The box squat is one of the most underutilized tools in the gym that has the ability to rebuild your squat pattern from the ground up while adding a safe spark to your explosive strength and power work. But simply put, the box squat has gained the notorious reputation for being an inherently dangerous squat variation that only powerlifters should be using that causes many lifters and athletes to shy away from this staple squat variation.
When properly programmed and pristinely executed, the box squat transcends populations and is one of the safest and most effective ways to load the squat pattern. Here are the four types of box squats that I program regularly for my athletes, and how to best utilize and execute each variation for maximal benefit.
Rebuilding The Foundational Squat Pattern
One of the biggest mistakes people make when returning back to a strength training program after an injury is going back to the same poor movement pattern that caused the injury or flare up in the first place and adding load and intensity to it right away. Case in point, the freestanding barbell back squat.
After discharge from rehabilitation, and before going back into an unrestricted strength training program, the bottom up (also referred to as the Reverse Method) goblet box squat is the first squat variation that we implement to rebuild the squat pattern. By starting with the athlete sitting on the box, we can teach the proper position, muscular recruitment and stabilization patterns in a non-threatening position in order to eventually grade the squat back up to a top down approach. This is the same type of approach that we use with our novice athlete’s learning to squat properly for the first time.
Choosing the ideal box height between 12-16 inches for the average person will be dependent on the athlete’s ability to maintain a neutral spinal and pelvic position while in contact with the box. Position the box only as low as the athlete can maintain a quality setup position at the bottom. As with most movements, the pain-free functional movement execution is dependent on a well-refined setup.
By adding light anterior loading in the form of a dumbbell in the hands in the goblet position, we can improve upper back and core stiffness while also using this load to counteract the center of mass and allow the athlete to use more of a hip dominant squat pattern. Ensure that the hands squeeze the dumbbell hard, the elbows and shoulders drive down and in and the dumbbell remains 2-4 inches in front of the body throughout the entire movement. We want to re-pattern the squat to be a full body movement that requires tension throughout all aspects of the upper body, lower body and core right off the bat.
After positioning the box, the feet and the dumbbell, pre-tension the entire system by squeezing the glutes, hamstrings and bracing at the core while rooting the feet into the ground. From there, drive up off the box into a standing position. Control the eccentric lowering portion back down into a sitting position. This is one rep. Remember, we are resetting each and every rep to ensure proper setup and movement patterning here, as the goal is rewiring quality movement, not loading.
The Box Squat For Safe Reactivation of Strength
One of the most vulnerable positions during the squat pattern is the bottom range of motion where terminal knee and hip flexion moments are achieved simultaneously. Many times, athletes will have a tendency to lose core stiffness along with spinal and pelvic neutrality at this portion of the squat’s range of motion, placing the back and hips into a more vulnerable position.
Monitoring the authentic and non-compensatory depth of the squat pattern is pivotal to longevity in this movement, but can be a difficult task for athletes who lack kinesthetic awareness of where their body is in space. That is why the box squat for the reactivation of heavier strength based loading is an ideal choice.
Similar to the box height that was utilized in the bottom up squat in the previous section, the height of this box squat variation is dependent on the maintenance of a neutral spinal position throughout the entire range of motion. Though every athlete has his or her theoretical limits of squat depth based on their anthropometrics, hip structure and basic bony anatomy, this box height may be higher than anticipated due to lack of motor control or skill level in this movement. When in doubt, position the box higher and have them earn the right to lower it over time.
Position the box so that you are straddling the box with the point between your legs. This will allow maximal surface area contact of the butt on the box, and better control and stability in the bottom portion of this movement. Control the squat movement down focusing on unlocking at the hips first, and pushing the hips back to the box deliberately and under control. Descend until contact is made on the box.
Unlike many other ways of teaching the box squat for strength and power, we want to stay tight, braced and under control while in contact with the box. I explain this as deloading 50% of the bodyweight into the box with a slight rock back. This means that we are not going passive and sitting without tension on the box, and we aren’t just going touch and go either. We want full control, but also want to utilize the inherent stability that the box supports. From the bottom position of the box squat, use a slight rock (thinking 5-15 degrees of relative flexion hip ROM) and drive straight up.
When reintroducing heavier strength based loading with the box squat, we can reduce the amount of compressional forces by sitting to the box as opposed to a free squat by distributing forces through not only the two feet on the ground, but also the butt in contact with the box as well. This advantage to box squatting quickly becomes a disadvantage if the athlete slams down on the box, so the maintenance of a controlled eccentric lowering is pivotal and necessary to receive full benefit from the box squat loaded in strength parameters.
Improved Posterior Chain Targeting With The Box Squat
While I’m a big believer that every person has an ideal squat setup in terms of foot, knee, hip and torso positioning, many athletes are in need of a more posterior chain dominant squat pattern. The first step is to go through your checklist and identify your theoretical “perfect” squat setup in terms of foot width, foot abduction position, the distance between the knees at the bottom of the squat, and the depth of the squat in general. Refer back to this article to bring yourself through this progression: “Squat Depth: The Final Answer”
This posterior chain emphasized squat pattern recruits the hamstrings, glutes and adductors (more primary stabilizing musculature of the back side of the body) to a greater degree when compared to the more anterior chain dominant pattern that hits the quadriceps a bit harder. Utilizing bigger, stronger key muscles like the hamstrings and adductors and placing load on them can be very advantageous for building resiliency at the hips and lower back while teaching a more hip centric movement pattern that can translate into other movements and activities.
To increase posterior chain targeting during the squat, the feet will be positioned slightly wider apart from one another. Also, this style of squat is truly dependent on leading this pattern with the hips, as a commonly athletes tend to depend on their anterior chain structures like the quadriceps and unlock at the knees first instead.
As the foot width increases with a more hip dominant unlocking and push back movement base, you’ll notice that the tibial (shin) angle will also remain more vertical to the ground. This again places the quadriceps at a slight biomechanical disadvantage to become the primary mover in this pattern, and instead shifts the emphasis to the glutes, hamstrings and adductors where we want them in this case.
Once the ideal posterior chain emphasis box squat pattern is achieved, the execution will look nearly identical to the strength based box squat from above. But note that maintaining tightness on the box will become harder as you get your feet and hips into a wider position. For many athletes, slightly wider squat stances on the box work extremely well. A little goes a long way here, so play with a foot position that is only 1-3 inches wider at most in order to stay within your anatomical boundaries for this squat based movement pattern.
Banded Box Squatting For Explosive Power Capacity
One of my favorite ways to utilize the box squat is through explosive dynamic power work in for the squat pattern. As popularized by gold-standard training systems like Westside Barbell’s conjugate method among others, the use of dynamic actions off the box from a dead stop bottom range of motion has some huge advantages that nearly every type of athlete and client can take advantage of.
When you think about descending down and actually making contact with the box, this can be considered a form of plyometric-based training. Kinetic energy is stored in the tissues of the body, especially in the lower body centric muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and adductors. As this energy is built up upon the lowering phase leading to physical contact of the body onto the box, we can accumulate even more kinetic energy in the system at contact point.
Depending on sources, this added kinetic energy can stay within the system from anywhere between 0.2 seconds all the way up to 6 seconds, but from my professional experience I’ve seen that that added jolt of explosiveness lasts roughly 1 second from contact of the box to concentric phase up, meaning that after a slight rock and still under full tension in the body we drive up within 1-second of contact time on the box.
The more energy that the body can accumulate and store at the time of contact, the more that it can express when it is time to explode up off the box. And even better, we are exploding up with increased kinetic energy utilization from a dead stop position, which is highly advantageous for starting strength. Without going crazy and slamming down on the box without control, we do want to move through a bit of a quicker eccentric phase here to maximize the plyometric effect.
While the goal of a dynamic box squat is to try and volitionally move through the concentric raising portion of the squat as explosively as possible, we must take into account specific loading parameters to take full advantage of the force equation, Force = Mass x Acceleration, and maximize the combination of load and bar speed to elicit the strongest neurological adaptation to this method as possible.
The addition of accommodating based resistances like bands and chains to the barbell can become very advantageous by increasing the active range of motion that the athletes can actively accelerate through during the concentric portion of the lift.
A general recommendation for dynamic effort accommodated resistance box squats are using around 50-65% of an athlete’s 1RM on the bar with the addition of bands in traditional setup from the bottom of the rack to the bar, or with chains loaded on either side of the barbell. There are of course different resistances of bands, but we recommend light or medium resistance bands like our Black JRx Bands for stronger athletes who have squat 1RM’s above 350 pounds, and our Blue JRx Bands for athletes with sub 350 pound maximum squat numbers.
As dynamic effort work off the box is not a test of endurance, we keep rep ranges between 1-5 to ensure high quality explosive movements on every single rep without drop off. While the percentage system combined with reps on dynamic effort work is anything but exact, I highly recommend that you use speed and feel as your indicator to loading with external bar weight plus the addition of accommodating resistances, and have some flexibility in your loading. Above all else, we must train fast to receive the benefits that we are after for this box squat variation. General total rep recommendations can be set between 20-30 total reps with shorter end rest periods between 30-60 seconds.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.