Why is it called a sissy squat?
Despite its name, there is nothing sissy about this squat variation. The name of this exercise originates from ancient Greek mythology. Specifically, the Sissy Squat comes from Sisyphus – the founder and ruler of Ephyra.
After cheating death twice and committing numerous other wrongdoings, Sisyphus was punished. Zeus condemned Sisyphus, telling him that he would have to push a giant boulder up a hill. Once he reached the top, Zeus would free him. But each time the boulder got near the top, it tumbled back down, only for Sisyphus to start from the bottom. The punishment led Sisyphus to build a set of incredible quadriceps. Hence, the sissy squat got its name.
But why do the sissy squat? The exercise is excellent for overall quadriceps development. But because of its unique mechanics, it also emphasizes the rectus femoris better – one of the four quadriceps heads.
How to do a Sissy Squat
- Stand next to a squat rack or wall where you can hold on for balance.
- Bring your feet hip-width apart with toes pointing slightly out.
- Optional: Elevate your heels on a couple of weight plates or hexagonal dumbbells. Doing so will allow you to stay balanced as you learn the movement pattern. Alternatively, have your heels remain in the air.
- Engage your abs, bring your shoulders back, and take a breath.
- Begin the movement by bending your knees as you support yourself on the balls of your feet. Your heels should be elevated or hanging in the air.
- As you bend your knees, lean your torso back. You’ll know you’re doing this right when you manage to maintain a straight line between your knees, hips, and torso.
- Bend your knees and descend as low as your strength allows before extending your knees and going back to the top.
1. You will also notice that your knees are traveling far in front of your toes. Don’t worry because this is normal and to be expected.
2. As you go down, make sure to keep your back in a solid neutral position. Beginners often tend to hyperextend their lower back on the way down.
What muscles do sissy squats work?
The most apparent muscle group trained by sissy squats is the quadricep. As the primary muscle responsible for knee extension, the quadriceps must work hard as you descend and go back up. Like we mentioned above, the sissy squat does a great job of emphasizing the rectus femoris – one of four quadriceps muscles responsible for knee extension and hip flexion (1).
Sissy squats also train the glutes, mainly because the muscle group flexes isometrically (maintaining a contraction without movement at a joint) to keep your pelvis aligned and spine in position. Unlike traditional squats, the sissy squat has a unique pattern that emphasizes the quadriceps.
Similarly, sissy squats train the hamstrings but don’t activate them that much. As a whole, squats aren’t the best movement for hamstring growth, which is why we recommend exercises like Romanian deadlifts, hamstring curls, and nordic curls for that group (2). Finally, sissy squats involve your core muscles because they are responsible for keeping you stable and aligned. Specifically, sissy squats work your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae. But similar to the hamstrings and glutes, the core muscles work isometrically.
Progression into Sissy Squat
Steps to progress to sissy squats:
Most beginners struggle to remain stable during the sissy squat. First, they have to support themselves on the balls of their feet. Second, they have to lean far back, which takes their upper body outside the center of gravity. So, there is no shame in holding onto something as you learn the movement pattern. For example, stand next to a squat rack, grab it with one hand, and begin sissy squatting.
2. Heel Elevation
Just as you might hold onto something initially, it’s also beneficial to elevate your heels until you have a firm grasp of the exercise. We recommend using a couple of weight plates or a pair of light hexagonal dumbbells. You can also use any other stable surface that elevates your heels two to four inches off the floor. Elevating your heels can help you progress into a complete sissy squat because it allows for a more solid foundation as you lean back. Otherwise, you might find yourself losing balance because your heels are in the air.
3. Range of Motion
Doing a complete sissy squat is hard work, so it’s good, to begin with, half, even quarter the range of motion. For instance, go down only a bit until you feel a quad stretch and go back up. The next time, go a bit deeper. Slowly increase the depth until you’re doing complete repetitions.
Variations and Modifications of the Sissy Squat
1. Sissy Squat Machine
The sissy squat machine secures your feet inside a platform, which can be good if you have balancing issues. You get to secure your feet as a pad presses against your calves, allowing you to lean back without losing balance.
2. Weighted Sissy Squat
The weighted version is a sissy squat where you hold a dumbbell or weight plate for extra resistance. We recommend working up to at least twenty bodyweight sissy squats before adding extra weight.
3. Assisted Sissy Squat
The assisted sissy squat is a variation we’ve mentioned once or twice above. The goal is to hold onto something for balance. It’s an excellent way for beginners to learn the movement without worrying too much about stability.
Mistakes to avoid
The most common mistake people make with the sissy squat is to rush the process. You are strong and can squat over 300 pounds so that you won’t settle for a bodyweight sissy squat. The issue is, sissy squats take time to understand and learn, so you need to do the bodyweight version for a long time before considering adding extra resistance.
Another common mistake with sissy squats is not keeping your body straight. Some folks tend to flex their hips, which takes the emphasis away from the quadriceps and places it on the hip flexors. Others allow their back to hyperextend, which throws them off balance. So, regardless of how deep you can sissy squat, always make sure to keep your knees, hips, and torso in a straight line.
The final mistake worth addressing is poor glute activation. Folks often forget to engage their glutes in their effort to squat correctly, which prevents them from remaining in position and keeping their pelvis aligned. So, make sure to squeeze your glutes, regardless if you’re at the top, going down, or squatting back up.
Similar Exercises to the Sissy Squat
Similar to sissy squats, the Zercher variation falls into the category of less common movements. But despite their seemingly weird exterior, both exercises are fantastic for building your quadriceps. Both movements depend on knee extension and deliver significant benefits without having to use heavyweights.
You have to hold onto a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest as you do goblet squats. The squat variation is similar to sissy squats because both emphasize your quadriceps, require core involvement, and strengthen your upper body.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Bulgarian split squats are a fantastic unilateral (training one side at a time) exercise. By elevating one foot back and bringing the opposite forward, you can train one quadricep at a time. Doing so strengthens your lower body evenly, particularly your quadriceps and glutes, similar to sissy squats.
Tiptoe squats are similar to sissy squats, with the difference being torso position. Sissy squats, have you bring your torso back as you go down. Tiptoe squats have your torso remain upright. You still support yourself on the balls of your feet and involve your quadriceps more.