Thoughts On The Box Squat For Raw Lifters

14 Apr

I’m sure someone has improved their free squat by using the box squat. I don’t think it’s a “bad” exercise. After all, if you get stronger at one thing it will probably transfer in some way to other lifts. Furthermore, I think the box squat is a phenomenal tool for teaching the back squat. It’s generally pretty easy to perform, which also makes it a good choice for athletes and the general fitness population. An athlete or the average gym goer is not being tested in the free squat, and therefore there is no true reason they NEED to perform it. Additionally, a recent article by Bret Contreras takes a look at some research that details some of the benefits from a safety and performance standpoint of the box squat. This article was terrific, check it out.

All that aside, for the raw lifter who is competing in the squat, the box squat doesn’t make sense to me as a staple movement. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense as a supplementary movement either. Here are a few reasons why:

1. It’s not specific:

The free squat relies heavily on a fast descent, and taking advantage of the stretch shortening cycle. If you compete in raw lifting, that is your sport, practicing your sport is all you need to do. Everything outside of that is helpful when done correctly, but not actually necessary. If one is to choose a “sport specific exercise” to aid them in their sport performance, in order to be effective it needs to fit a few criterion.

Dr. Michael Yessis categorizes a specific exercise as fitting the following three characteristics:

  1. The exercise must duplicate the exact movement witnessed in certain actions in the competitive skill.
  2. The exercise must involve the same type of muscular contraction as used in a competitive skill.
  3. The special exercise must duplicate the same range of motion where strength is displayed as in the actual competitive skill.

I would argue that the box squat does not fit this description. Generally, it is performed in a lesser range of motion. Also, as Bret comments in his article “Ground reaction forces, velocity, and power were reduced in the box squat due to the gradual shifts in loading between eccentric and concentric phases.” The types of muscular contractions are different in the box squat than the free squat. Lastly, while they are both “squats” the mechanics are quite different, and it would be far-fetched to say the box squat duplicates the same actions at any part of the free squat.

2. It interferes with your free squat mechanics:

Another thing you must be careful of when choosing an exercise to improve a sport skill is over loading it. As an example, sled sprints are a great tool to improve acceleration. However, if you load the sled to heavy it will change an athlete’s sprinting mechanics. This ends up doing more harm than good.

In order to execute a box squat correctly, you are going to change the way you squat. In many ways I am just making the same argument I did in point 1, but what I am trying to convey is this: In addition to the exercise itself being faulty, when you load it, and therein make yourself “good” at box squatting it will interfere with your mechanics in the free squat.

3. It’s taking away from your skill practice

If you spend time trying to develop a better box squat, you are taking time away from becoming a better free squatter. You can only do so much in the gym (productively). If I wanted to get good at free squatting why would I expend time and energy working on a squat variation that isn’t the same, and has little transfer?

Additionally, according to the research cited in Bret’s article, the box squat displayed the highest loading on the knee-joint. I can tell you first hand, as someone with sensitive knees (years of catching and recent years of military exercises in boots, haven’t been kind or ideal) the box squat has always aggravated my knees. I know that stat might shock you, but I believe it, especially when you think about the shortened range of motion, and the need to develop force from a dead stop.

I also know, that as a free squatter, your knees are a joint that a) you need to keep healthy and b) get a lot of action during training sessions. I would want to minimize additional loading, not add to it. Especially if I was adding to it with no real benefit to my free squat.

So what are some better options?

1. Squat more: Yes just squat more. Build volume through back down sets after your working sets, or set up your training in such a way that you have more straight across sets at the same intensity. I really think repetition and volume are a raw lifters best friend. Get stronger, don’t focus so much on getting “faster”.

2. Bottom’s Up Squats: These are great. I know when I spoke to Chad Wesley Smith, when he was here for a seminar, that he uses this consistently as a supplementary exercise to the free squat. This is for good reason, the raw lifter will miss out of the hole, and developing comfort, and strength out of that position (in your normal free squat stance) will have great transfer.

3. Use reverse bands and chains: I like these as options for teaching someone, or myself, confidence under heavier loads, and to attack the weight. I don’t think a raw lifter is going to get a lot of benefit from using them for “speed” work. Again, you will miss out of the hole, and chains and bands basically play into your strengths.

4. To develop explosive and reactive strength / power use jumps: I think jumps are a better for the raw lifter. I consider jumping my focused “speed” work. On top of that, I am always trying to move the bar as fast as possible. Those two coupled have made me far more explosive than anything else.

To wrap up, I hope this gives you something to think about. I am open to hearing what others think. If you are a raw lifter, I would scrap the box squat. Focus on what you’re tested in. Focus on getting the reps and the volume in, that will make you stronger. I truly believe the work will get you more than trying to get faster. Keep your explosive work to jumping.


One Response to “Thoughts On The Box Squat For Raw Lifters”


  1. Guest Post: Organize Your Content With An Outline « Greg Robins - April 16, 2012

    […] to enjoy it! In case you missed it, I did a rare weekend post on the box squat, you can check it here. I’m excited to deliver a great guest post for you today by my friend Mike Pelosi. Mike is a […]

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