The Box Squat is a form of squat that has been utilized by the strongest men and women in the world for years now. We’ve also adopted the technique and noticed considerable gains in acceleration and speed with all athletes. But does the science support it? That’s what we are going to look at next, and the answer is a resounding yes! There are several reasons why and we will dissect them one by one.
(Photo courtesy of StrongLifts.com)
This mammoth crushes the box squat! So should sprinters and all athletes!
First, the box squat is very hip dominant, and so is sprinting. I located two studies that indicate the hips are the dominant regions of the lower body in both movement patterns. The first is from Dr. Wiemann and Tidow in 1995. The researchers utilized EMG testing to see the various activity levels of skeletal muscles in the lower body during sprinting. The unanimous decision was that the hamstrings along with the gluteus maximus and addductor longus were the most active during the sprint. 1
The second study is compliments of Bret Contreras and was conducted by Swinton in 2012. It examined 12 male powerlifters utilizing the traditional squat, powerlifting squat, and box squat to see similarities and differences. 2 What they found is that the box squat was very hip dominant in nature. It involves the widest stance, a vertical shin, and lots of hip abduction compared to the other two. This set of conditions would naturally lend well to its carry over in sprinting even though part of the eccentric (stretching) phase is removed in this variation. This lack of an eccentric phase is not a bad thing, especially for athletes in shorter distances of a sprint or speed based activity where reliance is going to be primarily concentric in nature anyways.
“Eccentric Less Training,” popularized by Joe DeFranco, I believe is a very valuable method for athletes. Think about all athletic based training techniques. Whether we are analyzing free squats, accessory leg work, sprinting, jumping, cutting, agility, etc., a majority of the movements involve a lot of eccentrics (stretching of the muscles). The eccentric portion is where a lot of the damage occurs to the muscles, especially when it’s under a heavy load (barbell, dumbbell, and momentum). If we remove this portion of the movement occasionally but still do enough so the athlete becomes or remains very skilled in this range of motion then it can limit damage and subsequent soreness, which improves recovery rate and prevents injury, especially during in-season where the structural stress is naturally very high.
Another interesting thing that Contreras mentioned from that study was that the box squat pattern generated force faster (RFD) than any of the other types of squats!!! This automatically deems it as a more speed specific exercise.
Another common rebuttal that is made to box squatting is that the movement is not deep enough and this variation is not a real squat so it can’t improve speed. The research, however, may say otherwise. There was a study in 2009 that was published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Mcbride and his team that examined 17 Division 1-AA College football players. Each player performed a one rep maximum squat with 70 degrees of knee bend (slightly above parallel). They were then assessed in the 5, 10, and 40 yard dash within a week from the test. The researchers found strong to very strong correlations between squat strength at 70 degrees and 5, 10, and 40 yard dash times.3 I’m a big proponent of giving credit where it’s deserved and Joe DeFranco, his staff, and athletes have some of the best group of box squatters in the United States and they are also some of the fastest as well. We are doing work over here out West and have quite a few strong box squatters as well.
Here is a video of Rene Capps, former Reno Speed School trainee who ran a 4.9 second 40 yard dash, and box squatted 2x her bodyweight in the video below.
Is there a correlation between speed and box squat strength? I know so!
Here is a YouTube video in my exercise library from my book “The Speed Encyclopedia” that illustrates how to perform the box squat correctly.
Another beneficial reason for why I love the box squat for athletes looking to get faster is that it ensures proper squat depth. In the context of small group training, it’s tough to be able to cue each and every athlete to squat deeper or higher each and every rep, especially when many athletes will never buy in to squatting completely, regardless of how much scientific persuasion you provide. To eliminate the confusion, just set up a box that is appropriate to the athlete’s tibia height and get after it. This removes all guesswork and the athlete knows automatically whether or not the rep qualifies.
The next thing I want to discuss in regards to box squatting is the stance width encouraging greater mobility through the hip flexors and abductor group (groin). You will feel this one right away. Most people carry a very prominent flexed body position, so this squat variation really helps open things up, especially at the hips. With the high prevalence of anterior pelvic tilt being displayed by athletes and people everywhere, this squat variation does a great job in assisting removal or reduction of this harmful imbalance at the hips.
The most common rebuttal against back squatting is the compressive force that it places on the spine as you sit on the box. Although this is true, if the load is appropriate to the lifter than they will be able to tolerate it just fine if their technique is dialed in. I remember reading an article written by Mike Robertson a while back that identified the large size of the lumbar discs and vertebrae in relation to the other segments above it on the spine. This would indicate that the body has adapted itself to be able to withstand higher compressive forces, like those experienced during the back squat and sitting. We have been performing this exercise for years safely and there are past generations of successful and healthy lifters that can attest to the box squat as well. Just place a foam pad on top of the box if you are unsure to help reduce some of the compression.
(Photo courtesy of healthhaven.com)
Look at the size of the lumbar column. It was meant to handle compressive loads, such as during a box squat.
In closing, we still do a lot of “free” squat work. I simply think the box squat should be a valuable addition to any athlete’s comprehensive strength program. The free squat will naturally remove the bottom support and induce more muscular damage, and develop the quads more which will aid in more overall size of the lower body and strength in the quad region. Instead of looking at the box squat as “the” lower body strength exercise, view it rather as a complement or another tool in your strength training repertoire.
3- Mcbride, JM, Blow D, Kirby TJ, Haines TL, Dayne AM, Triplett NT. Relationship between maximal strength and five, ten, and forty yard dash times. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23: 1633-1636, 2009.