The box squat is thought of as a move for hardcore powerlifters looking to eke out every ounce of progress from their squat. Actually, it’s a great move that any lifter can do to improve the back squat, add muscle to the legs, and get acclimated to heavier loads. Best yet, it’s simple to do: Place a loaded barbell on your back, squat to a box that has you sitting to parallel, pause, and then explode back up.
Below, we discuss the box squat in detail, covering box squat technique and set up variations, the muscles worked, and the benefits that lifters can gain from integrating this move into their workout program.
- How to Do the Box Squat
- Benefits of the Box Squat
- Muscles Worked by the Box Squat
- Who Should Do the Box Squat
- Box Squat Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
- Box Squat Variations
- Box Squat Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
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Generally, the depth of the box squat is until the lifter’s thighs are parallel to the floor. But some folks set the boxes higher or lower, depending on their training goals.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do the box squat.
Step 1 — Get Set
Set yourself up in a squat rack in the same manner that you would when performing back squats. Once you have determined your box height (which for most individuals is until their knees are bent at 90 degrees), set the box a few feet back away from where the barbell is racked to ensure you have enough space to walk the barbell out of the rack, sit down on the box, and stand up without hitting anything.
Form Tip: You can adjust the box height to address your specific needs/training outcomes and goals. Refer to the FAQ section below if you have questions determining selecting box height.
Step 2 — Unrack the Barbell
Brace your core and unrack the barbell. Step back until you’re in front of the box, with your calves nearly touching it.
Form Tip: If you can do so, turn the box or bench slightly so that the edge is underneath you. This allows you to better hover over the bench or box for a better range of motion.
Step 3 — Push the Hips Back and Squat Down
Now, sit your hips back — but not too much — and squat down until your butt is on the box or bench. The more you drive the hips back, the more emphasis is placed on the hamstrings, glutes, and erectors.
Form Tip: As you squat down, it’s important to stay tense. Think about sitting on a soft pillow. You do not want to sit down and lose all tension. This is actually dangerous — especially as you use more weight — and can lead to compressive and shearing force on your spine. The box is not there to hold you up but rather act as a guide for depth.
Step 4 — Briefly Pause, then Stand Up
Once your butt is on the box, pause. The pause is meant to eliminate momentum — like the dead stop during a Pendlay row — so that the lifter must use all his or her force to stand up. Now, stand up and pause again at the top for a beat before starting the next rep.
Form Tip: Do not bounce up off the box or bench. Stay tight as you take a moment and then explode back up.
Here are four benefits of the box squats that all lifters — competitive or not — can gain from doing box squats.
Increase Concentric Strength
By pausing on a box at the bottom of a squat, the lifter takes away all of their momentum. In doing so, the lifter must rely solely on concentric strength to move the weight, which will translate to a stronger lockout during standard back squats (not to mention bigger quads).
Posterior Chain Development
When performing box squats, a lifter engages their glutes and hamstrings. This increased posterior chain activation and development will significantly impact non-box squat strength and lower-body strength and power output.
Address Sticking Points in the Back Squat
Sticking points occur throughout various phases of the squat for most lifters. However, common areas are at or slightly above parallel. The box squat can be set to a specific depth based on the lifter’s needs to train and develop strength, skill, and confidence working through (or just below) the sticking point range of motion.
Train Around Aches
You should always consult a doctor whether you have a simple overuse ache or a serious injury before squatting. However, the reduced range of motion and the pause of box squats make this a more accessible move for folks with achy knees or lower back.
As a squat variation, the box squat works pretty much every muscle in your lower body to some degree. Here are the main muscles worked by the back squat and their functions.
The quads extend the knee, and so they’re primarily engaged during the lifting phase of this movement. (Note: The higher the box, the shorter your range of motion, which will deemphasize the quadricep’s engagement.)
Hamstrings and Glutes
The hamstring and glutes are active in the box squat, yet their involvement may vary based on box height and barbell position. In general, the lower the bar is on the back, the greater amount of hip flexion and extension occurs throughout the moment, increasing hamstrings and glute engagement.
Box squats are a more targeted variation of the traditional squat, but competitive and general lifters alike can still reap this great exercise’s benefits. Here’s who should consider dropping it low (well, not too low) to a box.
Strength and Power Athletes
- Powerlifters/Strongmen: The goal of powerlifting is to hoist as much weight as possible. As one gets stronger, progress begins to slow. Specifically, lifters can run into issues at certain parts of the lift — typically, the bottom, middle, and top. Powerlifters can use the box squat to strengthen the top portion, or lockout, of the squat. Also, because one can typically lift more weight on the box squat, it helps powerlifters and strongmen acclimate to heavier loads. For strongmen specifically, high box squats can help them pick a yoke more easily.
- Weightlifters: Though not completely useless, a weightlifter won’t typically perform box squats. Regular, deep back squats translate far better to the snatch and clean & jerk.
Generally speaking, most individuals would benefit from learning how to squat in the full range of motion. That said, box squats can be a tool to establish hip drive and loading mechanics.
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming the box squat into workouts. Note that these are general guidelines and by no means should be used as the only way to program the box squat.
To Gain Muscle
Box squats can be used to gain muscle. However, partial range of motion training may not be the most effective way to add muscle mass to the legs. If you are looking to add quality leg size, you are more likely to get fuller benefits from performing full range of motion squats. If you want to perform box squats to increase quadriceps growth and cannot assume low, standard back squats, aim to lower the box to work up to a longer range of motion. Start with three to four sets of six to 10 reps with a moderate weight. Rest for one minute between sets.
To Gain Strength
Box squats are ideal for addressing sticking points that may arise throughout a full range of motion squat. You can also use more weight than with back squats (due to the limited ROM). Start by programming the box squat as you would any strength-specific movement, usually for two to five reps at 80-90% of your one-rep max for three to five sets. Rest for two minutes between sets.
To Improve Muscle Endurance
You can integrate box squats to address muscle endurance at a specific angle (knee flexion) for individuals who may need this for their sport or athletic endeavors. Start by performing two to three sets of 15-20 reps with light to moderate loads. Rest for one minute between sets.
Below are three box squat variations that can progress or regress the box squat based on the lifter’s needs and goals.
Pause Box Squat
The pause box squat is done just like the standard box squat. However, the lifter uses a deliberate pause. During this pause, it is essential that the lifter stays braced and loaded in the quads and hips despite being static at the bottom of the squat. By pausing, you can minimize the stretch reflex, and develop concentric strength and/or overload the eccentric phase (controlled lowering).
Low Box Squat
Training the box squat exclusively can have its limitations, especially if looking for maximal muscle growth (full range of motion). By progressively lowering box heights, you can take lifters who struggle to achieve stable low positions and transform them into full-range-of-motion squatters.
Box Squat with Accommodating Resistance
By adding resistance bands and/or chains to a box squat, you can add the benefits of accommodating resistance to this powerful, strength building squat variation. By adding accommodating resistance, you can increase strength through sticking points and address power output.
Below are three box squat variations that can be done to increase muscular development and strength.
The Hatfield squat is an assisted squat variation that can help address sticking points similar to the box squat. This can be done with a safety squat bar and inside a squat rack. Programming the Hatfield squat can be done similarly to the box squat and is often done with slightly greater relative loads than that of the back squat.
½ to ¾ Depth Back Squat
Instead of using a box, you can self-limit your range of motion. Though, this is difficult and may lead to bad squatting habits. Be sure to use a spotter if you’re going heavier.
The goblet squat is an excellent squat variation, especially for beginners, as the front-loaded position keeps you upright and reinforces proper form.
Are box squats bad for my knees?
No. Squats in general aren’t bad for your knees. (That said, always consult a doctor before squatting if you do have a knee injury.) Issues arise when people load the exercise excessively without first addressing the full range of motion training to ensure pain-free movement, proper joint stabilization, and muscular development.
If I can squat to full depth, should I box squat?
However, if you’re a strength athlete who needs to express squat strength specifically in limited or partial ranges of motion (powerlifting), using the box squat at various times can help improve performance.
What height should I box squat too?
This can vary based on outcome-specific goals, however, typically the depth is to parallel or slightly below parallel. Some athletes who are looking to improve jump height may squat to 60-70 degrees of knee flexion to mimic jumping mechanics.
When looking to address sticking points, you can set your height just below the sticking point to be able to work through that difficult range. If your goal is maxima leg growth (muscular development), it may be best however to perform squats in the fullest range of motion, making box squats not as applicable in that scenario.
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