Squatting Semantics

…….from a high school Football coach

So I have had this running debate with myself and some colleagues about the value of a box squat versus a parallel squat. I’ve had this idea that the box squat is a half movement. Why not complete the full squat? Seems like the box squat gets kids on their toes too much and becomes too quad dominant or they get back too far and sit on the box. I have come to really dislike the box squat.

I think we need some definitions here before I an best talk about these questions above.  The reason is because certain descriptions are not “one or the other,” and other descriptions just don’t match up to the typical errors you see with certain versions of squatting.

So a box squat is different than squatting to a box, which is different than a free squat.
Any of these squats can have depth or be high.  One of the earliest articles I ever wrote on this site discussed my opinions on depth of squat, and what is in this early 2010 article is actually totally contemporary in my mind.

One of my favorite lifters to watch and follow back around 10 years ago.

One of my favorite lifters to watch and follow back around 8-10 years ago.

1. A Box Squat is a squat with a vertical or negative shin angle to a box. There is a pause on the box to release the hip flexors (not a tuck under even though you see many monsters tuck under). This squat is a premiere choice to train the posterior chain, and as a neurological mechanism while breaking up the eccentric-concentric chain. I’d also consider this to be the easier version of the squat to teach and get into some real fitness.  It is just a hinge with allowing the knees to bend.  You don’t need ankle mobility, and it can almost always be coached in terms of spine position, outside of the severe elderly.  But even with them, you can still box squat them without load which is probably a good stimulus for that population anyway.
Similarly, this squat greatly deloads the knee, while shifting stress to the hips and low back. This is a great win-win option as long as the loads are appropriate.  Loads that lead to excessive extension or getting dumped into flexion are just too heavy.  Given this pattern is so dichotomous to natural angled tibia patterning, it can be hugely useful from a GPP effect.  You will fill in the blanks of what your special and specific training demand.

With all of these allegedly great things, the box squat can go terribly awry.  Maybe this is what our coach is seeing with his football team as they are falling into the trap of squatting more weight.  With huge wheels, you can get up and down, and everybody cheers.  But there is also a huge cost associated with the compensation that you require to handle the bar.  Because it is an easier lift to learn and execute, it is similarly easy to handle big weight. And getting greedy or poorly coached in terms of hanging out on the box too long, bouncing off the box, arching too hard, and good morninging the weight up leave us with major problems. Is it worth it? I say yes. Others say no. I don’t argue because there are many, many other ways to get awesomely strong.  Pick something else, but there’s nothing wrong with the box squat.  There’s something wrong with using competitive techniques for training lifts outside of planned PR.  And even then, it wasn’t like you got under 585 for the first time and was like, “I’m gonna crank my back into extension as hard as I can just to get this lift.”  Compensating is a natural process, and it is one that should be reserved for competitive and survival situations.

To address some of the specifics above…..
1) You can not sit too far back on the box.  That is actually a very interesting approach to add to your list of Max Effort options.  The further you sit back, the change in the tibia angle, which gives you very good reason to work on a weak link and maybe further stay away from pissing off some patella symptoms.
2) If you are doing a box squat, and you wind up on your toes, there is something very, very wrong in terms of coaching.  This has got to look crazy if someone is truly being coached to box squat, and they still wind up on your toes.  Novice lifters will maybe lift their toes to counter the posterior shift.

Depth to a box squat was addressed in the 2010 post, but it is totally up to you.
Most super heavy box squats are at parallel or slightly above.  Low box squat is just as good an option, just different.  This is most applicable to a geared powerlifter as to how your gear boosts your particular technique’s nuances.  If our coach above is seeing all of this, and his kids are doing half squats so they can see 405 up on their wall, that’s garbage.  If it’s a part of a guided hypertrophy goaled program, it can be defensible.
Ultimately, you can go high if you have a specific purpose of overload, but another reason to box squat high to get to the depth where you run out of hip mobility, and use great form to that depth to drive some active mobility gains.

2. A Squat to a Box is typically with a relatively angled tibia, but there is a variance. Very simply, squatting to a box, is a touch and go to the box simply to ensure and gauge depth of the squat.
In longer term training cycles, I do think there is utility to box squatting high, but never as high as a half squat. There are reasons to squat high at times, but I think it’s important to simply have that reason and audit the result.
Squatting to a box may very well wind up on your toes.  This is a coaching issue, and there may be some motoric or mobility components as well.

3. A Free Squat is a squat with no box involved. It is also with a relatively angled tibia. Basically you can’t squat to a box or free squat with a vertical tibia because you’d fall backwards without the box to catch you.   A free squat or squat to a box are the same general motion.  A The Box Squat is a “squat” onto itself. It is really a sumo deadlift with a bar on your back.

This often solves a lot of problems in young high school football weight rooms.

This often solves a lot of problems in young high school football weight rooms.

  • October 4, 2014

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Ross Reply

Great to see your post. My only concern is why not discuss a huge variable that severely affects how and what you squat? Namely, are you wearing gear or not? The box squat has often been associated with Westside and geared lifters. The mechanics and muscle activity changes significantly when you are wearing a suit.I know that this post is primarily aimed at football students/coaches but perhaps it might be a good addenum to add a post on the differences between lifting with and without a suit? It would be interesting to see how your description of the mechanics involved changes.


Ross (Physical Therapist)

Charlie Reply

Ross, I did not include discussing it because it really didn’t have anything to do with the Reader’s question or the message of the post.

Squatting with a suit seems odd in terms of practicality in training high school athletes in a group.
But for advanced lifters who are well coached, I think it’s a find idea and can be quite brilliant for developing connective tissue adaptations at certain points in a training cycle.

Wearing gear may or may not affect how you squat. For instance, I squat quite similar raw as with gear. Mechanics do not have to change at all. The gear simply supports the technique you are using and allows you to pop more wheels.
It also depends on the stitching of the gear and how you prefer to squat.

Conversely, gear is not at all required for proper box squat form. Associating the box squat with gear not correct. You just don’t lift as much weight, which may actually be a good thing.

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