When I speak to a lot of new strength coaches or exercise scientists just finishing their degree more often than not we get talking about squats and a lot of the time it turns into a small debate over the benefits of box squats. These young coaches believe that box squats are the superior form of squatting for some reason but a lot of the time I don’t know if they have thought about the actual carry over to sports performance and the risk of injury.
I think a lot of it has to do with what they are taught in school. The old “knees shouldn’t go past the toes” statement is still pushed by the sounds of it and also that “squatting below 90 degree is dangerous”. I think this influences the young coaches beliefs so they switch off to thinking about what is actually going on in the squat.
Personally I am not a big fan of box squats. For one, I see them performed incorrectly way too often. Many athletes crash down onto the box increasing shearing force through the spine, which I believe has led to fair few cases of stress fractures I have seen and heard about in some athletes. They also tend to relax too much when they reach the box and lose tightness which then causes them to rock back, and go into hyper-extension at times trying to get momentum to reverse the movement off the box. You have to be able to sit back onto the box and flex off, not rock off it.
Box squatting is mostly performed at 90 degree of knee flexion. While this isn’t a bad thing if performed along-side regular full depth squats, when this is the only depth used I feel it can lead to many problems. The knee is most stable at full extension and full flexion (top and bottom of a full squat), at 90 degree the knee is must lax (unstable). It is at the 90 degree mark that most shearing forces are going through the knee. Also without going below 90 degree you also miss out on the glute and VMO activation you get with full squats. The VMO is responsible for stabilizing the knee so it is another reason why you see an increased incidence of knee injuries in athletes who perform only box squats in their programs. You have the shearing forces from the movement itself and then the lack of VMO strength combined.
When box squatting, I also feel as though it tightens the hip external rotators a lot. Having performed a few cycles in my rugby league days I always felt that my hips would tighten up real bad when doing a lot of box squats. This doesn’t happen to me when I perform full depth squats.
Many of the young coaches try to use box squats as a teaching technique or as a progression into full squats. While this makes sense and has merit, I much prefer to strengthen the muscles that are weak and are needed to perform squats properly. So instead of just throwing a barbell on a young athletes back and trying to talk them through the mechanics of the squat, I much rather program lifts that will prepare them to get into these correct positions. No amount of talking can get a young athlete in a position if they are too weak to stabilize or too tight to get into the correct position in the first place. Again this is why I use split squats, step ups, hamstring curls, back extensions, and a lot of work on the scapula retractors of the shoulder.
Another thing to consider is the carry-over from box squats to the athletic field or to the lifting platform if you are a powerlifter. After doing seminars with Ed Coan, Paul Carter, and reading and listening to the work of Matt Wenning these guys believe that box squats mostly help geared powerlifters lifters as it more closely replicates the squat pattern used when using a squat suit. When they prepared for raw meets they said they didn’t feel that box squats really helped their lifts as much as when they competed in squat suits. Now it doesn’t mean they never performed box squats it is just that their percentage of time spent on them in a regular cycle wasn’t as large as it was when preparing for an equipped meet. Dan Green said many similar things and he really liked to use front squats at one point in time to increase his squats as he felt his quads were lacking and they helped bring his strength up in that area.
It is a personal choice between what works best for you. Some people love to box squat and have great results. Louie Simmons and the Westside boys all box squat regularly and are some of the strongest in the world. But you have to look at what their goal is. They are powerlifters who compete in equipped meets a lot of the time. It may be that this lift really correlates to their sport so you can’t just assume that it will make you a better athlete on the field or bulletproof you from getting injured. The thing you can learn from these blokes though is optimal technique when doing box squats and also how to best implement them into your program as they use all different heights of box. Louie likes box squats because he says they use lighter weights than their regular squats, so for them he feels it is a safer lift. He clearly teaches not to rock on the box though and he doesn’t use the touch and go method.
Some tips from Louie on box squatting:
Push glutes rearward as far as possible
Keep your back tight and arch as you descend to the box
Sit back and down, not directly down
Push your neck into your traps
Push your knees apart to maximally activate the hips
When sitting on the box, the shins should be straight up and down or even past perpendicular
After sitting on the box, some glute and hip muscles are relaxed slightly. Then forcefully flex the abs, hips, and glutes to drive off the box.
To ascend, push traps into the bar first. This will flex the back muscles, then the hips and glutes, and finally legs. If you push with the legs first, you will be in a good morning position because the glutes will raise first causing you to bend over
As with everything in strength training, I am not saying you should never ever perform box squats, I am just saying that I don’t believe they should make up the majority of your program if you are training athletes who have to compete on the field.
Here are some good thoughts from Jesse Burdick on the topic and towards the end gives some good tips on how to fit them into your program effectively: