Box Squats make me cringe more than any other movement in a typical day. That is a tough honor since there a plenty of horrendous videos of other lifts but for some reason, box squats still come through the most. I believe the reason behind this is not the macho “watch my lift bro!!” attitude that permeates through many bad lifts, instead it is just a lack of ability to understand the proper mechanics of the box squat and the warning label that needs to come with it. This article is neither for nor against box squats. Box squats are a tool that has been used by some very effectively at achieving their goals. Are your goals similar to those of the people that successfully use box squats? If so, what do you need to look for in a box squat?
What is a box squat? The box squat is generally a variation of the back squat that is performed by lowering slowly onto a soft box at a set height behind you, pausing slightly, and then squatting back up. There are a few variations on how the concentric portion is taught. One variation involves disengaging the hip musculature (only the hips) upon arriving on the box, and then reengaging them by utilizing your high hamstrings. Other methods solely involve sitting on the box, having no change in muscle activation, and then standing right back up.
Where does a box squat start to go wrong?
• Over arching
• Improper muscular deactivation
• Coming down too fast
• Too high a box, too much load
Many videos I see involving box squats (generally quite heavy) have a few major flaws. The first flaw is an over arch of the entire spine. When you over arch your back from your pelvis to your neck, you no longer use your middle unit (aka Abs and co.) to stabilize. The over arch causes you to stabilize with your hip flexors and lower back, which is not good from a postural health standpoint and has no carry over into other lifts. Instead, you need to focus on keeping your belly button pulled into your spine, keeping your chest up and keeping your upper back tight: not the whole length of the spine.
The second major fault that I see is improper deactivation of the hip musculature. The technique noted above where you deactivate muscles and then use others to reactivate them is a very, very difficult technique that I rarely see done correctly outside of the original teachers. The real issue here is that the lifter does not solely know how to turn-off their hips, and instead turns off their middle unit (Core / Abs etc). If you are squatting with a heavy bar weight of 400/500 pounds and suddenly you turn off your core, you would crumple under the weight. However, there is now a box sitting beneath us which prohibits us from bailing. So basically what just happened is that 500 pounds was just dropped on your lower back and pelvis through your torso. Ouch. When was the last time you squished a bug between your hand or foot and a hard surface?
If you come down too fast, or disengage the wrong muscles (which happens A LOT!, I cannot stress how many times I have seen people poorly imitate the above technique), you are basically squishing your pelvis and lower back with dual compressive forces.
The last issue I see with box squats is simple. When I was taught to do box squats I was taught to never use a box above parallel because the increase in loading that can be attained is beyond what the body will be ready for and technique deformities will occur. I am a fan of forced overload training if you have a good spotter (for example hitting 6 reps at your 5 reps max because your spotter is on point), but I am not a fan of super-loading a high box squat. Set your box height below parallel. You should not be squatting on a box more weight than you squat without a box.
Box squats done right. Like I said earlier, this is not an article for or against box squats. I am solely providing my information on the subject. If I was a powerlifter and was looking to see what the best lifters in the world did, I would come across a gym of beasts that used the box squat very successfully. However, the key for their success travels beyond the lift. They have perfected the lift. They have sought virtuosity at a very complex movement and have analyzed everything involved with it. They understand that a weak link in the chain will lead to a disaster of a lift. A disaster of a lift when 900 lbs is on the bar is a hazard for your health. Seek perfect, be perfect.