During the inception of the strength and conditioning game there was only iron.
This was an era where machines didn’t exist. If you wanted to get strong and develop a muscular physique you had no choice but to touch the iron.
This was also a time in the iron game when even the standard squat rack was not common. This is unheard of in today’s fitness world unless you train in a gym where sweating is illegal.
Lifters from this far away time had to be very creative when it came to building their physiques.
The available information on building strength and muscle was very limited. Lifters could not log online and learn from the wealth of information we have today.
Experience and trial/error were the only ways to learn what was useful or what had no value.
It was during this time that the great strongman George Hackenschmidt gave the iron game an underrated gem of an exercise: the barbell hack squat.
Although largely forgotten in today’s training culture the barbell hack squat is an absolutely phenomenal movement for building strong, stallion-like quads.
What is a barbell hack squat?
When most trainees think about a hack squat they think about the hack slide machine. While the machine hack slide is a good move, the barbell hack squat is a completely different beast!
The barbell hack squat is a very archaic movement. I have seen very few trainees perform this move in my training career and their versions of it did the move zero justice. In fact what I have seen has looked more like a brutal, 16th century execution of the lower back.
When the barbell hack squat is performed correctly it is a thing of beauty. It will absolutely zero in on your quad development specifically the vastus medialis (teardrop) and the vastus lateralis (sweep).
Performing barbell hack squats will feel tough initially as it is a very odd looking exercise. It may feel awkward to perform at first but that doesn’t mean it’s time to quit because it’s hard.
Learning a new language is hard. Starting your own business is hard. But if you are hungry for success then you will make it happen. You have to grind with the barbell hack squat until it becomes a staple for you.
Key #1 - The Set Up
You will set up a barbell behind your back. Ideally you will want to have standard size (45’s) plates on the bar. This will put you in the ideal position for starting the lift.
If you’re truly a beginner to the barbell hack squat than the rubber 25lb or 10lb plates will suit you well. The plates are just as tall as standard 45’s and light enough to allow you to learn the movement with great form.
You’ll need a wooden block to elevate your heels. If you do not have that you can use small plates or you can wear Olympic weightlifting shoes. This slight elevation will allow your quads to be maximally stimulated with less help from the posterior chain.
At this point you’ll bend down and grab the bar with either a double overhand or mixed grip. Once you grab the bar, pull the slack out it and begin to drop your hips.
Your goal is to remain as upright as possible during the lift so you’ll want to keep your chest tall and back tight. This will ensure that your quads will do the majority of the work to complete the lift.
Key #2 - The Execution
With your chest tall, eyes forward, knees out, and back tight you are now ready to perform the lift. Maintaining a neutral back is extremely important when it comes to injury prevention. A rounded lower back in the barbell hack squat is a fantastic way to visit the ER that night.
The best way to see your form is to use the mirror. If you can see your chest in the mirror and see you knees out, then you are locked in.
At this point many trainees run into the most common issue when they try to perform a rep. They end up driving the barbell directly into their hamstrings!
When you are performing barbell hack squats the goal is not to pull the bar into your body like a deadlift. You will smash your hamstrings every single time.
I tell trainees new to the movement that bar path must remain slightly away from the legs in order for hamstrings not to get hit. When you begin to master the movement you will be able to perform the lift and almost never feel it touch your hamstrings.
The ideal set-up is to have the bar touching your soleus initially. However, as you perform the lift you want to keep the bar on a path that keeps it slightly away from the body. When you squat back down the bar will follow the same path.
Key #3 - The Finish
To complete a rep of the barbell hack squat you don’t want to bend over as if you were performing an RDL. I can assure you that horrendous reps like that will have you visiting Dr. John Rusin in the near future.
At the top of the rep it important to squat down to keep yourself injury free but also to keep your quads maximally stimulated throughout the lift.
After you squat down you have options as to how you want to perform your reps. One thing that must happen though, whether you use pause reps or constant tension reps, is that the bar must touch the floor to complete a full rep.
You can also use Ben Bruno style hover reps to increase the intensity of the movement as well but save that for when you get better at barbell hack squat.
Half-reps can also be useful in a setting like a 1 and ½ rep. With all that said, the vast majority of your training should focus on full range of motion and touching the floor on each rep.
Check out my video below to see a visual demonstration of the barbell hack squat!
1) The barbell hack squat looks very odd! Will I get hurt?
You can get hurt performing any exercise man! There is no greater risk on the barbell hack squat. The key to staying healthy is proper form and getting stronger slowly. There is no need to start week 1 at 185lbs and try to get to 275lbs in week 2. That is a recipe for total disaster.
2) Is the barbell hack squat hard on the knees?
I have been performing the barbell hack squat for almost a decade and I have never had a knee issue while performing it. The only thing I have found that can affect your knees is the height of the elevated block you are standing on.
If it is too high, it could create more tension on the knees. A half-inch to a 2-inch block will work for most folks.
It should be noted tough that if you have pre-existing knee injuries then any squat/lunge variation could be difficult for you to perform. Exercise caution when you are training and be aware of how your body responds to the movement.
3) How can I work the barbell hack squat into my training program?
You can sub out your barbell squat or front squat for 6 weeks with the barbell hack squat. Once you have mastery of the movement you can rotate it in as one of your standard quad movements.
It can be awkward at first to learn but do not quit! That is what losers do and I know you all reading this are better than that.
4) How strong can I get in the barbell hack squat?
You can become extremely strong in the barbell hack squat. My best barbell hack squat is only 30lbs lower than my best deadlift. Stay consistent with the lift and you will reap the benefits of greater strength and size.
The barbell hack squat is an ancient quad builder, but it definitely has a place in the present day of fitness. Your focus has to be on mastering the form and making progressions in weight and reps.
You will be rewarded with bigger and stronger quads. Last time I checked there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!