Classic air squats will always be a fundamental part of any workout program. But if you want to optimize your glute gains and elevate your lower-body strengthening to the next level, you’ve got to switch it up occasionally. Certainly, you could experiment with any of these bodyweight squat variations, or naturally, you could incorporate resistance, but you should really be attempting box squats.
“Box squats are a seriously excellent tool for enhancing body awareness, breaking through a squat plateau, and, sometimes, for rehabilitating an injury,” says Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., founder of Training2XL. Because those are some pretty remarkable advantages for one movement, here, experts break down precisely how to perform box squats and why they’re so beneficial.
Box Squat Essentials
Box squats are simply squats…down to a box. More specifically, box squats involve squatting until your buttocks taps a box (or bench, or chair) positioned behind you. You can execute box squats using just your body weight or loaded with any type of equipment, though they’re commonly performed with a barbell.
The most significant difference between box squats and squats without a box is that the “bottom” (lowest point) of your squat is determined 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 primary squat errors is not going deep enough?)
By the way, you can also perform single-leg box squats as a means to progress towards a pistol squat, if you’re seeking a challenge.
Many gyms have boxes you can utilize, or you can acquire your own plyometric box to use at home.
As an added benefit, the container can be utilized for alternative exercises that involve the use of one’s own body weight, such as push-ups and step-overs.
How to Perform a Box Squat
The elevation of the box is arguably the most crucial aspect of this entire process. “Whenever you engage in a squat, your goal should be to surpass the parallel point,” asserts CJ Hammond, a NASM-certified personal trainer. That is why, if feasible, you should aim for a box that enables your knees to flex at a minimum of a 90-degree angle, according to him.
If you lack flexibility or have an injury preventing you from reaching such a depth, Hammond advises choosing a box that is slightly higher. The objective is to find a box just above the point where your form deteriorates, your injury becomes bothersome, or your flexibility becomes restrictive.
Here is the step-by-step process:
A. Prepare a box, chair, or bench. Stand a few inches away, facing away from the box, with your feet positioned hip-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead or slightly outward at a 15-degree angle.
B. If you are performing a squat with a barbell, grip the bar tightly with your pinkies to activate your lats. Keep your core engaged and your chest upright. Take a deep breath, hinge at your hips, and bend your knees to lower yourself until your buttocks touch the box.
C. While maintaining an upright chest and a tight core, sit down onto the box.
D. Push your feet firmly into the ground, contract your glutes, and thrust your hips forward to rise back up to a standing position. Exhale during this ascent.
E. Squeeze your glutes at the top, but refrain from forcefully jutting your hips forward.
Let the amount of weight determine your repetition count: If you are performing bodyweight box squats, aim for 12 to 16 repetitions. Otherwise, aim for 6 to 12 repetitions, depending on the weight used, while maintaining proper form.
Advantages of Box Squats
Box squats can be advantageous for both novice exercisers and experienced athletes. However, the manner in which each category of athlete incorporates them into their leg day routine will differ. Below are a few reasons to consider adding box squats to your workout:
Work Your Entire Lower Body
The box squat, like squats in general, is an intense compound exercise that targets your hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, calves, and core. Additionally, if you hold a weight in front of or behind you (such as in a barbell back squat or goblet squat), you will also engage your upper body. In summary, box squats contribute to the development of a strong physique.
Strengthening the Hamstrings and Glutes
Many individuals have a tendency to be quad-dominant, meaning their quads have a tendency to take over and do more of the work during leg workouts. Box squats can assist in harnessing the power of the muscles in your posterior chain—the backside of your body—which includes your glutes and hamstrings.
“Box squats activate your hamstrings and glutes to a greater extent than regular squats,” says Luciani. Why? In a regular squat, your center of gravity is positioned more forward. “During box squats, you actively strive to push your hips back towards the box, resulting in sitting further back. As a result, the glutes, hips, and hamstrings become more engaged,” she explains.
Developing an Understanding of Squat Depth
“Many novice weightlifters lack an understanding of how far they are squatting,” says Luciani. Since the box represents the bottom of the squat, box squats are an excellent method for helping new athletes grasp the sensation of specific depths and obtain feedback on how deep they are going without the need for a coach or video guidance, she states. “This helps new lifters become more comfortable and confident in executing the squat movement,” adds Hammond.
Enhancing Strength at the Bottom of the Squat
For experienced lifters who are already proficient in squatting and possess excellent body awareness, box squats offer an additional benefit: they help you become stronger and, in certain cases, overcome strength plateaus. “Typically, the transition from the concentric (downward) to the eccentric (upward) phase of the squat prevents individuals from achieving a new personal record,” explains Luciani. In other words, you can descend to the bottom of the squat, but struggle to return to a standing position with the barbell.
Box squats enable you to build strength at that specific sticking point. “During regular squats, even individuals who are strong and move well often rely on momentum to stand the weight back up, which ultimately restricts their ability to go heavy,” says Luciani. With box squats, momentum cannot be used. Instead, the box requires you to come to a complete stop, thereby compelling you to engage all of the muscles involved in the squat and rely solely on pure strength to rise up again.
Working Towards a Personal Record
By helping you become stronger at the bottom of the squat, incorporating box squats into your training regimen can assist in overcoming strength plateaus. Imagine, for example, that you can back squat 200 pounds (congratulations!), but continuously struggle with 210 pounds. In that case, you might include 5 sets of 5 reps of box squats (using a box positioned where the bottom of your squat usually falls) at 75 to 85 percent of your one-rep max twice a week for six weeks to enhance strength at the bottom, says Luciani. After six weeks? Well, no guarantees, but you could very well achieve a new personal record.
Box squats are also an excellent rehabilitation tool. For instance, specific knee or hamstring injuries may only permit you to squat down four or five inches. “Box squats enable you to continue training the squat movement pattern in partial repetitions without exacerbating the injury,” says Luciani. (Certainly, if you’re rehabilitating an injury, consult your physical therapist or trainer before incorporating these into your routine indiscriminately.)
Enhance Your Ability to Stand Up in Real Life
There’s also the fact that squats (and box squats) are the ultimate functional exercise. Seriously, contemplate how often you squat down throughout the day just to use the toilet! “The more you train the functional movement patterns when you’re young, the more likely you’ll be capable of performing those movement patterns as you age,” says Luciani. Graceful aging and injury prevention? It’s truly remarkable.
How to Integrate Box Squats into Your Workout
The manner in which you incorporate box squats into your workout will vary based on the reason for incorporating them.
Novice: If you have never lifted any weight during squats, stick to bodyweight squats. Aim for 12 to 16 repetitions at a time, as recommended by Hammond.
Intermediate: If you are neither a beginner nor an advanced lifter, pick up a kettlebell and perform 5 sets of 8 repetitions of goblet box squats, as suggested by Luciani.
Advanced: If your ultimate goal is to squat heavier weights, perform 5 sets of 3 to 5 repetitions, as advised by Luciani. “Start with lighter weights and gradually increase; these will likely be more challenging than anticipated. Additionally, ensure that you rest for at least 1 to 2 minutes between each set to allow your body time to recover,” she adds.
Note: The only drawback of box squats is not related to the movement itself, but rather to incorporating them excessively into your workout routine, according to Luciani. “Box squats are an excellent tool, but if you’re not injured, you still need to perform standard squats to continue increasing strength throughout the full range of motion,” she explains.
Oh, and do yourself a favor and prioritize recovery after leaving the gym. Due to the fact that you come to a complete stop on the box with every repetition, your lower-body muscles have to work harder than usual for each and every rep. Therefore, you may experience heightened soreness in the following day(s).