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Hack squats were traditionally performed with a barbell.
When picking exercises to add to your routine, not only do you want the ones that lead to bigger increases in strength and muscle recruitment and burn more calories, but you need exercises to be safe too. When performed correctly, the hack squat -- either the barbell or machine version -- shouldn't place excess stress on your spine.
Good Old George
Hack squats were originally popularized by and named after strength athlete George Hackenschmidt. They are very similar to a deadlift but are performed with the bar behind your ankles,rather than over your feet. As barbell hack squats can be challenging to perform, you may prefer to use a hack squat machine. For this, you stand on the machine's foot platform with the pads resting across your shoulders and then squat as low as possible before standing back up.
Hack squats may be a much more back-friendly way to perform squatting movements, according to strength coach Charles Poliquin. Compared to barbell squats, hack squats work your glutes and hamstring muscles more, but the erector spinae muscles of your lower back less. Poliquin does recommend that when doing barbell back squats, you place your heels on a small platform, which raises you up slightly and ensures your hips stay directly below your shoulders to prevent you from bending over.
Sticking With Squats
The reduced emphasis on your lower-back muscles doesn't necessarily mean there's less pressure on your spine when hack squatting. This is particularly true of the hack squat machine. Exercise scientist and personal trainer J. D. Reber notes on his Personal Body Precision website that frequent hack squatting will make your legs stronger, but doesn't place the same demands on your core that back squatting with a barbell does, thus leading to a weak mid-section and more risk of spinal injury.
Personal factors, such as your own muscle imbalances, joint and muscle structure and injury history also come into play when deciding whether or not to use hack squats in your routine. If you've suffered from spinal injuries in the past, check with your health-care provider before adding any new exercises into your workout. When starting hack squats, go light and get the form perfect before increasing the weight. If you decide to opt for the machine version, include extra core and lower-back strengthening work, such as planks, side bridges, back extensions and deadlifts in your routine.