The first time I heard the phrase "sissy squats," I thought someone was insulting my squat form.
It turns out that sissy squats have nothing to do with sloppy weightlifting form. And while I'm not a fan of the name — I'll get to that in a bit — sissy squats are one of the toughest leg exercises I’ve ever tried (or programmed for my clients). In one movement, sissy squats strengthen your core, quadriceps, and hip flexors, while helping you improve balance and mobility.
Below, I explain the various benefits of sissy squats, how to do them, and why this unique movement should hold a place in your regular workout routine.
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Why Are They Called Sissy Squats?
Disclaimer: I fully support sissy squats undergoing a name change. Sometimes, an inappropriate name can turn athletes off from an otherwise effective exercise (which is why I prefer to call back-and-forth sprints "gassers" rather than suicides). If you have ideas for wordsmithing a better name, leave me a note in the comments.
With that being said, the term "sissy squats," has nothing to do with poor form. Ironically enough, sissy squats are named after a Greek legend named King Sisyphus.
Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, is famous in Greek mythology for twice cheating death. Described in “The Iliad” as the "most cunning of men," Sisyphus twice escaped Hades before being punished by Zeus. After being banished to Hades for good, his ultimate punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill forever, only to have it roll back down before he reached the top.
So, what does Greek mythology, rolling a boulder, and ultimate punishments have to do with squats? Pushing a giant boulder is like pushing a sled — it takes a toll on your quads, just like sissy squats. Plus, it's a grueling workout (but luckily, your squats workout will come to an end, unlike Sisyphus's punishment).
What Are Sissy Squats?
Sissy squats are a complex exercise, meaning it challenges multiple muscle groups in a single movement. Sissy squats test the strength of your quads, back muscles, hip flexors, and abdominals. In addition, sissy squats are considered an extreme leg exercise because it pushes your joints to their end range of motion — particularly your knee joints and hip flexors.
To perform a sissy squat (see a video here), you will keep your feet in a fixed position while leaning backward, putting increased strain on your thigh muscles. Below, I walk you through three different ways to approach a sissy squat.
How To Do a Sissy Squat
If you're a beginner, I recommend starting with a bodyweight sissy squat (video here). If you do not have the strength to return to a standing position, you can focus on the eccentric movement (going down) and assist yourself through the concentric movement (standing up) to prevent knee pain. I describe how to do this in step four below.
Follow these steps:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Roll your shoulders back and down, and squeeze your core to prevent strain in your lower back.
- Slowly bend your knees, as though you want to bring your kneecap into contact with the floor. You will have to bring your heels off the ground to do so. If you need assistance, hold onto a wall for stability.
- As you lower your knees toward the ground (you won’t reach the ground — just your end range of motion), push your upper body backward. This keeps your body in one straight line, from your kneecaps to your shoulders, thereby preventing injury. To do this, you have to squeeze your glutes, hamstrings, and core (think about holding a plank or pushup, and how you need to squeeze your entire body to hold that straight line position).
- Here is where it gets tricky. When you reach your end range of motion (i.e., you cannot lower your knees any further), you can do one of two things:
- Beginner: If you are a beginner, drop your heels back toward the ground. You should now be in a low squat position. Return to standing. This works the eccentric movement, and helps build strength throughout your posterior chain muscles.
- Advanced: Keep the weight in the ball of your foot, and push back to your starting position. Remember to keep your upper and lower body in one straight line as you raise.
Sissy Squat Variations
Once you master the basic bodyweight movement, you can progress to sissy squat variations. Below, I walk you through three progressions of the sissy squat.
1. Sissy Squat Machine
A sissy squat machine — also called a sissy squat bench — secures your lower legs in a locked position, like a leg extension machine. If you have balance issues, you may find that using a machine is actually easier than performing a bodyweight sissy squat.
The sissy squat machine is slightly different than a bodyweight sissy squat. Here's what you do:
- Step into the sissy squat machine. Your toes and the top of your feet should rest under one padded roller. The second padded roller rests behind both calf muscles.
- Once you are securely locked in, squeeze your abs, and roll your shoulders back and down. Now, simply sit back.
- Come into a traditional squat position, with your quadriceps parallel to the ground. Once you reach your end range of motion, return to standing.
2. Hold a Weight Plate
You can hold a weight plate with or without a sissy squat machine. However, performing a weighted sissy squat without a sissy squat bench is an extremely advanced movement.
For either variation, follow these instructions:
- Hold a weight plate or dumbbell across your chest. I prefer to cross my arms in an "X" across the plate.
- Even though the weight is in front of you, roll your shoulders back and down, and squeeze your abs. Now, lower into your sissy squat.
- From here, follow the same instructions listed above.
3. Use a Smith Machine
If you do not have a sissy squat bench available to you, I highly recommend using a smith machine. Unlike a typical squat rack, a smith machine can lock a barbell in place, making it a safe alternative to the sissy squat machine.
To perform a sissy squat with a smith machine, follow these steps:
- Move the barbell to the lowest setting offered on the smith machine. The barbell should be roughly 30 centimeters (1 foot) off the ground. If you are a tall individual, you may want to move the bar roughly 45 centimeters (1 foot 6 inches) off the ground.
- Press your calves into the bar. Roll your shoulders back and down, and squeeze your core.
- Now, sit back into a low squat. Try not to roll your shoulders forward. Instead, keep your chest proud.
- When you reach your end range of motion, stand back up.
Perform Sissy Squats To Build Strength in Your Quadriceps
Sissy squats are an extreme quad exercise. They help build strength in your legs, back, and core, while improving balance and mobility — making it one of the best exercises to include in your workout routine.
A sissy squat can be performed with or without a sissy squat machine. You can easily progress or modify the movement to suit your fitness and comfort levels.
Sissy squats are one exercise I use and recommend in the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. The Build Bullet-Proof Health program encompasses all four pillars of 4 Legs Fitness, helping to build strength and cardio fitness, improve your recovery work, and create a balanced nutrition plan.
If you are looking for some guidance, grab a copy of my free 15 week training program tool so you can monitor your training progress more effectively. Squats are a key part of that program.