The other day, we concluded that box squats are awesome, although not interchangeable with regular squats. In part 1 of this three part series, we talked about all the good reasons to use box squats in a strength training program. Let’s recap:
BOX SQUAT PROS
- They teach you to sit back, reinforcing good squat technique
- They’re easy to learn and provide instant positive feedback
- They target the hips, glutes and hamstrings
- They immediately expose weaknesses and imbalances
- They help you squat to depth consistently
This list just skims the surface of all the good reasons to box squat. But like anything else, there’s a flip side. Box squats have their drawbacks which we have to consider before we determine how and when to use them in our lifting plan.
The supposed simplicity of box squatting can lead to some bad habits that are hard to undo once they creep into your workouts.
Don’t get it twisted – even though the box squat is simple to learn initially, it’s still a highly-technical lift and requires tons of practice and proper coaching to master. Watch any video from a top-notch powerlifting gym like Westside or Supertraining and you’ll see and hear some of the best lifters in the world yelling and coaching each other on every rep of every set. Even elite squatters need to be reminded of proper technique and execution.
Here’s a quick list of common box squat errors:
- Not sitting back far enough, which reduces depth and posterior chain involvement
- Leaning forward too much, which turns the movement into more of a good morning than a squat
- Relaxing too much on the box
- “Rocking” off the box because you didn’t stay tight enough to squat back up without momentum
- “Crashing” onto the box instead of sitting back under control
Squatting errors (knees caving in, chest falling over, lower back rounding, etc.) are much less forgiving and are easily discouraged because, when you commit them, you frequently miss the weight or “feel” the increased risk of injury. Box squats, however, can be more forgiving due to the added security of sitting onto the box. There’s more time to “gather” yourself before reversing directions, whereas squats are more “do or die” out of the bottom position.
Long story short, technical errors may not lead to failure as often with the box squat, which can promote bad habits.
Box squats are a tremendous tool for multiply lifters who squat in rigid polyester suits. These suits provide “stopping power” that supports the lifter in the bottom position, almost acting like a box in the sense that you sit back into/onto it.
But recently, lots of top powerlifters have expressed their distaste for box squats when attempting to build the raw squat. The reason for that is simple: box squats honestly don’t have much carryover to raw squats.
For those of you not well versed in powerlifting vernacular, “raw” just means a lift performed without the use of supportive equipment, like briefs, squatting suits or bench press shirts. So a raw squat is performed with only a belt and maybe knee wraps.
Like I said in part 1, squats and box squats are very different exercises. One does not build the other. You can’t do only box squats and expect your squat to go up. There’s too much variance in technique and muscles used.
The sitting back motion of a box squat is exaggerated to the point where, if you sat back that far without the box, you’d fall on your ass. Regular squats initiate with a sitting back motion, but only enough to allow the squatter to descend “between” the knees. Therefore, squats have more forward knee travel and more quad involvement than the box squat.
Box squats also differ greatly in the reversal of the weight. Squats utilize a significant amount of stretch reflex or “bounce” out of the bottom position, which you’ll notice if you watch any Olympic weightlifter squat. Even if you lower yourself down slowly, there’s still a good degree of bounce to push the bar back up. A good box squatter, however, “flexes” off the box. While this definitely builds explosive power because you eliminate much of the stretch reflex, it’s not applicable to a squat where the stretch reflex is both inevitable and desirable.
Maybe box squats are a good choice for the raw squatter if they really need to bring up their hips, glutes and hamstrings. But a raw squatter has no business using box squats as their main squat movement and would be better served squatting regularly while bringing up their weaknesses with glute ham raises, hip thrusts and other accessory exercises.
“Chest up!” and “Arch hard!” are two of the most common cues for coaching the box squat. The idea is to create insane tightness and stability by extending through the upper and lower back, which prevents the chest from caving over and keeps the bar in a straight line. This is essential when you have nearly half a ton on your back and an inch of deviation in any direction could spell disaster.
But a lot of great coaches have recently shed light on the drawbacks of always cueing lifters into excessive extension, especially in the lower back. Constantly arching the lower back feeds into anterior pelvic tilt (APT), which is an exaggerated forward tilting of the pelvis that accentuates the curve of the lower back and can lead to subpar glute function and lower back pain.
People make a lot of fuss about APT these days. The truth is that some APT is useful for spinal stability during heavy lifts like squats. Extending the lower back can help prevent lumbar flexion (rounding of the lower back, which is dangerous under heavy weights) by keeping us closer to a neutral position. The lower back is usually going to flex some during squats anyways, so starting in extension can keep us away from end-range flexion, which is the last exit on the highway to the danger zone. Think of it this way:
- Arched lower back + Spinal flexion = Neutral position (Safe)
- Neutral lower back + Spinal flexion = Flexed position (Unsafe)
However, an overly extended lower back under heavy loads is dangerous too. Certainly not as dangerous as loaded flexion, but dangerous nonetheless. Neutral spine is always the safest bet.
Lumbar flexion often presents itself during the infamous “butt wink”, seen when the lower back and ass curve underneath the hips toward the bottom of the squat. This is a nasty position and squatting heavy with frequent butt wink is asking for an injury. The same dysfunctions that lead to APT are also responsible for butt wink: weak/tight hamstrings, weak glutes, weak abs and tight hip flexors, to name a few.
Intense cases of APT can be problematic for some people. Athletes like baseball, lacrosse and basketball players who spend a lot of time with arms overhead tend to get stuck in APT, which wrenches on the lower back and can lead to injuries like stress fractures and oblique strains. Everyday desk jockeys get tight hips and weak glutes, too, leading to APT and cranky lower backs. It would be irresponsible to use box squats with excessive lower back arching with these populations, especially without addressing their weaknesses first.
BOX SQUAT #4 – HIGH IMPACT SPINAL COMPRESSION
Combine crashing onto the box from Con #1 and the excessive arching of Con #3 and you can end up with a spinal shit sandwich.
Spinal compression (forces exerted vertically from the top and bottom of the spine) goes hand-in-hand with squatting. Unless gravity takes a day off, putting a loaded bar on your back will result in compressive forces on your spine.
When you crash onto the box, you lose stability in your lower back by slipping out of a neutral or extended position. Add in the increased velocity of free-falling and the solid surface of the box and your lower back ends up like one of those talking crash test dummies in the old safety belt commercials.
For this reason, I’ll often use a dumbbell goblet box squat with new lifters after they’ve shown proficiency with a bodyweight box squat. This shifts the load a bit to reduce some of the spinal compression, plus you can’t load it as heavy as a barbell. After they grasp the concept of sitting back under control, then we put a bar on their back.
It seems obvious but it bears repeating: make sure you can sit back onto the box under control and with a safe lower back position before you load up the weight.
THE GOOD, THE BAD… NOW WHAT?
Now that we’ve weighed the pros and the cons of box squatting, we can determine how and when to use them in a training program.
Next time, we’ll discuss some scenarios when box squats would be a good exercise selection. I’ll also give some examples of lower body workouts (featuring the box squat, of course) that will increase your squat and deadlift strength.