The squat is to any exercise routine what communication is to any relationship: foundational.
A functional movement pattern that involves flexing and extending at your hips, knees and ankles, the squat exercise replicates the shapes your body shifts into each time you sit down or stand up, explains certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, CSCS, head coach and owner of AIM Athletic.
Being able to correctly perform squats in your weight room (or living room!) can help protect you from injuries that occur outside of the gym if you squat with poor form, Harcoff says. This move is essential for anyone looking to train consistently over the duration of their life.
"Squatting can also directly strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves, as well as your abdominals and lower back indirectly," he says. As is the case with most exercises, the greater added load you add to the squat, the greater the strength and muscle gains will be from the movement. So, after you nail the body-weight squat, Harcoff says it's wise to add weight to the movement.
One way to add weight to the squat is with the help of a squat machine. However, with so many different types of squat machines at the gym, it can be hard to know which to use. To help you out, we put together this helpful squat machine guide.
Read on for an in-depth look at five of the most common squat machine types, including info on how to use them properly and what type of athlete and fitness goals they're best suited for.
Best Overall: Power Rack
The power rack isn't a machine, so much as it is a stand — actually, when the power rack is not outfitted with additional strength accouterments (spotter arm, cable machine or pull-up bar, for example) it's simply called a squat stand.
Designed to position a barbell at optimal height for you to get it into the back rack or front rack position (with the help of J-pegs), the power rack is the squat machine most used by CrossFit athletes, powerlifters and Olympic lifters. (Most power racks can also be used for bench pressing, rack deadlifts and barbell pressing movements).
"The beauty of squatting in a power rack or squat stand is that both you and the barbell have absolute freedom," says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. "There are no external influences on the range of motion that you perform the squat in," he says.
You get to choose exactly how you position the barbell, where you ground your feet and the path the barbell takes throughout each rep is entirely dependent on your body's movement patterns. (This is not the case for squat machines like the Smith machine or hack squat machine, which lock the barbell into a specific path — more on that later).
Because you — not the machine — are deciding the path of the barbell, there is greater demand placed on your core muscles when you use a power rack compared to other squat machines.
"Your core has to lock in order to keep you standing and stable while you sit down and stand up," Wickham says.
The power rack also offers you the greatest carry over to strength sports, because it's what's used during strength competition, he notes.
Watch the Full Power Rack Tutorial
Best for Lower-Body Strength: Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat machine looks like a leg press machine flipped on its head. To use it, you position your shoulders beneath the movable shoulder pads then assume a "wall sit" position against the machine's angled back pad, so you're facing out toward the gym. Next, you drive through the machine's foot platform to move the machine along its tracks and return your body to a standing position.
The hack squat machine entails moving a weight up and down a set track — typically at a 20- to 30-degree angle, Wickham explains. Because the weight moves along a set track, your core doesn't need to do as much work as it needs during a free-standing squat. In practice, this means the weight in a hack squat machine will feel much lighter than that same weight during free-standing barbell back squat.
"You can usually load the hack squat machine to a greater degree, which makes it a good option for helping your body acclimate to larger loads," Wickham says.
The angle of your body while you use a hack squat machine puts the majority of the load along the front-side of your body, which shifts the bulk of the work to your anterior chain (front side of your body) — your quads specifically, Wickham says. This makes the hack squat machine ideal for people who are posterior chain (back side of your body) dominant, as well as anyone trying to protect themselves from injuries related to quad strength deficits (like lower back pain).
Watch the Full Hack Squat Machine Tutorial
Best for Muscle Mass: Smith Machine
To the naked eye, the Smith machine looks like a souped out power rack. In actuality, the Smith machine is a blend of a power rack and hack squat machine.
In a Smith machine, the weight moves up and down along a track, just as it does in a hack squat machine. However, the Smith machine forces you to plant your feet on the flat ground as you would during a power rack back or front squat, rather than positioning them on an angled foot plate, Wickham says. (Much like the power rack, the Smith machine can be used for a wide variety of exercises, he adds, including the deadlift, bench press and push press).
"By putting the barbell on a fixed rail, the Smith machine removes some of the internal stability required of the lifter," Harcoff says. Because you don't have to prevent the bar from falling forward or backward, you can stack more weight plates to your Smith Machine barbell than you might in a free-standing bar, he says.
For bodybuilders, linebackers and other athletes who are focused on putting on leg mass, this makes the Smith Machine an excellent choice "It's also a great option for people who don't have the core strength a free standing squat requires," he says. For instance, those navigating back issues and those coming back from pregnancy.
The Smith machine also works well for beginners who are worried about having to fail a squat in a power or squat rack, according to Wickham.
Watch the Full Smith Machine Tutorial
Best for Glute Strength: Leverage Squat Machine
If you haven't heard of the leverage squat machine, you're not alone. "The leverage squat machine doesn't get a lot of airplay, but it should because it might be one of the squat machine variations that is best for targeting the glutes," Harcoff says.
A tall, slim machine in construction, the leverage squat machine looks like a calf raise machine, but it works more than just your calves. To use it, you'll grab the handles, position your shoulders against the shoulder and back pad, facing the machine. Then, you'll screw your feet into the angled foot plate beneath before sitting your butt back and standing up.
The angled foot pad allows you to get really deep, or low, into your squat, Harcoff explains. As a result, you're able to work your glute muscles for a more complete range of motion than you would during some other squat variations. When you sit more deeply, a greater portion of your glutes are worked, which means greater glute gains following recovery, Harcoff says.
All squat variations will work your glute muscles, he says, but because the leverage squat machine puts greater emphasis on your glutes, it's the obvious choice for anyone looking to strengthen this muscle group.
Watch the Full Leverage Squat Machine Tutorial
Best for Beginners: V-Squat Machine
With its shoulder and back pad and weight track, the V-squat machine looks nearly identical to a hack squat machine. But rather than position your back at a declined angle the way the hack squat machine does, the V-squat machine allows your body to move in a vertical plane.
"The V-squat machine is designed to allow you to squat up and right down," Harcoff says. This motion emulates the movement pattern you'd use during a free weight squat much more closely than other squat machines do, he says.
The squat pattern used in the V-squat machine doesn't isolate one particular muscle in your lower body, he says, but instead strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves equally.
If you're looking to improve overall lower-body strength or increase the weight you can use during free-weight squats — like the dumbbell front rack squat or goblet squat — the V-squat machine is an excellent starting point, Harcoff says.