What Is The Deal With The Box Squat?
If you are a beginner then you should be squatting, which is pretty obvious. From the very first moment you step into the gym, the squat is going to be one of the best exercises you can do to develop pure strength, size and power. But, the important question is: what type of squat exercise should you be doing?
Well, you might have noticed something: almost every beginner who squats always chooses to do the barbell back squat. In fact, in any decent starting strength program, the barbell back squat will be the top choice as your squat movement. Ok, I can see why this is the case. After all, there is a reason they termed it the king of all exercises. The thing is, an exercise is only effective if you can perform the movement efficiently. When it comes to the barbell back squat, very few beginners can actually perform this exercise optimally. Well, don’t worry about this because I come with a great solution: the box squat!
The Optimal Squat For The Job
If you are stepping foot in the gym for the very first time and beginning your weightlifting journey, then there are a few problems you most likely need to address: lack of mobility, possible muscle imbalances and, lack of a size and strength base. If you ask me, these problems don’t go well together with a highly technical exercise like the barbell back squat. In fact, due to the very technical nature of the exercise itself, it is likely to make these problems even worse! Now, some people might argue with me and say that as long as you keep practicing the exercise, these problems will eventually correct themselves. Sorry, but this is just not going to happen with the barbell back squat. The only thing you will be doing is reinforcing weaknesses that need to be corrected.
“These problems don’t go well together with a highly technical exercise like the barbell back squat.”
If you are a beginner weightlifter with poor mobility and muscle imbalances then there are a few not so great things that can happen on the barbell back squat. Evident with many new weightlifters is that they can’t squat to parallel. Unless you are doing partial squats (above parallel) for a special reason (partial ROM work) then squatting in this manner long-term is only going to give a headache. Why? Well, if you can’t squat to parallel then you are mainly only going to be using your quads. This means your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings and calves) gets very little attention. What’s the problem with this? You’re likely to reinforce muscle imbalances. There is a reason why many people suffer from knee, hip and lower back pain. It comes through the fact that many people have stronger quads and almost no glute/hamstring activity. With poor flexibility, you are likely going to make this problem even worse by attempting to barbell back squat through it.
- “A” represents a typical partial squat. Many new weightlifters are prevented from achieving parallel squat depth (TD) due to a combination of fear (descending with heavy weights) and lack of mobility in the knees, hips and ankles. This partial squat results in predominant targeting of the quads (PI) and knees with little emphasis on recruiting the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings). If new weightlifters continue to partially squat, this can put extra stress on the knees, leading to overdeveloped quads (in relation to the posterior chain) and lead to muscle imbalances. This can lead to knee pain, hip pain and lower back pain.
- “B” represents an ideal situation in which lifters can squat to at least parallel (TD). This will allow optimal recruitment of not only the quads, but also the posterior chain leading to more balanced development between the anterior (quads) and posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings).
Another problem that I frequently see is that the majority of new lifters fail to utilize BOTH their hips and knees in the descent (eccentric part of the squat). As a result, beginners tend to initiate the squat through their knees without learning to also push their hips back (also known as loading the glutes and hamstrings). Using only your knees means that you sink directly to the ground putting all the pressure on your knees and quads.
While there is nothing wrong with working your quads, ONLY working them means your getting no posterior chain work (glutes, hamstrings and calves). This is likely to lead to further muscle imbalances leading to knee pain, hip pain and lower back pain. While some might argue that this problem will correct itself if you keep practicing the barbell back squat over time, I think its quite the opposite. All you will do is reinforce these problems. If you ask me, this is one of the main reasons I will always recommend the box squat to beginners: it teaches you how to sit back and utilize those glutes and hamstrings.
- “A” shows what SHOULD happen in an optimal squat situation (high or low bar). Initiating the descent to the ground (eccentric portion) using both using knees and hips. As you descend you NEED to be making sure you push your hips back as you descend. This increases the influence from your posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings). This serves to take the pressure off your knees. “HM” represents the hip-moment, while “KM” represents the knee-moment. By pushing your hips back, you serve to increase the HM, thus increasing the work that your glutes and hamstrings have to do.
- “B” represents what I typically see with many new weightlifters. They tend to flex at the knees only, dropping directly down to the ground WITHOUT also pushing their hips backwards (learning to sit back). This serves to push the knees further past the toes, thus increasing the KM (knee-moment). This means that the force will be transferred from your hips to your quads and knees putting extra pressure on them. If a new weightlifter keeps doing this, then the quads will always be doing most of the work leading to possible muscle imbalances (quads significantly stronger than glutes/hamstrings). This can lead to knee pain, hip pain and lower back pain. As you can see, the hip-moment (HM) is significantly smaller in this case, reducing the work that the hip musculature has to exert.
Meet The Box Squat
One of the great benefits of the box squat is that it favors posterior chain development. In other words, it’s a fantastic way to learn how to activate, use and build those glutes, hamstrings and calves. With most beginners, they simply can’t activate these muscle groups properly. In a normal barbell back squat, if you can’t use these groups efficiently, then your body will simply try to compensate. This means, your body has to find another way of being able to make sure you can complete the movement by what ever means necessary (but this doesn’t always mean in the safest or most optimal way possible). The only way to do this is to get the quads, knees and lower back more involved to take over the role of a weak posterior chain.
If this happens, you will usually see a few things: dropping straight to the ground (all knees, no hips), getting stuck in the hold (unable to descent back up from the ground), hips shooting up too fast as you try to ascend (leading to a good morning movement) and, knees moving all over the place (due to weak glutes). The box squat therefore is great at solving all this.
“The great benefits of the box squat is that it favors posterior chain development.”
With the box squat, you have to do a few things: as you descend you have to sit back more by pushing your hips back. If you don’t and you just fall straight to the ground, then you risk missing the box. That would be embarrassing! By learning how to sit back more, you use your glutes and hamstrings to a larger extent. Thus, the only way to hit that box is to get your hips back. Along with this, you generally have to adopt a wider stance with your feet if you perform the box squat. This will tend to place a larger emphasis on your hip musculature. Not to mention, by learning to sit back more, you learn to keep your shins more vertical, which can take the stress of your knees and transfer the load to your posterior chain.
One of the things I like about the box squat is that it teaches you to remain tight throughout your entire body. Many new weightlifters haven’t yet developed the skill to keep the body extremely tight during their weightlifting. On the squat, if you loose tightness, it all goes horribly wrong and fast. With the box squat, you are forced to maintain tightness so that you can leave the box as soon as you arrive at it. This can teach you better control, stability and coordination of your entire body during the squat movement. Simply put, when you land on the box, you have to keep tight otherwise you won’t be able to get back off it.
With the box squat, you are taught to get to depth (parallel). Many new weightlifters have problems getting to depth through a combination of lack of flexibility and fear. With these two things, if you attempt to go to parallel you will likely fail the movement. As a result, most beginner weightlifters will not go to parallel depth, usually stopping just before. Again, this can lead to over taxing of the knees and quads, poor recruitment of the posterior chain and, further exaggeration of muscle imbalances. With the box squat, you have the box to land on. This pretty much takes the fear away of getting stuck if you attempt to go to parallel. It will also teach you to get more comfortable with heavier weights as you go to parallel. Just make sure the box is the right height so that you can actually go to parallel!
A final thing worth mentioning is the problem many weightlifters have getting out of the hole (bottom position) when they attempt to come up from the ground in the squat (the ascent). If you can’t utilize your posterior chain then it’s going to be ugly coming up. Without any posterior chain development, most beginners have two options at the bottom position of their squat: to fail or, good morning the weight up. This happens because they simply don’t have the glute and hamstring strength necessary to get back up. With the box squat, you really have to learn to drive through your hamstrings and glutes to get back off the box. This can really increase the power and explosiveness of your posterior chain.
- “C” represents a typical box squat. The box squat height should be set so that you can squat down to parallel depth. As you can see, the box squat teaches new lifters to sit back more (push their hips further back) rather than just sink by flexing at the knees. This is needed so that they can hit the box (rather than miss it). This will teach lifters to utilise their glutes and hamstrings more leading to increased recruitment of the posterior chain musculature. You can see this by the HM (hip-moment). By sitting back more, the hip-moment is increased, thus increasing the influence of the posterior chain. Development of the posterior chain will help with getting out the whole (squatting back upwards without having to good morning the weight up).
It’s All About Posterior Chain Development
If you are a beginner weightlifter, then the chances are you don’t have much posterior chain development. If you ask me, this means: do the box squat rather than the barbell back squat as a beginner. Why? In your case, the box squat will teach you do develop your posterior chain to its full potential, allow for great explosiveness and power and, good squat technique. Doing the barbell back squat is likely just going to reinforce any problems you have rather than fix them.
In my experience, if you attempt to do the barbell back squat without any ability to activate and utilize your posterior chain then your body is simply going to compensate: use your strongest muscle groups to complete the movement (usually your quads and back). This compensation is just likely to further enhance any muscle imbalances you have and cause further complications down the line. As a beginner, the box squat will not only fix any problems you have, it will also increase your normal back squat performance in time. The best of both worlds!
If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below!