Why You Should Never Box Squat Your Athletes

TAGS: squat box, Nate Harvey, strength and conditioning, coaching, Sports Training, conditioning, athlete, strength, squat, strength training, strength coach

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Over the years, I’ve heard many reasons why I shouldn’t do box squats with my athletes. Instead of just saying “scoreboard” and leaving it at that, I thought maybe I should take some of the objections I’ve run into and try to solve any problems people had with them. I put a post out on Instagram (@nateharvey2600) asking for other objections people have run into while implementing these. There were a few new ones, but most of them I had heard before.

Please keep in mind, when I reference a box squat, I’m talking about a properly performed box squat. You can read more about this in these two articles:

Let’s take a look at some of the hesitations we run into implementing this movement so we can better explain the benefits of it.

“This is not for athletes.”

This movement was made popular by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. Louie discovered it by studying the training of Olympic-level throwers. It is for athletes. This movement will help decrease knee stress, decrease back stress, improve lateral movement, starting strength, first step speed, increase hip mobility, decrease the athlete’s learning curve of the main lower body movement, and help the athlete run faster and jump higher. If all these things are not for athletes, then you probably agree that poker belongs on ESPN.

“They don’t sit on a box on the field.”

Very true. There are also a million other things they do in the weight room that they don’t do on the field or court.

“They don’t ‘relax’ on the field/mat/court.”

I think what people are referring to here is the fact that the athlete gets to “rest” on the box. They’re right, the athlete doesn’t. But what do relax are the glutes and the hamstring.

Everyone wants to reference Dan Pfaff lately, so we’ll use something (I believe) he said to make a point. In a lecture, he was talking about the muscles’ ability to fully relax and rapidly/violently contract to make for a more efficient stride and ultimately faster running.

This exact sequence is what happens when we box squat. The glute and hamstring have a chance to relax or let go, then when the athlete stands back up they violently contract to accelerate the weight. If we look at a free squat in comparison, the glutes and hamstrings never get that chance to relax; otherwise, the athlete would be sitting on the floor before they know it. As much as it hurts to say this, the box squat is almost looking sport-specific at this point!

“They don’t play with their feet out there.”

Go watch five minutes of any sport, and you will see many examples of athletes with their feet out wide. What is one of the first things any coach will do when they begin to demonstrate a sport skill or position? Widen their stance, bend their knees, and reach their butt back. They do play with their feet out there! So, why don’t we equip them with strength out there? Wide squatting will build strength, both wide and narrow. Narrow squatting will not bring up wide stance strength.

Don’t believe me? Take your kids who normally squat shoulder width and make them do a correct box squat. They’re going to get their ass kicked because their mobility and hip strength outside shoulder width sucks. I’ve seen it too many times.

“I don’t need them to do things that are easier.”

This comes from mentioning to coaches that the athletes can recover faster from box squats when compared to a free squat. I get the mentality: More is better; working harder is better. The fact is if they recover easier and can still get brutally strong and explosive, why wouldn’t you pick that? Also, box squatting may be easier to teach and easier to recover from, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the movement itself is easier or you're giving your athletes an easy way out.

“You don’t develop the quads enough.”

No doubt. You will get less quad recruitment with a box squat. Ninety-nine percent of your athletes don’t need to bring up their quad strength; just continue to train them a little. This is usually done with smaller accessory and single-leg movements. Really big strong quads don’t help protect your knees. Big gnarly glutes and hamstrings do. In my 10-year coaching career, I had one ACL tear under the teams that trained this way. The teams that didn’t had more ACL tears. These are what box squats primarily train. So, yes, they don’t train muscles that are a secondary concern to an athlete.

“Isn’t that for (geared) powerlifters?!”

It can be. Let’s think about this, though. Powerlifting consists of (free) squat, bench, and deadlift. If you are running a proper conjugate model, you might do these actual powerlifting movements a couple of times per year whereas many traditional programs are squatting at least once a week. People are scared of training like powerlifters, but most of them are training their athletes more like a powerlifter than a coach who utilizes the box squat.

“I don’t want that compression on my athlete’s spine.”

As soon as you stand up with the bar, the spine is compressed, no matter how you squat. Although this is a fact, this is not where people are coming from on this objection. Their thought is that when you sit on the box, the spinal column is being smashed between the bar and the box. This same horrific scenario happens when the pelvis becomes an immovable object in the bottom of a free squat to reverse the weight.

If you box squat correctly, you are enabling the athlete to keep the spine on a slope instead of a stacked vertical column. The slope allows downward vertebral crushing forces to be dissipated and will also make your back stronger at the same time. This argument needs to be wiped out because I think the only true way to settle the intervertebral disc pressure argument is to measure the pressure inside the discs during the movement. Good luck getting that protocol past an experiment review board, and if it did pass, good luck getting volunteers.

I once had an assistant who was very hesitant to do box squatting because of this issue because he had back surgery. I asked him if he ever did box squats while he played. He said no. Maybe he should have.

“The lack of stretch reflex doesn’t transfer to sporting movements.”

There is no way to quantify transfer to sporting movements, so can we stop with that bullshit for now? Secondly, athletes practice stretch reflex or reactive abilities from the time they can run and jump. They’ve been doing it their entire lives. How much more improvement can they actually get from training this quality?

If we implement the box squat, we can have them get better at a motor ability they are typically not very good at for a greater increase in performance. How many times have you heard a coach say, “We need to be quicker off the ball,” “My kid’s first step sucks,” or “We take forever to accelerate”? Static or relaxed, dynamic contractions like that trained in the box squat are what are going to develop these qualities NOT overloading the athlete with stretch reflex work. Dr. John Rusin and I discussed this on his IG Live last week.

“It doesn’t involve the ankle joint enough to translate to sports.”

This is one from Instagram. I’m not even sure what to say to this except congratulations if you didn’t go fight club on this one and literally beat the shit out of yourself after this comment. I could talk a ton of shit on this one but I’ll stop. There are plenty of other opportunities to get a sporting transfer from the weight room involving the ankle joint which will be much more effective. I’d love for my kids to play this person’s kids.

“You’re going to make the athletes tight. The box is limiting the athlete’s range of motion, so they can’t break parallel.”

You actually have a great opportunity to build the athlete’s mobility through strength! How many times do you hear coaches say, “These kids can’t open up their hips”? When done correctly, box squats will do this. The best way to build mobility is strength. Many times there is a lack of mobility because of weaknesses. The muscles are hypertonus because they have no other way to survive the rigors of sport except for being tight all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I watched kids open up their stride and be able to turn and run easier after a few weeks of box squatting.

“There is no research to validate that method of training” comes from good intentions.

Nope, just healthier more explosive athletes EVERY time this has been implemented. I didn’t say “scoreboard.”

“Those are not going to make my daughter a better softball pitcher.”

I’m just going to defer to Nick Showman at Showtime Performance for this one.

Below is a video of a presentation I did on this subject at The Livonia Athletic Performance Summit this year. I am working on getting out and doing more clinics this fall/winter. If you are interested, you can contact me at nharvey@elitefts.net.

Hopefully these points can stimulate some thoughts on the subject and help you in some of your dreadful meetings you have to sit through.

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