Here’s what you need to know…
- Teaching a lifter to quickly summon all available force from a standstill is an important training stimulus. If one can come up from a box with 405 on his back, there’s no doubt he can do so in a free squat while utilizing the stretch-shortening cycle.
- The squat has the edge on depth. It’s easier to rocket out of a very deep squat using the stretch shortening cycle and going lower is a necessity for those who do the Olympic lifts.
- The box squat allows you to reach back more than would be otherwise allowable at a given stance, and it can be easy to achieve vertical tibiae. This piles more work onto the hamstrings and posterior chain, which is something all squatters need more of.
- If you need to build more muscle in a hurry, it’s hard to beat a back squat.
- The box squat allows more measurable progress.
Which is better, the box squat or the back squat? Some coaches swear by the box squat, while others still deem it unnecessary for those who can squat to depth with good form. Looks like a powerlifting vs. Olympic lifting grudge match! Let’s take off the gloves and see who makes it out on top.
We’re going to grade each variation according to the following criteria:
- Strength Builder: Is it a good tool for building elite strength?
- Hypertrophy Builder: Is it a good choice for building significant hypertrophy?
- Learning Curve: How easy is it to learn?
- Mobility & Depth: How much mobility does it require to perform well? How easy is it to get low?
- Wow Factor: Is it impressive and exciting for onlookers or for personal records?
- Progressive Overload: Can you use it to make long-term gains?
- All-Terrain: How well can it be performed in a poorly equipped gym or outdoors?
- Technique Builder: Does it reinforce archetypal squat technique that carries over to other variations?
- Safety: Is it safely performed without a cadre of spotters? How high is injury potential?
The Back Squat
Really, it’s the squat. Not a variation, not some iteration. It’s the original. And though it’s as simple as splaying a barbell across the back, it’s not really that simple. You need ample hip mobility, leg strength, back strength, and core strength to perform posteriorly loaded squats with good form at an appreciable weight. It’s easy to do, but not easy to do well. Common cues to producing a quality squat are as follows:
- Squeeze the bar to death
- Squeeze the shoulder blades to death
- Tighten the lower back (I believe in an arch; others prefer a neutral spine)
- Take a belly breath and brace the abs against the air
- Ensure that toe angle matches knee angle when taking a stance
- Sit back to start the movement
- Push out against the knees
- Spread the floor with the feet
- Push as fast as possible out of the hole
- Smile if you see stars – you’re working hard
The enemy of the squatter is both looseness and tightness. If the upper body or core gets at all loose, the weight will fold a lifter over in a hurry, risking major injury. Yet if the shoulders, lateral hips, hip flexors and hamstrings are too tight, optimal body position won’t be attainable and it’ll be hard to perform the movement well. Depth and spinal position will suffer. It becomes a ballet move, where the best squatters have great joint mobility but can produce tremendous tension where they need it.
The Box Squat
All of the cues we listed for squatting apply to the box squat. But, the box squat is a bit different.
- The box allows you to sit back more than free squatting.
- The box forces a dead-stop, breaking the stretch-shortening cycle.
- The box provides an automatic depth indicator.
So, considering how similar both movements are, let’s go through our grading criteria and compare on each point.
Squatting is squatting. It’s the king of strength builders, not just in the legs but the whole body. The only way to differentiate between our contenders is in the differences in muscle recruitment.
The box squat is most typically used at or slightly below parallel and the box squatter can easily attain vertical or even a slightly negative shin angle, which is ideal for building the hamstrings. At parallel, the free squat can’t quite match the shin angle afforded by the box squat.
But, the squat has the edge on depth. It’s easier to rocket out of a very deep squat using the stretch shortening cycle and going lower is a necessity for those who do the Olympic lifts. The best are amazing at using bounce to explode out of the hole.
The tie-breaker is going to rest on the stretch-shortening cycle. Athletes especially can benefit from paused-squat training like the box squat because they never encounter it in their sport; there’s always a countermovement and elastic rebound in any given movement. If we’re looking at completeness of a training program, teaching a lifter or athlete to quickly summon all available force from a standstill is an important and novel training stimulus. If one can come up from a box with 405 on his back, there’s no doubt he can do so in a free squat while utilizing the stretch-shortening cycle.
Winner: The box squat. It’s easier to achieve vertical tibiae, and most people need more explosiveness out of the hole, which the dead stop of the box provides.
Breaking up the stretch-shortening cycle is an advantage of the box squat unless the lifter is focusing on hypertrophy. Sure, both variations can be great tools, but if you need to build more muscle in a hurry, it’s hard to beat a back squat. You can simply do more things – deeper squats with ease; 1.5 rep sets; combination movements; Tabatas; complexes; you name it. And, because it’s a better all-terrain choice, it’s a more available tool for the masses. Most guys looking for hypertrophy aren’t seeking a powerlifting gym where boxes are available – they’ll be in a commercial gym with a shortage of powerlifting equipment options.
Winner: The squat. Back squats are more easily made into complexes and other variations that maximize time under tension. And, they’re more available to the average Joe.
I choose to introduce all of my clients to squatting first with the goblet squat, then the front squat, and finally the back squat. I like them to have a basic level of comfort and strength before moving to the more technique-intensive back squat iterations. That said, if a novice can squat a little bit of weight, the first challenge in a posteriorly-loaded squat will be getting to depth. The easiest way to judge depth is with a tactile indicator like a box. If we need to see if an athlete has the mobility to squat to depth, the box is great for a couple of reasons:
- No guessing required. If the box is below parallel and they reach it, they’re good.
- Measurable progress. We can use three-fourth inch rubber mats to graduate to depth. This is Louie Simmons’ first point about box squatting. If someone can squat to a 16″ box today, let’s remove a mat at a time until they reach their depth goal. Over time, their mobility increases as mats are removed. It’s measurable and repeatable.
The Winner: The box squat. Being able to measure squat depth for those who aren’t skilled at reaching it makes it a superior variation for learning to back squat to depth.
Mobility and Depth
This one is going to be close. For teaching mobility and depth, the box squat, as explained above, is a superior tool, but, for achieving very low depths like the Olympic squat, the box starts to feel clunky. For those who aren’t powerlifters, I believe in squatting as low as good technique will allow. The lower one goes, the more crucial the rebound from the stretch-shortening cycle becomes. But, when squatting well below parallel, boxes become awkward and frustrating. The lower one goes, the more one sits on his pelvis rather than the fleshy hamstrings and weights drop off significantly at such depths.
And although dead-stop training is effective, an Olympic squatter needs to use that bounce out of the hole. Milko Tokola is a great example of using bounce to produce crazy bar speed.
Winner: The squat. The box squat doesn’t allow depths below parallel as effectively as does the squat.
There are no box squat meets. That said, when lifters compare their numbers, the squat is how they rank one another.
Winner: The squat. Although both lifts, done heavy, are impressive, the original will always be king – there’s nothing beneath you, so you’ve gotta’ come back up.
This one’s a stalemate – add more weight to the bar, pansy.
I’m going to save a few outdoor squatting concerns for the safety section and just focus on required equipment. Yes, you can take a squat stand, bar, and plates virtually anywhere and get after it. Or, you can clean and jerk the weight into position in lieu of squat stands.
Even poorly equipped gyms have a squat rack and barbells, but way too few gyms have plyometric boxes, rubber ballistic blocks, or rubber mats for box squat use. To really get the most out of box squatting, you need a short box (12″ works great) and an additional 6 inches of rubber mats. This will accommodate almost any-sized human at above parallel to way below. You just won’t find this at a commercial gym, though. What you might find is a few standard benches or plyo boxes that don’t fit your anthropometry very well, or don’t allow customization of different depths. It’s frustrating.
Winner: The squat. You can’t fit a squat box in your gym bag.
The box squat allows you to reach back more than would be otherwise allowable at a given stance, and it can be easy to achieve vertical tibiae. This piles more work onto the hamstrings and posterior chain, which is something all squatters need more of. The box also provides a nice boost of confidence and security – “there’s something beneath me in case I miss.” This helps mentally blocked or timid lifters push higher weights.
Of course, there’s a tendency in all box squatters, not just novices, to relax the lower back and rock back on the box. This is a major no-no and an injury risk. I’ve found that unless constantly monitored, nearly 100% of new box squatters will relax their core and back once they touch down and often roll their pelvis posteriorly. It’s an instinct, after all. When in nature does one sit down and attempt to stay as tense as possible? Unfortunately, we need to override this.
Although the box squat is great for reinforcing a rear-reaching descent and does a fantastic job of boosting confidence, it often makes me nervous with newbies. Sure, if they learn to stay tight on a box, they’ll learn to stay tight while free squatting, but if they can’t get it, it quickly becomes an unsafe, inappropriate exercise and it only takes one bad rep to injure a disk. Back squats are much easier to maintain the same allover tightness from start to finish.
Winner: The box squat. Learning to sit back is crucial. Though there’s an injury risk in relaxing on the box, those who have above average focus and good coaching can quickly overcome this. And, if you can stay tight on a box, you can stay tight in any other squat.
I’m steadfast in requiring safety spotter bars, just below desired depth, for all back squat variations. You just never know when you’ll get stapled forward or tweak something and go down unexpectedly. Yeah, I know that Olympic lifters use squat stands, but, they’re also experts in ditching the bar and in general squat with a much more upright posture. Even then, if a hamstring pops, who knows what happens?
Last year, one of our strong 14 year olds was on his second set of 185 for 6 reps, which is a hell of a feat at 130 pounds. His form was great and I was spotting him. On rep four, he tweaked his hamstring coming out of the hole. There’s no way to catch a 185-pound bar that unexpectedly free-falls. He went down, forward, but the safeties caught the bar just 6 inches later. Had they not been there, I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t even want to think about it.
The safety issue makes the squat a somewhat uncertain all-terrain choice. I don’t ever feel safe with a bar on the back and nothing beneath me. So, if squatting without safeties, the box squat is safer because if you can’t get out of the hole, you’re still sitting on a box, or you can sit back down to it. As long as you stay tight, you can sit there a bit before shedding the bar backward, but box squatting in a parking lot or grassy area isn’t safe either, because the box needs to be very stable, flat, and well-built in the first place. One could say that the only safe way to box squat is indoors, which eliminates those outdoor variables of lumpy ground or pavement.
Winner: Box squat. If you choose to squat without safeties, the box gives you a layer of protection should you miss a rep. Sit back down and wait for the cavalry.
Final Report Cards
Grading The Squat
- Strength Builder: A
- Hypertrophy Builder: A
- Learning Curve: B
- Mobility & Depth: C
- Wow Factor: A
- Progressive Overload: A
- All-Terrain: B
- Technique Builder: B
- Safety: C
Grading The Box Squat
- Strength Builder: A
- Hypertrophy Builder: B+
- Learning Curve: B+
- Mobility & Depth: B+
- Wow Factor: B
- Progressive Overload: A
- All-Terrain: C
- Technique Builder: B+
- Safety: B
And the Winner Is…
This one is narrow, but my vote is the box squat. There’s a lot of utility in teaching dead-stop explosiveness, having a depth meter and safety net beneath you, and being able to squat easily with a vertical shin angle to build the hammies. Tell me if I’m dead wrong in the comments below!