Squats should be a normal part of your strengthening routine. When done properly, a traditional squat promotes strength throughout the trunk and legs, particularly the thighs and low back.
There are many different techniques to squatting: one hotly debated comparison is the hack squat vs regular squat. Which one should you be doing? The answer ultimately comes down to what your fitness goals are.
The most common way to squat involves movement with your own body weight or a barbell (on the shoulder or held in front).
With the knees approximately hip-width apart and the core engaged, the hips and knees will begin flexing as you lower your butt toward the floor.
Most of your weight should remain in your heels to protect the knees and keep them “behind your toes” as you lower.
How deep you will squat depends on your fitness level and goals, but a good general goal is to reach 90 degrees of knee flexion so that the thighs are parallel to the ground.
A regular squat is quite versatile. It doesn’t require much, if any, equipment and can be done at home, in a gym, or anywhere else in between.
It is a very functional movement that everyone for years of age can benefit from. When done without the support of a machine, it requires a significant amount of coordination and core strength. Thus, optimizing your overall body function for everyday activities.
Being able to progress your squat range of motion and the amount of weight you can tolerate all depends on gaining balanced full-body strength, coordination, and flexibility.
A regular squat may be hard to tolerate or keep good form with pain, injury, or poor fitness levels. Thus, an injury to the knees or back can make it hard to tolerate much range of motion or weight.
Plus, if the core is not properly activated prior to a squat, it can also lead to injury or aggravation of existing problems.
A regular squat requires a large degree of full-body stability to get started, which may not be suitable for all people (at least to start).
A hack squat is a common lifting technique used at the gym. It involves the use of a sled type machine at about a 45-degree angle.
Plates are added to the top of the machine near the shoulders. With the weight in your shoulders and the support of the machine, you will push against the footplate and slide up and down the sled tracks.
You may have seen someone using this or used it yourself and felt amped up by the amount of weight you could use. You can adjust what leg muscles you primarily target by moving your feet.
Having your feet up higher on the plate promotes glute and hamstring activation while lowering your feet toward the floor promotes quad strength.
A hack squat machine provides a lot of stability to the upper body and trunk.
Taking out the need for core strength and coordination means that the movement is very specific for leg strengthening, allowing more weight to be tolerated without injury to the back.
This makes it a great potential option for someone recovering from a back injury that can’t tolerate the coordination required for a free squat.
Additionally, it is easy to focus on one leg at a time to work on correcting any muscle imbalances. Lastly, it is a great way to build muscle bulk or toning the thighs.
The use of weight machines always comes with limited carryover benefits to regular daily activities.
It allows leg strengthening without incorporating the all-important process of core and upper trunk stabilization.
It can lead to overconfidence and put too much compression on the back, lower leg joints, and shoulders. It can also be hard for some people to safely use (i.e. getting on and off).
See also: Best Hack Squat Alternative Exercises
The Bottom Line – Which One Is Better?
There is no perfect answer to this question. Keep these general guidelines in mind to decide which squat you want to complete.
However, also remember that it’s okay to experiment and switch it up regularly too since variety helps prevent strength and fitness plateaus.
Fitness Goals That Fit With A Regular Squat
- Your aim is to optimize overall body function and coordination for everyday activities like walking, running, and more.
- You want to retrain your muscles to utilize proper strength balance (AKA a way to progress from a hack squat!)
- You want to build core strength
- You want an exercise you can do anytime and anywhere
- You want to progress your injury recovery program from machines to “free movement” focus
Fitness Goals That Fit With A Hack Squat
- You want to see how much weight your legs can lift
- You have noticed some strength imbalances between your legs and want to really focus on the weaker side
- You want to bulk up those thigh muscles with lower repetition high weight movement
- You want to start squatting but are limited by back or knee pain (note: start light to prevent aggravation)
- You are a beginner with squatting and could use some structure to get the movement down
Which squat you decide is best for you ultimately comes down to what you’re most comfortable completing.
No matter your choice, always start with low weight and range of motion and assess how your body responds. Then, build from there.
Also, consider talking to an exercise expert that can help guide you and create a personalized program for your specific fitness needs.