It wasn’t too long ago that the sissy squat was considered to be an embarrassing beginner exercise for those that couldn’t load up a barbell for heavy squats. Fast forward to the current day though and bodybuilders, weightlifters, and even powerlifters are all making use of the sissy squat as a quadricep building and strengthening exercise.
The sissy squat – despite the name and reputation – is actually a surprisingly difficult exercise to master and not only requires quad strength but also core stability and strong hip flexors. Don’t have these characteristics? Then use the sissy squat to work on them and improve your quad strength, size, and all-round leg development.
The only issue is that sissy squat machines are not a common piece of equipment. They are basic but provide the foundation for a sissy squat so if you don’t have access to a sissy squat machine but still want to gain the benefits from the exercise, read on to find some good substitute exercises for the sissy squat.
The 7 best sissy squat alternatives are:
- Heels Elevated Goblet squat
- Smith Machine Front Squat
- Cable Belt Squat
- TRX Squat
- Hindu Squat
- Narrow Stance Split Squat
What Is a Sissy Squat
A sissy squat is a squat variation that can be considered an isolation exercise. Now, it’s rare that you’d consider any form of a squat as “isolation work” but as a result of the exercise setup and execution, the sissy squat is definitely more isolating than a barbell squat – which is one of the best compound exercises you can do working multiple large muscle groups.
A sissy squat is a movement where your ankles are fixed into place, calves are supported by a pad, and you need to drop back into the squat as you descend. For most exercises, when you are able to get into a fixed position you are typically stronger and able to generate more force through a muscle.
Take a pull-up for example, as you move your body weight against gravity it’s difficult to generate much tension or force. When doing a lat pulldown, however, you have a thigh or chest support pad that you can press into during the exercise to generate more body tension and lift more weight.
Most people can lift more on a lat pulldown than they can do pull-ups and it’s why you can leg press more than you can squat!
Sissy squats are slightly different. Due to the body position and support being around a joint rather than a muscle group it’s hard to generate force which is why certain muscles need to work really hard during a sissy squat.
What Muscles Do Sissy Squats Work
The sissy squat mainly targets the quads. As your ankles are locked into place it forces you into a deep squat which most people typically can’t get into with a normal squat – due to poor ankle mobility/flexibility or balance – and increases the range of motion at the knee joint.
As the quads are a knee extensor muscle meaning they are responsible for extending the knee (standing up) during a squat, the greater range of motion at the knee means the more your quad will be active during a lift. This means more muscle fiber damage and ultimately more muscle growth for the quads.
An increased range of motion is only one aspect of muscle growth so I’m not saying do sissy squats and your quads will suddenly become huge but there’s no denying that it’s a significant contributing factor and is beneficial to add to your routine!
Alongside this, sissy squats will also work your core strength and hip flexors. The bottom position of a sissy squat is an incredibly weak position for most people and despite the exercise looking easy, you’ll find it’s a struggle to complete a full rep at first so don’t underestimate the burn and fatigue you’ll get from a sissy squat.
Sissy Squat Alternatives
Below are what I feel to be the best sissy squat alternatives, both from experience and from researching what some of the best coaches and athletes are doing when they don’t have access to a sissy squat machine.
As mentioned above, the sissy squat is really great for isolating or at least fully stretching the quad muscle so the alternatives below will either look to isolate the quads with a similar movement pattern or replicate the sissy squat using a different piece of equipment (there are some great variations out there).
Heels Elevated Goblet Squat
Dr John Rusin is the person I’ve most seen advocating the goblet squat and in fact, he says you should be mastering a bodyweight goblet squat before ever moving on to a loaded barbell squat. This is to learn the correct movement mechanics and squatting technique (which the goblet squat forces you into).
A great modification for this exercise is the heels elevated goblet squat. Placing a 10lb plate under each heel shifts your center of gravity during this movement allowing you to drop into a deeper squat, which as mentioned earlier places a greater range of motion on the knee joint and quad muscle meaning you get a close replication to a sissy squat.
A closer stance will further place tension on the quads but you’d need to become comfortable with the standard goblet squat before advancing to this due to it being a more challenging variation for stability and balance.
Smith Machine Front Squat
While a barbell front squat is usually better from a strength, muscle activation, or “functional” viewpoint, the smith machine front squat serves as a much better alternative. The reason being that you can use a fixed bar path to replicate the exact same sissy squat movement.
** Just note that the smith machine needs to be a fixed model that only moves vertically up/down and not one of the horizontal models that move with you.
The reason this is a good alternative is that you can use the fixed movement pattern of the smith machine to support your body weight (i.e. you can lean back and squat deeper without losing balance like you would with free weights). You’d need to start with a very light weight as this exercise is going to be challenging.
You need to squat ATG with this exercise to really stretch the quads so it’s likely you’ll need to build your strength up from this weak bottom position before trying to progress with weight. As with the goblet squat, heels elevated by a weight plate will also help with form and quad isolation.
Cable Belt Squat
There are a few variations to this movement with the most popular being a regular belt squat. A belt squat is not the right alternative here. Belt squats allow lifters to squat without loading the spine as the weight is supported solely by the hips and lower body.
A cable belt squat is similar however the belt is not essential, it’s just the most preferred option. The reason is that you can also hold a cable attachment to perform this squat but your grip will limit the weight you can use. Being able to attach a carabiner from the cable stack to a weightlifting belt (or dipping belt) allows you to maintain tension throughout the squat without loading your spine.
The video above shows the ideal set up for a cable belt squat and allows you to replicate the sissy squat as the weight stack will act as a counterweight to provide some stability and balance however you will still need to excerpt force and engage the quads.
A TRX squat will most likely resemble a bodyweight squat with the exception that you’ll be using the TRX bands to support your weight. With a TRX squat, you’ll want to place something underneath your toes and you’ll start the movement by leaning backward and using the TRX to support your weight.
You should therefore be starting this exercise at an Incline position of around 15 degrees. You’ll then squat and drop down as far as you can trying to get a full stretch in the quads while using the TRX to maintain balance. As with a sissy squat, you’ll need to engage your core muscle and hip flexors to stay balanced so this is a very viable alternative if you have access to some TRX bands.
The Hindu squat differs from the squat in two key areas, one being that the breathing technique is slightly different and the second being that you will come down leaning forward on the toes which shifts tension to the quads.
The Hindu squat is purely a bodyweight exercise due to the technique shown in the video above, so room for progression is very limited. The key is to therefore use this exercise alongside a heavy resistance-based exercise like a regular barbell squat.
Narrow Stance Split Squat
In any training routine, unilateral work is always recommended for improving strength and removing any muscle imbalances – or preventing an imbalance before it starts to develop. Unilateral work isn’t as fancy or satisfying as loading a barbell to use both legs but training single leg will really test the knee joint and a narrow stance split squat is a staple in many Olympic athletes training routines for this reason.
With any leg work, body position and exercise set up will often dictate which muscle groups are most active. To manipulate this, a general rule to follow is a narrow stance (shoulder width or shorter) will target the quads while a wide stance (shoulder width or wider) will target the glutes and hamstrings.
Therefore, with this exercise, you’ll want to keep a narrow stance to shift emphasis to the quad as a result of more knee flexion during the squat descent. For a more challenging option, raise the rear leg onto a weight bench or box (Bulgarian split squat) to ensure the back leg is inactive and the front leg is doing all of the work.
The V-Squat is a piece of equipment so if you don’t have access to this machine in your gym, it’s best to skip this option as you won’t be able to replicate it. The reason the V-Squat is a good alternative is that you can angle your body position to target the quads without placing additional strain on your lower back.
This is a huge point to consider as many people doing a squat variation will suffer from a lower back niggle in some capacity. A V-Squat allows you to use more weight which means more load and this typically transfers to more motor unit recruitment and ultimately, more muscle growth! Not only does it allow for this but it does so without loading the spine.
From a muscle growth perspective, this would be my recommendation to replace a sissy squat if you have access to a V-Squat machine.
If you don’t have access to one, it’s obviously not a good substitute but it’s also worth considering that a bodyweight sissy squat will strengthen the knee joint as well as hip flexor – which this fixed machine won’t do – so you may also want to consider the TRX or cable belt squat as other supplementary options.
How Do You Do a Sissy Squat Without Equipment
So, I’ve just covered plenty of sissy squat alternatives that will work your quads without needing to load up a bar or leg press machine. They are mostly knee and beginner-friendly so choosing any one of the above will provide benefits (depending on your goal and individual characteristics).
What I didn’t cover though, is the fact that you can do sissy squats without equipment or a specific sissy squat machine. By using a power rack, barbell, wall, door frame, or just about anything that you can use to support your body weight (not all of it), you can easily replicate a sissy squat.
The video below shows how you can do a sissy squat without equipment:
The sissy squat is a great exercise for isolating the quads while also being easy on the knee joint and we all know knee-friendly exercises are a bonus on leg day!
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a sissy squat machine and they are generally not something you’d find in a mainstream or commercial gym chain. To still get the benefit from this exercise, it’s, therefore, a good idea to test out some of the sissy squat alternatives that have been outlined above.
They are not a direct substitute as the sissy squat (with a machine) is a very specific movement but most will replicate the quad engagement of a sissy squat while also offering a knee-friendly and lower back-saving solution!
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