Introducing the Box Squat
Squatting from Head to Toe
by Dave Tate
Dave Tate knows strength. Dave's been assisting and training under Louie Simmons
of Westside Barbell fame for over 10 years and has consulted thousands of
athletes throughout the world. Dave is quick to point out that he's not a
bodybuilder and therefore doesn't train bodybuilders. He's a powerlifter and a
specialist in developing maximal strength. (Despite this powerlifting emphasis,
the average guy under his tutelage puts on 30 to 40 pounds a year.)
In Dave's last article he taught us the secrets of a big bench. This time, Dave
has written the definitive article on the infamous Westside box squat. Does he
know what he's talking about? He squats 935 pounds himself, what do you think?
The Box Squat
Technique is the most important factor in squatting big weights. If you're
training with bad technique then it doesn't matter what supplemental exercises
you use or how many sets or reps you perform. Your squat will only go so far and
then get stuck. This article will describe the correct technique for performing
the box squat. I feel the box squat is the best way to train the squat, period.
The form is the same as the regular squat but with the added bonus of being able
to develop explosive strength. The box squat also places all the stress directly
on all the squatting muscles.
Every member of Westside Barbell performs box squats year around with the only
regular "free squat" being done in competition. The technique I'll describe has
taken my squat from 760 to 935 over the past five years, but I wasn't always a
big fan of the box squat. When I squatted 760, I didn't believe in box squatting
and trained all my squats the same way many of you are doing now. I used a
progressive overload method using the Western method of periodization. The
result of all my hard work? My squat stayed at the 730 to 760 range for five
years without any progress! I had to change. Part of this change included box
The use of the box squat made a tremendous difference in my progress and the
progress of my training partners. Every one of us added 100 to 200 pounds to our
max efforts after adopting the box squat. We also understood the importance of
perfecting the box squat to get a big carryover in competition. We check each
other's form on a constant basis and the things we look for will be detailed in
Now, you may have heard from some sissy wearing spandex that the box squat is
dangerous. When someone talks about the dangers of box squatting, it's apparent
they simply don't know how to perform the lift correctly. Sure, if you're trying
to bounce off the box or you're using more weight than you can handle, then
there are definitely dangers to the spine. When performed correctly, however,
box squats are safe. And, I believe box squats are so effective that you don't
need to perform regular squats in your training at all!
Advantages of Box Squatting
There are many advantages to box squatting:
1) Training on a box will allow you to sit back onto the box to a point where
your shins are past perpendicular to the floor. This places all the stress on
the squatting muscles (hips, glutes, lower back and hamstrings.) When you can
increase the stress on these muscles and lower the stress on the quads, then
you'll be ready to see your squat poundages start moving.
2) Restoration is another major advantage of box squatting. You can train more
often on a box when compared to free squatting. According to Louie Simmons, the
original members of Westside Barbell in Culver City, California, used to perform
box squats three times a week. Currently at Westside we train the box squat
every Friday for our dynamic workout and occasionally on Monday's maximal effort
workouts. If you're new to box squats, I suggest you do them once per week.
3) When performing box squats you never have to guess how low you're squatting.
It'll always be the same. Think about it: when most people start adding weight
to the bar, their squats get higher and higher. You see this all the time in any
gym you go to. They look good with the light weights, then begin doing quarter
squats when the weight gets heavy. With box squats, you'll always go low enough.
4) The last reason to box squat is to reinforce good squat technique. Many times
for the intermediate or beginning squatter, the hamstrings aren't yet developed
and "sitting back" into a squat is impossible without falling over backward. To
teach these athletes how to free squat properly would take months. The squat
wouldn't look right until the hamstrings and glute strength increases. Why wait
two or three months? Put them on the box and you'll have them squatting properly
within five minutes. Within one month the hamstrings will begin to kick in
because of the added stress of sitting back on the box.
Now, are you ready to box squat? Good.
Phase I: The first thing to check for is proper body position at the
beginning of the lift. Keep in mind you'll have to keep the entire body tight.
If any body part is held loose it will become your weak link and you'll break
Before setting up under the bar you'll need to grasp the barbell and duck under
it with your feet about shoulder width apart or slightly wider. While under the
bar you'll have to start to really tighten up. Grasp the bar with your hands and
start to squeeze it as if you were trying to bend the bar across your back.
Next, pull your shoulder blades together as tight as possible while pulling your
elbows forward. This is to keep the upper back locked in this position during
the lift. If your elbows are flaring out, it'll cause the barbell to travel
forward at some point during the lift. The key to squatting big weights is to
keep the barbell path traveling in the shortest line as possible. Any deviation
from this line will cause a missed lift.
Now that your upper back is tight you'll need to tighten your midsection. First,
expand your abdomen as much as possible. When you pull air into your body it
should be into the diaphragm, not the chest. Expand you belly and push it out
against your belt. This will stabilize and support the lower back and not
elongate the spine. If you're having a hard time trying to figure this out, then
wear your weight belt one notch loose and push into it with your belly so it
Pushing your belly out goes against what many believe because they feel training
this way will cause injuries to the lower back. After 30 years of box squatting
Westside has had 23 lifters squat over 800 pounds, six over 900 pounds and one
over a grand. Not one of these lifters or any of the others has had lower back
Another aspect of this to keep in mind is the circumference of the waist line.
If I suck my belly in my waist line measures 42 inches. If I pull air into my
belly and push it out it measures 48 inches. The wider base the stronger the
lifter. This is why lifters with a bigger waist squat more. The pyramids in
Egypt are also built with a wide base and they have been standing for centuries.
As the car commercials used to say, wider is better.
I learned this lesson firsthand at the 1990 Toledo Hall of Fame powerlifting
competition. I'd just tried a 760 squat and got smashed with it. This was my
second attempt of the day and I decided to give it another try on the third. I
had some doubts because the second attempt wasn't even close. Saying I got
smashed is an understatement. The weight stapled me to the floor! I didn't even
get out of the bottom of the lift. This weight was a 20 pound personal record
for which I had spent the last four months training.
I didn't understand what the problem was or how to fix it. On the third attempt,
while I was getting wrapped, Louie Simmons walked up to me and told me to get my
abdominals tight. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but would
within the next few minutes. As I got under the weight I realized Louie was the
spotter behind me. (No pressure there, huh?) As I got set under the bar he told
me to expand and push my belly into the belt. Now I understood what he was
talking about. I was always told to flex my abs, but never to expand and push
As I set the bar up, I noticed that I had never felt so tight and stable. Once
set, I locked in my back and began the squat. I kept my belly pushed into the
belt and blasted the weight up! I had just smoked a weight that stapled me to
the floor moments earlier all because I learned how to use my abdominals! In my
opinion, this concept is one of the most misunderstood in the sport of
powerlifting today. Many lifters don't know how to use their core to set up a
squat. Some do nothing at all while others are trying to suck their stomachs in.
This is probably fine for those who strive to squat 400 pounds, but if you're
looking to squat maximal weights in the 700 to 900 range, you'd better learn how
to use your core.
All the power of the lower body is transferred through your core to the barbell.
If this core isn't tight the power will "get lost" so to speak and never travel
to the bar. While I don't agree with the use of a belt for the majority of
training, I do believe in the use of belts to teach a person how to use the
abdominals while squatting. The belt is a training aid in competition, so you
must learn how to use it to its fullest advantage.
Phase II: Now that you have your upper back and belly tight, you need to
arch the bar out of the rack. When you take a barbell out of the rack, it should
never hit the front supports. This shifts the weight to the toes and will cause
you to lose your tightness (as well as set the bar in a position to use your
quads instead of your hips and hamstrings.)
Arch the bar out, then push with your legs to get the bar off the racks. Keep
the arch. Step back with one leg, then the other. You want to maintain your
tightness and set your stance as wide as possible. I believe in using a wide
stance when squatting because it'll shorten the distance the bar will have to
travel and will place the stress more on the glutes, hips, hamstrings and back.
I've figured out over time that the quads aren't that important for squatting
maximal weights. Instead, it's the hips, back and hamstrings. If your quads were
really doing all the work, then why wouldn't you be able to squat as much as you
could leg press? So, set up in a wide stance.
From this position, pull all the air back into your belly and try to make your
back and abs tighter than before. You should also be forcing your knees out to
the sides. You'll know you're doing this right if your hips feel tight. This
will place the stress on the hips as well as increase the leverage in the bottom
of the squat. The closer you can keep your knee, ankle, shoulder and hip joints
in a straight line, the greater the mechanical advantage. This is why you can
quarter squat much more than you can full squat.
You also want to be pushing
out on the sides of your shoes. Never push downward. Act as if you're tying to
spread the floor apart. This is to further activate the hips. By the way, the
best shoes to wear while squatting are the old school Converse Chuck Taylors.
They're built with a flat bottom and strong canvas sides. Most other tennis
shoes will cause your foot to move around too much or you'll push out over the
side of the shoes.
Your butt should also be sticking out with your back arched as hard as possible.
Head position is vital to keeping the barbell in the proper path for squatting.
You must drive your head into the bar. This doesn't mean look up; you should
actually be looking forward. You want to be looking forward for a couple of
reasons. First, if you're in a competition, you'll need to see the head judge
give you the squat signal. Second, you'll want to see everyone's reaction after
you smoke your lift! I don't know about you, but I want to see the look of awe
in their eyes after I get the lift.
Besides, if you're looking down you'll more than likely start to fall forward
about half way up and miss the lift. The act of pushing your head back into the
neck should be the same action as if you were to lay on the floor and push your
head against the ground. As for toe position, lighter guys should usually point
their toes straight ahead. Heavier guys, often because of a lack of flexibility,
may want to point their toes out slightly. Now you're ready to begin the squat.
Phase III: To start the squat, I want your hips to begin the motion, not
the knees. When your knees bend first, the load is shifted downward; you need
the load going backward. Remember, you want the bar to travel in a straight
line. Keep pushing the hips back as you squat down. The key is to "sit back."
Most people sit down on a toilet with better form than they squat because they
have to sit back. As you sit back you want to feel tension in the hamstrings.
Act like they're springs you're trying to compact before they rebound back. This
will cause a great stretch reflex out of the bottom of the squat. An explosive
start is another key to squatting maximal weights.
Keep sitting back until you sit on the box. The box should be one inch lower
than parallel for most people, although I sometimes recommend that less
experienced lifters find a box that puts them at one inch above parallel. (Note:
I can't recommend a pre-manufactured box at this time because I simply haven't
found any good ones. All of our boxes at Westside are homemade. When selecting a
box, most people need one between 12 and 14 inches high. Also, pick one that's
big enough to fit your butt. Note that some people use a flat bench for box
squats. I've found that these are seldom set at the proper height, however, and
may be too narrow for some.)
As far as the definition of "parallel," it's defined as when the crease of the
hip is in line with the top of the knee. Remember, most people have very poor
hamstring and hip strength to squat properly in the first place. If they tried
to squat without the box they'd fall over backward. The box is the best way to
teach proper squat form while bringing up their weak points. The box squat also
breaks the eccentric/concentric chain. This is one of the best ways to build
explosive strength. The box squat also causes you to squat from a static
contraction to a dynamic concentric contraction, another very effective way to
build explosive strength.
When you reach the box you want to sit down and relax the hips flexors while
keeping every muscle other muscle tight. You also don't want to fall down on the
box and try to bounce off of it. You sit back with the same speed you squat.
Pause on the box for a split second and explode off of it. No bouncing! Your
knees must still be pushed out and your abs, upper back and arms should remain
tight while your back stays arched. When you're on the box it's important to
have the shins perpendicular to the floor or better yet, past perpendicular.
This places all the tension on the squatting muscles.
Phase IV: After you pause on the box you need to explode off by first driving
the head and upper back into the bar, then by driving with the hips. When you
begin the squat (during the eccentric phase) the hips move first then the head.
The opposite of that (the concentric phase) should involve the head moving first
then the glutes. It only makes sence to try to lift the bar first. If you don't
drive with the upper back first then the bar will begin to move forward. If the
bar is moving forward before you drive with the hips, you'll miss the weight and
As you're coming up you still need to maintain all tightness by driving your
back into the bar, driving you head into the bar, pushing out on your knees and
feet, pulling the elbows forward, keeping the shoulder blades together, and
holding your air. After that there's nothing else to do but lock out and wait
for the crowd to cheer.
That's all there is to it. And they say squatting isn't a technical lift! Now
it's up to you. Do you want to be standing there watching others lift the big
weights, or on the platform doing it yourself? You decide.
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