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Many of the Herculean greats like Sergio, Arnold, and Franco built their leg workouts around the back squat, and for good reason. The squat is a proven movement that can build your legs up like crazy. These men were so familiar with this exercise, they could probably do them with perfect form in their sleep!
Yet others like Gironda believed that these squats were good mostly for building up glutes and hips. As he once said, “Squats aren’t so much a leg exercise as they are a gluteus maximum movement. It’s best to substitute hack squats for standard squats or you’ll wind up with wide hips and a big ass!”
If you already do the back squat and if you find that your quadriceps lag behind your glutes and you don’t need additional thickness in your hips, then this article is for you. Here, we’ll focus on two powerful variations on the squat, the hack squat and the sissy squat. By adding these super alternatives to your leg workout, you can turn your toothpicks into super hard tree trunks!
Before we discuss specifics, a quick note on the topic of machines versus free weights. As you may have noticed, more and more newfangled machines are making their way into fitness clubs across the country. Some bodybuilders are championing the arrival of equipment like the hack squat machine and the vertical leg press, while other physique specialists are lamenting the passing of the barbell.
Now we don’t want to open up that debate again as there’s been plenty already written about machines and whether they are novelties that will mass-produce boring physiques in an assembly-like fashion. We believe that machines have their rightful place, as do free weights, and both can live in peace and harmony in the gym!
Can You Hack The Hack Squat?
Georg Hackenschmidt, it is believed, invented the hack lift. A weightlifting pioneer from the early 1900s, some say the movement was named after him while others say it was named after the German word for ankle (“hacke”), where the movement starts. Regardless of its origins, today, when it comes to the hack squat, you now have choices.
First, let’s look at the hack squat machine. Approach the hack squat machine and place your feet out comfortably in front of you with the tips of your kicks near the edge of the platform. With your back firmly against the pad and your shoulders locked into place, pull the levers to release the sled and hold on tight.
Next, lower the weight slowly and under complete control and take them deep. Sit in that bucket and feel the stretch in your quads. Now explode out of the hole forcefully and squeeze the quadriceps at the top. Some believe this machine focuses primarily on the lower quadriceps, and indirectly, the knees. So for those with knee problems or those who like a little pain may want to opt for the barbell version.
Start by holding the barbell behind you with your arms at your sides. Your grip should be as wide as your hips with your palms up (facing backward). Keep the bar against your upper thighs and glutes. With your head up and feet firmly planted on the floor, squat until your upper thighs are parallel to the floor, or when the bar touches your ankles. Rise up slowly to the top, with your back straight.
Keeping the back straight and flat throughout the entire movement is critical if you want to reap the benefits of this exercise. Done right, the lower portion of your front thigh just above the knee will get a good workout. Done well, you will long for the regular squat! So with the hack squat, pay attention to strict form.
This Squat Ain’t For Sissies
Sissy? Don’t let the word fool you. The sissy squat has been in vogue since the early 60s, and many of today’s top line bodybuilders use this exercise to achieve a really cut-up look to their legs and for good reason. Few movements are more productive, more effective for isolating and building up the quadriceps than the sissy squat.
Unlike other types of squats, the sissy squat in particular eliminates most of the involvement of the hamstrings and gluteus maximus, focusing most of the work (and the excruciating pain) on the front thighs. Gironda himself was a big fan of the sissy squat and said this movement would make sissies out those who thought they were strong!
While the sissy squat may be the best quadriceps-busting exercise, there is one caveat. It is not for the beginner. If you’re an advanced bodybuilders looking to add a certain something extra to an already well-muscled thigh, then the sissy squat is for you. Some prefer to add the sissy squat at the beginning of the regular leg work, while others prefer to save them for the end.
Regardless, the first time you do a sissy squat, you will feel off balance and really clumsy. Once you get used to it though, the movement will become second nature and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. When done right, you will definitely feel it and your vastus medialis will thank you!
The sissy squat can be done with or without weights. If you’re new to it, go without until you are comfortable with the basic mechanics. Start by situating yourself into the equipment. Set your heels, shoulder-width apart, into a fixed position. With the pads wedging you into place and your knees slightly bent, fold your arms across the chest.
Now lean back, maintaining a continuous tension on the quadriceps, and sit down into the movement. Squat down low, and make sure your glutes dip below parallel. Now rise up using your thighs and without leaning forward. Squeeze the thighs at the top. Congratulations, you’ve just performed a repetition. Finish off a few sets with strict form and prove you ain’t a sissy!
As with the hack squat, there are many variations on the sissy squat. For example, you can easily perform a sissy squat with nothing more than a 2” thick piece of wood (to elevate your heels above your toes). As you aren’t wedged into a piece of equipment, this version obviously requires greater balance, so position yourself near a stationary post and grab hold lightly with one hand and place the other on your hip.
Elevate your heels by placing them on the block and point them slightly inward. Your feet should be 12-15” apart (13” with 17” between your knees if you follow Gironda’s recommendations exactly). Now lean back until your body forms a straight line from your knees all the way up to your neck. You should be able to feel a deep stretch in the lower quadriceps.
While inclined, slowly lower yourself by bending the knees until you extend to a point beyond where your shoulders are directly over the heels. Keep your hips forward and your knees over your feet. As you rise back up, push off on your heels, and without locking out your knees, continue the next rep immediately, without pause, until you finished 10-15 total repetitions. When you’re done the set, you’ll feel a real burn in your thighs.
There you have it. Two basic, oft neglected squat variations that can really put your legs on the road to success. So the next time someone tells you that you only need to focus on the back squat, you tell them they’re full of it. By adding the hack and sissy squats to your training program, you will add quality muscle and have legs worthy of the stage.