Though promoted by the legendary bodybuilding trainer Vince Gironda, the sissy squat is rightfully viewed with ambivalence.
He said it made a sissy out of any conventional squatter. Others ascribed the name to the agony of Sisyphus rolling the boulder uphill in Greek mythology. Either way, Vince defended the sissy squat to develop upper front thigh detail.
Taught to him by a fellow bodybuilder named Monty Wolford, Vince stated that his friend’s middle thigh measurement equaled his upper. This unique proportion created a pleasing effect from the illusion of long, balanced thighs.
This concept even has loose support today as the position most overloaded happens when stretched at the bottom, which may lead to more sarcomeres in series.
Vince generally disliked back squats, so he would have appreciated that sissy squats don’t work the glutes or potentially widen the hips.
Beyond Vince, some bodybuilders applied it as a finisher, doing high bodyweight-only reps at the end of a lower body workout.
They’d simply grab something tall & stable enough, leaning back while bending the knees to really stretch & work the quads.
The sissy squat does hit all 4 quadriceps muscles, so the vasti and the rectus femoris, while preventing gluteus maximus contribution unlike other squats.
However, the motion can invite tremendous shearing forces, maximizing the force requirement as your knees get further away from your body. This overload and excessive range of motion forms a disastrous combination.
Moving past this esoteric background, my reasons for doing the sissy squat, and how I apply proper form, are more practical.
Involving the Rectus Femoris
Our goals for the sissy squat should be to (1) allow purer knee extension, (2) made possible at home and (3) done safely.
Roman chair-style squats, sometimes done through inappropriately-named sissy squat machines, include hip extension. They fail to work the rectus femoris despite an upright torso.
A Smith machine does nothing special either. Front and hack squats both involve the hips too. Finally, hip flexion like on decline sit-ups fails to work the rectus femoris much due to poor leverage.
Trainees can easily do the sissy squat at home with basic equipment. You only need a tall object to hold onto, then either weight plates to hold or a dip belt.
Without a leg extension machine, we must do sissy squats if we want to work the rectus femoris… though each quad muscle is hit too!
Proper Sissy Squat Form
Keep your hips forward.
This is the main focus!
I like to overload the motion using a dip belt with 25 lb. plates for the max size. Keep the plates in front to allow a full range of motion.
Start by standing upright after attaching the dip belt. Squeezing your glutes can facilitate keeping your hips forward during the exercise. Get on your toes without the need for anything like a 2×4 wooden block or a lack of shoes.
Look forward. Hold something tall enough for balance, ideally using both hands shoulder-width part while aligned with the chest. I use a loaded barbell on a half rack.
Lower slowly, keeping your hips forward all the while. The object for support allows you to exaggerate it but don’t overdo it, which can harm your lower back. Your knees will go far beyond your toes.
Reach the floor with your knees.
If leaning back properly, most trainees will achieve a bit more than 90° at the knees upon reaching the floor. This is enough range of motion. By getting those hips forward, you prevent excessive range at the knees.
Once you tap the bottom, quickly but smoothly rebound through the reverse motion. Both knee extension & hip flexion should drive this positive phase, and it should feel more difficult.
Don’t complicate it!
Vince did a 3-part variation, employing a complex technique called the burlesque bump. This can feel awkward & unbalanced. I don’t feel it’s needed even if done skillfully.
Other Sissy Squat Considerations
You can prepare by starting with bodyweight reps only, using your upper body to limit the resistance.
Consider keeping the reps in the double digits. This could be not just safer but realistic given the loading challenge via the dip belt. Know that going close enough to failure is the most important part of muscle growth, not rep count.
If performing a squat or leg press in your program, try doing it earlier in the same workout. The compression forces on the knees are handled well, providing a good warm-up. This also pre-exhausts the vasti muscles, albeit in different fashion than often performed, to require less weight on sissy squats.
Should You Sissy Squat?
If the sissy squat bothers you, the next best option would be a leg extension machine. Unfortunately, this isn’t accessible to most home trainees.
Leg extension machines aren’t perfect either. They lack much range of motion. They may overload the shortened position at the top, depending on the cam, which cramps the muscles.
Ultimately, you could ignore the rectus femoris, seeing if you get some development indirectly through compound exercises.
I believe the sissy squat could be the only exercise you need for complete quadriceps, at least in theory. Pairing it with a parallel squat may be more practical though. Some research shows that squats develop the vasti better but not all studies.
Don’t forget that bodybuilding is unnatural, especially to grow multi-joint muscles. These evolved to facilitate movement and not to look impressive. Nonetheless, bodybuilding has requirements that have nothing to do with our primal history.
The sissy squat is an effective leg extension machine alternative at home, perhaps better, especially if applying the simpler & safer version described here.
If tolerated, the sissy squat will totally develop your front thighs… all through a single great exercise!