Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Research: The Barbell Hack Squat

Whenever I want to play with or learn a new lift, I usually hit up the internet for some research on it first. Now, of course, nothing beats a hands-on training coach. That second set of eyes and experience can identify problems you don't even know you're having.

I'm working on learning the Barbell Hack Squat. The hack squat is essentially a deadlift with the weight placed behind you rather than in front of you. This allows your quadriceps (top of your thighs) to be the primary driver of the movement, as well as takes the load off the lower back. In a standard deadlift, with the bar in front of you, you need to move your hips forward to lift the barbell. This creates torque on the lower back. In a hack squat, the bar starts under your lower back, so it's able to move straight up and down without any shearing or rotational forces. Which means it should be a fantastic supplemental exercise, especially if your back is tired or being rehabbed. Also, they'd be a great quad developer if you're in a gym that doesn't have a squat rack.

As for me, I'm interested in them for a few reasons:

  1. Squat accessory movement to build quad strength
  2. More exercises to work my grip strength
  3. An accessory movement without loading the back, which means less worry about technique/fatigue 
  4. They're pretty unique, look cool, and are an old-time strongman lift. 
  5. I'm attracted to movements using dumbbells/barbells over machines when possible

The lift itself was first popularized by Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt. That's where the Hack in Hack squat comes from. Hackenschmidt was a strongman and wrestler whose finishing move was the bear hug. Basically he's Zangief. At the age of 18 he could put up 200lbs overhead with one hand. Among his other strength feats were holding 100lbs dumbbells straight out at arms length, deadlifting over 600lbs with one hand, and one arm-snatched 197lbs. The man was a beast.

Anyhoo, the first place I head towards is ExRx.net. Exrx is an amazing resource for exercises. You can look up a muscle group and see all the standardized exercises that work it. Here's what they have to say about the barbell hack squat:

  • Target
    • Quadriceps
  • Synergists
    • Gluteus Maximus
    • Adductor Magnus
    • Soleus
  • Dynamic Stabilizers
    • Hamstrings
    • Gastrocnemius
  • Stabilizers
    • Erector Spinae
    • Trapezius, Middle
    • Levator Scapulae
    • Trapezius, Upper
    • Antagonist Stabilizers
    • Rectus Abdominis
    • Obliques



Position barbell just behind legs. With feet flat on floor, squat down and grasp barbell from behind with overhand grip.


Lift bar by extending hips and knees to full extension. Squat down by bending hips back while allowing knees to bend forward, keeping back straight and knees pointed same direction as feet. Descend until thighs are close to parallel to floor and bar is behind lower leg. Repeat.


Throughout lift, keep hips low, shoulders high, arms and back straight. Knees should point same direction as feet throughout movement. See flawed demonstration showing depth of hack squat that is NOT sufficient and knees are NOT pointed same angle as feet. Individuals with short arm to torso ratio or protracted shoulder posture, may find this exercise very difficult to perform. 

The stuff on the left can be a little complicated. Roughly translated, it means:
  • Primary drivers of the lift are your quadriceps, 
  • While being assisted by your booty, inner thighs, and calves. 
  • Calves and hammies operate to help stabilize the lift as it moves. 
  • Your back and abs stabilize the lift through stiffness. 
This information is enough for the basics of the lift. At this point I'll usually try out the movement. Then I'll look up what other people are saying about it. 
Charles Polquin writes this about it:
Make sure your feet are on a slant board, and that your torso remains erect throughout the whole range of motion... ...  Any load above 40 kg in this lift is starting to be good IF you keep your torso erect.
So it's important to him to keep the torso very upright. A slant board or weight plates under the heels will aid ankle mobility to allow a more upright torso. If I understand this correctly, keeping the torso straight up and down will ensure that the quadriceps are the true drivers of the movement.

The Polquin Group has these cues:
Walk forward until your heels rest on the board. Initiate the squatting motion by allowing your knees to travel as far forward as possible, without allowing your glutes to move back. Keep a slight arch in the lower back. Once your knees have gone as far forward as possible, lower your hips to the bottom position of the squat. Be sure to keep your back upright by pushing the bottom of your sternum up. Don’t allow the shoulders to round forward, and be certain your hips are under your shoulders in the bottom position.
Once again, emphasis on upright back. One nice cue here is to "push the bottom of your sternum up". The main problems I was having yesterday were the barbell scraping my calves (not necessarily a problem) and a little bit of "wiggling" on the way up, as I try to move the bar past my legs. At the gym, one trainer suggested I try a wider grip, which seemed to help.

Several people online are saying one key is to focus on moving the hips forward. This, combined with the "sternum up" cue, should ensure the work is done by the legs and not the back.

Gazzara, on the Animal Pak forums, has this to say:
If the bar hits the back of your legs, you are bending forward too much. I started doing hack squats to force myself into better form for the regular deadlift. You have to keep your ass down and your shoulders back to get the bar past your hams.

Steve Reeves (aka Hercules) used a custom-made belt to do the hack squat. Notably here is that he is also placing his heels on a board as he squats.
Hack Squats performed the Reeves way were unique compared to how others were doing them. When Steve was training at the old York Barbell Club in his bid for the 1950 Mr. Universe he used part of the old Milo hip lifting wooden platform plus a fabricated cold rolled steel T-Bar. The hip lifting platform had a hole in the middle of it and the “T” end of the bar extended through the hole. Plates were loaded or anchored on the bottom part of the “T” bar underneath the platform. While standing atop the platform Reeves would squat down with his hands behind his back and take a strong knuckles forward grip on the “T” (holding it tightly against the underside of his buttocks) and then would straighten his legs up to almost near lock-out but not quite. Once in the up position he would lower himself and repeat the movement for about fifteen reps. Doing the reps in non-lockout fashion would keep tension on his thighs the entire time.   -- Dave Draper forums.


  • Why?
    • Compound movement that focuses on Quads
    • Avoids lower back stress
    • Squat variation for support work
  • How
    • Barbell behind legs
    • Grip shoulder width apart
    • Keep torso vertical
    • Drive into heels and stand up
    • Lower bar, rinse, repeat.
  • Cues
    • Keep the chest up by pushing your sternum up
    • Move hips forward
    • Let the bar drag past legs
    • Weight should be strongly in the heels
      • Consider elevating heels through oly-shoes/ weight plates/wedge
      • Consider using barbell rack if flexibility doesn't allow full ROM
    • If having difficulty getting past butt, you're leaning too far foward. 

Further Reading

1 comment:

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