Why You Should Box Squat

By now we all know the squat is arguably the most important exercise of all partly because of its functional benefits and whole-body engaging work. Over the years, many variations have emerged as a means to accommodate conditioning levels, injuries and embrace newer challenges. The Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Goblet Squat, Bulgarian Split Squat, Zercher Squat and Pistol Squat are versions that have made their way into the realm of strength training. But there is one that many people still rarely do. The Box Squat.

Although it came to fruition at a Polish weightlifting facility in the 1950’s, the box squat was popularized by legendary powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio.  Simmons began box squatting in the 1960’s and is the chief reason the exercise is utilized my many fitness enthusiasts today, including olympic and recreational athletes, powerlifters and bodybuilders. It is a simple exercise that requires squatting down to a plyometric box (for the remainder of this post, ‘plyo box’ will be used as a replacement) that’s low enough so the thighs are beneath parallel. Yet it remains misunderstood and underappreciated by many. Let’s take a closer examination at this unique exercise.

Simmons’ discovery is based on the theoretical fact that by squatting down to a low plyo box that puts the thighs beneath horizontal, there is greater muscle recruitment by the hamstrings and glutes, which subsequently improves the depth on a traditional barbell squat. A majority of the people who do traditional squats almost never make it to parallel while others don’t have the flexibility in their hamstrings to squat deeper. This can eventually limit strength and gains potential due to the fact that the posterior chain of the body isn’t getting challenged enough.  The box squat effectively addresses these issues. So how can one successfully do a box squat? Are there more than one way to box squat?

According to Simmons and contrary to other unsubstantiated claims, there is only ONE way to box squat. With the barbell resting on your trapezius, hinge your hips and butt rearwards and slowly descend towards the center of the ploy box. A descent towards the front of the box with cause the heels to lift off the ground greatly affecting your drive back up during your ascent. The knees should stack over the ankles or even slightly over. Both the knees and ankles should be in a slightly wider than hip-width stance for easier descent and better muscle activation. When fully seated on the box, the glutes, hamstrings and lumbar region are relaxed. Gravity forces acting downwards  and the loaded resistance will inevitably lead to an explosive firing of the aforementioned muscles during the concentric phase.  During ascent, push the bar into the traps first and tighten the abdominal muscles first to create rigidity in the torso. The forceful drive through the heels of the foot is the final step. Keep in mind that driving through the heels without pushing the bar into the traps first will cause the trunk to lean forward putting the body in a ‘Good Morning’ position.

Here are 5 benefits of the box squat:

1.) Quicker Recovery, Less Soreness & Frequent Squat Sessions: During the eccentric phase of a box squat, the kinetic energy slowly goes away during descent. Some of it remains isometrically stored in the glutes and hamstrings, but most of it is gone. This means when you’re seated on the box, most of the working muscles are going to be relaxed with a few in isometric tension. They only engage during the concentric phase. This leads to an efficient utilization of the energy systems of the body and better recruitment of the muscles of the entire lower body. Essentially the nervous system is only challenged during the concentric phase which helps minimize energy.

2.) Teaches Proper Squatting Technique (Parallel) & Improves Flexibility : Not many people can achieve the parallel depth on a conventional squat. I still see many squatters stopping miles away from hip-knee alignment. And of course it becomes extra miles away as the weight gets heavier. Lack of flexibility in the hamstring is a big reason for this. Simply squatting onto a plyo box addresses these problems. If a lifter successfully achieves the beyond-parallel depth on the box squat, the traditional squat depth will improve automatically because the kinetic chain will proprioceptively adapt to the stimulus over time. Hamstring flexibility is also improved via the static-dynamic sequence. The working muscles relax statically when the lifter is fully seated on the plyo box and dynamically stretches during concentric phase. When this is repeated at the right intensity and over a period of time, the muscles of the hamstrings will effectively stretch themselves out. Keep in mind that ample time must be devoted to box squatting training sessions in order to see an improvement in traditional squats.

3). Safety & Injury Prevention : Generally speaking, the box squat is safer than the traditional squat. Although the load and form are the two key determining factors for injury prevention, the box squat is more knee and lower back friendly. Explosively driving up from the heels creates rigidity in the torso and fills the diaphragm with air which leads to less spinal compression. The knees are also forced to stay at a 90-degree angle with the ankle during descent thereby protecting the patellar tendons.

4). Better Hamstring, Gluteal & Hip Muscle Recruitment : As mentioned earlier, the below parallel depth on the box squat forces the lifter to explode from the heels concentrically. This means the muscles of the lumbar region, hamstrings, glutes and hips will work much harder than they would in a traditional squat. These muscles will become stronger leading to better performance in other posterior chain exercises like deadlift, reverse lunge and hip thrust. This is also key because most exercisers are anterior dominant and are usually at a disadvantage in exercises involving the posterior chain as well as some day-to-day activities.

5. Development of  Absolute Strength & Power : Power is defined as maximal force generated instantly or rapidly. It is impacted by strength and speed. In a traditional squat, power must be produced during the eccentric (descent), isometric (bottom of squat) and concentric (ascent) phases. This greater effort usually limits the power potential of the body and can thus affect the long term development of power and strength. In a box squat, the eccentric and concentric phases are broken apart so that the muscles of the hip and lower body relax and rest a bit in the seated position. This allows for a better utilization and redirection of power during the start and execution of the concentric phase. By breaking up the eccentric-concentric phase, box squatting provides a power and force output three to four times greater than traditional squat. It also helps build starting strength in sports and increases pulling power in the deadlift off the floor.

Anyone can box squat. However there are 3 key factors squatters must consider:

Factor #1: Deconditioned and less experienced squatters should start with just their body weight initially. Simply squatting onto a plyo box that puts the thighs beyond parallel will illicit a good physiological response by the body. A barbell can be used after successfully performing the exercise for a period of time or a lower plyo box (2 to 4 inches shorter) for an increased challenge.

Factor #2: The plyo box must be low enough so that the thighs are beyond parallel. Most plyo boxes (usually wooden or steel) have a depth height ranging from 12 inches to 30 inches. Taller individuals will fare well with the boxes in the 12 to 18 inch range. The underlying factor is that the lower the plyo box, the better the challenge. However an ideal format to use is to first sit on any box and see how parallel the thighs are to the ground. Any box that puts the thighs at parallel or beneath will work just fine. Yoga and pilates mat can be placed on boxes for much taller individuals who have a hard time sitting on the lower boxes.

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Factor #3: Box squats should be done periodically and scheduled between traditional squat programs. This means if you box squat once or twice a week for 3 weeks in a month, you should return to traditional squat for at least 3 weeks to test your depth and range. Many people I know, including Simmons,  have completely replaced traditional squats with box squats, doing the former only once in a blue moon. If the goals are pure power, strength and explosiveness, as is the case with powerlifters and athletes, then box squats should be performed routinely. Everyday fitness enthusiasts should box squat at least every other 2 months for 3 weeks straight at a training frequency of 1 to 2 days a week.

The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.