Free or Box Squatting: Which Should I Use?


Article written by Jay Stadtfeld for

I might ruffle a few feathers when I say this, but I don’t particularly like the box squat for raw lifters. The reasons vary, but the biggest factor is that the stretch reflex of the hamstrings is primarily the largest factor in a raw squat.

When you box squat, you’re sitting back to the point that your shins are vertical (or beyond in some cases), which emphasizes the hips when standing up, much like a sumo deadlift would. When you sit down, your hamstrings become de-activated as well, meaning the stretch reflex does not occur like it would in a “free” squat. This is why free squatting makes more sense to me.

The box squat is an easy thing to teach, which could be why many people prefer to use it over the traditional raw squat. The reason I find people to use this more often than not though, is that their mobility isn’t up to snuff, be it in the ankles or hips. Normally both will manifest itself in the apparent inability to keep the heels on the ground and various other snafu’s, in which case you really should work harder on yourmobility so this doesn’t occur.

I will even go as far as saying that the free squat is harder than a box squat both in strength ability and ability to cover from. Squatting 400 without a box is a lot harder than squatting 400 with. The reason being is you have to rely on your own musculature to support the weight at perhaps the weakest spot of the lift: parallel, whereas in a box squat you have the box to support you, which you then power off and stand back up with the weight.

There are, however, a couple instances where box squatting is fine in my mind.

Those reasons are:

·        1. Additional volume work after the traditional “free” squat

·        2.Existing injury preventing you from attaining proper positioning

If you do use a box in your training and are a raw squatter, I recommend a box that is slightly below parallel, so at the very least you’re still training where your squat will end as if you weren’t using the box in the first place. 

I have used a box in my training for additional volume after my regular squatting session with pretty good success. I lessened the weight and really emphasized the “sit back and perform a hamstring curl” idea that Louie Simmons recommends in his athlete’s training. It’s great for strengthening aspects that may be overlooked by traditional squatting and deadlifting methods (think conventional deadlifting), namely the hips and hamstrings.

To recap in ClifNotes version, the free squat reigns supreme as the go-to method for raw lifters. If mobility is the limiting factor, fix it. If strength is the issue, get stronger.

  • Heather

    I agree! I had to do box squats over the summer for an injury I tried my best to keep it as similar to raw squat as possible. Now going back to raw squat my glutes and hams are so tight at the bottom of my squat. And I love the ClifNotes version! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Jay, while I agree with your conclusion concerning box squats, I simply don’t agree that you deactivate the hamstrings in a near vertical tibia style squat. You may lose stretch and feel tight but hamstring and glute avtivation occurs to a heavy degree. The more forward the knees the more quad -centric the movement becomes.

    Picture Tom Platz in the 80’s with his remarkable quad development, to which the prime mover was squats with two by fours under his feet to push the knees forward over the toes.