Learn How to Perform Sissy Squats: Free Standing and Machine Variations Detailed
By Matt Walter
The sissy squat is a great exercise to build your quadriceps, strengthen your hip flexors and core, and bulletproof your knees. When they are performed correctly, they can be an effective exercise for knee health and longevity.
If performed incorrectly, however, they can place an extreme amount of stress on your knees. That is the main reason I recommend a dedicated sissy squat bench for anyone that is new to this movement.
Continue reading to learn the benefits of adding sissy squats to your leg routine, and exactly how to perform them regardless of your ability level.
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Video: Sissy Squat Demonstration
How to Do a Free-Standing Sissy Squat
Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and feet flat on the ground. You will be raising up on your toes as you perform the movement, so raising your heels on a weight plate can be helpful.
Step 2: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward, shoulders back and down, and arms at your sides.
Step 3: Push your knees forward out in front of your toes and lean your upper body backward. You should feel tension in your quads, especially lower quads by your knees, and in your core muscles as they strain to maintain a neutral spine. Bring your arms straight out in front of you if you need help with your balance as you lean back.
Step 4: Lower back as far as you can, maintaining a neutral spine. Your body should form a straight line from your knees to your head. The ultimate goal is to be able to touch your knees to the ground in front of you.
Step 5: Pause at the bottom and slowly return to the starting position.
How to Use a Sissy Squat Bench or Machine
The free-standing sissy squat is incredibly difficult to do. Luckily there are Sissy Squat Benches (machines) that keep your feet and calves in place.
Not only does this eliminate the need to counterbalance your squat with your upper body, but it also takes the extreme load off the knees.
Sissy Squat Benches have a platform that you stand on, with a vertical pad that you rest your calves against and rollers that lock your feet in place.
During my freshman and sophomore years at Washington State University, we had an amazing gym to work out in. It was old, there was chalk everywhere, and the equipment was more than broken in.
On one of my first visits, in one of the corners, I encountered my first every sissy squat bench.
I used that thing every leg day, and then some! I used it when my legs were sore and they needed a bit of loosening up. I used it as a random superset to keep my heart rate up between upper body sets. I used it pretty much any time it caught my eye.
Sadly, at the end of my sophomore year, the University graced us with the Student Rec Center. A state-of-the-art weight room, massive lap pool, basketball courts, racquetball, you name it, they had it.
But no more chalk. Floods of frat boys and sorority girls who were more concerned with what they were wearing than actually working out. And no more sissy squat bench.
That was when I started learning how to do them free-standing. But it’s just not the same. They are so much more advanced that you can’t get the same easy benefits that you can from a dedicated bench.
How to Perform Sissy Squats Correctly With a Sissy Squat Bench.
Step 1: Adjust the foot roller pads so that your feet are locked into place on the bench’s platform.
Step 2: The adjustable calf pad should be pressing into your calves, just below your knees.
Step 3: Sit back into a squat by leaning back and away from your feet (your upper body should be either directly upright or leaning slightly backward; no leaning forward at all)
Step 4: Bring yourself back up again
Step 5: Repeat
Want to Have a Little Extra Fun?
Once you reach the bottom of your squat, lay your upper body back as far as it will go. If you’re really good you’ll be able to lean so far back that your upper body will be perfectly parallel with the floor!
This will really stretch and engage your quads and build your core like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like performing an unbelievably hard GHD sit-up.
Or add some weight! Holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate are my favorite weighted variations. Hold a dumbbell with both hands right against your chest, hold a kettlebell like a goblet squat, or hold a weight plate out in front of you with your arms fully extended.
It won’t take much weight. These get tough in a hurry!
Points of Performance With a Sissy Squat Bench
Avoid locking out your knee joint at the top of the movement. You want to keep tension on the quads to get the full benefits of the movement.
Avoid coming to a fully standing position. Standing fully upright will take the emphasis off of your quads. You should always maintain a backward lean. Contract your quads and glutes at the top of the movement.
One of the best things about a sissy squat bench is that you can lean back with confidence because the machine won’t let you fall.
Stay upright or leaned back throughout the movement. Do not lean forward, like you might do with a traditional squat.
What is a Sissy Squat?
The sissy squat is an incredible exercise for building quads, strengthening your hip flexors, and bullet-proofing your core all at the same time. The free-standing version of the movement is performed by locking your feet in place and rising up on your toes as you lean your upper body away from your knees.
Your knees lower toward the ground in front of you, while your upper back leans toward the ground behind you. This places a tremendous amount of tension on your thighs, before reversing the movement and bringing yourself back up to standing.
The sissy squat is an advanced movement but can be performed with assistance or the aid of a sissy squat bench.
The sissy squat can also be done with additional weights to increase its difficulty.
Why is it Called a Sissy Squat?
Some believe the name refers to the Greek legend of King Sisyphus.
King Sisyphus was sent to the underworld to be punished. His sentence was to push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. He was cursed to do this for eternity.
A horrible punishment, yes. But it also grew thighs that most of us could only dream of.
Others think the name comes from Vince Gironda. Vince Gironda learned the sissy squat exercise from Monty Wolford, who is credited with inventing it.
Because the movement is so challenging, and because you would have to use lightweight at best, Vince Gironda stated the movement would make a sissy out of you.
Either way, do them and you’ll grow some quads.
What Muscles Does the Sissy Squat Work
The sissy squat focuses primarily on the quadriceps muscles in the front of the thigh but also strengthens hip flexors and core muscles.
I often get asked if sissy squats work your glutes. Not directly, no. Sissy squats are designed to be a quad-centric movement.
However, if you contract your glutes very hard toward the completion of each rep, you will work those muscles as well.
Benefits of the Sissy Squat
They help strengthen your hip flexors
They’re great for building the quad muscles down around your knee (the teardrop)
They’re compound, so you’ll train a lot of muscles with just one movement
They can be easily scaled to both beginners and advanced athletes
They are a great core movement
Great Movement for Home Workouts
Sissy squats are an amazing exercise for those who work out at home!
Nothing is going to replace compound movements for overall effectiveness. I don’t care if you’re going for strength, size, or just making sure you always have the ability to do any activity you want, squat variations are king for legs.
But when I used to go to the gym I loved the leg extension machine. It was a great way to pre-exhaust quads before going to squats or leg presses, or as a finisher at the end of leg workouts.
Sissy squats can take the place of that piece of equipment for those who work out at home.
Don’t get me wrong…these are great anywhere at any time. But when you’re low on equipment it’s nice to have some new exercises to take the place of equipment you are missing.
Before Trying the Sissy Squat
If you’re going to use a sissy squat bench, you can go into the movement pretty cold.
Normally, you should never go into leg training cold. Especially as you get older, warming up your knees is imperative.
But the sissy squat bench can be a great tool for warming up your quads and core for any training that is about to come.
Try this progression using the sissy squat bench as a warm-up before a squat variation:
Step 1: 10 reps only going halfway down, with your upper body leaned forward
Step 2: 10 full-depth reps with your upper body leaned forward
Step 3: 10 partial reps with your upper body vertical
Step 4: 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps using perfect sissy squat form (full depth, upper body leaned slightly backward, not locking out or leaning forward at the top of each rep)
*30 seconds to 1-minute rest between each of the sets above. Dynamic stretching for quads, hamstrings, and hips during the rest periods.
If you’re going to be doing free-standing sissy squats you need to spend considerable time warming up.
If your quad muscles aren’t warmed up and ready to go, your knees will take a lot of the impact instead. This can lead to injury.
You need to build up to this movement over time. Even if you can do a free-standing sissy squat! Do not think that you can just drop down to your knees touching the ground if you’re not properly warm.
Start by initiating the movement and only going down a little way. As soon as you feel the movement in your knees, return to standing. Then do some regular squats to work your mobility and make sure everything is warm and ready to go.
Then attempt another rep, go a little further, and then back to standing.
Do this several times to give your muscles, tendons, and ligaments a chance to be fully prepared.
Are Sissy Squats Good for Your Knees?
A sissy squat bench is a great way to target your quads without placing excessive force on your knees.
The free-standing sissy squat can place a lot of tension on your knees.
You have probably been told that your knees should never travel in front of your toes when performing squats. Sissy squats fly in the face of that advice.
And for good reason. Think about how often your knees go over and in front of your toes! Going up and downstairs is a great example.
Might not seem like much…until your knees can no longer handle supporting your body weight doing simple daily activities like walking stairs.
Once you have the strength, learning how to perform a free-standing sissy squat correctly can really strengthen the lower quadriceps muscles and all of the tendons and ligaments around the knee.
So while you need to be careful with this movement when you’re just starting out, it is a great exercise for knee health and longevity.
For the longest time, I didn’t think I’d ever get to use a sissy squat bench again. Every now and then I’d end up at a random gym that had one, but nothing consistent.
One day I decided to look on Amazon. And there it was.
There are others out there, but this one had good reviews. And it was inexpensive.
I’ve had it for a year. It’s great. I’m back to doing sissy squats all the time.
I warm up with it, pre-exhaust my quads, burn them out after squatting, I love it!
One of my favorite little 3 minute workouts is the Bring Sally Up Challenge with my sissy squat bench and a kettlebell.
It’s a great, quick little piece if I only have 15 minutes and need to get in something productive.
Read my full review of the X-Factor Sissy Squat Bench here.
Sissy Squats Frequently Asked Questions
Do sissy squats work your glutes?
Sissy squats primarily work your quadriceps, hip flexors, and core muscles. They do not target the glutes specifically. However, if you contract your glutes at the top of each rep while your upper body is leaning backward, you can add additional emphasis to this muscle group.
What are the benefits of using a sissy squat machine?
A sissy squat matching, or bench, will allow you to perform the movement without excessive force on your knees. Free-standing sissy squats are an incredibly advanced movement. Machines and benches make the movement accessible to more people.
Conclusion: Sissy Squats
The Sissy squat exercise is an incredible movement for targeting the quadriceps, core, and hip flexors. When performed correctly, they can be an effective exercise for knee health and longevity.
Some people may be surprised to learn that sissy squats are actually a great way for older adults to warm up their knees. As you get older, warming up your knee is imperative, and sissy squat benches can provide an effective means of doing so while also strengthening the quadriceps muscles in the lower leg.
If this is a new movement for you, start with a sissy squat bench and work your way up to the free-standing version. Few things are more fun than mastering a new feat of strength.
Can you do a free-standing sissy squat? How long did it take you to master?!
Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.
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