̴ 1300 words, 6-10 minute read.
Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and a lot are not built with the perfect anthropometrics for deep squatting (and by deep I mean the hips dropping lower than the knees). In addition to this, athletes tend to lack the mobility required to squat deep, whether it be from poor ankle, hip, or thoracic spine mobility. Sure mobility can be worked on to fix the issues that may be holding an athlete back from squatting deeper, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean deep squats are the way to go. Personally, I think full depth squats are great, and if an athlete has the ability to squat to depth then by all means go for it. Full depth squats are fantastic at developing muscle hypertrophy and general strength due to their superior range of motion and mechanical stress placed upon the body. However, if the goal is to maximise athletic performance for an athlete, such as specific strength and speed, then full depth squats may not be the best option. Therefore, in today’s blog post I’ll explore why box squats hold a greater advantage over full squats for athletes, coaching cues, and common mistakes for the box squat.
Why Box Squats Are Superior
- Manipulating Body Positions for Motor Learning
Using a box allows the coach to have an athlete pause a rep, and manipulate them in to a better/more correct position. This shouldn’t be done under heavy loads, however if an athlete is learning how to move their body in to positions they aren’t used to, then using the box is a great way to do so. For example, having an athlete perform an isometric hold on the box is excellent to teach tension and correct limb positions.
- Quantify Squat Depth
Squatting to a box forces the athlete to reach the same depth every rep. This enables the coach to set a specific depth for the squat and there is no room for cheating reps if the athlete starts to fatigue.
- Teaches the Athlete to Keep Tension
During the full squat it is easy to lose tension at the bottom of the movement, so cutting depth and forcing short pauses at the bottom on a box without ‘sitting’ is a fantastic way to teach an athlete how to hold tension on the box. An example of this is to have an athlete control the movement down to a box, pause for 1-3 seconds, and then drive up.
- Joint Angles Are More Specific
Sprinting, jumping, and changing direction all occur without high amounts of hip and knee flexion. How often do you see an athlete jump to catch a ball from the bottom of a squat position? Being able to select the bottom of the squat depth to a box can specify the joint angle in which you wish to build strength through for a particular athlete, and this will then lead to greater transference to the field of play.
- Less Muscle Damage
Squatting deep puts a greater eccentric load on muscle tissue which will likely leave athletes feeling sore for the coming days, and this can play a significant role in the quality of upcoming training sessions and competition. In the early off- and pre-season this may not be a huge issue, however come the middle to late pre-season and competitive phase, leaving athletes sore from training is not the aim. Squatting to a box takes away from the larger ranges of motion which will help minimise the physical stress placed upon them, helping the athletes maintain, or even gain strength during the competitive phase, and allowing them to adequately recover for competition.
Photo: Correct execution of the box squat
Coaching cues and common mistakes
- Squeeze abs and glutes (Not ass out or ‘arch’)
Without coaching, not many people will tense their glutes and rectus abdominis before initiating the squat. This is the number one source of energy leakage throughout the kinetic chain because not tensing will cause the athlete to lose ‘tightness’ when at the bottom of the squat. A common cue that is used when squatting is to “stick your butt out” or “arch hard”, this is the exact cue to use if you want your athletes to start suffering from back pain. Why? Because pushing the butt back will anteriorly tilt the pelvis causing the lumbar spine to go in to lordosis, not ideal especially when looking to add load to the bar.
- Screw your feet in to the ground
I like this cue because it helps the athlete create tension through their body from the ground up, and gives a sense of stability when under a heavy load. Again, not doing do can reduce the training effect through a reduction in the ability to generate tension and maximal force output.
- Knees track over toes
When cueing the squat make sure the knees track over (or in line) with the toes. If the knees cave in (valgus knee) there is a higher chance of injury, and it may be that the athlete has a weak gluteus medius, poor motor control, or a lack of mobility through the hips, especially the adductors. It’s also important not to get too carried away with the “knees out” cue, because if the knees are too far outwards then once again the injury risk goes up, and force application in to the ground is not maximised.
- Push through your heels
Cueing the athlete to push through their heels is important because a) the athlete will remain more balanced when squatting, and b) if the athlete comes up on their toes they are more likely to injure themselves, will reduce force production in to the ground, and will cause their weight to come too far forward.
- Don’t set up too far away from the box
This issue causes the athlete to ‘reach’ back with their hips in order to touch the box properly. This is not ideal because the further the hips have to reach back the more stress that is placed on the lower back, and squat mechanics and motor control will not be trained appropriately.
Photo: Setting up too far away from the box should be avoided
Photo: Reaching back with the hips to find the box
- Don’t rock back (i.e. Don’t ‘loosen the hips’)
When pausing on the box it is common to see powerlifters initiate a slight rock back followed by a roll forward before lifting the weight up. Whilst this is not ‘wrong’, it isn’t the ideal way to train athletes to do box squats. Once an athlete touches the box, they should be instructed to pause on the box in a stable position and hold, then cued to initiate the drive up through the heels.
- Don’t lose tension at the bottom and sit, or ‘slam your ass’ too hard, on the box
This is common to see among lower trained athletes, or athletes who are trying to lift too heavy. When squatting close to the box an athlete may lose tension and completely relax or ‘sit’ on the box just like they’re sitting on to a chair. The other issue is when an athlete loses control, or tension, just above the box and then quickly completes the eccentric phase by ‘slamming’ their butt on to the box. Both these issues show a lack of control and an inability to hold tension, it’s important the athlete is taught to hold tension on the box and then press up hard with intent.
Full depth squatting is a great exercise and I’m not saying you should completely get rid of it from your training tool kit, but I feel like there are a number of benefits to the box squat that are far more advantageous to athletic performance than deep squatting. Remember everything comes back to the needs of the individual athlete, if their goal is to increase strength, power, and speed for their on-field performance then box squatting may be a superior tool to do so.