Squat Because It Matters
Squats are old news as far as lifting goes – they’ve been one of the most popular exercises for a long time. That’s because they’re effective, efficient, and help you develop some serious gains. Squats can not only help improve your leg muscle mass but will also help you develop a strong core and provide serious stabilisation training to help prevent injury.
Since a strong core is integral to your overall fitness, it only makes sense that you spend some time squatting every week.
As part of the big three of compound lifting (bench, deadlift, and squat), this is one of those exercises that you need to learn how to do correctly with low weight. Proper form is way more important here than a bunch of plates on your bar. That’s because technique and form are significant factors in how well you’ll progress with your squats.
You might be able to get away with poor form for a while, but over time, incorrect hand placement and a lack of mobility really will catch up to you.
There are endless squat varieties, and all have their place in specific training programs. One of the most common gym debates is whether or not hack squatting is as good for you as barbell squatting. Often considered the Smith Machine of squats, hack squats get a bad rep because they’re seen as too easy and not authentic.
Let’s take a look at the differences between a back squat and a hack squat to determine which is best.
Before You Begin
It’s critical for any kind of squatting that you perform a thorough mobility warmup. This will not only help prime your joints for the movement but will also help prevent injury. Often overlooked areas of mobility include wrists and ankles. Simple rolling exercises can help loosen up these joints and help you achieve the depth you’re looking for on a squat.
A note on depth. There are countless arguments about the proper depth of a barbell squat. Some fitness enthusiasts maintain that if you’re not below parallel, it doesn’t count. Others suggest that coming just to parallel is perfectly acceptable. The reality is this – there isn’t a blanket statement that can be applied to squat depth.
It doesn’t matter if you squat to parallel or to depth since every person is different and everyone’s anatomy isn’t the same. Instead of focusing on the incendiary depth issue, focus on your back. Your own personal depth should be no lower than the point where your hips tuck and you lose the natural arch of your spine.
A flat spine with a heavy barbell means your spinal discs are placed under a lot of pressure. This can lead to significant tissue damage and back pain over time. Since some people won’t be able to maintain a neutral spine lower than parallel, that’s the point at which they’ve reached their own personal depth.
If you’ve done your flexibility and mobility work and you know that you lose your arch lower than parallel, then that’s as deep as you’re going to get.
But if you’re flush with bro-science, this might seem contrary to everything you’ve already learned. Fortunately, the science shows that bending your knees to around 90 degrees is enough to achieve muscular activation of your quads. So, if you’re squatting to your own personal depth and have every part of your upper body engaged, rest easy because you’re still going to make gains.
The Regular Squat in More Detail
There are two major components to a good squat – stability and tension. When you loosen the tension in your upper body, your hips rise, and your body shifts forward. This means that you only squat with your back muscles and deny the chance for the squat to be full body. Worse, you could get stuck at the bottom because you’ve lost the tension to help you rise back up.
To squat, first select an appropriate barbell to use – either a male bar at 20 kg or a female bar at 15 kg. This might seem like an unnecessary step, but female bars are shorter and have a smaller diameter, which is something most female lifters will find useful.
Remember that a good squat is all about the centre of gravity. So, setting yourself up for the best squat possible also includes the appropriate bar. Once you have your bar on the rig, load it with weights.
Check out Your Hands
Step under the bar and position your hands. This is an often-overlooked component of a good squat, but it’s one of the main reasons why you’re not progressing in your squat. An extra wide hand position where you’re almost touching the plates lessens your ability to engage your lats.
In turn, your elbows can’t drive forward and you can’t keep your torso upright. This means that your chest falls away from your centre mass. Now you’re asking a lot of your lower back, since it’s basically the only thing holding you up at this point.
The simplest solution to this is to narrow your hands. Of course, this supposes that you have the shoulder mobility to have a narrow grip. If you can’t bring your hands in closer, then you should spend some time in warm up sessions working on your shoulder girdle mobility.
A narrow hand grip allows for more tension in your upper body. More tension translates to more stability, which in turn helps you maintain the proper form. When your hands are in the appropriate placement, the bar is probably going to feel lighter too. That’s because you’re engaging multiple muscle groups to help execute the lift.
A detailed look at squats wouldn’t be complete without at least a cursory mention of front squats. A front squat is a different exercise altogether, though it is still a squat. When performing a front squat, an you need to have significant shoulder and wrist mobility to ensure proper form.
As with a barbell back squat, a front squat engages the entire back body as well as the core. However, a front squat has a different centre mass, which can make it more challenging for some. A front squat requires a significant amount of mobility along with serious thoracic spine mobility to help keep your chest out.
A front squat trains different muscle groups because of the placement of the bar. It will engage the quads more than a back squat which focuses more on glute activation.
The amount you’re able to front squat is directly limited to how much weight you can hold on your shoulders. If front squats, cleans, thrusters, or snatches aren’t part of your training modality, you might be shocked to discover just how little you can front squat with good form. Don’t let that discourage you. Identifying a weakness just gives you a chance to create another goal.
Pros and Cons
Squats are exceptionally beneficial for your training programme, no matter where you are in your fitness journey. If you’ve been lifting for a while, you know that squats will help improve your posture and balance and helps to train your posterior chain.
The posterior chain is the group of muscles in the back of the body – low back, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Because the posterior chain includes some of the biggest muscles in your body, it’s super important that you keep it strong and train it often. The muscles in this chain are directly responsible for some of the most common everyday activities – so the more you train it, the higher the quality of your life will be.
Back squats can help improve and maintain your flexibility and helps to train small stabilizing muscles that help reduce the risk of injury. Squats help strength the muscles of your legs and hips, engage your core, and your back. When performed correctly, a squat is a total body workout, which in term helps you burn more calories and can aid in weight loss efforts. Back squats can help increase functional strength and maintain mobility as you age.
The Hack Squat in More Detail
As you might have guessed, a hack squat requires using a hack machine. As with barbell squats, there are a number of variations which can be performed on the machine.
Make sure your feet are located in the middle of the platform, about shoulder width distance apart. To avoid rocking or unwanted movement during the squat, keep your feet firmly rooted on the platform. Your shoulders should be touching the padded shoulder supports.
To help protect your spine, it’s crucial that you keep your back firmly pressed against the back rest during the entire movement. Lowering your hips, bend your knees to your personal version of parallel. When you’ve reached the lowest point possible while maintaining a neutral spine, push up using the ball of your foot as the point of contact. Make sure you keep your glutes and hamstrings active during this movement to help protect your knee.
While it might seem like a relatively simple machine that doesn’t really require much attention to technique, the truth is that an improper form on a hack squat can be just as deleterious as improper squat form. Keep in mind that a hack squat requires a lot of strength in the knee and puts a ton of stress on the vastus medialis.
If your knees are in great shape, then a hack squat might be very beneficial to add to your leg day. Proper form on a hack squat can help you gain serious mass on your legs.
Pros and Cons
A hack squat allows you to activate your quads really easily because your back and abs aren’t active in the lift. The mechanics and design of the machine means that the front of your legs do the majority of the work.
One of the best advantages of a hack squat is that it allows for low body hypertrophy. Since you’re only working your legs, your upper body and core aren’t active, therefore won’t fatigue.
A hack squat can also serve as an excellent segue for someone who is new to fitness and wants to improve muscle memory, since its design ensures you’ll have proper balance and good stability. It’s also helpful to work on range of motion and personal depth levels while maintaining the form and integrity of the movement. Though the core muscles aren’t nearly as active as with a barbell squat, there is some activation during when returning to standing.
To help prevent injury, it’s recommended to start with a lower weight than you might think you need. The movement is different from a barbell squat so it might take some getting used to at first.
One of the major downfalls of hack squats is the stress it places on your knees. The position you have to maintain to reach your personal depth level is going to put a lot of stress on your knees because a hack squat doesn’t engage much of the back leg muscles. Patella problems ca ne a real concern for anyone who’s already at risk for knee injury, such as runners.
Which Exercise Is Better? Hack Squat or Squat?
It’s almost impossible to decide which is better because each offers a significant advantage, depending on your fitness goals. If you’re new to lifting or it’s been a while since you’ve had serious weight on the bar, then a hack squat might help you ease into squatting again.
Which of these exercises you choose to do also depends on your exercise goals. If you’re going for huge quad gains, then it might be more beneficial for you to use a hack squat. But if you’re aiming for overall strength, then it’s possible conventional squats will be better for you.
Both traditional and hack squats are going to engage the large muscle groups in your legs. A hack squat can help specifically target your quads and inner thighs. There are a variety of ways to incorporate foot placement to help make the exercise more challenging, like a split squat which puts far less strain on the back. But your posture isn’t very natural with a hack squat and your spine might not always be in a neutral position.
A back squat is a total body workout because you’re targeting and engaging a number of muscle groups. Squats help develop stabilizer muscles, which give you better balance, improved flexibility, and will help prevent injury. But heavy squatting with poor form can lead to serious injury, especially to your lumbar spine.
Hack squats are helpful if you feel like you’re unbalanced when trying to back sweat with a barbell. The stability and balance you get from a hack squat makes it a great option to help you develop the appropriate muscle memory. You can also have a narrower stance which might help with depth and mobility issues.
The important thing to keep in mind is that squatting is a compound lift. It engages a number of large muscle groups, and when done properly can help you see significant gains.
Remember that it’s key to have healthy and mobile ankles, since depth can be directly impacted by the health of these joins. Being stronger means you’re going to perform better and the conduit for that is your feet and ankles.
Both a barbell squat and a hack squat will help strengthen your quads, which in turn keeps your ligaments and knees strong as well. Both will activate core and back muscles to make these compound lift exercises that can help you see significant benefits over time.
Train in ways that benefit your specific anatomy and ignore the naysayers. Don’t squat to extreme depths if that’s just not in your anatomy to do so. The most important thing is to live to squat another day. Keeping a neutral spine is just as important as making any kind of gains.
Keep standards strict and self-imposed. It’s easy to get sloppy when you’re loading the bar with a lot of weight. Maintain proper form and always seek to be better. Take video, get feedback from other lifter’s and make sure you prioritise healthy longevity. You’re in the gym to better yourself, so there’s no reason to force a range of motion depth squat that just isn’t accessible.