I will start this article by quoting Vince “Iron Guru” Gironda himself: “This exercise is thoroughly misunderstood.” This was the very first line of the original notes Vince wrote on the sissy squat. I completely agree with him, as I rarely see it done or explained correctly in the gym or in bodybuilding magazines, or books for that matter. Vince Gironda was considered one of the greatest bodybuilding trainers of all time; he died in 1997.
Whenever SeriousAboutMuscle.com publisher Doug Schneider and I meet, it doesn’t take long before we get into another one of our talks about Vince and the most unusual stories Doug has to tell me about him and the way he trained his clients. I feel very fortunate to know Doug and have access to this kind of priceless information (and, of course, the interesting stories as well!). Even I didn’t know about this variation of the sissy squat until a few months ago when Doug sent me an old video of Vince teaching that specific exercise. He also was kind enough to send me a copy of the original notes that Vince wrote on the subject. Needless to say, I was thrilled to dive deeper into the master’s work and analyze it with my own expertise.
Once again, I will base my article on what the Iron Guru has written on the subject while adding my own personal touch. You must understand that my goal is not just to pay tribute to Vince’s work but also to give it a new perspective and take it to another level by considering all the biomechanics in play and see if it’s possible to make it even more effective and/or functional. This is why there will be slight differences in the information I will give here and what can be found in Vince’s files.
I was already using a variation of the sissy squat, but I was doing it in a Smith machine with bodyweight only, or a plate held on the chest with one hand. I had done that exercise for years and the workload has always been somewhat of an issue. I tried many ways to increase the load on this exercise but the feeling was nothing compared to what Vince’s three-way sissy squat gives. In fact, not only can you use a bar and increase weights with Vince’s version, it’s even more functional and less stressful to the joints.
To make sure you thoroughly understand the sissy squat, I will first explain how the regular sissy squat (with bodyweight in a Smith machine) is performed and then compare it to the three-way sissy squat. This way you will comprehend the similarities and differences between the two and know why I think the latter is the more productive exercise. Again, even though my variation will differ slightly from Vince’s, it still uses the same basic principles, and I will describe in detail how it is done.
Luckily for me, I never had trouble developing my legs. On the contrary, I’ve often been told I present the best set of legs in the line-up when I step onstage (even at the international level). Nonetheless, I have constantly been looking for ways to improve my lines and sculpt my legs. Over the years, I have designed many exercise variations that emphasize that aspect with quite amazing results. Nothing comes even close to what I experienced from my very first three-way sissy-squat workout, though, and neither I nor my training partner expected the soreness we had to put up with for days and days after that particular workout!
The exercise’s purpose
The purpose of the sissy squat is to focus on the development of the rectus femoris muscle, which is the highest of the four muscles that make up the quadriceps. The rectus femoris is also the only part of the quadriceps that crosses the hip joint. In bodybuilding jargon, it’s what people refer to as the “sweep” of the thigh. Since most quadriceps exercises (i.e., leg press, leg extension, etc.) are performed with a bend at the hip and rarely put tension on the front thigh while the hip joint is in full extension, that particular section of the quadriceps often doesn’t get as much stimulation as the others (e.g., vastus medialis and lateralis). The result is a development that gives the lower limb a more “blocky” than fluid and aesthetic look. The funny thing is that companies that manufacture machines think about changing the angle of work for other muscle groups like the hamstrings (e.g., lying, standing, and seated leg-curl machines), but I never see the same attention applied to the quadriceps (e.g., a machine that would have you perform a leg extension while lying on your back). Because of that, I even have my own (and very unusual) way to use and “tweak” the regular seated leg extension and standing leg-curl apparatus to emphasize the rectus femoris, but that is another story and would require an article of its own (so maybe in the future).
Nevertheless, this state of affairs has most trainees work the rectus femoris in a constantly contracted position and rarely in a stretched one. As a result, even if a bodybuilder improves his legs through training, he often ends up with “blocky” thighs and does not present the shape of a perfectly balanced leg: a fluid sweep that leads to a well-defined teardrop at the knee. If you remember, as I pointed out in the past, one way to efficiently stimulate a muscle is to bring it into its specific stretch position (compared to other surrounding muscle groups) and apply resistance at that point. That is why Vince used to say that the three-way sissy squat would make your legs “appear longer” (or more aesthetic), because it has you perform a knee extension and put tension on the quadriceps while the hip is in full extension, which will better stimulate the rectus femoris.
The regular sissy squat
The sissy squat I have been doing for years is the one you have probably seen now and then in the magazines when they decide to do an article on so-called “forgotten exercises.” It’s done in a Smith machine with your bodyweight or with a plate held in one hand in front of you.
You first set the bar about shoulder level and grab it with an underhand grip with feet together directly under the bar. In a regular squat you would normally use your hips and your knees to do the movement, but since the goal is to stretch the rectus femoris, you won’t be using your hips and instead will transfer that part of the movement to your ankles by lifting your heels. That way the hips stay straight throughout the whole movement and you go down by simultaneously bending at the knee and ankle while balancing yourself between the bar and your support base (feet). The tricky part is to properly balance yourself, as you have to equally drop the knees forward and bend the torso backward in one fluid motion while standing on your toes. Once you get down in the stretch position, you should really feel the stretch in the front of your thigh, and the straighter you are, the more you will feel it high in the quads. Your center of mass should remain over your feet at all times, with abs and glutes tucked in. Then, just like a squat, you simply push up in one motion back to the starting position (ankle and knee simultaneously) until your heels get flat on the floor.
If you feel pain in the kneecap on the way down, it means you’re transferring too much weight up front by pushing your knees too far forward. It probably also means that you need to stretch your quads on a regular basis, since I find a lot of people lack flexibility in the lower limb, which increases joint friction. I suggest you use bodyweight only for a start and maybe use a plate if you want to increase resistance later on, but, personally, I prefer to just crank up the reps and cumulate fatigue (I like to use it in my 10x10 routines).
The three-way sissy squat
This three-way sissy squat is Vince’s variation. When done correctly, it is even more effective and less stressful on the knee joint, as it allows you to divide the motion in two parts and to increase the load (safely). For that reason, I find this version much more functional than the regular sissy squat, but it’s also a bit more complex and challenging.
You won’t need a Smith machine to support yourself this time, and you will use a board (2” to 4” high) and a barbell instead (no added weights to start). By the way, this is the only variation of the squat where I allow the use of a board under the heels (which I normally never recommend). Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that increasing the inclination of the ankle alters the biomechanics of the foot complex and leads to specific musculoskeletal disorders over time. In a regular squatting motion, you should always keep the load on the heels and use them to push and stabilize yourself. However, since the sissy squat involves an extension at the ankle joint (instead of the hip joint) and has you stabilize yourself on your toes, you will need the board to support the heel and even out your base of support during the movement.
The original sissy squat described by Vince is divided into three phases (hence the “three-way” nickname), namely: the knee drop, the burlesque bump and the flush out. I know these seem like funny words to describe an exercise, but they kind of make sense when you understand the movement. The first two phases refer to the two different parts of the exercise itself and the last one refers to both of them combined in one motion. For the purpose of this article, let’s simply divide the movement in phases 1, 2 and 3.
Vince used phases 1 and 2 separately as warm-ups (the knee drop and burlesque bump distinctively), which means that you would perform a couple of reps of phase 1, then a couple of reps of phase 2 and finish with full repetitions of the two combined together (phase 3). Doing it this way helps to get into the motion pattern, but once you get it right, you could also do as I do and choose to skip the warm-up part and go directly to flush out sets (full movement).
The first time I saw the video Doug sent me of Vince teaching the exercise, I was quite intrigued. The directions in the original paperwork were just as unusual, but it somewhat made sense to me and I decided to try it at my very next leg workout! I thought it would be hard to learn but it only took me and my partner a couple of reps to master it, and then a couple of sessions to effectively do it using a decent amount of weight (and be sore for days after our new leg workouts!).
Like many specific exercises I am a fan of, this exercise is a little tricky and does require a certain level of skill in terms of control (proprioceptive abilities), as it has you work on positioning your center of mass and using very specific ranges of motion.
Phase 1: Knee drop
First, clean the bar as you would to perform a front squat (remember, no weight to start). It should be as close to the neck and collar bone as possible so that it’s close to your body's center of mass. Stand erect with your heels on the board, shoulders back, head and spine in line, abs tight, and knees in full extension. From that position, bend your knees forward while keeping the body in a straight line from head to knee (no movement at the hip) and balance yourself so that the load remains over the base of support (feet). Now, I know Vince would have said “keep your shoulders over your feet” as a reference point, but the fact is that not the bar itself but the “overall” center of mass of your body and the bar combined is the actual reference point, and you’ll get a more fluid movement as well as a better stretch if you bend further backward to balance yourself. It is very important that you keep your abdominals and glutes tight at all times during the movement! This part is done with definite control, especially in the eccentric phase.
Phase 2: Burlesque bump
In the regular sissy squat explained earlier, you would go from the above point and continue to increase flexion at the knee joint. What you will be doing here, though, will completely change the exercise and turn it into a front squat by pulling your hips back and sitting down. Try to go as low as possible and make sure you balance yourself so that the weight is still over your feet. From there you will do what Vince called the burlesque bump and drive your hips forward, back to the lowest part of the knee drop. This part of the movement is done faster than the previous one and must be pictured as a hip thrust (put a little “kick” into it!).
Phase 3: Flush out
This is basically a mix of phases 1 and 2 where you perform the knee drop immediately followed by the burlesque bump (or squat) and extend back to straight position. This is how I prefer to incorporate the exercise in my own workouts.
Sets and reps
Like the perfect-curl exercise, the three-way sissy squat is a very technical move in which you don’t want to use heavy weights (even though you will increase weight over time). Vince recommended that you perform about 5 reps of the first phase, followed by 5 of the second, and end with 5 reps of the third one. Even if this looks like low reps at first sight, keep in mind that he divided the movement into three phases that were done one after the other, so in the end you would have accumulated 15 reps and wouldn’t need to use heavy loads to feel the pain. Personally, since I don’t divide them and go straight to the full movement, I simply aim for 10 to 15 reps in my workouts or add partial reps to the movement (just to make it more painful!).
I have only been doing the three-way sissy squat for about three months now and I already notice a change in my thighs. After a few weeks, thanks to Doug and Vince, I started to have trouble fitting into my pants on leg day (and still am)! I was also surprised by the very specific pump my training partner and I were experiencing in the muscle (exactly where it should be) and how we were even feeling the pain during the workout itself.
If you are looking for outstanding leg development that will set you apart from the rest of the people in your gym (or onstage), I suggest you give the three-way sissy squat a try, even if it takes some time for you to master its rather peculiar technique. And if you do, you can expect two things right from the start: new and unparalleled quad soreness, and strange looks from people training around you who will be trying very hard to figure out what you are doing!
Normally I would end the article with something like have a great workout, but this time I will simply say: Good luck!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011