In my article titled ‘The Number One Squat Mistake‘ I talked about the importance of sitting back when squatting and highlighted several strategies that are effective for learning proper movement pattern in the back squat. One of the exercises I mentioned is the box squat, a very popular exercise among powerlifters which a lot of regular gym goers can benefit greatly from doing as well. The box squat is especially effective for teaching strength trainees the correct movement pattern in the squat, as it forces you to sit back and maximally recruit the posterior chain in the lift. However, the box squat isn’t just a valuable tool for learning good squat technique, it can also be a great addition to your general training program.
Variations of the box squat
While they might look almost identical to the untrained eye, it’s often practical to distinguish between the box squat and a squat to box. While squatting to a box simply entails a regular squat with a short pause on a bench, the box squat is the term used to describe a powerlifting-type hip dominant squat characterized by vertical shins (or even hips further back), a broad stance, a relatively horizontal back angle compared to a regular squat, and maximal recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings. Essentially, the movement pattern in the box squat looks a lot like a deadlift.
When doing box squats, I generally use a box that demands for a depth that is somewhere around parallel (sometimes a little above). Besides general training purposes, I’ve primarily used the box squat to teach clients how to sit back and engage the posterior chain when squatting – essentially getting rid of the quad dominance that many trainees display. Also, the box squat is an excellent tool for learning the correct bottom position in the squat.
While some strength trainees (especially powerlifters) do regular squats with almost the same movement pattern as in the box squat, most folks perform conventional back squats (especially high-bar) with a more vertical back angle and forward knee drift. However, using a box for conventional squatting also has its benefits. Just like with the powerlifting box squat, using a box when doing regular squats helps you into a good movement pattern, gives you power out of the hole, and perhaps most importantly – it eliminates the possibility of cheating on depth. When doing conventional squatting to a box, I tend to prefer squatting below parallel (Depending on the lifter).
As the box squat doesn’t utilize stored elastic energy in the same way as a regular squat, you can’t lift as heavy. This is the primary reason heavy box squats can be programmed more frequently than regular squats.
So, to summarize, why use a box?
- It teaches you to sit back in the squat
- It gives you power out of the hole
- The powerlifting box squat is very effective for training the posterior chain (especially glutes and hamstrings)
- It eliminates the possibility of cheating on squat depth
- You can squat heavy more frequently with box squats
Learning the box squat
I don’t train powerlifters, so the technique I use/teach is somewhat different from what you might see at for example westside barbell. The basics are the same, but I tend to downplay some of the things that I feel aren’t that important for the average lifter.
- Stance: Many powerlifters tend to use a very broad stance, but for the average lifter this is not necessary. Go wide, but not too wide.
- Head/neck position: Neutral neck or look straight ahead during the entire lift
- Grip: Many powerlifters use a very wide grip, but for the average lifter this is not necessary.
- Bar position: Generally, the box squat is performed with a low bar position.
- Breathing: Take a deep breath before squatting and don’t exhale until you’re at the top.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together (scapular retraction) and get your chest up.
- Control the descent, don’t drop onto the box.
- Initiate the exercise by pushing your hips back, and spread the floor apart by pushing against the outside of your heels like you’re literally trying to pull the floor apart beneath you (This also forces your knees out).
- Pause on the box without relaxing. Don’t lose tension/tightness when pausing on the box.
- Drive up through the heels in one explosive movement. Clearly, when the weights get heavy you won’t be as explosive off the box.
- Don’t let your knees drift forward (excessively), and avoid ending up on your toes when you ascend from the box. If you do, you need to lighten the load and/or go through the other steps in this post.