips to lower the platform.
- Once your knees are at or below 90 degrees, start to extend your legs using your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Exhale on the way up.
- Keep your feet flat against the platform by pushing through the heels and mid-foot.
- When you approach the end of the movement, keep a slight bend in your knees and repeat for the desired amount of reps.
Check out this video from Renaissance Periodization to learn how to do a hack squat correctly and nine common mistakes to avoid.
Leg press vs Hack Squats: Which one is better?
The leg press and hack squat are two of the most popular leg exercises. They are both effective for building bigger and stronger legs. In addition, they are great accessory exercises for back squats and front squats.
The leg press is ideal for those that want to target their quads while placing less stress on their spine. The leg press is also better for correcting muscle imbalances since you can work one leg at a time.
The hack squat is ideal for those that want to engage more muscles, including the core, calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. You’re more upright during a hack squat and it mimics the motion of a squat more closely than a leg press. So, the hack squat is also better for anyone that wants to increase their back or front squat.
Whether you chose to do a leg press, hack squat, or both, remember that perfecting the form is crucial to avoid injury and get the most out of the movement.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Hack Squat and Leg Press
Is the hack squat better than the leg press?
The hack squat is better than the leg press if you’re trying to activate as many muscles as possible with a single movement. The hack squat is also closer to the barbell squat in terms of the movement pattern, so it likely has more carryover to the barbell squat than the leg press.
With that said, the leg press can be better than the hack squat for training to failure. This is because the athlete is less likely to have their form break down and cause injury with the leg press. Additionally, the leg press can train one leg at a time, whereas the hack squat must train both legs simultaneously.
Is the leg press as effective as squats?
The leg press does not activate as many muscles as the barbell squat. Specifically, the barbell squat requires the recruitment of stabilizing muscles in the abdomen, mid-back, and low back that the leg press does not.
The squat also activates the glutes and hamstrings more effectively than the leg press.
Both the leg press and the squat effectively activate the quadriceps.
The leg press can be easily trained with one leg at a time, whereas it is more complicated, but not impossible, to perform single-leg squats.
Other Exercise Comparisons
If you enjoyed this article, check out our other comparisons of popular exercises.