THE BODYWEIGHT SQUAT just wasn’t happening. Trainer Jon Flake knew it the moment Jalen McDaniels started trying to drop his 6’9″ frame into a crouch. McDaniels, a 2019 NBA draft hopeful, was beginning a workout at the Peak Performance Project facility in Santa Barbara, California. Known as P3, the gym frequently works with NBA players, and Flake, the lead performance specialist, has seen plenty of bad squats. “For many tall guys, the squat goes wrong in one of two ways,”he says.“Either they push their butt too far back or push their knees too far forward.” McDaniels was somehow fusing the two, and in this moment, he looked like he was crammed into an invisible clown car.
This wasn’t McDaniels’s fault. He hadn’t set up in a squat position that properly took into account his long limbs. Flake spotted this immediately. He handed McDaniels a trap bar, which instantly took stress off the player’s upper back and pushed him to keep his torso upright. McDaniels, who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets, started doing reps flawlessly, because he was doing a move custom-built for his body. “It’s always about finding the exercise that best suits the athlete,” says Flake.
That fit is never easy, no matter what the dude behind the counter at Planet Fitness tells you, because your body is more than just your height and weight. Different combinations of limb and torso lengths handle exercises in different ways. You may be better built to squat than McDaniels, but his long legs set him up to dominate the 20-second fanbike interval that may leave you gassed. Identify the movement advantages and disadvantages of your body type and you can unlock muscle-building potential while also avoiding frustration.
The study of these body proportions is something called anthropometry, and it’s rarely optimized for the gym. It first came to prominence in the 1880s, when Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon, who worked in the Paris police records department, began cataloging limb lengths and other details of suspects and criminal offenders for identification purposes. The goal of anthropometry is to break down body measurements beyond height and weight, chasing nuanced data on such things as the lengths of your torso, your arms, and your legs. This information is most commonly used in ergonomics, aiding in the design of objects like chairs and tables. One of the largest anthropometric studies came from the U. S. Army. It analyzed data from more than 11,000 soldiers to help better design equipment.
The closest muscle-heads came to anthropometry was in the discussion of body types, called somatotypes, which first appeared in the 1940s. Set forth by psychologist and physician William Sheldon, Ph.D., M.D., the somatotype system categorized people as ectomorphs (tall and lean), mesomorphs (athletic and strong), or endomorphs (heavy and round). His theory was that your body type dictated how easy or hard it would be to build muscle and lose weight.
Numerous experts have debunked Dr. Sheldon’s theories, yet we still think in body types. Thanks to pop culture and social media, many of us grew up with the perception that a strong body meant Arnold biceps and Chris Evans abs. If our arms were longer and skinnier than theirs, we assumed we’d never crush it in the gym. Many still believe these ideas, but they shouldn’t. Every body can be strong and pull off great feats of strength. The key is learning to train with exercises matched to your specific body type.
That’s why anthropometric training can be life changing. Fitness experts credit the late Canadian kinesiology professor David A. Winter, Ph.D., with connecting the dots between limb length, exercise performance, and forging strength. In his iconic 1979 book, Biomechanics of Human Movement, he analyzed data from research on cadaver limb lengths and started linking it to the way the body moves. His insights gained traction only with forward-thinking trainers, even though limb length can make a 225-pound barbell deadlift a breeze for one person and a nightmare for another.
Jon Flake and a handful of trainers are starting to incorporate these ideas into their work. Make a few training tweaks based on your limb measurements and you can optimize key exercises and avoid nagging injuries at the same time. There are five key combinations of arms, legs, and torso that can dramatically affect the way you lift and move. Understand them and you’ll put yourself on the path to major gains.
1. The Skyscrapers
Long-Limbed Men Over 5’10”
Your Challenge: Think of your body as an elevator, driving a weight upward every rep. The taller you are, the more floors the weight needs to travel on any exercise. So you need a split second longer than most people to complete each rep of each exercise. That adds up to extra work (and time spent under tension) for every muscle on every rep.
- Form Factor- The taller you are, the tighter your form must be. Every exercise has a moment when you stop lowering the weight and start lifting. Injuries often happen in this moment—and because of your long limbs, you face more time under tension then. Perfect your form before going heavy.
- Your Deadlift Zone- The classic barbell deadlift, a total-body muscle builder, isn’t for you. Your long legs and torso make the move unwieldy. Shift your legs outside shoulder width for a more natural setup. Or do Romanian deadlifts, holding dumbbells at your hips, then slowly pushing your butt back and lowering your torso before standing explosively
- Measure Up- TALL-GUY training issues become more amplified if you’re taller than 6’8″, according to Flake.
How You Adjust
- Row, Row, Row- The added time under tension you face on every rep hurts you on most exercises, but not rows. Your middle- and upper-back muscles actually respond well to sustained periods of time under tension, so if you train your back hard, you’ll see major lat growth. In the process, you’ll hone your posture and bullet proof your shoulders, too. Do 3 sets of dumbbell or kettlebell rows at least twice a week.
- Take More Time Off- Remember: A single rep for you forces your muscles to work more than a single rep for an average-height training partner. Take that into consideration between sets and between work-outs. Take an extra 15 seconds between sets of any exercise, and give yourself an extra day of rest between tough workouts. An average-height person may squat every other day. You do extra work in every squat session, though, so your body needs two days to recover.
2. The Tanks
Anyone 5’7″ and Under
Your Challenge: Power production isn’t your strength. Your short limbs will hold you back when you take on the 500-meter row or test the broad jump. Short athletes generate less power per stroke than taller athletes, according to a study of competitive 2,000-meter rowers.
- Hit the Bench!- Your short arms will help you crush pressing exercises like bench presses and overhead presses. Take advantage and do both exercises frequently to pack muscle onto your chest and shoulders.
- Measure Up!- It’s not all about height. You can also consider yourself a tank if you’ve got shorter limbs. Stand straight with your hands at your sides. Do your middle fingers reach down your thighs just slightly? Congrats! You’re a tank.
- Your Body Is Your Bar- You’re built to dominate bodyweight exercises. Pullups, pushups, bodyweight squats, and even pistol squats will come easily, thanks to your short limbs and tight center of gravity, so integrate bodyweight moves into your training daily.
How You Adjust
- Master the Deadlift- If you’re five-seven or under, you were born to deadlift—and deadlift heavy. One study of novice weightlifters showed that deadlifts helped them build strength and added to their vertical leap. That means the lift can make you stronger—and help boost your explosive athleticism, too. Taller gym bros can’t reap benefits from the deadlift as efficiently as you can, thanks to your levers. Make the most of it. Start with 5 sets of 5 reps twice a week.
- Be HEAVY-DUTY- Cut the reps! Train in sets of 5 to 7 reps, and don’t be afraid to push your limits, taking advantage of the way your shorter limbs reduce your risk of injury. No, you won’t pile up time under tension, but research shows that the frequency and intensity of your training can also build muscle. Focus on those, because by working with heavier weights and lower reps, you’ll encourage your body to build power and offset your disadvantage.
3. The Boats
Guys with Long Torsos
Your Challenge: The average person has a torso that makes up about 30 percent of their total height, measured from hip bone to shoulder. If yours is longer than that, weighted moves that have your torso bent forward, like deadlifts and rows, can be daunting.
- Measure Up!- Get in a half-kneeling stance and fold your torso forward so your chest is parallel to the floor. Is the middle of your chest in front of your knee? Then there’s a good chance you have a long torso.
- Power Up!- Two Words: Michael Phelps. The swimming legend has a long torso—as many swimmers do. Elite swimmers and rowers illustrate your strength: Your torso helps you transfer force from lower body to upper body (and vice versa). Expect to dominate the cardio row—and make it a regular part of your training.
- Core of the Matter- You’re built to conquer core exercises, and during gymnastics-style moves like hollow holds and L-sits, your longer rectus abdominis holds your short legs up easily. Translation: Eight-pack, here you come!
How You Adjust
- Support Your Chest- Barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell bent-over rows are classic back-building exercises, but you may not be able to go as heavy as you want to on these motions. Opt for bench-supported rows instead, lying with your chest on an incline or flat bench, then rowing dumbbells or kettlebells. This will relieve stress from your lower back. Aim for 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps twice a week.
- Balance the Leg Scales- Your lower body is prone to imbalance because of your squatting mechanics. Sure, you’ll develop your quads nicely, but your hamstrings and glutes are destined to be underworked. Solve that by loading upon Romanian deadlifts and hip thrusts when you’re not squatting. Do Romanian deadlifts at least twice a week, and do hip thrusts as often as 3 times a week. Do 3 sets of 12 for both exercises.
4. The Cavemen
Long Arms, Short Legs
Your challenge: Plenty of guys with shoulder issues—and this is a problem for you more than most. Overhead movements like pullups and shoulder presses, and explosive lifts like barbell and kettlebell snatches, place your shoulders at risk, thanks to the long arm lever you create as you thrust upward.
- Pressing Issue- Yes, you can bench press. No, you may not get the results you want. Because of your long arms, the move will tax your triceps more than your chest.
- A Leg Up- Your legs move efficiently through squats and lunges. Do them holding weights at your sides and watch your legs (and abs) build strength.
- Measure Up!- When you’re standing, do your arms nearly scratch your knee caps? That’s a sign of an insane wingspan, and when your wingspan exceeds your height (want to check? extend your arms out to the sides and measure from fingertip to fingertip across your chest), you have long arms and short legs.
How You Adjust
- Embrace Barbell Deadlifts- You’re built for this lift! Your long arms are primed to reach down easily and grasp the bar, but your short legs still won’t face too much tension as they power the bar up. Take advantage of this and deadlift at least twice a week; you’ll burn serious calories and build total-body muscle.
- Isolate Your Chest- Since bench presses and pushups stimulate your triceps more than your chest, you’ll need extra work to blast your pecs. Try floor dumbbell flies. Lie on the floor holding dumbbells above your shoulders, elbows slightly bent. Lower the dumbbells slowly in a wide arc until your elbows touch the floor. Reverse the movement. You’ll isolate your chest muscles safely. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps at least once a week.
- Sit Out Overhead Holds- Think twice about exercises like snatches and overhead squats. Sure, your body can do them, but you’re placing those long arms at risk of injury. Aiming to build shoulder size? Opt for safer alternatives like dumbbell overhead presses and lateral raises instead.
5. The T-Rexes
Short Arms, Long Legs
Your challenge: You have a natural build for distance running. Strength training? Not so much. Your short arms make deadlifts difficult. And your long legs are the bane of your existence, creating a heavy load for your core on ab exercises and causing problems on lower body-focused moves, too.
- Pull and Push!- Your short arms make pullups and pushups a breeze, so rely on bodyweight training for your upper body.
- Total Terror- Exercises that challenge you to use multiple limbs at once, like burpees and Turkish getups, may frustrate you because your long legs will frequently get in the way (and may throw your timing off). Avoid frustration by practicing them in parts. Instead of doing 10 burpees, for example, do 10 pushups, then jump from plank position to a squat 10 times, then do 10 jump squats. Same calorie burn, less annoyance.
- Measure Up!- Sit on the ground, legs straight. Press your hands into the ground. If you can’t lift your butt off the ground, then you have short arms. Now try touching your toes without bending your knees. If you can’t come close, then you have short arms and long legs.
How You Adjust
- Elevate, Elevate, Elevate- Lowering into position for deadlifts and similar moves (like cleans and snatches) is harder for you than most. It also won’t build any extra muscle. So bring the weights to you by elevating them. Some gyms have small steps or mats: Grab those(or a pair of 45-pound plates) and place them just outside your feet. Then place your barbell or dumbbells on that elevated surface. This will make it easier to grab the weights and focus on the muscle-growing portions of your rows and deadlifts.
- Embrace the Pullup- You’ll build serious muscle with pullups. You have a short range of motion thanks to your arm length, but your torso and long legs create plenty of weight for you to hoist upward. If you struggle to do pullups, take time to learn the motion: Start by jumping up to the bar and slowly lowering yourself. Do 3 sets of 5 reps like this 3 times a week. Once you can do pullups, aim for 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps 3 times a week.
Size Matters Elsewhere, Too
Your arms and legs aren’t the only body parts that influence your training. The size of your hands and the length of your feet play underrated roles. So know how your appendages hurt (or help) you in the gym.
Give Yourself a Hand
Wrap your hands around a standard barbell. Can your thumb reach the second knuckle on your middle finger? If so, you have large hands that can easily wrap around any bar. If your thumb can’t reach your first knuckle, you’re more likely to lose your grip on any bar. The fix: Do plate pinches. Stand with your arms at your sides, fingers pinching a pair of 5- or 10-pound plates for 30 seconds.
Find Your Footing
Do you wear a size 12 shoe or larger? Your large feet will help you in just about any leg exercise, providing stability the same way a wider base keeps a table from rocking. If your shoe size is smaller than a 9, on the other hand, you’ll have to work harder to stay balanced on leg moves. So train the rest of your lower leg to deliver even more stability; do 3 sets of 20 calf raises at least twice a week.
A version of this story originally appears in the June 2021 issue of Men’s Health, with the title “EVERY BODY IS STRONG”.
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