The box squat is one of my favorite squat variations. Here’s a deeper look at the benefits of box squats and how to do it like a champ.
The box squat is a variation of the standard squat that changes some of the dynamics of the lift.
Although it’s mostly serious powerlifters and athletes that use the box to develop next-level power, the box squat is a tool for just about anyone who steps into the gym.
In this article, we are going to look at the benefits of using a box the next time you step into the squat rack to hammer leg day.
The exercise better targets the glutes than traditional squats, is perfect for lifters and gymgoers getting over a knee injury (or who are simply worried about hurting their knees squatting), and is epic for helping you pop out of the hole with your regular squat.
Here’s a deeper look at the benefits of box squats including some tips for doing this exercise like a pro.
Let’s step right in.
Benefits of the Box Squat
Benefit 1: Great for power development
Even though purists will deride the box squat, the reality is that it generates almost identical peak power and peak force compared to a regular back squat1.
Muscle activation is generally better with a regular squat, but if moving weight violently and fast, box squats are a great way to go about it.
Athletes need to be able to quickly recruit speed and power quickly, and with the dead stop at the bottom of box squats, they are a great tool for developing explosiveness and speed.
Benefit 2: Box squats are easier on the knees
People with knees that have a case of the ouchies tend to avoid squats—and for very understandable reasons.
Loading injured patellar tendons with weight, and then pushing the knees out in front of the toes, placing more strain on the quad and patella tendons, is a recipe for more pain.
Box squats provide a workaround that allows you to load reduce tension around the knee by encouraging the shins to stay more vertical when squatting.
The box acts as a corrective tool in this sense—to sit down requires to push your butt back and limit forward knee movement.
In this sense, the box squat can also be used as a technique correction for people whose knees track forward too much when squatting.
Whether you are coming back from a knee injury, or you are nervous about hurting your knees when squatting, box squats are an ideal way to begin the process of strengthening the patella and quad tendons.
Additionally, with the dead stop at the bottom of the movement, there is no “spring” from the short-stretch cycle, further reducing tension around the knee joint.
Benefit 3: Improve your ability to explode out of the hole
The main soft spot for just about every squatter, from the novice to the more experienced powerlifter, is getting the weight out of the hole (the hole is the bottom of the lift, when your butt is nearly grazing the floor).
Box squats are an excellent tool for addressing this phase of the lift.
Because you come to a dead stop at the bottom of a box squat, your body needs to sort out how to power out without the benefit of momentum or elastic energy.
(Hence why you should knock off a plate or two when training for this specific phase of your squat in this manner.)
Benefit 4: Primer for heavy squats
One of my favorite ways to use box squats before a big lifting day is as a primer and activator.
I will take a lighter weight, like a 20lb medicine ball, and do box squats at low depth, with an emphasis of moving very quickly out of the hole.
This emphasis on speed out of the hole preps my body and muscles for the heavy lifts to come later in the workout. Think of it as a neuromuscular warm-up.
Benefit 5: More consistent squat depth
There is plenty of (usually healthy) discussion on the proper depth for squatting. Ultimately, squat depth matters insofar as it relates to your training goals.
Box squats provide unmistakable feedback that you’ve reached end of range, guaranteeing that you are hitting the exact same depth with each repetition.
Let’s be honest: there are some moments where we sacrifice a little bit of range of motion to pad the rep count.
The box forces you to be real with depth and range of motion.
Benefit 6: Added confidence and heavier weights
This benefit is purely anecdotal, but I’ve experienced it myself and seen it frequently with clients over the years.
Having the box there gives an added layer of confidence and helps people chase bigger numbers than they normally would.
Perhaps this is because there is less strain on the knees, or there is that added sprinkle of confidence knowing that even if you fail the lift, you won’t get crumpled up like a rusty lawn chair.
More likely, it’s because the box squats break up the phases of a regular squat.
Think about it: when doing regular squats, the work is continuous: Eccentric (going down), static phase (bottom), concentric (going up).
During all three phases, you are burning considerable energy, and this steady expenditure of energy likely decreases power output over the course of the rep.
The box squat breaks the movement into two distinct phases.
Go down. Pause (rest). Go up.
I’ve noticed that I can generate a lot more power going up with that pause on a box squat, likely because of that brief pause of energy expenditure while sitting on the box.
Benefit 7: Customizable depth
One of the sneaky things I love about this squat variation is that you can set the height of the box to predetermined height.
A higher box is great for lifters coming off of a knee injury and want to begin the process of loading the tendons in the quads and patella without pushing them to the brink of failure.
For athletes who want to go heavy on quarter squats, a higher box set up can be used here as well.
A lower box set-up (with lighter weight) is a tool for helping lifters get better at busting out of the hole.
Because there is a pause at the descent as you rest your butt on the box, elastic energy dissipates, and you lose the “bounce” that you’d normally get from a boxless squat.
This pause is everything and forces you to really power your way out of the hole, which is why you should start this type of depth training with lighter weight than you’d normally squat with.
In the same way that you can set the barbell height on a squat rack, you can stack (or unstack) the box to line up with your goals in the gym.
Benefit 8: Greater posterior chain development
With the box lined up against the back of your calves, you are forced to recruit more of your posterior chain when doing box squats.
You can’t send the knees forward and rely on your quads to execute the lift.
It’s your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and hips that are going to be doing a a majority of the work.
Studies with experienced lifters2 have shown that the center of mass moves to the posterior during box squats (and powerlifting squats) compared to a more traditional narrow-stance squat.
In other words, if you want to add more glute activation to your lifting, box squats are worth a look.
How to Box Squat Like a Pro
Okay, box squats—kind of awesome!
Here are some tips for making the most of this exercises and do box squats so that you can accrue the full range of benefits of this exercise.
1. Get your equipment together.
Box squats are gonna require some equipment.
Ideally, you’ve got access to a barbell, squat rack and some sort of box.
2. Set-up the box so that a corner of the box forms a triangle between your legs.
This will give you more flexibility on foot placement, reduce rocking at the pause (more on that in a second), and help encourage a more vertical descent.
3. Pause at the bottom.
Like people doing bench press who like to bounce the barbell off their sternum to generate a “bounce” effect to assist the ascent of the barbell, avoid bouncing your butt off the box.
Bouncing your coccyx off the box with a loaded barbell won’t do your spine any favors and robs you of a lot of the benefits of the exercise.
If your goal with box squats is simply reinforcing the range of motion, do a light touch with your buttocks on the box before entering the ascension phase.
4. Lift slowly for more control and reduced tendon strain
Knee injuries positively and unequivocally suck. No one needs to tell you that.
And while improper technique and the amount of load are the primary reasons knees get hurt, the speed at which you lift is not far behind.
Bar speed has a huge impact on how much strain is placed on the patellar tendon3.
For this reason, for lifters coming off a knee injury should place extra emphasis on control and timing when doing box squats.
A 3-1-3 count (three seconds down, one-second pause, three seconds up) establishes maximal control and strength development of the tendons.
A shorter “up” can be implemented as the knee gets stronger and is ready for more load tolerance.
5. Avoid rocking at the bottom of the lift.
A common error lifters make when doing box squats is rocking back when sitting down to generate momentum.
This is dangerous, as rocking back pushes the barbell and weight further behind you, increasing the odds that you rock yourself right off the back of the box.
(Yes, I’ve seen this happen.)
Control is the name of the game.
Descend vertically and avoid the urge to sneak in a rocking motion to help power the upward phase of the lift.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, box squats are a surprisingly complex squat variation that can help you accomplish a variety of goals in the gym.
Whether you are simply looking to strengthen your knees after injury, or you want to improve your squat, or you want to start hitting some savage numbers on your squat, there is a reason for you to add this squat accessory to your workout routine.
The next time you hit the gym, pull up a box and pop a squat.
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