The year I became a man was 2009. Not because I turned 21 years old. Not because I hit my first collegiate home run. And not because I was fending off beautiful women from every angle (hint – I wasn’t).
I became a man in 2009 because, after several years of misguided weight training, I was going to learn to squat.
My motivation to squat was born partially from the desire to hit a baseball further and throw a baseball harder. And partially to separate myself from the half-squatting pansies that polluted the squat racks everywhere I went.
But the moment I knew I wanted to squat was after stumbling across a Westside Barbell video on YouTube. What I saw blew me away – Herculean warriors of strength, hoisting bending barbells on their backs fully loaded with plates. Huge silver chains clanked and dangled from the ends of the bar, coiling on the ground like steel pythons as one by one, these muscular mutants squatted onto a wooden box and exploded up as if 900 pounds was a toothpick.
During the same YouTube binge, I watched in awe as Joe DeFranco, a New Jersey strength coach, had his NFL hopefuls doing lightning-fast box squats, which promised to build animalistic levels of speed and power.
I was sold. Less than a week later, I was rocking a fresh pair of Chuck Taylors (because the flat sole let you work your glutes and hamstrings better than running shoes) and sitting my ass onto a box with a mere 185 pounds, trying my damnedest to “SIT BACK!” and keep my “CHEST UP!” just like I heard my powerlifting heroes yell in the videos.
Fast forward a few months and I’d taken my box squat from less than 200 pounds to nearly 400. Using a box that put me perfectly at parallel (the crease of my hip lined up with the top of my knee when I sat down), I squatted twice a week every week. On Tuesdays, I’d use 50-60 percent of my max and do 10 sets of 2 reps, smashing every rep as explosively as possible, like I was trying to jump through the roof. On Fridays, I’d go as heavy as possible for 1-3 reps, trying to set a new personal record every week. This method, pulled straight from the beasts at Westside, worked like magic for awhile, and I found myself not only getting stronger, but sprinting faster, hitting the ball further and throwing the ball harder. Box squats were working.
But I was the recipient of a frequent question from my fellow gym-goers who were less than familiar with my methods – a question that still stokes the flame of many a heated online argument: WHY NOT JUST DO REGULAR SQUATS?
Ah, the age old question. Loyal advocates of either exercise will surely claim their squat of choice is superior for strength development, muscle building and athletic enhancement.
Isn’t the squat – the long-hailed King of All Exercises – perfect the way it is? Why do we need to add a box and sit our keisters onto it like we’re ready to vacate a spicy Taco Bell chalupa?
Was it really box squats that deserved the credit for my gains? Who’s to say I wouldn’t have made the same gains with regular squats (which I’ll just call “squats” from now on, because “back squats” and “free squats” sound silly and are insulting to the royal status of the exercise) if I had done them in the place of box squats? Since we don’t have a time machine and I don’t have an identical twin to participate in a controlled laboratory investigation, we’ll never know for sure.
The truth is, box squats and regular squats, when performed correctly, are totally different exercises that can and should serve completely different purposes.
In order to understand when and how to use each exercise, let’s first look at the pros and cons of box squatting.
One of the biggest mistakes you see with rookie squatters is initiating the movement by bending at the knees instead of the hips, which causes an unwanted forward weight shift and sets the stage for all kinds of technique woes. A proper squat starts with a break at the hips, which gets the butt moving backward while the chest stays high and the knees open up, allowing the squatter to descend “between” their knees instead of over them.
Box squats engrain proper squat technique. They force you to “sit back” by pushing your hips and ass back onto the box, which keeps your lower legs vertical, eliminating any issues caused by tight ankles. Notice how in the above photo the squatter’s knees are behind his toes. Now, look at the picture below. See the angle of her lower leg versus her feet? It takes incredible coordination, core strength and mobility to squat safely like that. Needless to say, most beginners don’t have any of those things, so using the box squat to get the hips involved in the squat is a great option.
BOX SQUAT PRO #2 – EASY TO LEARN
I just mentioned the many prerequisites for executing a proper squat as pictured above. It can take years to master the squat, but a beginner can learn to box squat in a matter of minutes.
The ease of teaching and learning how to box squat is astounding. For that reason, I start almost every single person I coach with some sort of box squat variation when teaching them to squat for the first time. While throwing someone under the bar for the first time and telling them to squat is usually a gamble, this box-based progression is almost fail-proof:
- Body weight box squat
- Dumbbell goblet box squat
- PVC box squat
- Box squat with empty bar
- Box squat with loaded bar
- Squat to box (tap the box for depth but don’t “sit back” onto the box)
This progression could take months if the squatter has serious mobility/coordination issues, or they could be squatting in a week or two. It all varies, but the steps are so simple that almost anyone can get from beginning to end eventually.
The other option is to make the newbie squat, suffer through endless subpar reps, drown them with corrective coaching cues and pray that their patience outlasts their frustration. From both a coaching and learning standpoint, I’d much rather use the progression built on ease of learning and positive feedback.
BOX SQUAT PRO #3 – HAMMERING THE POSTERIOR CHAIN
Because box squats use a wider stance and reinforce the “sitting back” motion, they do a tremendous job of loading the muscles of the posterior chain: the glutes, hamstrings and lower back, in particular. This is essential for new lifters who tend to be especially weak in these areas and struggle with the hip hinge action (as demonstrated with a PVC pipe to the right) and allow their quads to take over when they mean to engage the hips, glutes and hamstrings.
BOX SQUAT PRO #4 – EXPOSING WEAKNESSES
This plays right off of #3. Box squats do a great job of exposing weaknesses and imbalances. Chest caves over when you sit back? Work on upper back strength and thoracic extension. Knees crash in when you stand up? Strengthen your glutes and think about “spreading the floor” with your feet. Tailbone tucks under before you reach the box? It’s likely a mobility/flexibility issue in your hips, hamstrings and/or ankles.
Much like the overhead squat test I talk about in my 4 Steps to Fix Your Squat article, box squats serve as a constant evaluation of your stability, mobility and technique.
Depth might as well be a four-letter word when it comes to squatting. Newbies fear it. Powerlifters debate it. Internet tough guys demand it (and have never missed it, if you ask them – but we can’t be sure because they’ve never actually posted a video of themselves squatting).
There are plenty of great reasons to squat to depth (in powerlifting terms, defined as the crease of the hip passing below the top of the knee). You have to hit depth for a squat to qualify as a “good lift” in a powerlifting meet. A full squat indicates good levels of mobility, strength and coordination. And most importantly, research consistently shows that deep squats increase activation of the glutes and hamstrings while decreasing stress on the knee joint compared to half squats.
So we know deep squats are better than half squats, but why don’t most people squat deep? Well, frankly, because it’s really hard. Especially as weights get heavier, most people squat higher. Box squats eliminate this problem by ensuring the lifter hits the same depth every rep of every set.
Use a box that puts you at parallel or just below and you’ll never worry about missing depth. Can’t hit depth with good form? Use a slightly higher box that allows you to maintain good form, and gradually lower the box over time as your mobility/stability allows.
NEXT TIME – THE CONS
We’ll discuss some of the drawbacks of box squatting in part two. Stay tuned.