Box Squats and Bench Presses: A Valuable Combination for the Strength Athlete

megan snatch
Megan snatching 50 kg at age 15.

Sara Fleming

In addition to being a personal trainer, I am a USA Weightlifting coach.  And I’m not bad at it.  I’ve taught a lot of people, of all ages, to snatch and clean and jerk.  I’ve coached a number of athletes who have qualified and competed at National level competitions. Technique is a huge part of weightlifting training, especially for beginners, but strength is important as well.  And so this may sound crazy, but I like to get my weightlifters as strong as possible and have them train to get stronger whenever they possibly can.  Truth be told, this approach is great for any athlete who needs to build full body brute strength to be more competitive in his or her sport.

Since CrossFit has come on the scene, we have seen a huge resurgence in the popularity of weightlifting as a sport.  A lot of the folks that are coming into it, however, do not come from a gymnastics or powerlifting background.  And that usually means that they have not developed the full body strength that makes for a good Olympic weightlifter.  Although weightlifting movements center around the front and overhead squat and the overhead press and its many variations, full body brute strength is required to do it well.  To build a balanced, strong body for weightlifting, I have most of my novice lifters do two exercises as their main strength builders when we’re not gearing up for a competition.  These are the box squat and the bench press.

Egads‼‼  Did she just say BOX SQUAT????  AND BENCH PRESS????? WHHHYYYYYY?????

Sorry, that was my inner drama queen.  But, let me explain.  The two areas where I see a lot of weakness in new lifters are the hips and the lats/upper back.

anna clean and jerk
Anna is a good weightlifter because she put the time in to get stronger.

If your hips are not strong, you cannot properly stabilize your core from the bottom up.  You also can’t create powerful hip drive.  I see, more often than not, a lot of lifters who rely predominantly on their quads and momentum to get out of the bottom of a squat.  They also lack the hip drive to snatch, clean, and jerk the weight with good speed and control.  Additionally, I see a great deal of hip and core instability in beginner lifters.  Their hips swivel and drift from side to side through all of their movements and their knees may cave in as they come up out of the bottom of a squat.  Core strength is very important for weightlifting, but without a solid foundation of hip strength and stability, it loses a great deal of its value.

The box squat that I use is similar to the one predominantly used in powerlifting.  It requires that one squat with a slightly wider to much wider stance .  Don’t get political about this width, just realize, a wider stance is usually needed in order to cue hip drive off the box.  A box is set up so that the lifter is just below parallel at the bottom.  As the lifter descends into the squat, she will push her hips back much further than one would ordinarily go during a normal Oly squat.  The lifter makes contact with the box,, stops and and then explodes directly upward, keeping the torso as upright as possible.  Leaning forward and rocking out of the bottom is not ideal, but may be OK at first.  Over time, the lifter should work towards driving directly upward with no rocking at all.   This squat strengthens the posterior chain, the core, and hits the adductors and abductors.  I like to take a volume approach with this squat using either the 50/20 protocol or Steven Shafley’s ladders system*.  A lot of sub-maximal repetitions and cuing hip drive is what is called for, not exhaustive or maximal work.

diana snatch
Diana has an extensive, well-rounded athletic background including strength training, gymnastics, and endurance training.

The bench press has been unfairly maligned in recent years, but is one of the best ways to develop full body strength while pressing through the shoulders.  One can typically move much more weight bench pressing than overhead pressing and when done correctly, this is full body strength.  My weightlifters do a fair amount of overhead work already and piling on more pressing for many lifters is not ideal at all. Therefore, if you’re looking for the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to building upper body strength, the bench press is incredibly useful.

Hip strength is easy to explain for weightlifting, but where does upper back and shoulder strength come in?  Well, think about it, pulling yourself under a heavy weight and stabilizing it over your head is not done with arms alone.  You should be feeling that stabilization all the way down to your waist through delts, traps, and lats.  In fact, go to any local meet and you will see that many lifts are lost from failure to stabilize the bar overhead.

The bench press, done correctly, is a full body exercise that targets not just the chest, but the back, lats, glutes, and legs.  The key to a successful bench is maintaining tension that allows you to use your lats and upper back to stabilize the weight.  Your butt and upper back should be in firm contact with the bench with your back arched.  Feet should be in contact with the floor and in a position to drive your upper back into the bench as you press applying continuous tension in an arc from your feet to your upper back.

adave coaching
The bench press is stabilized by continuous tension from the feet all the way up to the shoulders.

Stabilize the bar over your chest in a locked out position by retracting the shoulders and using your lats to hold the bar in place. Hand placement can be narrow or wide.  As you lower the bar, pull it down with your elbows.  To execute the lift, push with your feet and push outward with your hands as you drive the bar up.  (Pushing the bar outward, or “pulling the bar apart” is a very useful cue for stabilizing the upper back when coaching the sntach.)  The weight of the bar should be driven off your upper back.

So, how do I program the bench?  Same way as the squat: 50/20 or ladders.  And just to make things easier, I alternate each exercise 3-4 times per week.  So, that means that my athletes are squatting or benching every strength workout.  And they have a  strength workout 3-4 times per week.  Some accessory work can be added in, but the truth is, other than some specific core work, its not usually necessary.  With the additional snatching, cleaning, pressing, jerking, and pulling, a strength program for squat and bench easily fits into the background without causing too much disruption.  For my CrossFit athletes, this program makes for a very good off-season strength builder that also allows time and recovery for specific skill development such as weightlifting and gymnastics.

In conclusion, although I use these exercises to fix specific problems I see in my weightlifters, you can think about these exercises as a good way to lay a solid strength foundation for any athlete.  If it bothers you to think about doing a movement that is not specific to your particular sport or usual mode of training, you can use the terminology my friend Sarah Dunsmore uses for strength exercises.  Instead of calling them a bench and a box squat, you can just call them “strongers”.  Because that’s what they do; make you stronger.  And that is pretty much always a good thing.

*Steven Shafley’s “Ladders” program will be available in pamphlet form later this year.

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