The squat movement pattern is key for developing lower body strength, and one of our favorite squat variations is the Barbell Box Squat. The primary movements involved are knee flexion (bending), knee extension (straightening) and hip flexion/extension. The major muscles groups involved include the glutes, adductors, and quadriceps. There are also many muscles that play a supporting role such as the hamstrings and the muscles of the trunk/core.
The barbell should be placed on your upper back and trapezius muscles, with your hands outside of your shoulders, and most people prefer a stance that is around shoulder width. To begin the exercise, open your hips slightly, then slowly descend to the box by driving your knees out towards your pinky toes. Pause briefly on the box while still maintaining tension, then lean forward slightly and drive your feet through the floor to rapidly return to a standing position. The bar should stay over your midfoot throughout the duration of the lift.
Some key tips and cues include:
- Stance: the stance typically used for a squat is a “strength stance”, or approximately shoulder width apart. Exact stance width varies due to limb length, pelvic anthropometric differences, and personal preference. While some people squat with the toes facing forward (neutral), most prefer to angle the feet out approximately 15 degrees (imagine your toes pointing at 10 and 2 on a clock). This position aids in proper knee tracking and improves glute activation due to the external rotation at the hip.
- Hips engage first: Even though the greatest range of motion in a squat is observed at the knee, a proper squat pattern still begins with a slight hinge movement and sitting your weight back towards your heels. This engages the musculature of the hip, especially the glutes, and aids in proper knee tracking, weight distribution, and bar path. The box squat is a particularly good option to learn how to involve your hips in a squat, because the box gives us a target and provides good feedback for joint alignment.
- Knee tracking: one of the most common issues in a squat pattern is for the knees to collapse in towards one another. This is known as knee valgus, which can place unnecessary stress on the knees and isn’t a very strong position. Ideally, the knees track out over the pinky toes (it’s also totally fine for your knees to track forward past your toes), with some “daylight” under the arches of your feet. This is a safe and strong position for the feet, and keeps the lower body joints stacked.
- Spinal posture: coaches often use the terms “flat back” or “neutral spine” to describe spinal positioning, and say that your spine shouldn’t move while you squat. However, this is incorrect as the spine is not truly flat, and it actually moves quite a bit during exercise even if we can’t visually see it. While every person’s normal spine position may be a little bit different, a stiff, “braced” torso is important for producing force efficiently. To achieve this, focus on maintaining the distance between your ribs and hips throughout the movement. As long as this is the case, you are likely in a safe and stable position.
- Hand placement: where you place your hands on the barbell is mostly personal preference. Most people like to have their hands right outside the shoulders, but If your shoulders feel stiff or uncomfortable in this position you can move your hands farther apart on the bar. Regardless of hand width, try to keep your elbows mostly stacked under your wrists. Use the rings on the bar and breaks in the knurling (the textured part of the bar) to line yourself up properly, making sure that your hands are even and the middle of the bar is in the middle of your back.
- Box height: if you are new to box squatting, or if you have trouble at the bottom of the squat, a good rule of thumb is to use a box height where you are slightly above parallel depth when sitting on the box, meaning your hips are a little above your knees. This will be at a height of 15-18” for most people. To challenge your range of motion and mobility, a box height of 12-15” is recommended.
- Bar/J hook height: a good rule of thumb is to set the bar at right around shoulder height. If the bar is set too high you’ll feel like you have to perform a calf raise just to unrack the bar, and if the bar is too low you’ll feel like you’re already squatting before the bar is even on your back! When your set is finished, walk IN to the hooks, THEN down, and avoid “reaching” without moving your feet. This is the safest way to rack the bar and ensures you don’t miss the hooks.