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The next time you’re in your gym – provided you’re training in a typical commercial facility – take a look around. How many guys do you see, every day, clustered around benches and standing in front of mirrors performing dumbbell curls? If your gym is anything like mine, the answer is probably the same as it is where I train: pretty much everyone in the entire place is doing the same thing.

Here’s the question I want you to ask these “lightbulbs”:

When’s leg day, guys?

What I’m about to give you, if you haven’t seen this before – and if you haven’t, you either don’t go online much or you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years – is an exercise you’ll love to do, and one that’ll convert you, once and for all, into one of those guys who’d rather train his lower body any day of the week.

You see, those of us who’ve been squatting for a long time can let you in on a little secret if you ask, and that secret is the fact that squatting – and lower body training in general – is fun. You move more weights, you’re really accomplishing something in the gym, and you feel like a million bucks once you’re done. You can’t get that feeling from doing curls for an hour, and that’s why so many people quit a month after joining the gym.

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The Movement

So, what makes leg day fun, you ask? Box squatting. Putting a barbell on your back, sitting down on a box, and then standing back up. That’s what makes training your lower body so simple and fun. Of course, there’s a lot more to this movement in terms of technique and programming, and we’ll get into that shortly, but it’s the fun and benefits of being “a guy who trains his legs” that I’m trying to get across here.

Box squatting makes things fun because it’s a complete and total paradox. It’s harder than conventional squatting, but it feels like it’s easier because of the simple nature of the movement itself. For all intents and purposes, I’m asking you simply to sit down and stand up. The act of sitting down and standing up, however, has several advantages when compared to conventional squatting:

  • When you box squat, the idea is to lead with your hips and sit back onto the box instead of dropping straight down. This keeps your knees behind your toes on your descent, which reduces the amount of sheer force borne by your knees. In other words, it helps keep your knees healthy, and that’s something we all want.
  • When you squat conventionally, as you go heavier in weight, you’ll instinctively squat higher and higher for psychological reasons. With box squatting, you’ll be descending to the same exact depth – chosen by you – on every rep of every set.
  • At the bottom of the movement, sitting on the box, you’re in a completely static position. In order to overcome this static position, you’ll need to fire your hips, glutes, hamstrings and quads. This technique of “popping” off the bottom from a static to a dynamic position will make you very strong, powerful and explosive. These muscle groups aren’t recruited nearly as much by conventional Olympic free squats.

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Technique: A Simple Step-By-Step Guide

The best way to learn to do any kind of squatting is in a power rack with the spotter bars set up in a way that lets you safely bail out of the movement if you need to. Set a sturdy box up so you have to take two steps back once you unrack the bar. That way, the J-hooks of the rack won’t interfere with your ability to perform a rep.

To figure out how high of a box to use, either watch yourself sit on one in profile in a mirror, or have someone watch you do this from the side. I’d suggest starting with a box that’s either parallel (your upper leg should be parallel to the floor and form a 90-degree angle with your shin) or slightly above. Box heights can range anywhere from 6-24 inches to get you to parallel, depending on your height and anatomical structure.

Stand under the bar with your feet about shoulder width apart, or wider if you’re comfortable that way, and “arch” the bar out of the rack. Take two steps backward and set your feet so they’re in your squat position with your toes pointed outward slightly. Keep your head and chest up, grip the bar as tightly as you can – this helps keep your entire upper body tight and will help keep you from pitching forward – and drive your elbows under the bar.

To initiate the movement, inhale deeply and break your hips, aiming your butt down and back. Keep your knees “tracking” your toes, and sit back and down onto the box, maintaining a tight arch in your lower back and keeping your elbows under the bar. Your lower back should be so tightly arched when you sit back that your hamstrings make contact with the box first, followed by your glutes.

When you land on the box, don’t relax. Everything should remain nice and tight. Don’t smash down onto the box, or rock backward when you sit down. You should land softly, in a fixed position, ready to reverse the movement and stand back up.

To stand back up, “fire” your hips first while keeping your head and chest up. You’ll understand this once you try the movement. The key is to keep yourself from rocking forward, and to try your best to explode off the box as quickly and as powerfully as you can. This isn’t a quad-dominant movement. Rather, it recruits your hips, glutes and hamstrings, and lets your quads take over halfway through your upward range of motion – provided your lower back stays tightly arched and is capable of supporting the load you’re bearing.

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Programming

Box squats can be inserted into a program and used the same way you’d use any main exercise – lighter weights for higher reps to build hypertrophy, heavier weights for lower reps to build strength and power, or, as is preferable, a combination of the two. Here’s a solid Monday/Thursday lower body plan that should keep you growing and getting stronger for a long time to come (percentages are based on your one-rep max, either actual or perceived). Weights and/or reps can increase slightly each week for each exercise, and this program should be performed for a 3-week cycle, followed by a weeklong deload where both the weights and reps for each exercise are reduced to 60% of what you did in week three.

Monday

Box Squats: bar x 10, 30% x 10, 40% x 10, 60% x 5, 70% x 5, 80 % x 5, 90% x 3

Unilateral Leg Press: 3 x 10 with each leg

Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 10

Hamstring Curl: 3 x 10

Incline Sit-up: 3 x 10

Thursday

Box Squats: bar x 10, 30% x 10, 40% x 10, 50% x 5 x 10

Good-morning: 3 x 10

45-degree Back Raise: 3 x 10

Hamstring Curl: 3 x 10

Incline Sit-up: 3 x 10