An exercise nearly everyone can benefit from.
Box squats are an exercise that can be both an excellent teaching tool as well an advanced exercise for experienced lifters. As trainers, we don’t ask for much: not terrible gym music, strong coffee, and pieces of equipment that can be used for many different exercises that anyone who walks in the gym can benefit from. A simple box is one such tool, and so, I present to you the box squat.
Simply, you put the box behind you, squat down to the height of the box, and stand back up again. There is more nuance to this and several different uses and methods so please continue onwards. Also, just to get this out of the way, the “box” can also be a bench, chair, or anything you can sit on if you don’t have an actual box.
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Using a box to squat changes the natural mechanics of a squat. We use this tool to elicit specific training effects. Since it’s a bit unnatural, there are some common mistakes.
Admittedly, this isn’t exactly wrong. If you’re just using the box to make sure you’re hitting enough depth, then tapping the box is perfectly fine.
If the point is to roll back onto the box, then simply touching it and standing back up is simply ignoring that part of the exercise. The rollback makes it harder and more useful, so as fatigue sets in you may feel inclined to do just that. Keep in mind the intention of your training.
Rolling back on the box is not meant to be a resting position. You should maintain maximum tension through your body during this portion of the exercise. It’s pretty much the most important part, so you best not be relaxing.
One thing I often say while coaching is to imagine that you are doing the exercise with 500 pounds on your back (or in your hands, or whatever works for the context of the exercise). If you had 500 pounds on your back, and you just relaxed your back and legs and abs while sitting on the box, that would be a bad day at the gym. If you wouldn’t do it with 500 pounds, don’t do it with 5 pounds either.
Sitting back towards the box is not the same as reaching your butt backward. As you lower in the squat, your hips will naturally (and correctly) move backward. As your hamstrings make contact with the box, then you begin to roll your hips and body back onto it.
If you are reaching for the box with your butt, you will end up in a folded-over position. At this point, rolling back onto the box would involve straightening up your torso, resembling more of a seated Good Morning. This is not the intention of the exercise.
This is a mistake that’s difficult to make twice because it makes the exercise nearly impossible. Imagine you’re squatting without a box, and trying to imitate that same rolling back action. I would be very impressed with anyone who could do that without falling.
In a regular squat, we move straight up and down. Attempting to stand straight up off the box would be extremely difficult to balance, and the most likely outcome is falling back down onto the box. Since we didn’t squat straight down to the box, we need to reverse the motion to get back to the starting position. Drive the hips up and forward in a somewhat diagonal motion to stand back up.
In general a box is a simple tool. It’s amazing to me how many benefits it can provide in the context of squats.
You’ve probably heard that you should squat deep with a full range of motion. But how deep is that? What does it feel like? Using an appropriately sized box can help us find what this feels like.
Forget the rollback for now. If you struggle to consistently squat to the same depth, you can use a box as a marker. Use a box that is the same height as how far your bum is off the floor at the bottom of your desired squat depth. Place that box behind you, and tap it each time, simple as that. Use this until hitting that depth each rep is second nature to you, and you no longer feel that you need the reminder.
The glutes are big strong muscles and you must use them to have a big strong squat. Many people struggle to engage their glutes fully during squats and rely almost entirely on their quads.
When you roll back onto the box, your shins end up more or less vertical. This is a less advantageous position for your quads to be the prime mover, while simultaneously being a preferential position for your glutes to get to work.
It helps that as you roll back, your weight also should shift back into your heels. Driving through the heels, and focusing on pushing your hips up and forward is going to help teach your brain how to fire the glutes.
We use this position to bias the thing that we want. Then it’s up to you to continue this even without the box.
“The Hole” refers to the bottom of the squat – typically the sticking point for most lifters. If the final ¾ of the squat is a breeze, but you just can’t get out of the bottom, I’d consider rotating box squats into your training.
We get better at things by focusing on them and spending more time doing them. Well, box squats are basically all about getting off the box, and you spend more time in that bottom position.
If you have the correct equipment and a little creativity, you can continually vary the height of the box. This allows you to build power and strength at different portions of the lift, and work on individual sticking points.
Take a basketball player for example. Rarely (if ever) in a game will a player drop into a full depth squat, and jump up as high as they can. But they will routinely end up in some sort of quarter or half-squat position, and explode up into the air. While there is certainly value in squatting to full depth, there is also value in developing power in the positions their sport demands.
You can find examples of this in most sports, including and especially powerlifting. Where each inch of the squat needs to be understood and trained extensively. For most people, this will not matter. For competitive powerlifters, this is just about all that matters.
If you’ve never been sore and beat up from doing a difficult set of squats, then I would say you’ve never done a difficult set of squats. It’s a brutal exercise that greatly taxes our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nervous system. That’s not a knock on squats, it’s just the “cost”.
Box squats seem to be less taxing on our body. Allowing us to train again sooner, or train more frequently, or train with less pain. You don’t need to hobble around the office for 4 days every week because you want to be a hero in the squat rack. This would also be a huge benefit to any athletes in-season. You’ve got practices and games – you can’t be sidelined until Friday because you squatted on Monday.
Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell says that Westside lifters box squat year-round, and only free squat in competition time. If it works within the almost mythologically brutal training system of Westside, then there’s got to be some merit to it. Westside is one of the most successful and prolific powerlifting gyms of all time. When Louie talks, listen.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum from first day in the gym, to professional powerlifter, you can benefit from box squats. We’ve touched on both of these aspects throughout this article already, but I want to take 2 more minutes to differentiate so we’re all clear.
Someone who’s new to the gym can use box squats to learn how to squat, and to learn new movement patterns. The box can represent a desired depth you should reach and provide feedback by driving consistent quality of reps.
Just as well, when we incorporate the rollback, the box squat can teach us how to use our glutes while squatting. Something that should be natural, but isn’t. If you look around, the most common use of our glutes today is as a cushion for sitting. This is not what they were designed to do. Reteaching our bodies and brains what they’re supposed to be used for is an important part of learning to workout both safely, and effectively.
A more advanced gym goer or a competitive athlete can also use box squats, yet with a different intent.
Varying the height of the box allows you to train specific positions that may be more relevant to your sport or lifting goals.
Box squats beating your body up less than regular squats can be a secret weapon in allowing you to train harder, and more frequently in both the weight room, and in your actual sport.