Although the high box squat is probably utilized more in equipped powerlifting than any other resistance-training-domain, the exercise still has some serious utility for non-competitive lifters.
So, what is the high box squat? The high box squat is a posterior-chain-dominant squat variation that incorporates the use of a tall box. It targets the hamstrings, glutes, lumbar muscles and quads but mostly works the hip extensors due to the vertical shins, forward torso lean, and pausing of reps that occurs during the exercise.
Unfortunately, it’s rather common for lifters to brush this exercise aside without considering its benefits — especially for strengthening weak ranges of motion and rehabbing injuries. It’s highly recommended that you keep this exercise in your toolbox for future use, as it might be just the exercise you need to increase your squat strength.
You’re encouraged to spend extra time in the detailed instructions section, as there are a number of common mistakes in the high box squat that can lead to wasted training time if they’re not avoided in the first place.
Let’s get started!
What Is A High Box Squat?
The high box squat is a squat accessory that uses a tall box to emphasize the use of the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings), by having the lifter reach their hips far back while maintaining near-vertical shins.
When compared to the standard box squat, which should result in the lifter being up to a few inches above parallel, the high box squat requires an even taller box to be used.
And while it’s tempting to want to know the exact height that you should be using, this would be ignoring the fact that every lifter will have widely varying limb lengths — which will require different box heights to be used as a result.
Because of this, there is no specific height or range that you absolutely must stick to for the high box squat. Instead, you should: (1) be using a taller box than what you use for your regular box squat, and (2) the crease of your hip should be about 4-6 inches above parallel when you sit on the box.
Using a higher box will certainly change the sticking point that you’re targeting, compared to a normal box squat. With this in mind, the high box squat is easier than a regular back squat due to the shortened range of motion — and certainly easier than a regular box squat as well.
In general, the high box squat is considered an easier squat variation to learn and perform, due to:
• Lower amounts of lower body mobility
• Lower amounts of quad, glute and hamstring strength
• Less skill due to reduced range of motion
High Box Squat: Muscles Worked
The muscles used in the high box squat are the:
• Trunk (front and side abs, lumbar muscles)
Prior to covering the muscles used in the high box squat, let’s summarize the research comparing the regular box squat to the back squat (since there’s no comparisons of box squats and high box squats).
A study by Skinner and colleagues (2011) found that the muscle activity of the quads, and hamstrings muscle groups was significantly lower in the box squat, and McBride et al (2010) found the same conclusion when comparing the back squat and box squat.
This is likely the case due to the decreased range of motion in the box squat. However, keep in mind that a higher box will produce even greater reductions in distance travelled — possibly decreasing muscle activity even further.
That said, the high box squat still works the glutes, some of the quads, and part of the hamstrings, too.
Want to feel your glutes more while squatting? Check out my 9 tips.
Despite the attempt to keep the shins vertical in the high box squat, knee joints still experience some flexion during this exercise. In turn, the lifter quads must extend the knees to stand back up off the box.
By aiming to keep vertical shins in the high box squat, the trade-off is that there is significantly more forward torso lean. Because of this, there will be more hip flexion occurring. When the lifter is ready to stand back up, the hip muscles of the glutes and hamstrings will be recruited to perform hip extension — bringing the lifter back to an upright standing position.
Lastly, the trunk muscles responsible for supporting the midsection will experience some work by enforcing a stable spine and maintaining torso rigidity.
Read more about the Muscles Used In The Squat in my complete guide.
5 Benefits of The High Box Squat
Whether you’re a competitive equipped-powerlifter or recreational strength trainee (or anything in between), the high box squat can have a place in your program.
Here are the benefits of the high box squat:
• It builds hip extensor strength
• It allows for overloading
• It develops lockout strength for the deadlift
• It is useful to transition to a low box
• It is helpful for knee rehab
1. It Builds Hip Extensor Strength
In a study by Bryanton et al, 2012, it was found that “heavier barbell loads are warranted for strengthening the hip extensors.” While the glutes and hamstrings have an increased relative muscular effort with a greater range of motion, they can also be challenged by limiting the range of motion during a squat.
In turn, a high box squat will shorten the range of motion sufficiently to emphasize the hip extensor muscles by permitting heavier loads to be used. Doing this will work the target muscles of the glutes and hamstrings.
Learn more about the box squat in my article on Is The Box Squat Harder?
2. It Allows For Overloading
The shortened range of motion observed in the high box squat allows for a significant amount of overloading. This is a strategy where significantly heavier weights can be loaded on the bar in order to cause a new stimulus, whether it’s by adding additional weight or accommodating resistance.
Some lifters have also reported that supra-maximal loading (using more than 100% of your 1RM) in the box squat is helpful to prepare their nervous system to handle 1-rep maximum attempts in the back squat, although this is anecdotal evidence only.
Read my other article on Why Are Box Squats So Hard?
3. It Develops Lockout Strength For The Deadlift
While the deadlift is significantly different from a squat, the high box squat also has the potential to develop lockout strength in the deadlift.
The primary reason for this is that the joint angles in the high box squat closely replicate those seen in the deadlift. Specifically, more vertical shins (using less quads) and more forward torso lean (using more glutes and hamstrings).
Additionally, the deliberate pause that is performed in the high box squat closely mimics the concentric start of the deadlift — where there is no momentum or stretch-reflex (natural bounce) to break the inertia of the weights resting on the floor, just total muscular effort.
Ever wondered if Deadlifting Carries Over To Squats? Check out my article to find out how the strength you build in your deadlift can improve your squats.
4. It Is Useful To Transition To A Low Box
Lifters who want to perform the low box squat may find the high box squat especially useful to cue the correct movement pattern and help make the transition smoother.
Unlike the back squat, which incorporates a stretch reflex at the bottom of the exercise, box squats require a controlled pause on the box to work the posterior chain even further.
While the box squat exercise technique might seem obvious (just sit down on a box, right?), this vertical-shin-hip-dominant squat style is a skill — and skills take practice. For this reason, there is no harm in starting with a higher box and gradually progressing to a lower box over weeks or months.
5. It Is Helpful For Knee Rehab
For injured lifters who are unable to perform much knee flexion, the high box squat can be particularly helpful.
This exercise specifically limits the possible knee flexion by using a physical obstacle — a tall box — to restrict any additional range of motion. In contrast, half squats or quarter squats might share a very similar range of motion but lack the physical stopping point that the box provides.
Because of this, injured lifters may have greater peace of mind using the high box squat as it reduces the chance of sinking a squat too low and accidentally entering a sensitive range of motion.
If you’re struggling with squat depth (not due to injury), check out my article 22 Exercises To Improve Squat Depth (That Actually Work)
How To Do The High Box Squat
By now, you should understand and appreciate the benefits of the high box squat.
Let’s switch gears to outline the most ideal technique for this posterior-chain-dominant squat accessory.
Step 1: Set Up Your Equipment
In order to properly conduct the high box squat, you’ll need to gather some equipment.
A barbell and power rack (most ideal) are your primary equipment pieces, though a pair of squat stands can also work in this scenario. Ensure the j-hooks are set to the correct height, so that the barbell is a few inches below the top of your shoulder.
In addition to the bar and rack, you’ll need a tall box. The multi-height plyo-boxes (click for details on Amazon) that are made from wood tend to be the best box style for the high box squat. Most people will do well with a box height of 14-16”.
That said, don’t worry if your box isn’t made of wood. Provided the box you choose is built from dense material, it should help to ensure consistency in the exercise from week-to-week.
Once you’ve found the right box, position its front edge about 3 feet from the j-hooks or about a third into the power rack’s floor space from the open side of the rack.
Step 2: Unrack the Bar
The next step is to unrack the barbell.
To do this, stand between the bar and the front edge of the box and put your hands on the bar with your standard back squat grip.
Keeping a firm grip on the bar, dip your head and shoulders underneath it. Create a more stable spot on your back to support the bar by squeezing your upper back muscles together. From here, bring your feet forward to position your lower body directly under the bar.
When ready, forcefully stand up to lift the bar out of the j-hooks. Once the bar has settled, take 2-3 paces back and confirm that your heels are just a few inches from the front edge of the box.
Step 3: Squat Down
Once you’re positioned close to the box with the bar on your back, it’s time to begin the descent.
Keeping a soft bend in your knees, begin by bending at your hips to lower yourself to the box. Really exaggerate pushing your hips back, this will force you to lean forwards.
Continue pushing your hips back while letting your chest come forward, all while trying to keep your balance in the middle of your feet. Once the back of thighs have made contact against the box, you’ve completed this step.
Thie high box squat is typically programmed for people who lose balance in the hole of the squat. If that’s you, check out my article on Losing Balance While Squatting: 10 Tips To Fix.
Step 4: Pause
After making contact against the box, you’ll need to pause for 1-2 seconds.
During this step, your entire body should remain tight. Maintain the rigidity in your torso by continuing to brace, as it’s easy to let things slacken while you sit down.
Since the high box squat is designed to build your posterior-chain, ensure that you don’t skip the pause by bouncing off the box or rocking to gather momentum.
Step 5: Stand Up
Once you’ve performed an appropriate pause on the box, use the squat cue “push the floor away” to stand up.
As soon as you start ascending off the box, keep your balance centered in the middle of your feet and push your hips forward explosively. Moving intentionally will help you gather enough speed to blast through the sticking point which tends to present itself a few inches off the box.
Continue driving up forcefully until you’re returned to an upright standing position.
Related Article: The Ultimate List Of 55+ Barbell Exercises (By Muscle Group)
Step 6: Re-rack the Bar
After completing the desired number of reps, it’s time to re-rack the barbell to complete your set.
Start by ensuring that the bar has stopped moving after your final rep and after this point, begin walking forwards. Continue advancing until the bar makes contact against the vertical part of the j-hooks.
From here, simply squat down by bending your knees slightly and the bar should rest securely in the j-hooks themselves.
Related Article: 5 Best Box Squat Alternatives (With Pictures)
How To Program The High Box Squat
Whether you’re a competitive strength athlete or a recreational barbell-enthusiast, the general format for programming the high box squat is basically the same — incorporate it as a squat accessory.
For instance, performing the high box squat for 2-5 sets of 5-10 reps (this should be anywhere from 65-85% of your high box squat 1RM) will emphasize more of a hypertrophy stimulus due to the higher volume of work.
That said, competitive strength athletes will undoubtedly achieve better sport-specific improvements by incorporating higher intensity work more often. For example, floating around the 2-6 rep range (this is the 80-95% 1RM zone) for multiple sets will provide better strength gains than >6 reps due to the increased exposure to heavier weights.
If you’re an intermediate or elite level lifter who is looking to take a pause from regular back squats altogether, you could even swap in the high box squat as your “competition squat” exercise. In this way, it could be programmed just as you would your competition back squat with heavy singles or sets of 2-5 reps, while wearing knee sleeves and a belt.
If you feel like you’re falling backward in the squat, performing high box squat will help you correct this issue.
The reduced range of motion in the high box squat allows added emphasis on targeting the posterior chain. This assists in building hip extensor strength, which will have some amount of transfer to the deadlift.
However, the high box squat also plays an important role in helping lifters develop the basic skill of pushing the hips back. This is an essential skill in the low box squat that becomes more difficult to maintain with greater depth.
Lastly, injured lifters who need to minimize knee flexion will find the high box squat particularly useful. The fixed barrier of the box eliminates any possibility of a squat being taken too low, into (potentially) sensitive ranges of motion.
While the high box squat used to almost solely be performed by equipped powerlifters, the advantages listed above allow any lifter to claim its benefits by adding it to their exercise toolbox.
Other squatting exercise guides to check out:
- 6 Cambered Squat Bar Benefits (And, How To Train With It)
- Hatfield Squat: What Is It? Technique, Benefits, Muscles Used
- Reverse Band Squat: How-To, Benefits, Why Do It?
- Cossack Squat: What Is It? How To Do It? Benefits
- 7 Benefits of The Zercher Squat (Plus, 3 Drawbacks)
- Jefferson Squat: How-To, Benefits, Should You Do It?
- 4 Reasons To Do Safety Bar Squats (Plus, How To Program It)
- Partial Squats: Benefits, Muscles Worked, Are They Safe?
- Suitcase Squats: How-To, Benefits, and Should You Do It?
- How to Pause Squat (Technique, Benefits, Muscles Worked)
- Ultimate Front Squat Guide (Technique, Benefits, Tips)
- Anderson Squat: What Is It, How To Do It, Benefits, Drawbacks
- Kneeling Squat: What Is It, How To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Steinborn Squat: Does This “Circus Like” Squat Have Benefits?
- 1.5 Squats: How-to, Benefits, And Should You Do It?
- Prisoner Squats: How-to, Benefits, And Should You Do It?
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.