Antifragile and Strong Knees: The Russian Lion’s Kettlebell Hack Squat Tutorial

Resilient ankles, antifragile knees, strong legs—and a lesson in many important principles of balance, flexibility, and strength: these are just a few benefits of the Hack squat.

This variation on the squat was one of the favorite exercises of the legendary “Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt, a famous strongman and wrestler. In his book Way to Live (1908) Hackenschmidt promised that it was “one of the best leg exercises in the world.” He was not alone in feeling this way. Many other well-known names in the Iron Game, both in the East and West, advocated this squat.

The Hack squat will also mobilize your toes and strengthen your calves, as well as open your chest and hips. Together with prying goblet squats and Cossack squats, it is helping me on my quest to the roadkill split and side split.

Hack Squat

Properly performed Hack squats will kick your butt even with a light kettlebell. Pavel wrote on the old forum: “If you can hack a 32kg KB you are a stud; the leverage is very poor,” and also added that the “Hack squat builds leg strength specific to climbing.”

The Hack squat’s benefits go beyond providing a fun challenge and some extra mobility and flexibility, however. As mentioned previously, they help build up the knees to handle more punishment without taking a bruising. My colleague Fionnbhárr Toolan, a Girevoy Sport (GS) champion wrote, “I’ve utilised this movement in my GS training a few times throughout 2016 to bulletproof the knees from the repetitive knee action in the double jerk.”

The list of benefits and practical applications for your own training goes on and on.

In this article, you will learn how to perform a Hack squat, safely, step by step: we will start with the assisted bodyweight squat and various forms of free Hack squat, as taught by the “Russian Lion,” and gradually move onto a kettlebell Hack squat. I will teach you the correct set-up and bottom position and finally a kettlebell Hack squat per se, as well as simple self-correcting drills that will help you with troubleshooting of the most common mistakes.

Hack Squat

Goblet Squat or a Hack Squat?

SFGs and Simple & Sinister practitioners will certainly ask, “Which is better—the goblet squat or the Hack squat?”

The answer is simple: Yes.

Both are excellent drills, but since most newbies (when asked to show a squat) will naturally default to the heels up, knees forward (and often in), body forward position, I recommend first to master the regular goblet squat, as taught in Simple & Sinister and our SFG Level I curriculum.

Gradually incorporate a bodyweight-only variation of the Hack squat in your morning recharge, as explained below, and then you will be ready to tackle the kettlebell version. Slow and patient practice are the keywords.

The same goes for the other squat variations from our curricula:

As Pavel mentioned on our SFB Cert in Sweden, “Not everybody needs to squat heavy, but everybody needs to squat.”

Hack Squat

Heritage of the Russian Lion

Ask anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the history of iron where the Hack squat comes from, and most of them will tell you the movement is named after George Hackenschmidt. He was a stud, indeed. And his lifting routine was the stuff of legend.

From Willoughby’s The Super Athletes (1970):

George Hackenschmidt of Russia, performed 50 consecutive “Hacke” (or “Hocke”) lifts with 50 kilos (110 3/4 pounds). This feat was done in front of the famous German weight-trainer, Theodor Siebert, at Alsleben, Germany, Feb. 15, 1902. “Hack” also performed a single lift in the same style with 85 kilos (187 1/4 pounds). The latter was equal to a flat-footed squat with about 522 pounds on the shoulders.The ‘Hacke; lift is performed by knee-bending on the toes while holding a barbell with the hands together behind the hips, thus leaving the back muscles out of the effort and doing all the work with the legs.

You will realize how incredibly strong the Russian Lion was after you try your first Hack squat with 16kg or 24kg.

As for the name of drill, which is right—Hack, Hacke, Hocke? Renowned historian David Gentle wrote about Hackenschmidt:

In weightlifting circles he is perhaps best known for’ his’ version of the squat, I.e. ‘Hack squats’ where the barbell is held behind the thighs. Back in 1902 he made 550 reps with 110lbs in this difficult style. The name ‘Hack lift” however originally came from the word ‘hacke’ or heel according to his own account in his classic tome ‘The Way To Live.’

Hackenschmidt actually simply wrote that “this exercise is called ‘Hacke’ in Germany,” and did not say why. Dan Wagmand explained on the USAWA forum:

German word ‘Hacke’ can be used to denote a heel. However, this is commonly only used in southern German dialect. The proper German word for heel is ‘Ferse’. A Hacke is indeed an axe, pickaxe, or mattock type tool.

Dan continued:

… Hocke is also a German word. It refers to what we might consider crouching down or when you without weight go into a deep squat where your hamstrings touch your calves.

Anyway, Dan concluded with great respect:

Regardless, personally, I like thinking of it as being a reference to Hackenschmidt. The dude was stout as all heck and had a body that people today, even when saucing, couldn’t get. And let’s not even talk about his strength and dominance in wrestling. He was from an era when men were men and it motivates me to do a Hack when thinking of him as opposed to my heel.

Hack Squat

Getting Started: The Bodyweight Hack Squat

The “Russian Lion” himself emphasized that the exercise is not for everybody:

A note of warming should here be sounded, to the effect that, while everyone suffering from rupture, or with tendency to rupture, should be very careful in all exercises, they must be particularly so with leg exercises. These would do well, in fact, to confine their leg movements without weights…

It is not a dangerous exercise, but if your knees already have some mileage or if you have previous knee injuries, it might be not the drill for you right now—especially the weighted version, and for some, even the bodyweight version.

On the other hand, the Hack squat might be one of the keys to proper knee rehab. Rif noted: “I use the barbell version and have for years to help rehab and strengthen my lower quads/knee. Love it.”

With that being said, we will start with bodyweight Hack squats. Hackenschmidt actually teaches the bodyweight version in his book. Please see a step-by-step progression in the video below:

My recommendation is to add bodyweight Hack squats to your morning recharge routine. Careful readers of Pavel’s Super-Joints remember Academician Amosov’s morning routine. Apart from other exercises, he did 100 squats while holding onto the back of a chair. Work up to the number of reps matching your age. Divide it into as many sets as you want.

You may start with regular bodyweight squats, and gradually incorporate the Hack squats, first assisted, and later free standing, either Hackenschmidt’s variation with 3 different hand positions or as a face-the-wall squat.

In my own morning routine, I like to alternate various bodyweight squats—assisted mobility squats while holding a door knob, face-the-wall squats, Hack squats, face-the-wall Hack squats, and so on. All are good.

Hackenschmidt wrote, “Repeat these three performances [i.e. his three variations of the bodyweight HSQ, note PM] daily for first week and then perform two of each and so on.”

Kettlebell Hack Squat

In his book Super-Strength (1924), Alan Calvert, one of the fathers of weight-lifting in the United States, recommended that “… no one should use weights until he can perform the deep knee bend fifty times in succession without weights. In order to perform the exercise correctly it is necessary to cultivate your sense of balance.”

Once you have mastered and practiced the bodyweight Hack squat for a few weeks or months, it will be time to start work on the full kettlebell Hack squat. Don’t try to match your regular kettlebell goblet squat or front squat with Hack squats. When starting out, please use a much lighter kettlebell—16kg for gentlemen and 8kg for ladies is more than enough.

Trust me, you will be humbled even with such a light weight.

Pay attention to the details—keeping the kettlebell in a correct position, squeezing your glutes, keeping your chest open, elongating your collarbones, keeping the spine vertical, separating the knees to the sides, etc. Cheating might make it easier, but it also makes the movement less beneficial.

Speaking of opening the knees and hips to the side, Doc Hartle, Master SFG, Chief SFL, commented on the photos:

I like the relative angle between the femurs that you show at the bottom of the squat. Most of the time when I did these, my angle at the bottom was more acute. This created more stress on the quads then being wider, which subtracted some from the quads and added some adductor. All good stuff!

Face-the-wall kettlebell Hack squats (recommended to me by Jon Engum, Master SFG) will make things much harder—and fix most of the details above.

Hack Squat

How to Add the Hack Squats to Your Program

As with everything we do at StrongFirst, the answer is simple and straight forward. You have a couple of options:

  • Bodyweight Hack Squats: Do these every morning as part of your “morning recharge.”
  • Kettlebell Hack Squats: When it comes to putting these in your program, remember that Pavel emphasized, “It is essential that you keep the volume low.” 3 sets of 5 after your regular practice or as part of your variety days will feel just about right. Increase the weight very gradually—over weeks, not days.

There is no world championship in the Hack squat, but anybody who does them will get stronger, more resilient, and more antifragile—and, thus, will win the greatest prize of all: strength and health.

Enjoy!

Special thanks to my friend Aleks Salkin, SFG II, SFB for proofreading and editing.

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Pavel Macek
Senior SFG, SFL, SFB
Pavel Macek, Senior SFG and KB5 Gym founder and chief instructor, is a pioneer of kettlebells in Czechia, Central Europe. He began training Chinese combatives in the Hung Kyun style in 1991, studying in the USA, Hong Kong, and China. He is president and chief instructor of the Practical Hung Kyun International Association.

Pavel was the first StrongFirst Certified Instructor in Czechia. He is also an FMS/CK-FMS specialist. In 2008, he opened the first kettlebell gym in the Czech Republic, KB5 Gym Prague. He currently teaches Chinese combatives and MMA (Practical Hung Kyun), strength training (KB5 Gym Prague), and tactical self-defense for various private and government agencies, as well as Prague’s Charles University.

Please check out his English blog SIMPLEXSTRONG, his Repeat Until Strong training log on the StrongFirst forum, and his StrongFirst articles.
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30 thoughts on “Antifragile and Strong Knees: The Russian Lion’s Kettlebell Hack Squat Tutorial

  • Really good exercise, thank you !

    Could it be made harder (while still being safe) done on one leg, or should it be done with two legs and weight, when one is comfortable with the bodyweight version ?

      • It looks like I can do 1 good rep with 32 kg, sometimes 2. I will try to slowly build up the reps.

        After this, should I consider getting to 40 kg or even 48 kg for the hack squat (if this happens) before attempting a one-legged version , or increasing the weight is a better (and safer) option ? My current weight is 80 kg.

        Sorry to insist about this, but as I do not always have a kettlebell with me, I like to have bodyweight alternatives, and I feel like, the harder it is, the better.

        Thank you for your answer !

  • Hello, this was a great article, and I’ve begun Hack Squats for some volume, but I wonder if they are safe for me. I’ve tried both weighted and non-weighted versions. With a 25 pound weight I can do 5 reps, and unweighted I can get about 15. I weigh about 230 pounds and am in my mid-40s. I don’t feel any pain when I do them, and I can go “calf-to-ham”, and I can do them pretty slowly. But my knees crack for the first few reps, and It almost feels like my knee-caps are getting stretched out. Also, my knee-caps (not the muscles) will feel sore the next day after I do my weighted sets. Is this in a sign I should avoid this exercise, or is it simply normal since it’s still pretty new to me?

    • Carl, I would stick with the bodyweight version only for some time, and e.g. instead of 1 set of 15, do 3 sets of 5, or 5 sets of 3. Do it every other day and build up from there, slowly, step by step.

  • thanks Pavel, you have changed the way I train my legs and strengthen my knees. great article. look forward for more

    • LB, thank you, I am glad you like the tutorial. Carefully in the group training – somebody’s knees might be not ready even for the bodyweight HSQ (yet).

  • Brilliant article. I get the impression from the movement that they would have a good carry over to snappy martial arts kicks. Your demonstration (especially the wall method) clearly demonstrates how they would carry over to climbing so well.
    Great work.

    • David, thank you. Yes, it is very popular exercise among martial artists in the East. In China, the drill is called “Lift Heels Bend Knees” (Tai Jaang Waan Sat 提踭彎膝, Cantonese Chinese). It was a part of a set of joint-mobility/easy stretching/brething exercises called “Eighteen Arhat Hands” (Sap Baat Lo Hon Sau 十八手羅漢).

  • Outstanding article, Pavel! I couldn’t help myself and tried this out immediately after reading. Feels damn good!

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