No matter what type of athlete you are, amateur or professional, there is no question that a simple barbell squat performed with enough volume will build your lower body and increase your natural growth hormones more than any other exercise (besides maybe the deadlift).
By recruiting so many lower body muscles groups and the ability to progressively overload your back squat with variations and heavier weight, this is a workout nobody who is serious about their training should skip. Most variations that are commonly used are front squats, pistol squats, goblet squats, Zercher squats, sissy squats, etc., which are all great for improving your strength and hypertrophy, but all of them leave out one crucial stimuli.
This stimuli is explosiveness, something which can be easily forgotten in most routines. One variation that is exceptional at training your explosive force is the box squat, and shouldn’t be overlooked in any type of athletic setting.
Box Squat Benefits & How To Execute Properly
During the execution of most squat based exercises, you are loading your quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, low back, and basically the rest of your posterior chain (besides front loaded exercises which focus more on a quad and core activation).
On the eccentric portion (dropping into the squat) your body begins its stretch reflex, which is what allows you to bounce out of the bottom of a squat more easily than if you were to pause at the bottom. For certain people, such as powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, this reflex is important to break parallel (as in your hamstrings being at or below parallel with the ground) and complete the lift easier. The issue with always relying on this reflex is less than maximum muscle recruitment as well as not training your explosiveness from a static position.
Box squats are one of the few solutions to overcoming this reflex and actually training your explosiveness and muscle groups to their max potential throughout the entire movement. The other major benefit would be a confidence boost, as you can usually go heavier than usual when doing a regular back squat. This will give you the feeling of what the heavier bar will feel like for when you are maxing out in training or even at a powerlifting meet when you have to push yourself to lift a weight you haven’t before besides with a box squat.
If you already know how to do a barbell back squat, high or low bar, you can easily translate this skill to a box squat. The main difference is you are descending onto a 12-16 inch box, which will stop you at or slightly below parallel. In this position, it is important to relax your hip flexors but stay tight in your core, legs, and back. It shouldn’t take more than a second of sitting for you to effectively eliminate your stretch reflex (definitely don’t bounce off the box). This is where you will explode up as fast as you can, reactivating your hip flexors and utilizing much more of your posterior chain than if you bounced out of the hole.
While they shouldn’t be your main squat exercise, box squats can be a valuable addition to any routine to train explosiveness and add confidence to you squat in training as well as contests.
Box Squat Variations
Along with basic barbell back squats, most variations can be applied to the box squat concept. You can perform front squats in the same fashion, as well as goblet squats, dumbbell squats (with the weights resting on your shoulders in an Olympic front squat arm position), banded squats to increase the resistance the closer you get to the lockout, and chains to imitate the same effect.
A unique variation just for box squats though would be a lateral box squat. Usually using a kettlebell or single dumbbell held with both hands, you would stand diagonally next to the box (it would be behind you to the right or left). To perform it you will squat to the side and back with the leg close to the box and extend out the other leg straight about 45 degrees to be able to reach the box (looking up a two-minute tutorial would be well worth your time as it is hard to visualize this otherwise simple exercise).
Like all unilateral exercises, you should perform two sets side by side for each leg. Along with the pistol box squat (which is basically a balancing squat on one leg), these exercises are very good at finding and getting rid of muscle imbalances. For example, if one leg is stronger than the other you will begin with the weaker leg to make sure to not do more reps with the stronger leg until they are equally strong.
Finally, these exercises train your smaller stabilizing muscles that are harder to work, unlike your quads and hamstrings for example.
Take Home Message
I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again, squats are simply the most important exercise for any type of athlete to perform if they want to maximize their lower body strength, size, and even their upper body muscles as well due to the squats ability to increase growth hormone.
The box squat is a variation of the back squat which beyond the benefits already listed, can increase your explosiveness and confidence dealing with weight above your comfort zone. Pushing these benefits even further, unilateral (one side of a muscle group worked at a time) box squat exercises can also help you fix imbalances as well as work smaller stabilizing muscles.
So the next time you’re in the gym and looking for new exercises to add to your routine, give one (or a few) of these squat variations a try and experience the versatile benefits!