Sissy Squat: Form, Alternatives, Machine

Sissy squat workout demonstration (with a weight plate)

Don’t let the name fool you; the sissy squat is one of the most challenging and practical lower body exercises you can learn. It is excellent for building massive quads, and though it may get you some funny looks when performing it in the gym, you’ll soon realise just how great an exercise can be!

In this article, we will be looking at how to perform three different types of sissy squat: the bodyweight version, the machine version, and the Smith machine version. We will also look at what muscles it works, what alternatives there are, and help you see the benefits of learning it.

Table of Contents

    What is a Sissy Squat?

    The sissy squat is an old-school quadricep exercise. It is one of the most challenging bodyweight exercises you can learn, but, luckily has several machine-based alternatives. There are a lot of common misconceptions about this exercise and a lot of misinformation. 

    Why are They Called Sissy Squats?

    So, what is the name about? Internet folklore claims that the exercise is named after King Sisyphus, who turns up in Ancient Greek legend. The story goes that he was made to carry a boulder up a hill endlessly as punishment for being deceitful. When he came close to the top, the boulder was enchanted to roll back down the hill. 

    This story makes little sense. Firstly, squatting and carrying a boulder are nothing alike. Secondly, if the exercise were named after Sisyphus, it would have been called a Sisyphus squat, which sounds much better!

    The move was invented by strongman/bodybuilder Monty Wolford and taught to fellow legend Vince Gironda. The exercise was initially called the Monty Wolford squat, but Vince once claimed it would “make a sissy out of anyone who tried it”, and the name stuck.

    Benefits of Sissy Squats

    Monty invented this exercise to build much larger quadriceps, which worked so well that Vince Gironda asked him how he managed it. The exercise is excellent for muscle hypertrophy (increasing size) but doesn’t have many other uses. The exercise is supposed to improve the shape of the quadriceps, possibly by targeting the lower parts of the muscle. 

    Sissy Squat Form & Muscles Worked

    One of the biggest misconceptions is that the machine, commonly referred to as a sissy squat machine, can be used to perform sissy squats. That machine’s real name is a Roman Chair Squat Machine. It allows you to perform the Roman chair squat (surprisingly). 

    The original (and authentic) sissy squat can either be performed as a bodyweight exercise or with a Smith machine. The Roman chair squat is almost unheard of these days, we’ve included it in this article and named it a Sissy squat machine, but now you know the truth!

    Sissy Squat Muscles Worked

    • Quadriceps (primary)
    • Hamstrings
    • Glutes
    • Calves
    • Core muscles

    The sissy squat could be considered a quadricep isolation exercise because it takes almost all focus away from the glutes, hamstrings, and calves. However, there is still enough activation of these muscles to consider it a compound exercise. 

    Bodyweight Sissy Squat

    You will need something to hold on to for this exercise, or you will need a raised platform to place your feet on. It is technically possible to perform sissy squats without either, but they are much more complex, and the balance becomes an overwhelming issue. 

    We’ll talk you through the version where you hold onto a wall or solid structure for balance, as this is the most accessible version to recreate. 

    1. Hold onto a wall for balance.
    2. Raise your heels off the floor so that you are on your tiptoes
    3. Push your knees forwards and towards the ground
    4. As your knees almost touch the floor, you should be leaning backwards
    5. Rise back up to the starting position

    Another way to do this is to place your heels onto a slightly raised platform (a weight plate is a good option) and perform the exercise precisely. You won’t need to hold onto anything as your feet provide enough balance.

    Finally, there is an option to perform the exercise without holding onto anything or placing your feet on a raised platform. This version requires you to place your arms out for balance and slowly lower your knees to the floor while leaning back. 

    This version is so complicated that it isn’t worth doing; you won’t get the same quadriceps activation because you’ll be putting so much effort into balancing yourself. 

    Sissy Squat Machine

    This is called a Roman chair squat, and it uses a Roman chair squat machine. The machine is built to hold your feet in place and balance as you squat backwards like a hack squat. 

    A large pad rests against your calves, and two pads go over your feet. This allows you to squat backwards as if you were about to sit on a tiny chair just a little too far behind you. 

    This doesn’t put the same tension on your quadriceps and shouldn’t be considered a sissy squat. However, it is still a great exercise and well worth a try. 

    There are two versions of the sissy squat Smith machine exercise. Here are both:

    Smith Machine Sissy Squat #1

    This version is almost identical to the bodyweight version mentioned above. Set the bar so that it is resting on your shoulders. Raise your heels off the floor, and then bring your knees down until they almost touch the floor in front of you. Rise back up to the start of the movement, then repeat for the required reps. 

    What’s great about this version is that you get the stability and balance from the Smith machine, making it easier for you to perform your sissy squat. It also gives you the option of adding weights to the bar and increasing the resistance. 

    Smith Machine Sissy Squat #2

    As with the sissy squat machine exercise, this is closer to a Roman chair squat than a sissy squat. But this is a superb exercise and quite fun to learn. 

    You will need a Smith machine with the bar set to the lowest setting. Place a weight plate on the floor just in front of it. You want the back of your knees to be resting on the bar; if you are short, you may need to stack two plates to get the required height. 

    With your arms out in front of you, squat down until your glutes are slightly below the height of your knees. Pause, and then rise back up again. 

    Sissy Squat Leg Extension

    This is another exercise that is commonly called a sissy squat variation but is a Roman chair squat performed using a leg extension machine. This is an enjoyable exercise and is great for performing in a crowded gym. 

    Stand with the backs of your legs resting against the inside of a leg extension pad; you should be facing the chair with your thighs quite close to the chair.

    You will want to put a lot of weight on the machine so that the pad doesn’t move; then you want to lean back so that your legs are flush with the pad. 

    Now you squat backwards in precisely the same way you would in the second Smith machine sissy squat we looked at. Pause, and then rise back up again. 

    Sissy Squat Alternatives

    We have already looked at several sissy squat alternatives, as the Roman chair squat is a sissy squat alternative. It is performed using a Roman chair machine, a Smith machine, or a leg extension machine. 

    But as the two exercises are often conflated, we thought we would class the Roman chair squat as a variation rather than an alternative. The following exercises are very different to sissy squats but offer similar benefits. They target the quadriceps more than usual and are great lower body exercises.

    Alternative #1: Hack Squat Machine

    The hack squat machine is a truly excellent addition to any gym and can help you perform an excellent hack squat. The machine allows you to squat while in a lot more of an upright position than usual. This places a lot of tension on the quadriceps, more so than usual. 

    Technically, it is possible to perform a proper sissy squat on a hack squat machine, but it’s quite tricky to manage and a lot more dangerous than the Smith machine version we looked at earlier, so we haven’t included it. 

    Alternative #2 Reverse Hack Squat Machine

    Almost all hack squat machines allow you to perform them backwards. That is, with your chest facing the machine rather than facing away. The movement is slightly different; in fact, the reverse hack squat is very similar to the Roman chair squat in that it allows you to squat lower than usual. 

    This is perhaps the most practical alternative to sissy squats. It doesn’t quite recreate the movement, but it places a lot of emphasis on the quads and allows you to train to failure, which is great for hypertrophy. 

    Alternative #3 Barbell Hack Squat

    The problem with the barbell hack squat is that it is the least graceful exercise out there, even less graceful than the sissy squat! To start the exercise, you can either have the barbell resting on a rack, or you can have it resting on the floor. 

    The exercise looks like a barbell deadlift but with the barbell behind your legs rather than in front of them. 

    1. Stand upright with your calves resting against a loaded barbell. You want your feet shoulder-width apart and toes facing forwards. 
    2. Grab the barbell using an overhand grip; both hands should be just outside your knees. 
    3. Push your chest out and flatten your back. Stand upwards, bringing the barbell up the backs of your legs as you do.
    4. Stand fully upright with the barbell resting against your glutes. Then lower it back down; again, the barbell should travel down the backs of your legs. 

    The technique takes some getting used to, and it can feel very awkward at first, particularly when trying to ascertain the right weight. But eventually, you will work it out, and you’ll have one of the most effective quad blasting exercises. 

    Alternative #4 Barbell Front Squat

    The barbell front squat is perhaps the most famous quad-forward squat out there. It isn’t quite as quad-dominant as the sissy squat, as it also works the glutes and hamstrings pretty well. 

    But due to the simplicity of the movement (once you’ve learned it correctly), it can allow you to load up the weights and blast your quads. 

    If you cannot perform barbell front squats (they can be tricky), there is a dumbbell version where you rest a dumbbell on each shoulder. This is easier to complete, and you can use significantly lower weights. 

    Alternative #5 Landmine Toe Squats

    The landmine toe squat is an excellent recreation of the sissy squat. Because you can lean forwards significantly, it allows you to target the quadriceps and makes it a lot easier to balance while on your tiptoes. 

    1. Attach your barbell to a landmine attachment and put your weight plate on it
    2. Stand in front of the barbell holding it in both hands at chest height
    3. Lean forwards and raise your heels off the ground; you may need to step backwards to get into the correct position. Feet should be shoulder-width apart
    4. Squat down as low as you can, bringing the bar down with you
    5. Explosively drive the barbell back to chest height to finish the rep

    Alternative #6 Squats with Heels Elevated

    This may be the most accessible alternative to the sissy squat, except perhaps the one below. You have to place a couple of weight plates on the floor and then place your heels on them. This will bring you slightly forwards and place more emphasis on your quadriceps.

    With regular bodyweight squats, goblet squats, barbell back squats, barbell front squats, or even dumbbell squats. Wearing specific weightlifting shoes with a wedge can recreate this without needing to find something to place your heels on. 

    Alternative #7 Leg Press

    Compared to the other exercises on this list, the leg press is not exactly a creative choice. But the fact is that the leg press is a quad-dominant hinge movement that will work your legs hard. No, it will not be as effective as a sissy squat. But it is excellent for people who are new to the gym or perhaps have mobility/balance issues. 

    Sissy Squats: Final Thoughts

    As we stated at the beginning, the sissy squat is surrounded by misinformation. The myths surrounding its name and inventor are everywhere. Many people can’t even tell the difference between a sissy squat, a squat with heels raised, and a Roman chair squat. 

    This is entirely understandable, as all three exercises look similar, have a similar goal, and work the same muscles. But it can all be confusing.

    The sissy squat is best performed as a bodyweight exercise while your heels are raised or when holding on to a wall. The next best option is to perform it in a Smith machine with the bar resting on your shoulders. 

    If you attempt the sissy squat and find that you really don’t like it or that it puts too much strain on your knees, then performing one of the alternatives on this list instead is a great idea. We love the Roman chair squat; a reverse hack squat is also an excellent option for beginners. 

    But here’s the secret, you don’t need to perform a sissy squat or variation if you don’t want to. You can get just as good results by performing regular squats and then hitting the leg extension machine or making some walking lunges. Sissy squats are fantastic, but they aren’t the only way to build fantastic quadriceps. 

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