Friday, January 6, 2017

A Case Against Box Squats

The box squat is ubiquitous in both high level strength and conditioning facilities and Globo gyms. While a lot of coaches and trainers tout the box squat as being beneficial for "explosiveness" and overall strength, I am here to dispute its efficacy, and highlight some of their potential drawbacks.

I am guessing that some of you are already prepared to jump on me for questioning a movement that is so widely utilized, but before you do so, give this article a read. If you still vehemently disagree with my claims, then I'm always happy to hear other opinions.

One of the biggest underlying detriments to using the box squat, in my opinion, is the lack of "biomechanical transferability" to a traditional back squat (specifically high bar); by this, I mean that the movement is quite different in terms of joint angles. One cue you will often hear in the box squat is something to the effect of "push your butt back." Now, this may also be applicable to a powerlifting low bar squatting style, but it is contraindicated on a high bar, Olympic style squat. You'll notice that in this diagram, that the low bar back squatter (on the left) sits his hips back farther, and his shins are closer to vertical, whereas the high bar squatter on the right sits more upright, and the knees track in front of the toes.

The cue "sit back" leads to the athlete maintaining a shin that is almost completely vertical and ends up in a position that would not otherwise be sustainable. Try to do a high bar or low bar squat by pushing your hips back to an extreme degree like some coaches advocate on the box squat–you will likely fall over, because that is not the natural way to descend the hips. Take a look at this guy in the photo. Squatting this way sans box would be very difficult.

Aside from the altered mechanics of the box squat, this movement often decreases the standard range of motion. The only time I would ever prescribe box squats for a client is if he or she were having difficulty achieving or gaging depth on the movement. In this case, a box or a medicine ball can give the client a target or a standardization for depth. Over time, one should progress to a lower box, and eventually eliminate it altogether. If you're comfortable with the movement, then you should always aim to maximize your range of motion with great technique, rather than decrease it.

Similarly, a lot of people tend to get lazy on the box. By this, I mean that the lifter will fully relax and disengage in the middle of the movement. This is not only disadvantageous (as it would never happen in a normal back squat), but it is also dangerous. Now, the lifter has to recreate tension as they stand. There is a tremendous risk of back injury for this reason. If you do choose to use box squats in your training, you should simply tap the box and then quickly rebound, rather than sitting completely.

While some strength coaches praise the box squat for its ability to develop explosiveness out of the hole, I prefer two other squatting variants: paused squats and jumping barbell squats. Both of these movements are, in my experience, far superior. The paused back squat allows the lifter to achieve full depth and build concentric speed, and the jumping barbell squat teaches that rebounding, plyometric power that is desirable in most sports. I prefer to keep repetitions per set lower (<6-8) for both movements, because the lifter can focus on perfect technique. For the paused squats, it is ideal to use a weight that will be challenging, but will not slow down your ascent. For example, if you're grinding to stand up with the weight, you've gone too heavy. Speed trumps weight here. Weight should be between 20-30% of back squat 1 repetition maximum for the jumping barbell squats. Heavier weights won't allow for a quick rebound.

Overall, while some prefer to program the box squat, I think it is limited in its practical application for most people. Not only does it reinforce improper mechanics, but it also could result in injury. Try different squatting variations to stimulate the same effect.

Works Cited:
  1. Swinton, Paul A., Ray Lloyd, Justin W. L. Keogh, Ioannis Agouris, and Arthur D. Stewart. "A Biomechanical Comparison of the Traditional Squat, Powerlifting Squat, and Box Squat." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26.7 (2012): 1805-816. Web.

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