Appalachian State is college football’s quiet powerhouse.
Just six teams have won more games than the Mountaineers since 2016.
Boone, North Carolina might not occupy the same place in football lore of an Athens or Tuscaloosa, but Appalachian State is in the midst of a remarkable season.
The Sun Belt champions enter bowl season with a 12-1 record. They beat both North and South Carolina on the road this year, and their 20th ranking in the AP poll is the highest of any Sun Belt team in history.
Jeff Jones, Director of Athletic Performance for football, is the man tasked with ensuring the Mountaineers are physically prepared to go toe to toe with any team, anywhere.
One weight room staple is what’s known as a Belt Box Squat:
Jones came to appreciate the power of the Belt Squat during his days as an assistant athletic performance coach for Auburn football, where the Tigers utilized Keiser Belt Squats for their most advanced trainees.
Unlike Barbell Back Squats, which place the load on top of your spine, Belt Squats apply the load directly under the athlete’s center of mass via an attachment around their waist. For Jones, one big benefit of this is that it allows athletes to worry less about deceleration toward the top of the movement.
“When you got a bar on your back, there’s gotta be deceleration. With a Belt Squat, there’s not that same deceleration that occurs,” Jones says. “Even if you try to tell a guy on a Back Squat, ‘Don’t decelerate as much at the top,’ then they’re going to be coming up on their toes, which I don’t know if that’s a safe thing, and number two, that bar might be popping off the shoulders and landing down on the spine. I definitely don’t think that’s the best idea.”
After accepting the job as director of athletic performance at Luther College (Decorah, Iowa), Jones quickly purchased two belt squat machines for their weight room. However, he found these particular machines made it somewhat difficult to perform a traditional Belt Squat movement, so he introduced a box.
“We implemented the box and I just fell in love with the intent, with the force, with the power created through that movement. And the athletes loved it, they wanted to do it all the time,” says Jones.
“Louie Simmons trains the strongest lifters in the world, and they never free squat. They do a Box Squat…I got that idea from Louie where, ‘Hey, let’s sit back on a box. Let’s use some momentum to deliver more force and power into the ground than we could if we didn’t sit back on that box.'”
When he was named Director of Athletic Performance for football at Appalachian State last December, Jones brought the Belt Box Squat to Boone. The movement’s played an integral part in the Mountaineers’ off- and in-season programs, and the recent acquisition of several TENDO units has cranked things up a notch.
These high-tech devices provide a variety of velocity, force and power metrics inside the weight room. Jones has found attaching an instant “score” to each rep has taken the Mountaineers’ already sky-high level of competition to new heights.
A recent workout included four sets of three reps on the Belt Box Squat, with each player moving a set load of 315 pounds. The goal was to hit the highest peak force possible with that weight, and coaches recorded each athlete’s best result. Increasing that specific metric will be a continuous goal inside the Mountaineers program.
“That’s how we get them to compete—that force number with 315 pounds,” says Jones.
“We even had guys talking crap to each other and saying, ‘Let’s go rep for rep.’ We had one guy on one belt squat hit a rep, then the guy next to him hit a rep, and they go back and forth…For me, power and strength and stuff that transfers to the field comes down to force production. If I can get guys creating 600 to 700 pounds of force with no spinal loading on a Belt Squat for four sets of three, I think that’s going to have a lot better transfer than putting a heavy bar on their back and making them Squat 85 or 90 percent for singles or doubles.”
Compared to the muscle activation of a traditional Barbell Back Squat, Belt Squats are believed to shift some of the focus off the hip extensors and onto the quads. However, Box Squats allow for a more vertical shin angle than Barbell Back Squats, making them more conducive to a greater contribution from the posterior chain. The result is a well-rounded movement that’s highly accessible, and one Jones has little reservation about loading heavy.
“We’ve had guys do six or 700 pounds on the Belt Squat. We’ve had guys go to where we just can’t put any more weight on there. So we’re going to have a metric for that. What does your 650-pound Belt Box Squat look like for some of those big, strong dudes—what is your speed and what is your power there?,” says Jones.
Due to the reduced duration of the eccentric and the momentary “pause” in time under tension as you sit on the box, it’s also reasonable to believe athletes can recover more quickly from a Box Squat variation than they can a Barbell Back Squat.
“I just feel better about how that movement looks. I feel safer, it’s not going to affect their practice that day, and I just think the transfer to the field is going to be better for us,” Jones says.
The Mountaineers often pair the Belt Box Squat with a plyometric movement to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation effect, and Jones reports some serious improvements in vertical jump from many freshmen over the past few months. When a workout calls for Vertical Jumps or Weighted Vertical Jumps, the players perform them on a Just Jump mat, a piece of equipment that can quickly estimate how high they jumped. For Jones, it’s another chance for data to drive intent.
“We’ve had guys go from 36 inches to 41 inches. We had a guy go from 35 to 43,” says Jones. “To me, I think it’s because we compete all the time. We don’t just have guys hold dumbbells and say, ‘Hey, do a Dumbbell Squat Jump.’ Well, there’s no intent behind that. You’re not getting any feedback and you’re not competing. That’s why we put a jump mat under them.”
The type of instant feedback a TENDO or Just Jump provides also allows athletes to self-regulate their rest periods. They know that if their numbers are decreasing from one set to the next, they might need a little more time to recover.
Under Jones, the Mountaineers have largely replaced heavy Barbell Back Squats with a variety of other movements, including Belt Box Squats, Split Squats, Reverse Lunges, Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats and Barbell Glute Bridges.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvements where we can heavy belt squat a guy and we can heavy single-leg squat a guy through Reverse Lunges, through RFE Split Squats, through Hands-Supported Split Squats, and we can still drive up their one-rep max Back Squat. I’ve seen it with my eyes,” says Jones, who credits Mike Boyle with helping him rethink the usefulness of heavy back squatting for team sport athletes.
“If I can do that without the risk of having somebody back squat heavy, why would I ever back squat heavy?”
App. State Football’s Belt Box Squat
Jones cites these repetitions as an example of excellent form on the Belt Box Squat. Here are his biggest keys for success for this movement:
1. The variation used by the Mountaineers qualifies more as a “High Box Squat” than a “Low Box Squat.” Use a box height (or a stack of boxes) that sees the bottom of your thighs at or just above parallel in the seated position.
2. Set your feet at a comfortable squatting width. In terms of foot depth, your feet should be far enough away from the box so that your shin angle’s either vertical or negative at the bottom of the movement. “You do not want a positive shin angle on this,” Jones warns.
3. With the belt attachment on, fully sit your butt back onto the box and extend your arms out in front of you. This is not a “tap-and-go” movement.
4. As you’re seated on the box, lean your torso slightly backwards to increase the explosiveness of the subsequent concentric. “You don’t want the guy to hyperextend like crazy, but you do want him to rock back,” says Jones. Your arms should still be out in front of you at this point.
5. Violently throw your arms down with a purpose and explode to a standing position.
“You might not necessarily stand straight up, some guys do a little bit better when they come up at just a little bit of an angle,” says Jones. “(But) almost try to jump off that box—it’s almost like you’re trying to take your head through the ceiling.”
Photo Credit: Mary Holt/Getty Images