A common source of confusion in developing strength and/or building muscle for the lower body is deciding between box squats and regular (back) squats.
So, what are the differences between the box squat vs regular squat? Box squats require a box or raised platform; they emphasize the glutes, hamstrings and lumbar muscles, and are usually performed with a pause. Back squats don’t require a box; they target the quads, glutes and adductor magnus, and take advantage of the stretch-reflex in the bottom position.
Not only will I cover the key differences between the box squat and back squat, I’ll include information on how to perform each of these exercises correctly, along with the main pros and cons of each.
You’ll also learn the most common mistakes to avoid, so you can skip straight to mastering these movements.
Let’s dive right in!
What’s The Difference Between a Box Squat and Back Squat?
Despite both of these exercises using a barbell, there are some key differences that warrant one exercise being used over the other.
There are 6 main differences between the box squat and back squat:
The box squat requires a barbell, power rack (or squat stands), and a box or raised platform.
The back squat only requires a barbell and power rack (or squat stands).
2. Range of Motion
The box squat is usually performed to a box that positions the lifter above parallel, which is not deep enough for squat technique rules in powerlifting.
The back squat is performed to the point where the lifter’s hip crease dips below the top of the knee (as a minimum), which is much deeper than the depth seen in the average box squat.
3. Muscles Worked
The box squat shifts the emphasis to the glutes, hamstrings, and lumbar muscles, making the posterior chain a higher focus.
The back squat shifts the emphasis to the quadriceps, glutes, and adductor magnus — the quads contribute more when the squat is taken below parallel.
Check out my complete guide to the Muscles Used In The Squat.
4. Movement Pattern
The box squat demonstrates a greater degree of hip flexion and less knee flexion. This creates more forward torso angle and more vertical shins.
Learn more about the box squat in my article on Is The Box Squat Harder?
The back squat demonstrates a greater degree of knee flexion, with slightly less hip flexion than the box squat. This will create more forward knee travel and a more vertical torso angle.
5. Weight Used
The box squat will require slightly lower weights than the back squat, due mostly to the pause on the box and focus on pushing the hips so far back.
The back squat will require heavier weights to be used than the box squat, due mostly to the natural stretch-reflex (bounce) in the bottom position, and greater recruitment from the quadriceps.
6. Sport Specificity
The box squat is limited in its sport specificity, because no strength sports demand that the competitor squat down to a box and stand back up. But it can be effective for bodybuilders looking to increase posterior chain activation, or an injured athlete who needs to limit the range of motion used.
The back squat is highly specific to strength sports — specifically Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. This is because the back squat more closely matches the joint angles, contraction speeds, coordination, and muscle recruitment sequences that are required in competition.
The box squat is a variation of the barbell squat that requires the lifter squat down to a box, in order to emphasize the hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, and lumbar muscles).
The box squat’s defining features (besides the presence of a box) are the near-vertical shin angle and amount of forward lean that are seen during this exercise. This shifts some of the focus off the quads and onto the hip musculature (glutes and hamstrings).
How To Do A Box Squat
Here’s how to perform a box squat:
1. Locate a squat rack or power rack
2. Change the setting of the hooks/uprights, so the barbell sits around upper-chest height
3. Find a box or adjustable step-up platform that places you above powerlifting-depth when you sit down on it
4. Set your hands on the bar with your standard squat grip
5. Dipping underneath it, position the bar comfortably on your back
6. Step forward until your feet (and hips) are directly under the bar
7. When ready, forcefully stand up to unrack it
8. Step back a couple paces, adjusting your stance width afterwards
9. Once you’re ready to squat, take a deep breath into your diaphragm
10. Bend slightly at your knees as you sit your hips far bar and lean forward
11. Continue bending forward at your hips until you make contact against the box
12. Pause for a second, then drive you feet into the floor to stand back up
Technique Tips For A Box Squat
Here are some box squat tips to help you with your technique:
- Use the correct box height. The ideal height for the box is one that will place your hip crease above the top of your knee (when looking from the side). This won’t be deep enough for IPF depth, and that’s OK. Sometimes, you’ll need a fine adjustment to get the height perfect — using a slightly lower box and stacking 1-2 large rubber-coated weight plates often works well (the plates should stick to each other).
- Get a solid pause. For the box squat, you’re trying to emphasize your hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings). In order to keep your reps consistent and add to the workload on your posterior chain, you’ll want to pause for at least a full second on the box.
- Take a wider stance. In order to encourage yourself to use your hip extensors more and lean forward enough, you’ll likely find it helpful to widen your stance at least a few inches outwards (possibly even further than this). Definitely experiment to find the most comfortable width, toe-angle, and forward lean with this exercise.
Not sure how far forward you should lean? Check out my article Best Squat Back Angle For Your Size & Build (With Pictures) to figure out the correct back angle for you!
Common Mistakes When Doing a Box Squat
The most common faults in the box squat are:
- “Rocking” on the box. The most common mistake in the box squat is when lifters sit on the box and then rock backwards to gain some momentum for their ascent. Not only is this potentially dangerous (you might rock back too far and completely fall backwards with the barbell), it adds in a huge confounding variable to the exercise — you might just end up rocking farther and farther back as you add weight. Instead, keep the emphasis entirely on your muscles by avoiding all rocking whatsoever.
- Bouncing off the box. The other mistake frequently seen in the box squat is when athletes bounce off the box instead of pausing. Bouncing makes the exercise easier, since you get a rebound effect to assist your ascent. However, applying a jarring force to your tailbone with a couple hundred pounds or more might not be the safest thing to do. Remember, don’t bounce on the box — pause for a full second at the very least.
Muscles Used: Box Squat
The muscles used in the box squat are the:
- Abdominals (obliques)
- Back Muscles (erector spinae)
During the box squat, the athlete is mostly performing hip extension (straightening) while the knees also perform some knee extension.
Since the primary action during the box squat is hip extension, the glutes and hamstrings will get targeted the most during this exercise. That said, the quadriceps get a small amount of assistance from the calves as these two muscles extend the knee joint.
Throughout the lift, the obliques and erector spinae maintain a consistent contraction to keep the lifter’s spine in a neutral position during the descent and ascent.
Benefits of The Box Squat
Some of the benefits of the box squat are:
- It emphasizes your posterior chain. While most squat variations target the quads primarily (due to the amount of knee flexion occurring), the box squat deliberately limits the amount of knee flexion by making you sit back and lean forward. This change in biomechanics shifts some works off your quads and onto your posterior chain — your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.
- It can be an effective rehab exercise. If a lower body injury prevents you from squatting below parallel, then the box squat will be a huge asset for you. Not only will the box physically prevent you from going below parallel, this limit in your range of motion should give you additional peace of mind — allowing you to push yourself hard on this exercise without fear of sinking your squats too low.
Cons of The Box Squat
Some of the cons of the box squat are:
- Limited quad emphasis. Since the goal of the box squat is to target the posterior chain by sitting far back, your quads won’t get worked as much as during an olympic squat. In addition, the limited flexion of the knee joint makes the box squat a less beneficial squat variation if you’re trying to focus on your quads.
- Lighter weights needed. The act of having to pause on the box and the reduced quad activity during the box squat means that you’ll probably have to lighten the weight on the bar, compared to your regular back squat. Remember to start off conservatively with excellent technique, prior to loading up the weight.
Tired of having inefficient squat technique? Click here to find out What Is The Best Bar Path For Squats? (Science-Backed)
The back squat is a fundamental squatting exercise that places the barbell on the lifter’s back and targets their quads, glutes, adductor magnus, with some minor work on the calves and trunk muscles.
While I’ll refer to it simply as “the squat” going forward, we are talking about the back squat here.
How To Do A Squat
Here’s how to perform a squat:
1. Find an adjustable squat rack or power rack
2. Alter the uprights or hooks, so the bar sits just below shoulder-height
3. Grip the bar in an overhand grasp that’s slightly more than shoulder-width apart
4. Duck underneath the barbell and place it in a comfortable position on your back
5. Bring your feet directly under your hips and squat the bar up
6. Slowly step back two paces, and adjust the width of your stance
7. Fill your abdomen with a large breath of air and then brace your abs outwards
8. Bend at your knees and hips simultaneously to squat down
9. Ensure that you lean forward enough to keep your balance in the middle of your feet
10. Continue pushing your knees outwards and sitting your hips back as you descend
11. Stop once your hip crease is parallel or slightly below the top of your knees
12. Push the floor to stand up
Interested in learning more about exercise comparisons? Check out my other article on the Sumo Deadlift vs Back Squat.
Technique Tips For A Squat
Here are some squat tips to help you with your technique:
- Use a belt when going heavy. When performing the squat with heavy weights, you’ll most certainly benefit from wearing a powerlifting belt. Throwing on a belt will help you lift heavier, which will also assist you in getting stronger and building more muscle over time.
- Stay balanced by leaning forward. If you’ve ever performed a barbell squat, then you know that you have to lean forward to some degree in order to stay balanced in your midfoot. That said, the best squat back angle for you depends on a variety of criteria: your anthropometry, stance width, barbell position, and mobility.
Still unsure about wearing a belt for squats and deadlifts? Check out this article to help you decide: Should You Wear A Belt For Squats And Deadlifts?
Common Mistakes When Doing a Squat
The most common faults in the squat are:
- Letting your knees cave in. While knee valgus (collapsing inwards) doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll experience pain, having your knees cave in during your squats certainly isn’t an efficient way to stand up. Focus instead on shoving your knees out, especially at the bottom of your squat and on the way up.
- Allowing your back to round. Similar to the point above, a rounded back won’t necessarily cause you pain before, during, or after you squat. However, a rounded back during the squat definitely isn’t an effective way to transmit force through your torso. If you can’t manage to keep your back straight when you squat, then it’s time to fix your rounded back squat for good.
If you’re struggling with knee valgus, definitely read by article on How To Fix Knee Valgus During Squat (7 Tips)
Muscles Used: Squat
The muscles used in the squat are the:
- Adductor Magnus (part of the hamstring)
- Obliques (side abs)
- Erector Spinae (lumbar muscles)
In the squat, the lifter is performing two main actions: knee extension and hip extension.
These actions are done to varying degrees, depending on the depth achieved during the squat. Nonetheless, the quadriceps do the bulk of the work to extend the knees with a small amount of help from the calves.
Hip extension is predominantly handled by the gluteal muscles, but the adductor magnus is increasingly recruited as the lifter squats lower.
Maintaining a stiff, rigid torso is key to avoid having the lifter cave forward — for this, the obliques and lumbar muscles are called upon throughout the exercise.
Check out my comparison between the back squat vs leg press where I break down the muscles used for both of these exercises.
Benefits of The Squat
Some of the benefits of the squat are:
- It’s an excellent lower body exercise. Due to the sheer number of joint actions occurring, the squat recruits many large muscle groups and develops them quite well on its own. To significantly work the quads and glutes, and placing a reasonable workload on part of the hamstrings, calves, and trunk muscles — it’s no surprise that the squat is often called “the king of exercises”.
- It’s more transferable to sports. Whether you’re competing in Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, powerlifting or another strength sport, this squat variation is almost certainly the best choice. The main reason? You don’t squat to a box during any of these competitions. Remember that when it comes to sport specificity, you should practice like you play.
Related Article: 5 Best Box Squat Alternatives (With Pictures)
Cons of The Squat
Some of the cons of the squat are:
- Mixing different styles up. Although the squat puts the barbell on the lifter’s back, there’s a fairly distinct difference between the olympic (high bar) squat vs powerlifting (low bar) squat. Mixing up the position of the barbell on your back will cause subtle (but important) changes in how your squat is executed. Make sure to choose one style and stick with it.
- Technique proficiency required. Despite being such a great compound exercise for the lower body, the squat also necessitates that the lifter be fairly proficient with their technique. Not squatting deep enough, letting your knees cave in, allowing your back to round, and losing balance are components that must all be avoided to perform an efficient squat.
Other Squat Comparison Articles
- Step Ups vs Squats: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Olympic Squat vs Powerlifting Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Zercher Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Goblet Squat vs Front Squat: Form, Benefits, Differences
- Leg Press vs Squat: Why You DON’T Need To Do Both
- Anderson Squat vs Pin Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Squats Vs Sumo Squats: Pros, Cons, and Differences
When trying to decide whether to perform box squats or back squats, it mostly comes down to the muscles you want to target, and whether you’re focusing on sport-specificity or injury rehab.
Use box squats if you want to emphasize your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, lumbar muscles). You should also use this variation if you have an injury that is aggravated when you squat below parallel — the box will stop you from going beyond the depth that you’d like.
Use back squats if you want to emphasize your quads and glutes. Provided you ensure that you keep a consistent standard with the depth of your squats, this variation will be a better choice if you’re competing in Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, or another strength sport (Strongman/Strongwoman, Highland Games).
Only interested in getting stronger, with no competitive aspirations? Pick the variation that you enjoy the most and that lets you train hard.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.