Gabriel Mvumvure, assistant coach for sprints and hurdles at Brown University, presents the home workouts and exercise diagrams that he provides his athletes to maintain mobility, speed, and power while they are on breaks away from the school’s program.
By Carl Valle
The topic of using boxes in squatting seems to come up often, but I am not here to say it destroys spines or teaches bad technique. What I will say, however, is that box squats are overrated. In fact, box squatting as a practice is a waste of time for most athletes.Box squats are overrated. In fact, box squatting as a practice is a waste of time for most athletes, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you are really skilled, think box squats have a place, and are stubborn to change, don’t read this article. If you are on the fence and have a sneaking suspicion that they are not necessary, but you need to be convinced, this article explains that they are an option; albeit one with very little value. I have heard both sides of the argument on the risks and returns of box squatting, and I strive to make a convincing case for coaches to move on from the movement. Again, if you want to keep using it, feel free, but make sure you get a return on investment that you can explain to your athletes.
I will be honest: The idea for this article originated from reading Twitter debates on whether box squatting is near magical or abuse to the spine and pelvis. I am not a fan of extremism or cult exercises, so instead of waiting for another round of debates, I wanted to write a comprehensive article as a way to put this controversy to bed so we could be more productive. In this article, I answer the following in detail:
- What is a powerlifting box squat, and what does it do for lifters?
- Are box squats dangerous to the spine?
- Can the use of a box squat create explosive strength?
- What are the possible pitfalls of the box squat for athletes?
- Do other exercises have the potential to replace the box squat?
- What are ways to help create feedback on squat depth?
I personally don’t use the exercise or even recommend it, but I don’t hate it or have ill will toward it either. I have never been hurt from weight training, except maybe a little elbow pain years ago, so you will not see me on a crusade against an exercise because I don’t know how to do it properly, or I have a bias against popular movements.
Box Squatting Is Not Dangerous to Athletes
I don’t think I need to spend much time explaining what a powerlifting box squat is. Viewing a great video of the exercise is enough for the technical aspects, but it’s basically a squat that stops halfway through and uses a box to break the momentum of the exercise. I am talking about Westside Barbell, and especially the Louie Simmons style of box squat. Coaches mention using a box for regular squats, mainly to gauge depth, in passing, mainly to cover all the bases. This is not considered a box squat even though it involves a box and squatting pattern.Most of the risk of a box squat comes from poor coaching and inadequate athlete skill, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A fair concern that comes up with the box squat is the thought of a spine getting crushed from a bar or external load pushing down to a fixed object. Like a vise, the vertical compression of a barbell on an upper back could be a problem if the athlete collapses on the rapid descent of the lift. Any lift with heavy weight, whether single or double leg, fast or slow, with a box or without one, has risk. But the question here is about the risk-to-return ratio and the probability of real risk. Most of the risk of a box squat comes from poor coaching and inadequate athlete skill. Thus, the true fears are really about scaling an exercise that potentially has a slightly higher risk than conventional squatting with younger athletes who are not powerlifters.
Another detail that I need to remind everyone of is the type of box squat used. A powerlifting box squat is not the same as a squat with a box used for depth reinforcement. Theoretically, an athlete can barely touch the box with their butt and cannot use it to break the momentum, so we need to know what we are arguing about. A powerlifting box squat—a movement I am familiar with but don’t use—needs more vertical shin strategies, forcing the torso to be more erect. The amount of rolling forward that occurs to lift up is very personalized, and so far, I have yet to see a formal description of how much English is allowed or recommended. Generally speaking, a box squat uses the “sitting on a chair” strategy, thus greatly chasing lift mechanics. How much rolling occurs is basically up to the athlete or lifter, depending on the theoretical goals.
True, the addition of more variables to a lift with load is more dangerous on paper, but the same argument is made for weightlifting options. I am not afraid of athletes getting hurt— I just don’t see a need for additional box squatting when conventional squats are used along with adding single leg movements. With the squat exercise by itself representing a small percentage of a total program, an even smaller detail diminishes the impact based on principles of training. Squatting has more of a support value with transfer to sport at high levels, so by this evidence, a style of squatting will have even less of an impact.
Technically, we all ground squat, with some of us split squatting with or without a knee pad or rear leg support. I say this because the femur pushing up the torso with maximal effort will compress the spine anyway, and moving the knee down to the ground with a split squat is just as bad as a box if the athlete hyperextends the spine. Athletes will eventually fail on a lift if you challenge the load, so be warned that no matter the type of lift, compression happens if you axially load the spine. If you are really worried about compression of the spine, all heavy loads, whether on the back or held in hands, will sandwich the forces from the upper back to the pelvis whether or not a box is involved.
The Rate of Force Argument Is, Ironically, Weak
When I bring up the rate of force development (RFD) measurement, it’s usually because I’m explaining why it’s not valuable for coaches. I do support testing athletes and utilizing RFD metrics, but the biggest proponents of the strength quality are those who either don’t understand it or have no way to measure it. If you are going to use RFD as a case for an exercise and have no experience testing it, be warned. When someone does enough research, they are often dangerous, because they have just enough education to be overconfident with the exercise.
Video 1. Athletes need repetition to learn to start from a dead position. Simple activities like medicine ball throws from a static start help teach that skill.
Expressing higher rates of force through exercise selection is misleading because the goal of an exercise is to increase capacity or help drive transfer directly. RFD in the weight room is a good goal, but most of the improvements we need to see are in sprinting and cutting, not changes in a strength movement unless it’s an assessment. One example that is often brought up is the power clean, which has great extension power but isn’t as good as partial derivatives. The reason is that most skilled lifters are steady at the beginning to accelerate the bar, while squatting is more direct in needing a higher rate of force. Additionally, we need to think about the entire movement, as quick initiation doesn’t always mean it’s being used in an athletic motion.
The time frames of fast squats are about 10 times slower than sprinting. You don’t need to replicate track speed in the weight room; you just need to use the right speed to do the lift properly. If you want to see great wattage on a force plate, jump fast from a countermovement—don’t lift a weight at all. To be more explicit, RFD isn’t useful unless at the end of the movement an improvement in power has occurred over the course of the lift. Impulse is more valuable than peak watts or RFD.
So, what does that mean for research comparing a powerlifting-style box squat and a conventional box squat? Simple. The box squat movement expresses RFD and may improve the readings on a force plate, but you can’t see that in the early rise in force with maximal sprinting, and it is unlikely to be specific enough for acceleration for the majority of athletes. Therefore, while RFD is observationally superior in the research, it doesn’t translate to the field or court because it compares exercise motion, not effectiveness. Similar to training with optimal power, you may not see optimal results. Take measurement comparison as another example: We often like the outputs we see with trap bar jumps over conventional loaded jumps, but when the entire program is factored, sometimes those advantages wash out.
Those athletes who compete in powerlifting may see direct improvement from squat variants, as specificity of exercises seems logical if the sport is an exercise! Unfortunately, if a coach has any type of background in barbell sports such as weight lifting or powerlifting, they tend to be typecast as promoters of their sport instead of recognized for their added expertise. If I am proven wrong that box squatting turns average athletes into sporting monsters later, then a coach with a powerlifting background should be valued for their knowledge outside of coaching the basic lifts.Box squats are more specific for the sport of powerlifting than for other sports, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I hate saying this, as I tend to fight on the other side of the argument, but box squats are more specific for the sport of powerlifting than for other sports. I have defended Olympic weight lifting and track and field as having value to other sports, but this is the line that I think is worth crossing as an advantage over other lifting exercises. It’s not analogous to whether the power clean is a good idea for American football; it’s more like arguing the use of jerks from blocks over jerking after the clean. It’s not that dramatic a variable to worry about. It’s not even regular squats versus box squats—it’s how one exercise variation making a difference in a holistic program.
Elastic Storage and Breaking the Stretch-Shortening Cycle
“For most sport applications, a stretch-shortening cycle is a vital component, and thus, a squat including a stretch-shortening cycle may be of greater benefit.” –Appalachian State University, Neuromuscular Laboratory
I personally don’t like how the box squat breaks the concentric and eccentric connection by purposely pausing the force transmission in the middle of the rep. It’s not the same as someone starting the first pull of a power snatch from the floor; it’s like stopping halfway on a bridge. With so many programs using plyometrics to help athlete performance, why would we use an exercise that disrupts it? Even if you had a great first step (theoretically) from box squats, what about the next step and the steps after that? Other options exist for explosive first movement, including practicing the sport and having a comprehensive training program.
My first experience with powerlifting-style box squats was more than 10 years ago, when I cross-coached for the first time. I did the speed work and another coach handled the weight lifting. Nearly all the athletes did box squats for the phase except for one who had a scheduling conflict and could only follow his old college program. I was unaware of the lifting situation, and after weeks of training, the accidental renegade athlete was the only one improving. The rest regressed and looked visibly sluggish, and it was confirmed that their stride parameters were impaired.
We quickly changed the lifting program and added plyometrics to restore the athletes’ speed back to normal, but we lost a month of training, and that is an eternity in the off-season. In this case, I was spooked but aware that one example can’t be representative of the exercise, as the variable that counted could have been athletes being in a heavy training phase. Still, it was frightening to see athletes slow down, as I never experienced that from any lifting program, even ones that looked like punishment.The purpose and effectiveness of plyometrics for athletic development is enough of a logical argument to make a case that we don’t exactly need box squats for athletes, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
We don’t know the chronic adaptation to box squats by athletes, but I am sure the purpose and effectiveness of plyometrics for athletic development is enough of a logical argument to make a case that we don’t exactly need box squats for athletes. Some smart coaches have used the exercise to unload or overload the body uniquely, but again, that is a preference and not a necessity. If I had to leave a coach with one point to remember it is that, individually, most exercise options are not as potent as we want them to be, unless athletes play the sport itself. It’s not about specificity or transfer really; it’s more about how many ingredients in a program shape a result. I can’t scare coaches to avoid the exercise like the plague because I didn’t see success early on with it, but I have yet to see a convincing case study proving that athletes must box squat to become world class in sports outside of powerlifting.
Other Options for Biofeedback Besides Box Height
Now comes another factor that can replace box squats for technique or squat depth: modern technology. An accurate barbell tracking device can help you estimate depth, but in my opinion, a box is still useful for beginners. After a few weeks of using a box, it’s time to move on, as any athlete with honest effort will be able to squat to the right depth. Squat depth, be it deep or purposely shallow, is a common need with coaches, and I recommend not using a box much or at all. Kinesthetic awareness is a coordinative quality that demands attention and instruction if needed, not training wheels.
Squat depth and barbell distance aren’t just for teaching; they’re important for testing. When I was researching this piece, I made an effort to read any article that included boxes and squatting and, boy, most of the time they were about one rep max testing, not box squats. I have seen some clever ways to test athletes in the weight room to measure for depth, and we have seen timing gates repurposed for strength testing.
For my interest, I prefer video and barbell tracking, as it can include the speed of descent and ascent. You can use force plates as well, since they’re a direct measure of both the athlete and the barbell as a system load. Unfortunately, squat depth from force plates isn’t exactly a good idea if you want simple depth information. Therefore, use a barbell tracking device.
Video 2. You can use barbell tracking technology to monitor squat depth as well as speed if you have the right technology. Squat depth is about the right comparisons over time, not just looking to go as deep as possible. I don’t think it’s the best idea for athletes to add a box when they don’t use them in training, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I don’t like heavy squatting and boxes for testing. I have never seen or witnessed an injury, but I don’t think it’s the best idea for athletes to add a box when they don’t use them in training. They are not necessary, and athletes can game them more than we want to believe. So, use video for testing if you lack a budget, or know the reliability of the barbell tracking product. On average, a linear encoder is better than an accelerometer, and you can get depth rather easily with new devices.
Alternative Exercises and Methods for Explosive Training
Starting strength from box squats is popular because they can be applied far faster than teaching a really polished power clean. Athletes with broken hands and beat-up elbows may find powerlifting-style box squats a nice addition, but again, we are looking for options, not doctrine. As I’ve said before, this article is about giving coaches more and better choices in training, not pressuring or bullying athletes into an exercise because a coach has an agenda. An important point is that the exercises listed are not more special or potent than others for improving athletes, but if you are looking for box squats to improve an athlete’s explosiveness, starting strength, or posterior chain, this set of movements should help collectively.
Video 3. The use of split squat to presses for GPP development is a great way to learn the value of both tempo and summation of forces. Other exercises that potentially replace the theoretical value of box squats are better, like snatching and cleaning from blocks or the hang.
The main arguments for using box squats are muscle recruitment patterns for RFD and for the posterior chain. While the box squat may have an advantage with the electromyography readings of both the hamstrings and glutes, it’s still not off the charts for the posterior chain. As I mentioned earlier, the RFD reading is mainly from unloading the squat on the feet, rather than the neuromuscular adaptations from the exercise. If the box squat was so vicious for developing RFD, we would see it change national level sprinters into world record beaters. I do admit though, that for starting strength, you can make a good argument that box squats are perhaps effective. I just think linemen are a better fit than having a soccer player worry about the exercise because the demands of the sports are different.
- Cleans and snatches from blocks and above the knee.
- Trap bar jumps with moderate load.
- Medicine ball throws from a static position.
- Broad jumps or frog jumps.
- Split squats from jerk boxes.
- Isometric squats with a hip harness belt.
- Reverse leg presses and heavy staggered RDLs.
- Overhead pressing from a squat position.
As you can see, the list above includes a lot of movements that directly target the posterior chain and very few that are single leg training movements. I am in favor of bilateral training for first step demands mainly because overcoming inertia in sport is primarily a double leg event. Some less-common exercises are used to help control rapid motion from a static position, but it’s okay to use exercises that have rapid burst rhythms as well. I don’t have enough data to make a claim that certain sequences of movements will elicit favorable adaptations over others, but the exercise ingredients above have collectively worked for me.
Video 4. Repeated jumping doesn’t sound like a great starting strength exercise but remember it’s about the composite of all exercises in a program, not one magic bullet.
Invest in Boxes for Jumping, Not Squatting
If you want to continue to use boxes to help athletes squat, don’t think this is a “death to box squats” article, as absolute recommendations are never the answer. I am more interested in spending resources on boxes, specifically low boxes proposed by Lee Taft, for plyometrics and skill work. I also believe that squatting should be about teaching athletes to have knowledge on their depth and to be able to produce explosive strength with more athletic options.I do recommend using box squats for specialized powerlifting if you are properly trained and skilled in teaching it, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
An exercise will help the cause, but individual variables are wannabe magic bullets—only good for vampire or werewolf horror movies. I do recommend using box squats for specialized powerlifting if you are properly trained and skilled in teaching it. I went and learned from Dave Tate and Jim Wendler directly, and while I never adopted everything, I was smart in determining what I didn’t know. The box squat isn’t evil, but it’s efficiently not a hero for athletes either.