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Back Squat Alternative: Trap Bar, Barbell Hack, or Machine Hack Squat?

Hello CT,
Which one of the alternate squat patterns would you recommend in place of the barbell back squat? A brief explanation would also be awesome!
Thanks in advance

Well, it is hard for me to give you a proper answer because you give me zero information.

  • Why do you want to drop the back squat? Because it causes pain? Because you don’t get much out of it? Because you don’t like it? That is important because it can influence which will be the best substitution.

  • What are you looking for in the substitute movement? The most quads growth? Overall lower body development? Strength?

The fact is that what is “the best” exercise for someone will not necessarily be the same for somebody else. Depending o body type (limb vs. torso length), muscle dominance, objective, personal preferences (a movement might work great, but if you hate it you aren’t likely to work hard on it and will get fewer results), etc. the “best” choice will vary.

I’ll give you a general opinion, but do not forget what I just posted.

  • My first recommendation would be the front squat. From my experience, it tends to be the best quads-focused lower body exercise and still provides good stimulation for the glutes and core.

  • I pretty much never recommend the barbell hack squat. First, because not everyone can do it properly due to mechanical issues (people with shorter arms/longer torsos can’t mechanically do it). I also find it awkward for most and potentially stressful on the knees. Unless you are totally in love with that exercise, it would never be on my list of recommendations.

  • The machine hack squat is a great quadriceps builder. Especially for people with longer limbs and a shorter torso. If that’s all you are after it is a good choice. But I would not coin it as a substitute for the back squat as it doesn’t train many things that the squat do: core strength, glutes (there is obviously some glutes development, but nowhere near free-weight squat variations in which the hips can move back and slightly hinge), stability, capacity to create tension, overall strength. I personally never use the hack squat as a primary lift, neither with myself or my clients. I do use it often, but as an assistance lift. But if you only want to build your quads, it’s an ok choice.

  • The trap bar squat/deadlift is a good movement. It’s actually one of the most complete lifts you can do. Besides working the whole lower body it also trains the traps, core, lower and upper back.

HOWEVER not everybody can get great quads development from it. FIRST the range of motion might not be long enough for maximal HYPERTROPHY (it’s fine for strength). To get the most growth possible, you must stretch the muscles while they are under load. The more you stretch them while they are under load, the more growth you stimulate.

Right off the bat, if you use the high handles on the trap bar, you essentially turn the movement into a partial squat. Which is absolutely fine for strength and power development (partial squats have been show to improve sprinting and jumping more than full squatting) but not hypertrophy.

Using the lower handles can lessen that issue, provided that you go down to the lower starting position by flexing the knees NOT by bending the torso/hinging. But still, even with the low handles, most will still be in a partial squat position.

That’s why to really focus on the quads, it is often better to do low handle trap bar deadlifts standing on a block so that it the low position your hip joint is in line with the knee or lower.

Another issue is that with the TBDL people tend to do more of a hinging/deadlift action than a squatting movement. This will shift the stress away from the quads and more on the lower back and glutes.

Because you are bringing the weight down to the floor on each rep a lot of people will subconsciously stop controlling the weight/release muscle tension in the bottom half of the movement, when they feel like they are approaching the floor. This significantly reduces hypertrophy stimulation because you are removing muscle tension when the fibers are lengthened the most. A lot of people will also bounce the weight on the floor, which makes the movement a lot less effective.

In THEORY, if done properly, the TB squat done with a squatting motion is a great squat alternative, it can even be better than a squat. BUT few do it in the right way.

  • Be sure that you are doing a squatting motion, not a deadlifting one
  • I the low position the hip joint should be in line with the knee or lower
  • Ideally DO NOT BRING THE BAR DOWN TO THE FLOOR stop 0.5 - 1" from the floor to maintain muscle tension. For strength it’s fine (and even better) to bring it down, for hypertrophy it is suboptimal.

So to answer your question, and keep in mind that this is a general answer, the trap bar squat if done PERFECTLY would be the best choice, it can even be better than the squat. But the room for error is very small, you can easily lose a lot of effectiveness for quads growth.

The front squat is pretty much equal to the TB squat and is my recommendation most of the time mostly because people have less of a tendency to screw it up than the TB squat.

The machine hack squat is a great quads-focused movement, but to me, it’s an assistance lift.

I would forget the barbell hack squat, unless you just want to garner more attention in the gym.

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Hi CT, thanks for the detailed reply, and sorry for not providing any information for you to base a recommendation on.
I am looking for overall lower body development and hypertrophy. I workout in my garage gym and have quite a bit of equipment. However until I can afford to upgrade I only have one of those squat stand/bench press jobs with no safety bars for either. So I try to find substitutes that wont endanger me…like DB bench instead of barbell, etc. I have seen too many videos of people failing without safeties and I don’t really want to be one of those statistics. So, parallel to what you stated it is hard to achieve maximum results if one is nervous doing the movement,
After posting my question last night, I saw your Instagram post (and your reply above) on trap bar deadlift substitute for squat. I do have a trap bar so unless, with the little bit more information I provided, you have a better alternative I think I will work on perfecting the trap bar substitute and incorporating them into my workout.
Thanks again for all your advise, expertise and motivation.
MH

For those who perform the dead squat properly as you described, have you ever programmed it together with a deadlift in the same day, a full body 3x a week situation? Or is that wildly crazy?

Honestly, I don’t remember ever doing it.

Is it crazy? I wouldn’t say crazy, it’s no worse than an olympic lifter doing cleans, snatches and squats in the same workout.

I just find it a bit too redundant. I would use the deadsquat (trap bar squat) and RDL in the same session though.

Thank you for the reply, and for the new article, as someone who has just crept over 40 it’s very relevant and frankly something I needed to hear.

BTW, given they are currently in an 0-3 hole, I hope the Canadians maybe consider your neurotype work going into next season, since they inspired some of it, they should start benefiting from it! lol

I had a possible contact with the GM, but it didn’t pan out. It’s really hard to get hired by a team, especially when you have a new concept. And chances are that both the strength coach and team psychologist would be against me coming in.

Which is crazy to me, but then again it took awhile for leagues to accept the use of analytics, now, especially in baseball it’s almost too heavily relied on.
I would think an NBA team would definitely have interest. Chemistry of a team is so important and you need to identify the different personalities it takes to construct and manage. I’ll say this, if I’m a team interested in the Sixers Ben Simmons, I’m calling you! Lol