LET’S TALK BOX SQUAT
Arm yourself against critics of BFS box squat training by learning the language.
By Kim Goss
Published: Winter 2001
In recent years many of the world’s best strength athletes have discovered how effective the box squat is for improving their results in the squat and deadlift. Louie Simmons, one of the greatest powerlifting coaches of all time, has made the box squat a core lift in all his programs. Seven of his athletes have squatted over 900 pounds and two have made over 1,000 pounds in competition, and their deadlifts are equally impressive. Undoubtedly, powerlifters are finally becoming convinced of the value of the box squat. So why do many strength coaches still refuse to even try the exercise?
One reason these coaches are reluctant to try the box squat may be that BFS coaches tend to avoid in-depth discussions of training theories that involve technical, scientific terminology. For example, it’s the rare coach who lists among his key resources on training philosophy the following passage from Professor Yuri V. Verkhoshansky’s respected sports science textbook, Programming and Organization of Training: “Indispensable conditions of training organization which provide extensive and relatively prolonged disturbance of homeostasis, are the precise dosage of loading, as well as rehabilitation stages necessary for triggering a compensatory reaction, elimination of the hetero-chronicalness phenomenon in the dynamics of the various functional indicators and stabilization of the organism at the new functional level.” Got that?
Although we should acknowledge the serious contributions of brilliant sport scientists such as Verkhoshansky, most BFS coaches naturally prefer to keep much of the technical jargon about exercise science chained up in the ivory towers of academia. They also like to base their coaching philosophies on “real life” successes in the weightroom and in athletic competition.
We coaches know, for example, that countless state championships in football have been won using the BFS system, which includes the box squat, and for many coaches that’s good enough. And for the critics who say that the box squat is a dangerous exercise, even when performed properly, you need only look at the safety records of BFS President Greg Shepard and Louie Simmons.
Coach Shepard, who made the box squat a core lift in the BFS program since day one, has never had any athletes he has taught injured from this exercise. When you consider that Shepard has introduced this exercise to thousands of athletes in his three decades of coaching and giving BFS clinics, the only conclusion is that the box squat can be a very safe exercise if taught properly.
Likewise, Coach Simmons has been involved in lifting and coaching for almost as long as Shepard. Although he’s 52 years old, Simmons recently established a lifetime-best squat of 920 pounds. Again, the box squat is a core lift for all Simmons’ powerlifters, and he has convinced many college strength coaches to include the exercise in their programs. Simmons has experimented with many types of box squats, but like Shepard he has never had a single athlete injured from any variation of this exercise. Not one.
To satisfy many critics of the box squat, particularly those who fail to give the exercise a fair shot, I’d like to discuss the science behind the exercise. Although many of the terms I will introduce may be new to you, all the concepts are common sense. They actually form the core of the BFS system and have immediate application to your training.
Accentuate the Accentuation
One of the most popular training principles in eastern Europe, especially among elite athletes, is accentuation. Accentuation is a training strategy that uses resistance exercises and techniques that focus on developing strength primarily in the narrow range of motion emphasized in major sporting movements—the range of motion in which there is the highest demand for force production. Let’s use the example of a volleyball player.
According to accentuation theory, there is little need for elite volleyball players to develop strength in the deep squat position because when they jump, their legs seldom bend beyond the level of a quarter squat. For a scientific consideration of squatting depth, a good source is Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky, a respected Russian sport scientist who served for 18 years as chair of the Department of Biomechanics at the Central Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow. He discusses the accentuation principle in detail in his textbook Science and Practice of Strength Training.
Zatsiorsky says that if an elite volleyball player were to perform lower body workouts that consisted of partial squats, full squats and leg presses, 60 percent of the total work performed should be with partial squats and only 25 percent with full squats. One reason is that the weight used in a full squat is considerably less than that used in a partial squat (or the BFS box squat), and as such the most important portion of the athlete’s lower-body strength curve will not receive maximal overload. (Incidentally, performing full-range exercises adheres to a workout strategy called peak-contraction training.)
Accentuation training is popular because it fulfills the requirements of exercise specificity. The principle of exercise specificity says exercises that have the most carryover to specific athletic activities share the same biomechanical properties as the activities the athlete seeks to improve. For example, because a power clean is basically a jump with weights, it would be a better exercise than a bench press for improving the vertical jump of a volleyball player. In fact, as I pointed out in my article “The Power of Giants” in the Spring 2001 issue, shot putters who practice the power clean often have exceptional vertical jumps, even those athletes who weigh over 300 pounds.
Accentuation training is especially needed in such sports as figure skating, since the additional bodyweight developed from full squats could add extra muscle mass that would decrease jumping height (and, for some athletes, adversely affect the aesthetics of the performance, which greatly influence the athletes’ placement). Other athletes who may not want to develop additional muscle mass from emphasizing full squats are gymnasts, divers, high jumpers and even swimmers.
Let’s examine the box squat in more detail by looking at the concept of starting strength.
Getting a Head Start on the Competition
First, it’s time for some more definitions. During a concentric contraction a muscle develops tension and shortens, causing movement to occur. During an isometric contraction a muscle develops tension without a change in joint angle; thus no external movement occurs. And during an eccentric contraction, a muscle develops tension and lengthens, also causing movement to occur.
One factor that makes the box squat especially effective for sport-specific training is that the exercise requires the athlete to perform a concentric muscular contraction after a prolonged isometric muscular contraction. The effect of this on performance is that the pause (isometric) phase dissipates the stored energy (part of the plyometric effect) that develops during the lowering (eccentric) phase of the lift, energy that would otherwise be used to help during the lifting phase.
In powerlifting competition, research has shown that an extra second delay waiting for the judge’s signal to press the weight off the chest in the bench press could result in a five-percent difference in the amount of weight lifted. This is one reason that although it has been allowed in competition to have spotters place the barbell on the chest to begin the lift, it is a technique seldom used because there is virtually no plyometric effect with this technique (besides the fact that you have to have well-trained spotters to properly place the weight on the chest).
In certain sporting movements, an isometric contraction in the set position precedes a concentric contraction, but t