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March 06, 2022
Back squats are the king of exercises...However, they aren’t always able to address every weakness or deficiency which is why you should also be doing box squats alongside them.
When we look at a single exercise, we see they can only effectively address one range of motion with a consistent movement pattern. That’s great but what do we do when we find that we have some sort of deficiency or weak point? How do we correct it?
Continuing to do the same exercise we were doing when these weaknesses develop is crazy. Therefore, we need to look at different movements with similar biomechanics. When examining the back squat, one of the most effective accessory exercises to use are box squats. Box squats are incredibly versatile and can be used to address an array of issues seen in box squats.
In fact, they can either be an accessory or completely replace the back squat, depending on the situation. Unfortunately, not enough people are doing box squats or even know about them. We’re gonna change that. In this article, you’re going to learn everything you need to know about box squats.
Similar to the term “squat”, box squats can refer to a wide range of squats that are performed with different loading implements. Front box squat, Safety Squat Bar box squat, goblet box squat, and simply “box squats”, which generally implies normal back squats, are just a few of the types of box squats we can do.
However, they all have one thing in common: a trainee will squat down until they sit on a box (or bench). This includes coming to a complete stop with the lifter fully sitting (more details below). Further, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a box.
Other objects commonly used are benches or even stacking up plates (just be careful of tipping!). But that’s what box squats are; you squat down onto a box and then come up.
In order to reap all of the benefits of box squats, they need to be performed correctly. The good thing is that they're really not too difficult, as long as you don’t follow bad advice.
Follow these steps to get the most out of your box squats:
All of your reps should look like what’s laid out above. They should be relatively simple, but a few mistakes are commonly seen, and since we don’t want you doing that, we’ll just tell you now what not to do:
This is a long answer without one singular explanation. That being said, we’ll start with why box squats have traditionally been done, BUT further below, we will discuss all of the benefits of doing box squats.
The roots of box squats trace back to powerlifting and strength gyms. In fact, one of the reasons box squats have become so famous is due to Louie Simmons and his infamous gym, Westside Barbell. Louie doesn’t just like box squats; he loves them. Don’t take our word for it! This quote comes from Louis Simmons:
“Box squatting is the most effective method to produce a first-rate squat...(and) are the safest way to squat.”
And that’s why box squats are a staple at Westside Barbell to assist the squat. This has traditionally been the main justification for using box squats, and rightfully so. Still, it can help improve the squat through a variety of mechanisms making it an extremely versatile accessory exercise. And even still, box squats possess many other benefits apart from helping to squat heavier numbers.
As mentioned above, box squats primary function is to act as an accessory movement to improve back squat strength. However, it has a wide range of purposes depending on the person. We’ll first look at how the box squat can be used for beginners and then look at its more advanced benefits.
1. Box Squats Are Great At Teaching Proper Depth:
When new trainees start performing squats, one of the hardest things for them to do is simply hit proper depth. And to be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not going low enough on purpose. Many people simply don’t have very good body awareness meaning they might 100% believe they are low enough when in reality, they’re at least a few inches too high. One method to fix this is to use a mirror to see, but they then must be looking around, which isn’t the safest. You could use a cue but that would require another person to say when they’re low enough.
Using box squats fixes all of these by allowing a trainee to practice hitting proper depth by themselves. Using a box gives them a definite cue so they will be absolutely sure they went low enough.
2. Box Squats Can Be Used To Teach Form:
In addition to hitting proper depth, box squats can be used to teach general form. For example, one great use of a box is to introduce new trainees on how to push their hips back during a squat. Often, a trainee will want to sink their hips straight down rather than have their hips go back. Having a physical cue, like a box, is a great objective and a great way to ensure a trainee is comfortable sitting back.
3. Box Squats Can Teach A Trainee To Fire Their Hamstrings:
Is the back squat a hamstring exercise or quadriceps exercise? That’s a loaded question, as the positioning of the bar can significantly affect muscle activation. Regardless, either method you use will activate both the hamstrings and quadriceps, but there’s one problem; many trainees aren’t sure how to properly use their hamstrings during the squat. This is a huge problem since while you do you use your quadriceps, the hamstrings see very high activation as they are powerful extensors. Enter the box squat…And this is one more reason box squats are fantastic. A box squat will force a lifter to use their hamstrings when done correctly.
When you come down and sit on a box, your entire weight will be placed back behind you as you relax on the box. When you are ready to come up, your quads will have lost a lot of leverage due to the placement of your weight. Therefore, to come up, you must actually drive your legs into the ground and pull your legs back, which is activated by the hamstrings. As you can’t pull the floor back (if you can, you have some other issues going on!), you will pull your body forward. This is vital as every great squatter must be able to fire their hamstrings properly.
4. Box Squats Help You Fire Out Of The Hole:
“Fire out of the hole!!” If you’ve ever seen a heavy squatter squat, you’ll realize one thing; they don’t come out of the hole all willy-nilly. “Firing out of the hole” refers to that part of the lift where a lifter hits depth and then begins to come back up. This section of the lift is vital as this is where we are at the most considerable mechanical disadvantage. How we transition from the very bottom of a squat can frequently be the deciding factor of whether or not our lift is successful or not.
When a box squat is performed correctly, a lifter will come down to sit on the box with 100% relaxation. This effectively gets rid of what’s known as the stretch-shortening cycle, or SSC. The SSC is a phenomenon that occurs when your muscle is stretched during the eccentric contraction. When this occurs, potential energy is stored within your muscles and tendons; very similar to a rubber band. After a concentric contraction occurs very quickly, this energy is released and allows for greater power production. In fact, we all utilize this naturally. Think about when you throw a punch, swing a baseball bat, or kick a ball. We will always pull back our arms or legs with every action before coming forward. Even jumping!
The power from SSC is vital to get out of the hole, so what a box squat is, get rid of it and make you pop out of the hole without it…awesome! While this may seem to be the complete opposite of what you want to do, in fact, it’s exactly what you want to do. Getting rid of the SSC, or rebound, can significantly increase your rate of force production, which can fire you out of the hole. In fact, this is the primary reason Louie Simmons loves box squats (yes, “loves”); as he puts it, “The overwhelming benefit from a box squat is realized when the pause is implemented.” And he’s not wrong.
Pausing between reps has actually been shown to increase neuromuscular and functional adaptations in squats during scientific studies (no bro-science here!) And there’s more than just that study, but the point is it works. This is the same reason we will perform pause squats in our program.
Just for a moment, let’s think of the SSC as a crutch that we rely on too much. Because we always use it, our muscles never get to train this portion of a movement as they’re always getting “help". When we pause, we effectively take away that help and force our muscles to generate force without it. In effect, it’s teaching the muscles a new movement (as it usually gets help with SSC) which increases neuromuscular function. You now have a stronger muscle so that when you do go back to using the SSC, you can fire out even faster.
This is why it’s so important to come to a complete rest when doing a box squat. Once you touch the box, you will lose some of the SSC force, but you’re effectively using the box as a spring if you bounce too fast. Regardless, you aren’t genuinely relying on the concentric contraction unless you come to a complete stop.
5. Box Squats Can Be Used To Address Sticking Points Or Overload The Muscles:
Generally, a box squat is performed with a package that sits just below parallel so that a trainee can train with a full range of motion. However, everyone will have a different sticking point, or points, due to differences in our bone length, insertions, and levers. The fact is that every lifter is different and may need help with different squat areas. This is where performing box squats come in handy.
When someone has a sticking point, the most common prescription is to have them perform the concentric portion of the movement starting just below the sticking point. For example, you may do a high board press if you have problems locking out during the bench press. And this is the beauty of box squats, as you can place the height at virtually any level. This makes it the perfect tool to help knock down anybody’s weak points. Generally, when someone is training specifically for a weak point, they will place the box so that they are below their sticking point by a few inches.
At the same time, a trainee can perform a high box squat to overload the muscles as another method to help their body accommodate to heavier weight. Usually, when the box is placed for a standard squat, the trainee will not be able to squat as much weight due to the SSC being taken away. However, one can place the box at a higher height which will shorten the range of motion. This will allow the lifter to actually use more weight than a squat. Even though you are not going through an entire range of motion, your body can still acclimate to moving larger loads. This is especially great to help you mentally as you are used to moving supramaximal weights.
6. Box Squats Are Great For Bad Knees:
Yet another excellent benefit is making box squats a fantastic tool to have, whether you’re a trainer or lifter. A fact of life is that our knees can hurt. This can be for a wide range of reasons, but that doesn’t matter as a result is the same; regular back squats can suck. However, you obviously don’t want to stop training, so what to do? Well, as you probably guessed, you could do some box squats.
During any type of squat which utilizes the SSC, the point that creates the most significant force on our knees is the turnaround, when we switch from eccentric to concentric. We are having to not just go up; we must fight the momentum going down and rapidly produce power going up. However, performing box squats eliminates this rapid switch in muscle contractions. Again, we used the word “properly,” which implies you come to a complete stop at the bottom. Further, as you sit on a box, the forces are much more likely to be posterior, which is how squatting should be. Often, trainees have their weight too far forward due to either poor mobility in the hamstrings or just fear of falling back. Regardless, these extra anterior forces will pile up on the knee, which asks for trouble.
Box squats can really be programmed any way you want, very similar to back squats. Further, your programming can depend on the reason you’re performing them. That being said, as the main goal is to increase your neuromuscular function to create a higher rate of force development, you should rely more on higher sets with low reps and concentrate on force production. This is because you want every rep to be fresh to produce the greatest amount of power, so staying away from fatigue is a good idea. Also, box squats are not a hypertrophy movement! They are to increase power production, so keep the reps low.
Further, use maximal intent on all of your reps. Check out this article for a fantastic explanation, but quite simply, using maximal intent (going as hard as you can) with lighter weight can be beneficial in improving strength and power. Using power bands with box squats is also very popular among seasoned lifters. Assistance bands help to improve power production, when combined with box squats, you get ultimate power!
How this might look during the week, train squats twice a week. On one day, train regular back squats, and then on the other, train your box squats. You can alter the intensity and volume of each day to keep things interesting as well. For example, if you go heavier in squats one week, you could use lightweight bands performing box squats for maximal velocity work. Then if the next week you want to do some high reps on squats, you could go perform 5X2 with 90% on box squats. There’s really no wrong way to do it as long as you follow the guidelines we just gave; lower reps with maximal intent. Also, don’t forget to use progressive overload!
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As the saying goes, “behind every successful man, there is a strong woman.” We can also say, “behind every successful squatter, there is a strong box squat.” Box squats very well could be the best accessory movement there is for back squats, making them vital if you are serious about improving your back squat. Above, you saw the massive list of benefits that box squats offer, so unless you…
…you need to be doing box squats (hint: everyone should be doing box squats).
Jijumufu's Box Squat Challenge
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June 08, 2023
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