Westside Sumo Style Rocking Box Squats

* Today's post comes from our friend coach Brian Matthews, out of Phelps Gym located in Albany NY

First things first, this is not a scientific study. I haven’t toiled hour upon hour in a state of the art lab with EMGs or ergometers in order to come to this conclusion. This is purely anecdotal, just one guy in upstate NY who’s spent a little bit of time training and lifting weights and came up with this idea.

Let me begin with a little background on me. I played sports all through high school and into college, and was an average player at best with marginal athletic ability on a bigger frame (6’6” 230). In high school, I did the typical 15-18 year old training split; curls and benching, supersetted with benching and curls. Lower body was an afterthought, as was any sort of sprint work. If anything, I’d grind my fast twitch potential into dust with long jogs or bike rides. College wasn’t much better. I was able to play early because of my size, but athletically I did little to push my genetic ceiling. Some spastic Olympic lifts were added to my regimen, still a lot of benching and curls, and the occasional team “plyometric workout. ” I use this term loosely because all it amounted to was 90 dudes in a small gym doing boot camp style circuit training. Difficult no doubt, but I don’t think anyone became the second coming of Bo Jackson as a result. We got tired. We got sore. We felt good about ourselves afterwards, but results were minimal.

So I’m out of college working jobs I hate and through a friend start going to this private gym/ athlete training facility (where I’m currently employed). We have bands and chains. We box squat just like the world’s strongest dudes. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before and I love it. Fast forward a couple of months and my already tenuous knee situation (2 MCL tears and chronic tendonitis) is exacerbated, and my ankles don’t feel any better. I’m taking arthritis medication at age 27 and moving like a sloth made of tin. I certainly don’t feel “athletic” even though I’ve been told that developing the posterior chain is the absolute gateway to athletic success. So I keep squatting (back, back, back) making sure to keep my ankles frozen in carbonite while I do it, and my joints continue to feel like trash.

A colleague invites me down to a conference in Virginia with a bunch of speakers that I have never heard of and I decide what the hell, I’ll check it out. It’s here that I learn the difference between general and specific exercises, and that lifting like a geared power lifter may not be the greatest transfer of training to what you see on the field. Holy shit, I had just always figured that if you can squat 1,000 pounds than you can absolutely dominate whatever sport you play. Then I hear a guy who has actually squatted 1,000 pounds say, “You think waddling up to a monolift, getting as wide as the day is long, and moving a couple inches is athletic? You are kidding yourself. ” Man do I feel dumb. Here I was training the athletes I work with this way and thought I was doing something groundbreaking. Turns out I was a little off in my approach.

Athletes, as we know, have to move. You can’t move. You can’t play. You can be as strong as a silverback, but if you have beaten a motor pattern to death that has no transfer on the field, it’s going to be tough to make any impact. I’m not writing this to bash the powerlifting community. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those guys and am amazed by the raw strength many of them exhibit. But have you ever seen one of these guys walk, let alone run? Efficient is not a word I would use to describe their gait.

A boxer has to punch a heavy bag to get better at punching. Likewise, team sport athletes need to run, jump, throw, bound, skip, and perform exercises that replicate actual human movement. Powerlifting is about moving the biggest weight the shortest range of motion possible, hence the wide grip bench and wide stance squat. If your ankle moves in that style of squat, your shin angle changes. This makes parallel depth that much more challenging to hit. Compound that with the elastic multi-ply camp and you have equipment that makes heavier weights easier to hit, and a reliance on an external aid that isn’t present on the field or court.

The wide stance rocking box squat was developed as an exercise that has great carry over to geared lifting. If you aren’t geared, and you aren’t powerlifting, then why squat with that style? I think people saw the insane weights that were being squatted and immediately concluded that this exercise would help their athletes. Getting stronger will certainly help your athletes on the field, no one is disputing that. But is that the best way? Some would argue that this could even be detrimental. I can only speak to my experience and my athletes’ experiences, and I can tell you unequivocally that max effort rocking box squats with no ankle flexion have zero carry over athletically.

People are still going to train this way. My words alone aren’t going to change minds. My intent is to get people to start thinking critically about exactly why they’re choosing these types of exercises for their athletes. If there’s a better way, we owe it to our clients to use it to help them improve. If not, what are we really doing? Results on the field or court are what matters; everything else is just window dressing.