When selecting exercises for developing an enviable set of quads, the sissy squat is tough to beat. Mathematically-speaking, sissies create more overload than any other exercise, despite tradition and gym lore.
Training for competition in powerlifting or weightlifting of course requires traditional squats and front squats, although muscle size gain sissies provide might contribute to strength gains, assuming added size leads to greater strength.
Sissy squats involve learning the technique, and, they require healthy knees to properly perform without risk.
A physique athlete could do nothing but sissy squats for quads, as some champion bodybuilders have actually done. However, many people like variety and believe it’s important.
Here are 10 sissy squat alternatives you can try if you’re looking for a little variety, or if sissies aren’t possible for you right now. We’ve ranked them in descending order by how biomechanically similar they are to the freeform sissy squat.
1. Cable Sissy Squat
AAU Mr. Universe Doug Brignole does this sissy squat variation routinely. It makes tons of sense as a go-to quad exercise.
The cable sissy and its cousin, the cable squat (explained below), provide all the biomechanical benefit of the freeform sissy squat, but add built-in stability and resistance at the same time with almost zero spinal loads, making them a perfect exercise for lifters currently battling back injuries or rehabbing from injury or surgery.
To perform a cable sissy squat, you’ll need a cable pulley machine with a decent amount of iron available on the stack, and a handle or handles that let you hold your hands out to the sides of your legs.
Dual-axis cable machines work great for this because their arms can be adjusted to a width that’s comfortable. If you’re using a dual-axis cable machine, set the arms shoulder-width apart.
Single upright pulley machines work fine too if that’s what you have available.
How to do a Cable Sissy Squat
- Grasp the handles in a comfortable position and with arms straight and to the sides
- Lean back about 20° (approximately).
- Engage the upper back muscles—especially the lats.
- Inhale and descend hips-first toward your lower legs. Think “aim with your tailbone”.
- As you descend, shift the weight on your feet forward. You don’t need to come upon the balls of your feet the way freeform sissies require.
Your lower legs (tibia) should remain perpendicular to the floor and your hips should get as near your calves as possible. The cable should bisect your lower legs about midway up your shins.
Sounds complicated but it’s not. The key is to discipline yourself to keep your torso from coming upright, or leaning forward over your legs. By leaning back, you’re forcing your quads to fight the cable machine the entire time.
One interesting note: a lighter weight seems to compensate for bodyweight on the descent (but not the ascent). So, you’ll need to select a weight that makes you work both descending and ascending.
Cable sissies can become your go-to as one of the sissy squat alternatives. Warm-up light for high reps, and then drop the weight until you’re doing a couple of challenging sets of six to eight. Cable sissies are also terrific as a superset with cable squats. See below.
2. Leg Extensions
Like the sissy squat, the leg extension has gotten a bad rap as harmful to the knees. Detractors cite shearing force between the femoral and tibial heads.
The direction of force and the structure of the knee make this impossible. Even so, leg extensions have been an exercise of choice for post-injury knee rehab.
Leg extensions depend on a well-designed leg extension machine, and unfortunately, there are very few good ones in captivity. A really good leg extension machine lets each leg work independently, with the motion being slight to the side to allow for the knee to extend along its natural path.
How to properly do a leg extension
Leg extensions need no explanation, right?
The machine pretty much takes care of form—which is why finding a well-designed leg extension machine is key—but the trick is in how to position the seat and pads.
To optimize the leg extension:
- Lean the seat back as far as possible. This prevents any neuromuscular conflict of the hip flexors.
- Sit so that the “axle” of the machine forms an imaginary line through your knee joint. Scoot forward or backward to make sure that it aligns properly.
- Extend the leg to almost perfectly straight. It’s fine to stop about 10° shy of lock-out.
- Isometric holds at the top increase definition. Incorrect. While isometrics have their place, the definition is more a function of diet. The more isometric hold does not equal greater striations in the muscle. The exercise alone plus appropriate diet brings the definition.
- The knees must be completely locked at the top. Also incorrect. It’s actually more knee-friendly to stop the extension about 10° before completely extended. By that point, the quads have done their thing, and you’re saving any unnecessary wear on the knees that might be caused by full, forceful lock-out.
An interesting variation on the leg extension is the reverse leg extension. Load the weight stack to a load greater than your body weight, and use the foot pads as anchors. This turns the leg extension machine into a sissy squat bench. Obviously, some lifters will outweigh the machine’s weight stack, making this a non-starter for them.
3. Reverse Nordic Raise
The Reverse Nordic Raise—or Reverse Nordic Hamstring Curl—takes a hamstring exercise that gained popularity during COVID-19 lockdown and flips it, literally.
To do the Reverse Nordic for quads you need to first know how to perform the Nordic curl.
From a two-leg kneeling position, hook your heels underneath something secure. During COVID lockdown, that would have been the box springs of your bed, or maybe a couch. Back at the gym, it might be a weighted barbell on the floor. Either way, your heels need to be anchored.
Then, with your torso perpendicular to the floor (straight above your knees), strongly your hamstrings and lower yourself toward the floor and raise back up again using your hams. To say it’s challenging a challenging exercise is like saying a tidal wave is moist.
How to do a Reverse Nordic
The Reverse Nordic also starts from the kneeling position but without the heels hooked under anything, similar to the Kneeling Squat.
To do a reverse Nordic:
- From the kneeling position, lean backward instead of forward as far as you’re able but keeping the torso in a straight line with the thighs.
- Flex the quads strongly for a slow, controlled eccentric.
- Bring yourself back up to perpendicular again.
Hold a weight to your chest or wear a vest for extra resistance if needed. Reverse Nordics are extremely difficult to perform with anything other than bodyweight.
Some people’s ankles are less mobile than others, making the move not only difficult but extremely uncomfortable on the feet and ankles. Play around with foot placement, shoes on or shoes off, to find a foot positioning that keeps you focused on your quads and not your feet and ankles.
A cautionary note about this exercise: Unlike the sissy squat, your knees and lower legs are pinned to the floor and immobile. The freeform sissy squat allows for the knees to move freely in space. The reverse Nordic does not.
Do not attempt it if you’re dealing with a knee injury or have a history of knee problems. Make sure your knees are warmed up very well beforehand and use a nearby stability ball or bench to spot yourself until you get used to the exercise.
4. Cable Squat
Cable squats are cable sissy squats but with the torso perpendicular over the hips. The hips move in a more up-and-down path, and not as much in and out. You’ll feel more glute and hamstring involvement than with the sissy version.
How to do a Cable Squat
Use the same setup as for the cable sissy squat.
- Grasp the handles in a comfortable position and with arms straight and to the sides
- Lean back slightly (10° approximately).
- Engage the upper back muscles—especially the lats.
- Inhale and descend keeping lower legs perpendicular to the floor.
- Fight any tendency to lean forward.
Supersets combining cable squats and cable sissy squats will absolutely gas your legs. Start with 15 of one followed immediately by 15 of the other, then raise the weight until you’re down to 10 and 10. Bring crutches and leave your ego at the door.
For fun and surprisingly challenging variation on the cable squat, substitute elastic tubing for the pulley machine.
5. Spanish Squat
Sometimes referred to as a band-assisted sissy squat, the Spanish squat challenges the quads, but not to the same degree as does the straight-up sissy squat. Pristine form for the Spanish squat has the torso positioned perpendicular to the floor throughout the movement, which gets the glutes and adductors involved, regardless of how deep you go.
A benefit of the Spanish squat is that it can be done almost anywhere and bodyweight is all most lifters need to get the training effect.
How to do a Spanish Squat
Select a strong resistance band. The thicker the better. The band is only to provide stability and it shouldn’t be so strong that it pulls you forward.
- Loop the band around something sturdy and upright, like a squat rack or power rack, knee-high. Avoid anything that has a chance of moving, like a bench.
- Step into the loop and work it up to where it’s positioned behind your knees.
- Step back until the band is taut, but not so much that it pulls you forward. Again, if the band wants to stretch, select a heavier band. There’s no such thing as a band that’s too heavy for these.
- Inhale and with your trunk at 90° to the floor, sit back and then press back up to almost standing. Your knees should remain slightly bent at the top. The quads will work even if you only descend a bit, but try to get to parallel or deeper, where the hip joint is below the knee.
Doing these without leaning forward is a lot harder than you might think. Once you’ve mastered the move, grab a plate and hold it to your chest, wear a weighted vest or Bulgarian bag, or hold a couple of dumbbells to your sides for extra resistance. The pump is the goal. You’re not trying to set a weightlifting record here.
Spanish squats make a great finisher for leg day when using high reps (20-30 range), but you can use them as the main act as well.
6. Tubing-supported Sissy Squat
As its name suggests, this is almost a freeform sissy squat with the support of elastic tubing with handles. The tubing serves the same purpose as the rack or bench you might hold onto during a freeform sissy, but with the tubing-assisted version, you can adjust the tension you want as support.
How to do a Tubing-supported Sissy Squat
Using lighter tubing forces your legs to work harder since the tubing won’t keep you from flopping over backward and embarrassing yourself. It supports, but like a very light spot on a bench press, but should only enough to keep you on track.
Selecting a heavier gauge tubing adds a bit more support.
- Select the gauge tubing according to the degree of support you need.
- Holding the tubing at arms’ length, use regular sissy squat form.
- Keeping your torso in line with your quads, bend at the knees.
- Squat down keeping hips over heels, rolling up on the balls of your feet as needed.
Do your best to resist pulling yourself up, letting your quads control both the eccentric and concentric contraction. Again, think of the tubing as a spotter.
Tubing-assisted sissies will force your quads to “stay in the game” during that mid-point as you come out of the pocket, since the support is much less rigid, and the lighter the tubing gauge, the more this is true.
7. Sissies on a Sissy Squat Bench
The sissy squat bench removes the challenge of the freeform sissy squat and lets you concentrate on the quads alone. When you think about it, the bench turns the sissy squat into a reverse leg extension: instead of the movement being from the knee down, it’s from the knees up.
How to do a Sissy on a Sissy Squat Bench
- Hook your feet underneath the pads. Feet don’t even necessarily need to be on the floor.
- Sit back, lowering your hips toward the floor in a slow, controlled eccentric. Your torso need not be in a straight line with your thighs.
- Flex your quads strongly as you press forward on the shin/foot pads to raise back up to almost an upright position.
Although it will appear that the glutes are seeing action, they’re not…at least not very much. The hip joint is moving passively. If you feel the glutes getting involved (which you likely will not, just lean back slightly).
The sissy bench adds rotational force to the sissy squat, which is a big reason why it’s such a terrific substitute for the regular sissy squat.
As with the Reverse Nordic, remember that your lower legs are pinned, so make sure you’re good and warmed up before doing the seated sissy.
MacGyvering a Sissy Squat bench
If your gym doesn’t have a sissy squat bench (and many do not), you can create a functional equivalent using a Smith machine or power rack.
Position the bar behind your legs so that it’s directly in the crook of the knee. No weights are required with a Smith machine, but with a power rack you’ll want to load the bar with enough weight to secure it, and position it against either the front or back verticals to keep the bar from rolling.
Have your training partner hold your feet and perform the same movement you would on the dedicated sissy squat bench.
8. Hindu Squat
The Hindu squat is a centuries-old exercise used by wrestlers in India. Biomechanically, it’s very similar to the sissy squat. The heels come off the ground and the femur and tibia end up in very close approximation. There’s almost no glute and ham involvement.
The difference lies in the position of the torso and consequently, the amount of load that the quads bear. Because there’s no backward lean with the Hindu squat, the lever arm is shortened, lightening the load. This doesn’t mean they’re easy.
To perform a Hindu squat:
- Take your natural stance, feet shoulder-width apart, shoulders back, arms at your sides.
- Squat down, keeping your torso as perpendicular to the floor as possible, lifting your heels off the floor as needed while you descend. Get low enough to touch your ankles or heels with your fingertips if possible.
- Press back up. Keep your core tight and use good breathing techniques to maintain the upright posture.
Hindu squats are a great way to transition to sissy squats since they remove the added challenge of keeping the torso in line with the thighs.
9. Sissies on a hack squat machine
The hack squat variant of the sissy squat alternatives is a beast and comes with some risk because the shoulders and the feet are fixed and only the knees flex and extend. The great Tom Platz was renowned for using sissy squat foot placement on a hack squat machine.
How to do sissies on a hack squat machine
- Place the feet in a neutral, comfortable stance on the footplate at a distance that will allow you to roll up on the balls of your feet as you lower the weight.
- Aim for a full but comfortable range of motion, selecting a very lightweight first to test the resistance.
- Lower the sled slowly and under control, pressing with the balls of your feet. Don’t use explosive motion. Aim for a rhythmic cadence.
10. Heel-elevated squat
For the newcomer to sissy squats, the heel-elevated squat may be the best place to start. You’ll get the feel of pressing with the forward half of your foot, and begin to wean yourself off the need to lean forward to maintain uprightness.
The exercise is essentially a Hindu squat with heels supported by a block, barbell plates, aerobics step…whatever is handy to get your heels a couple of inches off the ground. You’ll want to use enough height to mimic the distance your heels come off the floor during a sissy squat, so look for a thicker plate or step to rest your heels on.
You can use dumbbells held at your sides, or goblet style, hold a weight plate to your chest or wear a weighted vest to add resistance.
How to do a proper heel-elevated squat
- Identify an aerobics step, thick barbell plate (~2”), or edge of a lifting platform…anything that will get your heels far enough from the floor so that you’re pressing with the front half of your foot.
- Keeping your torso perpendicular, squat as low as you’re able, pressing with the forward half of your foot.
- Fight any tendency to lean forward, keeping your torso as perpendicular to the floor as you’re able.
After a few reps, you should find that your quads will begin to burn, especially in the vastus medialis, aka the teardrop.
Work up to high-rep sets to learn the movement, and once you’ve mastered it, you’ll probably be ready to give sissies a go for real.
Wrapping it up
Mastering the sissy squat is completely worth the time and energy.
So whether you’re working your way into doing strict sissy squats, looking to add some variety to your routine, or just wanting to try something new, any of the 10 sissy squat alternatives will make a fun diversion to your leg day.