For some, squats are a necessary evil to be avoided at all costs. For others, leg day is the highlight of the week. Box squats are the common ground that everyone should consider incorporating into their training regimen.
Box squats are an effective lower body training movement for both seasoned and new lifters. Here’s what you need to know about this exercise and why you should add them to your routine.
- What are Box Squats?
- What Muscles do Box Squats Work?
- The Benefits of Box Squats
- How to Do Box Squats Correctly
- Box Squat Variations
What are Box Squats?
Believe it or not, box squatting is about more than sitting on a box at the bottom of the movement. The movement focuses on sitting back rather than sitting down. With a back squat, you’re focusing on engaging the posterior chain and hinging backward until you’re seated on a box while maintaining form. After a pause, you propel yourself upward with explosive power.
How is this different from a regular squat or pause squat?
First, it naturally corrects one of the most common mistakes made with squatting: bending the knees before hinging the hips. It prioritizes that hip hinge movement that’s essential for a powerful squat. Second, it removes momentum from the equation. There’s no bouncing your way back up from “the hole.” You need to stay tight and make your muscles work.
What Muscles do Box Squats Work?
Box squats are an effective exercise for engaging the posterior chain— i.e., the backside of your body. Your posterior chain includes your hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. The box squat also works your quadriceps, but that engagement depends on your stance and box height.
The Benefits of Box Squats
There are a lot of benefits to box squats that make them ideal for both new and experienced lifters. If you have any doubts, the powerlifters at Westside barbell swear by them as an essential part of their training regimen on the road to a 1,000lb squat.
Here are some of the benefits of box squatting to keep in mind.
1. Beginner-Friendly Form Progression
As mentioned previously, box squats help correct one of the most common form mistakes in both new and experienced lifters. While it’s possible to power through form mistakes, you’ll eventually hit a point where you can’t lift any heavier or sustain an injury.
Box squatting helps instill the idea that your hips have to hinge before your knees bend. It also creates a safety net for new lifters who are intimidated by squats, allowing them to focus on form over fear. Instructing athletes to “sit back” is a common coaching cue for back squats. Giving lifters something to sit back on is tremendously helpful.
While box squats are beginner-friendly, they aren’t necessarily easier than traditional squats. It’s easier to cheat your way through a back squat with poor form than it is with a box squat. However, the box helps with the stability portion of the squat, which makes it easier for a lot of people. Beginner or not, a box squat should still be challenging.
2. Getting Comfortable with Squat Depth
Box squats are also a fantastic way to focus on improving your squat depth. This technique is an important step for squatting, so you get the most out of your exercise. In other words, you can use this exercise to avoid being the person at the gym who ultimately brags about how heavy your quarter squat is.
Setting a box at parallel can help you learn how it feels to hit depth. For competitive lifters, setting the box slightly below parallel helps ensure they hit competition squat depth without going too far into the hole and compromising power.
3. Improves Force and Power
It’s hard to cheat when doing a barbell box squat. When doing a regular back squat or even a bodyweight squat, you can always use momentum— A.K.A., the stretch reflex— to power yourself upward. With a box squat, that pause at depth changes the game.
Studies have shown that peak power and peak force are significantly higher than during a barbell back squat. If you can get off the box during a box squat, chances are you have the strength to get out of the hole during a regular squat at the same weight or heavier.
If someone tells you that box squats are easier than barbell squats, take it with a grain of salt. It takes a lot of power and focus to be able to stay tight and get back up.
4. Better Glute and Hamstring Activation
As mentioned before, box squats are great for engaging the posterior chain. This effect is primarily due to the change in stance when box squatting, which tends to be significantly wider than with a traditional back squat. The stance engages the hamstrings and glutes, rather than relying on strong quads.
5. Ideal for Injured Athletes
There’s a common conversation in every gym about whether or not squats hurt your knees. The answer is both yes and no. When performed correctly, and without underlying issues, a squat won’t hurt your knees. If your form isn’t great or if you have previous damage to that area, traditional squats might not be for you.
You can use box squats for bad knees. The wider stance and hinging motion take the pressure off the knees throughout the movement. You’ll notice when you watch someone doing a barbell squat that their knees will naturally come forward to allow for a straight bar path. When box squats are executed properly, the knee stays stacked over the ankle, and the shin stays at a 90-degree angle to the floor. As a result, the load is shifted from the knees to the hips.
How to Do Box Squats Correctly
Technique is essential when learning the box squat. Without it, you’ll be stuck on that box, waiting for someone to help you up. Don’t worry, though; it happens to the best of us at least once.
Here’s how to execute this movement properly:
- Set yourself up for a back rack position with a barbell. Your box should be positioned behind you so that you can take one step back before beginning the descent.
- Set a wide stance with your feet outside of shoulder-width. Pull your shoulder blades together and grip the barbell so that it rests comfortably between your rear delts and traps. You may need to adjust based on your range-of-motion.
- Brace your core by inhaling into your abdomen (not your chest). Think of pushing your core muscles outward. Unrack the bar and step back.
- Maintaining a braced core, pull your hips and glutes back as though you’re sitting in a chair. Focus on keeping your knees pointed slightly outward, creating torque to keep your muscles engaged. This will feel similar to trying to rip a piece of paper using your feet.
- Keep your chest and head high, coming to a stop when you are seated. Maintain control, so you feel the box in a rolling motion from the back of your knees to your glutes, rather than sitting all at once.
- Pause here long enough to relax your hips, while maintaining a tight core and engaged hamstrings and glutes. This pause will be just long enough to stop your momentum (1-3 seconds).
- To stand up, reverse the motion. Push through your heels and propel yourself upward, leading with your chest, hips, then knees.
It will take some time to get comfortable and trust that the box is behind you. Do a few reps with no bar to perfect your box positioning before adding weight.
Box Squat Variations
While the box squat is a variation itself, there are plenty of ways to alter your experience to target different muscles or work with the equipment you have available.
Here are some common variations to keep in mind.
1. Goblet Box Squat
You don’t have to use a barbell to get the benefits of box squatting. Goblet box squats are an effective alternative to the barbell box squat for those who are intimidated by a barbell or have limited equipment. Using a heavy kettlebell or dumbbell is also an effective safety measure when training alone, as its easier to bail.
Regardless of which equipment you use, the motion will be the same. Just be sure to keep your elbows out of the way and hold your weight high enough that it doesn’t impede your movement.
2. Box Squat Height Variations
The box height is the most common variation to use when box squatting. By altering the height, you can explore your entire range of motion and focus on pain points.
- If your main sticking point when squatting is hitting depth, using a lower box will help you get there.
- If you struggle to lock-out at the top of a heavy squat, using a higher box and heavier weight can help you focus on that part of the movement.
Altering the box height will also change your muscle engagement. Putting the box slightly higher than parallel engages the posterior chain while still actively engaging the quads. Going lower puts more focus on the glutes and hamstrings.
3. Front Box Squat
Box squats aren’t just for improving your back squat; they can boost your front squat as well. Many Olympic lifters use front box squats to help develop explosive power and strength out of the hole as the box limits the stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement.
A front box squat follows a similar movement pattern as the traditional box squat, but with a few important differences. The main difference is the activation of the posterior chain, which won’t be as pronounced with a front box squat. Secondly, the sitting back motion won’t be as pronounced. You’re essentially doing a front squat to a box, rather than a true box squat.
So why would you bother using this variation? If your primary focus is with front squatting or building your quads, this movement can help you build explosive power that will increase your performance.
The benefits of box squats, when performed correctly, cannot be understated. If you choose to add this exercise to your training, focus on form, and technique. Stay tight, pause at the bottom, and use that driving force to improve your explosive strength and power.