Sissy Squat Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 29, 2022

The sissy squat is a quadriceps femoris dominant exercise that is performed by leaning backwards and hinging on the knees while keeping the upper body in line with the femur. Unlike a traditional squat, a sissy squat does not hinge on the hips and largely relies on balance to be able to achieve perfect free-standing form. Because of the movement and difficulty it entails, insufficiency in the participating muscle groups may cause overcompensation in the ankles and knees which in turn might result in injury.

A range of exercises work the quadriceps femoris muscle in the same way sissy squats do. The alternative exercises for the sissy squat include tip toe squats, overhead barbell wall squats, and forward leaning squats on a smith machine, among others. These alternatives are better in the sense that they do not put as much stress on the knees, thus preventing injury.

Although the sissy squat is great for isolating the quadriceps femoris muscle, it also brings the risk of injuring the knees. Alternative exercises for this workout have the benefit of avoiding knee injuries while still attaining the same goal as that of the sissy squat.

What Is a Sissy Squat?

A sissy squat is an exercise that targets the quadriceps femoris muscle. It may be done with or without the sissy squat machine, but doing so changes the mechanics of the exercise.

A traditional sissy squat is performed standing on the balls of the feet, with the feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing forward. The body is leaned backwards as the knees are bent, and tension is felt at the anterior thighs. The back is lowered further while maintaining a neutral spine, and is brought up again to the starting position. 

Free-standing sissy squats are incredibly hard to achieve especially as a beginner, so the use of a sissy squat machine deems beneficial.

The machine holds the feet and calves in place to eliminate the obstacle of maintaining balance while standing on the toes because it keeps the feet flat on the ground.

Muscles Used to Sissy Squat

As previously mentioned, the sissy squats primarily target and activate the quadriceps femoris muscle; In this variation of the squat, the gluteal muscles and the hamstrings are less involved.

Keeping the spine neutral and the body in line with the knee as the torso is leaned backward engages the core muscles. The core muscles stabilize the trunk to maintain the form as the gravity acts against it.

Alternatives to Sissy Squats

Sissy squat alternative exercises are able to isolate the quadriceps femoris muscle without putting as much stress on the knees. These alternatives include exercises that may be done with or without the use of machines.

1. Tiptoe Squats

A tiptoe squat is a variation of the traditional squat that works the quadriceps and the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus). It is performed by having the individual stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and elevating the heels off the ground.

tip toe squat

The individual then assumes a squatting position and lowers the body down until the thighs are parallel to the ground. The heels remain off the ground as the individual goes back up to the starting position.

This alternative target the quadriceps muscles more than the hamstrings and the gluteal muscles because the torso remains more upright than when the feet are kept flat on the ground. In this position of the trunk, the stress shifts on the anterior thigh, rather than on the hamstrings and glutes.

2. Bulgarian Split Squats

Another variation of the squat that can be used as an alternative to sissy squats is the bulgarian split squat. Bulgarian split squats are started off by having the individual place one foot behind and on top of a platform at least knee high. The individual is positioned far enough from the platform to be able to do a single leg squat without having the heel come off the ground.

After getting into position, the activity is performed by controlling the eccentric descent of the hips as the individual assumes the squat. The lowering of the squat continues until the thigh is parallel to the floor.

bulgarian split squats

The trunk must be held in neutral extension, and the heel constantly in contact with the ground. Upon reaching the bottom of the squat, the individual stands back up by contracting the quadriceps and the glutes to assume the starting position once again. 

This exercise primarily targets the quadriceps femoris muscle. The soleus, adductor magnus, and gluteus maximus work to assist, while the hamstrings, gastrocnemius, and remaining gluteal muscles stabilize the movement.

3. Overhead Barbell Wall Squats

Overhead barbell wall squat is a great alternative to a sissy squat. It utilizes a barbell and the weight is modifiable according to the lifter’s capability. It is performed by raising a barbell overhead with the grip set wide and placing it against the wall in front. The lifter’s feet must be approximately 2 feet away from the wall. The feet are placed shoulder-width apart with the heels elevated and the body leaning forward in a 20-30 degree angle.

Upon assuming the starting position, the trunk must be aligned with the lower extremities. The individual slowly descends by bending the hips and the knees, similar to a tiptoe squat, but with the barbell rolling down still in contact with the wall. The weight is brought back up by an explosive contraction of the quadriceps femoris and the gluteal muscles.

It should be noted that the heel stays off the ground for the whole duration of the activity. 

4. Forward Leaning Squats on Smith Machine

A variation of the overhead barbell wall squats can be done on the smith machine. The lifter leans their body into the machine at a 20-30 degree angle.

Using the same procedure, the lifter assumes a squat while keeping the heels of the ground. This alternative makes for a more controlled and stable lift as compared to the overhead barbell wall squats while utilizing the same group of muscles. 

5. Leg Extension on Leg Extension Machine

Quadriceps femoris strengthening may also be done using a leg extension machine. Leg extensions are done by sitting on the machine and pushing the padded bar with the lower leg. The knee goes into extension and the bar is brought back down.

leg extension machine

This exercise is beneficial especially for those looking to isolate the quadriceps muscle

Common Mistakes in Doing Sissy Squats

The sissy squat is an advanced exercise that requires the strength of all four heads of the quadriceps femoris muscle group (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius). Any imbalance in muscle strength may lead to knee pain and injury, thus proper training is needed prior to jumping into the sissy squat.

Some individuals lack the adequate core and quad strength needed to perform a sissy squat. While this exercise strengthens the quad muscles, other exercises that promote quad strength should be done to ensure that the muscles are capable of the sissy squat. Exercises that strengthen the core and quads, such as planks and leg presses, are useful in attaining a safe and effective sissy squat workout.

In addition, when quad muscle strength is not yet optimal for a sissy squat, most of the impact of the exercise will fall on the knees which may lead to serious injury. There should be a gradual transition to a sissy squat with attention to knee movement and mobility. Locking out the knees at the top of the sissy squat should be avoided in order to reduce the impact on the joint.

Adding weights when doing a sissy squat may be done. However, the increase in weight should be gradual with proper mastery of the body weight first. Some individuals prefer to immediately perform the sissy squat with added weight which may only lead to injury because the body, especially the quad muscles, are not prepared to carry them. 

Some authors also suggest that performing the sissy squat with the use of a machine is better for injury prevention. This is because the machine is able to provide support to the knees and ankles in performing the movement.

Final Thoughts

The sissy squat is an effective exercise for isolating and strengthening the quadriceps femoris muscle group. However, individuals commit a lot of mistakes prior to and when performing the exercise.

Because it is an advanced movement that carries a high risk of knee injury, exercises such as the tiptoe squat, overhead barbell wall squats, and leg extension on the leg extension machine are some alternatives which may be done instead. These alternative exercises are able to work the quadriceps muscles without placing too much impact on the knees.


1. Bird, Stephen & Casey, Sean. (2012). Exploring the Front Squat. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 34. 27-33. 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182441b7d.

2. Marchetti PH, Jarbas da Silva J, Jon Schoenfeld B, et al. Muscle Activation Differs between Three Different Knee Joint-Angle Positions during a Maximal Isometric Back Squat Exercise. J Sports Med (Hindawi Publ Corp). 2016;2016:3846123. doi:10.1155/2016/3846123

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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