If the back squat is the king of exercises, it follows that variations of this lift should also be high on your choice of exercises. With the box squat, however, there are those who question its value and consider it a high-risk exercise. Let’s take a closer look.
One man who got the Iron Game community interested in box squatting was Bill “Peanuts” West, an all-round strength athlete who got the nickname “Peanuts” from his love of peanuts. When he was a teenager West’s daily diet included one pound of raw peanuts, ½ cup of peanut butter, and six spoonful’s of peanut oil! In addition to becoming exceptional strong, he got into coaching and converted his garage into a gym he called the Westside Barbell Club.
One of his primarily squat variations West used with his athletes was the box squat, and one Westside Barbell athlete who excelled at this lift was George Frenn. A world-class hammer thrower who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970, in the early 70s Frenn squatted 853 pounds (387 kilos) at a bodyweight of 242 pounds (110 kilos). Frenn was known to perform a variation of the box squat where he would rock back on the box, lifting his feet off the floor, then slamming them down hard as he drove upward to the finished position.
The start position of a box squat is the same as a regular squat, but the athlete positions their feet on either side of a box (or high platform, such as a bench) and slowly squats to the box, being careful not to plop down hard – doing so could cause excessive stress on the spine. When you reach the box, you rock back slightly (to remove the stress on the quadriceps) and then drive up to the finish.
What is the optimal height for a box in a box squat? A box that enables you to squat to a position where the upper thighs are parallel to the floor is one common recommendation, which would make it applicable to powerlifting. Another recommendation is that if you can use more than 100 pounds (45 kilos) in a box squat compared to a parallel squat, you should use a lower box to avoid placing excessive compressive forces on the spine with a weight that is exceptionally heavy for that individual.
It should be mentioned that there are several variations of box squats. For example, powerlifting guru Louie Simmons promotes a variation of the box squat such that at the bottom of the squat the shins are parallel to the floor to more aggressively work the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors. The criticism of this type of squat is that it does not simulate the mechanics that occur in sports, so may not have a direct carryover to most athletic movements.
Another criticism of the box squat is that its limited range of motion may cause structural imbalances, thus adversely affecting soft tissue integrity. This would be true if the box squat were the only lower body exercise performed (and would be a concern with any other partial range exercise, such as quarter squats). Back to our example of George Frenn, he would have two squat sessions a week, one workout performing the conventional squat and the other performing the box squat.
Having addressed the criticisms, let’s explore some of the benefits of box squatting.
Accentuation is program design strategy that focuses on developing strength in the narrow range of motion performed in most sporting movements – that is, the range of motion that requires the highest levels of force production. Putting the accentuation theory into practice, Russian sports scientist Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky discussed the use of partial movements in the training of a volleyball player. For a beginner, he would not recommend any partial lower body movements; for an intermediate-level athlete, 30 percent partial movements; and for an elite athlete, 60 percent partial movements.
Quarter squats could certainly be used to provide sufficient overload in this narrower range, but consider that a study published in the July 2012 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the training effects of a traditional squat, a powerlifting squat, and a box squat. Researchers found that the box squat produced the highest rate of force development, which is a measure of how quickly force is produced.
Box squats have been a popular exercise in many high school strength and conditioning programs to use the day before an athletic competition. This is because it enables athletes to use heavy weights without producing a high level of fatigue that would affect athletic performance. For example, if an athlete is competing on a Friday, he or she could perform a traditional squat on Monday and a box squat on Thursday.
The box squat should not be considered a replacement for the squat, but simple a variation of the squat. It may not be for everyone, but for some, the box squat is just the thing to help them achieve their training goals.