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The Exercise You Should Be Doing: Box Squats

No matter whether you powerlift, weightlift, body-build, or just generally train to look better naked, the squat and its variations are more than likely a staple in your programming. If they aren’t, they should be. At the risk of being superfluous, a squat pattern is valuable for many (more than just the six outlined here) reasons:

  1. It demonstrates adequate mobility in the ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders.
  2. It demonstrates adequate stability in the knees, lumbar spine, and scapula.
  3. It requires and demonstrates adequate muscular control over nearly every muscle in the body.
  4. For training purposes, a squat can be loaded bilaterally or unilaterally, and with almost any weightlifting implement that you can possibly hold, place on your back, or somehow tie to yourself.
  5. It provides a host of hormonal benefits, mostly due to its compound nature and large loading potential.
  6. And yes, it will make you look better naked. (Though I’m not sure naked squats are a good look.)

If you need a reason to squat, Google “Why should I squat” and let the minions of the internet convince you. Whatever your goals, a squat pattern should be added to your program. However, unless you have a predetermined squat pattern chosen for you (such as front squats in Olympic lifting), it can be tough to decide where to start. Furthermore, how is a trainer to begin a brand new client on a squatting regimen without simply throwing them into the potentially-embarrassing-and-dangerous fire that squatting can be?

What I assume every guy on a weightlifting forum actually looks like

I’ve never created a program without squats as the first exercise in at least one of the workouts. But squatting isn’t easy to learn. I’ve tried many techniques to teach the squat pattern and seem to run into the same problems, a lot. Posterior chain weakness. Hip flexor weakness. Lack of balance. Lack of extensibility in multiple muscle groups around the body. Limited mobility in multiple joints of the body. Limited proprioception of the body in space. Even bodyweight can be a limiting factor in squatting aptitude.

These problems can, and should, all be addressed before squatting. If you are reading this with your own training in mind and your adductors are tighter than yoga pants on a college campus, maybe you want to spend some quality time hitting (read: rolling) your thighs with a foam roller and moving through some adductor mobilizations before every workout session, whether you’re squatting or not.

Sometimes, taking someone else through a squat-to-stand pattern or an adductor mobilization can be terrible. Hamstring weakness, for example, just isn’t a challenge that can be overcome in a few, simple movement prep drills. Enter the box squat.

Standard overused photo of Dave Tate coaching a box squat

First, let’s be clear that there is, in fact, a distinct difference between a box squat and a squat to-a-box. The former allows for a posterior weight shift due to the fact that a box squat does not require a lifter to hold the squatting position under his or her power. The latter is a touch-and-go situation, where the box is merely to mark depth, taking the guess work out of the squat and ensuring depth with novice, intermediate, and even advanced lifters. For further explanation, Google “box squat vs squat to a box” and check out the YouTube video from Tony Gentilcore. (This is the point at which I finally make the public claim that I was making this distinction, though not before Tony, before Tony made that video. I’m pretty proud of that.) In training, the box squat provides a plethora of different benefits that a regular squat or squat to-a-box cannot.


1. Posterior Chain Development

The box squat makes possible a posterior weight shift because the lifter is not required to hold the bottom position, instead transferring the weight onto the box itself. Since a box squat requires this weight transfer, the lifter will need to close the hip angle to recenter his or her mass. This decrease, coupled with the already increased tibia-femur angle allows a much greater stretch in the hamstrings and greater overall posterior chain development. However, this weight shift can, and should, be counterbalanced by hip flexor and anterior/posterior core control, to be discussed later.

Since this controlled posterior weight shift demands a decreased femur-torso angle and elongates the moment arm (horizontal distance between the hips and center of mass) on the hips, the box squat demands more (weight held constant) from the upper and lower back than a squat, much in the same way that the squat creates a longer moment arm than the front squat. Keep in mind that someone with a history of back injury may want to proceed slowly with longer-moment-arm exercises, such as the good morning and box squat. These persons may be better suited to use these movements as accessory work to a heavier regimen of anteriorly loaded squats and more direct gluteal/hamstring work.

Since posterior chain weakness is often a limiting factor in squatting technique, an initial phase of box squatting can be combined with additional gluteal and hamstring work, bringing up the posterior chain to a level better suited to handle the demands of the full-range squat. 


2. Hip Flexor and Anterior/Posterior Core Control

As a lifter sits into the deepest part of a box squat and transfers the weight onto the box, the tendency for weak or inexperienced lifters will be to swing the torso backward. This is done in order to gain momentum on the upswing, beginning the stretch-shortening cycle on the hamstrings, adductors, and glutes, sometimes even producing such momentum forward that the lifter will find himself on his or her toes through the concentric phase. This should not be confused with a center-of-gravity change that naturally occurs in a box squat. A slight motion (note: NOT a large swing) foward, before the ascent, is normal and necessary to recenter over the midfoot. In fact, many experienced lifters find no weight shift at all when doing box squats. Additionally, a pause on the box will remove the stretch-shortening cycle from the equation.

A properly coached box squat will teach a lifter how to utilize the hip flexor muscles to complete a hip-hinge when descending to the box. At the same time, the anterior and posterior core musculature must be engaged to prevent the torso from turning into a fruit roll-up when sitting on the box.

In a worst case scenario, a lifter will sit back onto the box and reduce tension throughout the core. Underneath even a minimal weight by most training standards, this relaxation can result in significant injury to the spine (think: seated good morning on an unprepared trainee).


3. A Safer, More Effective Way to Teach Proper Technique

Squatting can be tough to teach. Squat-to-stand patterns can be well taught, but still not assist the lifter in finding the correct bottom position of a squat. A proper goblet squat can be effective in certain populations, though not perfect for all. We’ve probably all seen this disaster at our local gym: a trainer introduces themselves to a client and proceeds to walk over to the dumbbell rack. They grab a 20-30 lb dumbbell and perform a less-than-ideal looking goblet squat. They use any variety of effective useless squatting cues and hand the dumbbell to the client. Chest up. Sit back. Make your feet wider. Wider. Okay, not that wide. It just doesn’t work.

An example of how NOT to perform a squat

The box squat allows us to coach proper technique of the squat at two different points in the movement. A traditional squat pattern can be cued at the beginning and throughout the movement, but those during-squat cues will prove to be tough adjustments for a lifter that may already be overloaded with cues. With the box squat we can effectively cue the descent, allow a pause at the bottom, and then cue before the ascent.

Before the eccentric, we can be reminded to touch the wall behind us with our butt, keep our eyes a few feet ahead of us on the floor, and to squat down between the knees. As we hit the bottom, we’ll remember to keep our torso stiff on the box. And before we begin the concentric motion, we can tell ourselves to spread the floor with our feet, show the front of our shirt to the mirror in front of us, and lead our hips toward the ceiling. Even an advanced lifters need to be cued up during movements. As a coach, trainer, or general fitness enthusiast, you can make squatting easier to learn with the natural pause of a box squat.


4. The Ability to Generalize to a Wider Population

A box squat can be utilized by anybody who has ever sat in a chair and stood back up. Specifically referring to those whose strength levels are not on par with their weight (an imbalance which can exist for many different reasons) the box squat can be helpful in achieving a training effect without attempting to run through an exercise (i.e. the squat) with an inherent baseline strength requirement.

In many individuals, a lack of posterior chain strength wouldn’t allow the lifter to squat down without falling backward, possibly hurting the lifter. Additionally, we can keep lifters safe by limiting the range of motion through the use of additional pads on the box, thereby accommodating range-of-motion issues. With a box squat, we can limit compensative opportunities, reduce the weight, and engage the most correct squatting muscles, even in those whose strength levels are less than ideal.



A couple points to keep in mind regarding the box squat:

  1. If you can already squat, start the box squat with lighter weight. With the pause, there is no stretch-shortening cycle and this will make the exercise harder. (But don’t worry, when you return to regular squatting, you’ll be able to squat a house little more weight.)
  2. I often use the box squat in combination with mobility work or technique practice where applicable. Box squatting does not replace the squat and the free-standing squat pattern should still be taught.
  3. Don’t shove a square peg into a round hole and work a range-of-motion that is uncomfortable or unsafe. Use additional pads or boxes to create a safe depth.

The box squat is certainly a technique which should be used by all levels of lifters and coaches. It can reinforce technique, sway the ratio of muscular contribution, be loaded in a multitude of ways, develop speed, break through plateaus, and help your beard grow in thicker. If any of these outcomes sounds good to you, give the box squat a try. The worst thing it can do is make you strong.

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