🎶 Drop it, drop it to the box 🎶

By Gabrielle Kassel
May 27, 2020
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Air squats will always be a classic part of any workout program—but if you want to maximize your glute gains and take your lower-body strengthening to the next level, you've got to switch it up from time to time.

Sure, you could try any of these bodyweight squat variations or, of course, you could add weight, but there's another you should be trying your hand (err, butt) at: box squats.

"Box squats are a seriously great tool for boosting body awareness, busting through a squat plateau, and sometimes for rehabbing an injury," says Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning coach and founder of Training2xl.

Because that's pretty impressive for one movement, experts break down exactly how to do box squats and why they're so darn beneficial.

So, What Are Box Squats?

Box squats are just squats...down to a box. More specifically, box squats entail squatting until your butt taps a box (or bench or chair) positioned behind you. You can do box squats with just your bodyweight or weighted with any type of equipment, though they're commonly done with a barbell.

The biggest difference between box squats and box-free squats is that the "bottom" (lowest point) of your squat is dictated by the height of the box. During regular squats, the ideal depth is with your hips below your knees—but that might vary, depending on your strength as well as ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility, says Luciani. (P.S. did you know one of the main squat mistakes is not going to depth?)

FTR, you can also do single-leg box squats as a way to work toward a single-leg squat (pistol squat). (See more: Why Mastering Pistol Squats Should Be Your Next Fitness Goal).

How to Do a Box Squat

The height of the box is arguably the most important part of this whole thing. "Whenever you do a squat, you want to aim to break parallel," says CJ Hammond, NASM-certified personal trainer with RSP Nutrition. That's why, if that's possible for you, you want to aim for a box that allows your knees to bend into (at least) a 90-degree angle, he says.

If a lack of mobility or an injury keeps you from dropping that low, he recommends opting for a slightly higher box. The goal is to find a box that's just above where your form goes kaput, where your injury starts to nag, or where your mobility becomes a limiting factor. (P.S. if you want to improve your mobility, try these PVC pipe mobility drills.)

A. Set up a box, chair, or bench. Stand a few inches away, facing away from the box with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead or slightly out at 15 degrees.

B. If squatting with a barbell, screw pinkies into the bar to activate the lats. Keeping core engaged and chest tall, take a deep breath, hinge at the hips and bend knees to lower toward until your butt touches the box.

C. Keeping the chest tall and core tight, sit down on the box.

D. Push feet into the ground, squeeze glutes, and drive hips forward to press back to standing, exhaling on the way up.

E. Squeeze glutes at the top (but don't thrust hips forward). That's one rep.

Let weight determine your rep count: If doing bodyweight, aim for 12 to 16 reps. Otherwise, aim for 6 to 12 reps, as weight allows (with good form).

The Benefits of Box Squats

Box squats can be beneficial to newbie exercisers and advanced athletes alike—but how each category of athlete uses them will be different.

Work your entire lower body.

Box squats—and squats, in general—are a killer compound exercise that hammer your hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves, and core. And, if you're holding a weight in front or behind you (think: barbell back squat or goblet squat), you're also working your upper body. In summary: Box squats build strong bodies. And ICYDK, more muscle on your body means your metabolism goes up and you burn more calories at rest. (Those are just two of many reasons to lift heavier weights.)

Build strong hamstrings and glutes.

Many people tend to be quad-dominant, meaning their quads like to take over and do more of the work in leg workouts. Box squats can help you tap into the strength of the muscles in your posterior chain—the back side of your body—including your glutes and hamstrings. "Box squats recruit your hamstrings and glutes more than regular squats," says Luciani. Why? In a regular squat, your center of gravity is farther forward. "With box squats, you're actively trying to reach your hips back toward the box, which results in you sitting further back. As a result, the glutes, hips, and hamstrings are more active."

Build awareness of your squat depth.

"A lot of beginner lifters lack awareness of exactly how far down they're squatting," explains Luciani. Because the box is the bottom, she says, box squats are an excellent way to help new athletes learn what certain depths feel like and get feedback about how low they're going, without a coach (or video) telling them. "This helps new lifters become more comfortable and confident in the squat movement pattern," adds Hammond. (Related: Squat Therapy Is a Genius Technique for Improving Your Squat Form)

Get stronger at the bottom of your squat.

For experienced lifters who are very comfortable squatting and have stellar body awareness, box squats have another benefit: helping them get stronger. And in some cases helping them bust through strength plateaus. "Typically, what keeps people from hitting a squat PR is the transition from the concentric (down) to the eccentric (up) portion of the squat," explains Luciani. Meaning, you can lower to the bottom of a squat, but then can't stand the bar back up.

Box squats allow you to become stronger at that specific sticking point. "During box-free squats, even really strong, good movers tend to use momentum to stand the weight back up, which ultimately puts limits on them when they go heavy," she says. With box squats, you can't use momentum. Instead, the box forces you to come to a full stop, which forces you to engage all of the squat muscles and use pure strength to return to standing. 💪

Work toward a PR.

For the prior reason, adding box squats to your programming can help you get past a strength plateau. Let's say, for instance, you can back squat 200 pounds (okurr, queen!), but keep failing 210 pounds. You might program 5 sets of 5 reps of box squats (with a box that's around where the bottom of your squat usually is) at 75 to 85 percent of your one-rep max twice a week for six weeks to get stronger at the bottom, says Luciani. After six weeks? Well, no promises, but you very well could be ringing the PR bell. (Related: How to Work Towards Your One-Rep Max If You're New to Lifting Heavy)

Rehab injuries.

Box squats are also a great rehab tool. For example, certain knee or hamstring injuries may only allow you to squat down four or five inches. "Box squats allow you to keep training the squat movement pattern in partial reps without aggravating the injury," says Luciani. (Of course, if you're rehabbing an injury check in with your physical therapist or trainer before adding these to your regime willy-nilly).

Get better at standing up IRL.

There's also the fact that squats (and box squats) are the ultimate functional exercise. Seriously, just think about how many times you squat down throughout the day to the toilet alone! "The more your train the functional movement patterns when you're young, the more likely you'll be able to do those movement patterns as you get old," says Luciani. Graceful aging and injury prevention? Love to see it.

How to Add Box Squats to Your Workout

Exactly how you incorporate box squats into your workout will depend on why you're incorporating them.

Beginner: If you've never squatted weight before, stick to bodyweight squats. Hammond recommends doing 12 to 16 reps at a time.

Intermediate: If you're neither a newbie or big-time lifter, Luciani suggests grabbing a kettlebell and doing 5 sets of 8 reps of goblet box squats.

Advanced: If you're ultimately hoping to squat heavier, Luciani suggests doing 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps. "Start light and build up in weight, these will likely be harder than you're expecting," he says. "And make sure that you're getting at least 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between each set so that your body has time to recharge."

Note: The only downside of box squats comes not from the movement itself, according to Luciani but from over-incorporating them into your workout routine. "Box squats are a great tool, but if you're not injured, you still need to be doing standard squats so you can continue getting stronger at the full range of motion," she says.

Oh, and do yourself a solid and prioritize recovery after leaving the gym. Because you're coming to a full-stop on the box with every rep, your lower-body muscles have to work harder during each and every rep than you're used to. So, you might be extra sore in the day(s) after. Can't say we didn't warn you when walking up the stairs or going to the bathroom is harder than usual tomorrow.😉

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