It's not every day you see tree-trunk legs on a guy who's over 6'2". The truth is, it's difficult to build enough mass to disperse over such a long body. A tall guy can spend years developing himself and he'll often pale in comparison to a shorter, more compact lifter who's done the same thing.
The same is true for adding lower body strength. Awkward, gangly proportions can make it a hassle to even achieve the right positions when training legs, so it's only fitting that us long-limbed guys get some special consideration.
1 – Do Paused Reps
Mobility issues can only be solved by training for increased mobility. Most of the time people do this type of training unloaded, in a dynamic fashion. Nothing wrong with this, but as a guy who's pretty damn mobile for his size (6'4" and about 250), my squat form with an unloaded bar still looks much less pretty than it does with a loaded bar. Why? Because resistance forces the body to undergo a loaded stretch.
As such, paused reps can be vitally important to tall guys. People usually credit them for shutting off the stretch reflex and stopping any momentum or transfer of forces so that you can train true strength from the bottom up. Well, in addition to that, paused reps can really help with bottom end range and ingraining proper technique.
Spending a few seconds in the hole on each rep can have a huge impact on how sturdy you feel at the bottom of your reps. That's invaluable for a tall guy who has the propensity to shift too far forward when back or front squatting. Anywhere from 2 to 5-second pauses are acceptable.
Stay tight while holding the bottom position. If you don't yet have the mobility to get down low, work within reasonable ranges until you develop it. The second you allow laxity to enter your joints by "reaching" for added range of motion is the moment the movement becomes unsafe.
2 – Keep Assistance Exercises Light
Don't do assistance exercises (or even worse, corrective exercises) using loads that are comparable to that of your big lifts. Using 120-pound dumbbells for rear-leg elevated split squats doesn't have any sustainable transferability to squat performance.
Sticking to the split squat example, the point of the movement is to train hip mobility, along with activation of the quad and glute of the working leg. Stabilizing muscles of the thigh make their presence known for the single-leg aspect of the lift, and the trunk muscles have an added challenge to hold position.
Just like doing a heavy set of five squats, it's far too easy for other stuff to "kick in" to help out because the movement becomes less about activation and training a pattern, and more about neural output and true strength to complete the set. In the case of a taller lifter, chances are your technique in the big stuff is less than stellar because your proportions cause positioning issues.
It's that much more important that you have the control and ability to maintain perfect form, ROM, and activation during the moves designed to assist and improve your big lifts. Right now, I've got a 435-pound raw back squat to full range and a 550-pound raw deadlift, which are pretty decent numbers for my height. By contrast, the most I've ever held while doing rear-leg elevated split squats is a pair of 40-pound dumbbells.
3 – Take Longer Rest Periods
People often skip leg day because it's the hardest workout of the week. Tall people skip leg days because they're even harder than leg days for short people. Think how much work a 6'6" squatter is doing compared to a 5'7" squatter of equal conditioning. The amount of distance the taller lifter needs to travel to produce the same visual effect would far exceed that of the short guy, therefore creating a much greater energy expenditure and overall demand.
This is exactly the problem with many training "challenges" and timed workout systems. Resting for one minute between sets when you've only had to drop 12 inches to reach full depth in a squat, or pull 12 inches to reach full extension in a deadlift, can feel like a piece of cake and an easily achievable task. Compare that to the beast who had to pull or push the same load 3 feet for one rep. It's just crazy to assume the effects on each lifter's conditioning is going to be the same.
Many strength-training protocols ask a lifter to time his rest intervals between heavy sets without taking this height differential into consideration. A tall lifter who's in great shape can feel falsely out of shape and have a poor performance due to sticking to such parameters when the rest periods are actually insufficient for a guy his size.
As a result, subsequent sets are sub-par simply because he's not truly ready to lift again. Tall guys may find it wise to modify systems like German Volume Training, 8x8, 5x5 or CrossFit WODs by using rest periods that are a touch more generous. An additional 15-30 seconds per set could be all it takes. Your performance will thank you.
4 – Use the Trap Bar
For tall lifters, using a trap bar for deadlifts can address lots of what you've read here. Contrary to standard deads, there's no bar to block the shins, which allows you to bear load in dorsiflexion while flatfooted.
It's also a great way for a tall torso to find balance in a bottom position for a few reasons. First, the arms are down and in a neutral hand position. This is huge. It's difficult for long levers to find their balance and avoid pitching forward while back squatting because the hands are way up at shoulder level and the bar is bearing down on them at neck level.
By default, it often causes a long lifter to shy away from ever going for depth for fear of what's to come when they get down there. Constantly training the squat pattern with insufficient depth creates muscle imbalances and plenty of weakness at acute knee and hip angles. This can all be solved through setting up the trap bar and pulling heavy loads from that same deep knee angle, in a much more comfortable way.
To break parallel and further reinforce bottom end ranges, the protocol is simple – use the low handles on the trap bar (flip the bar upside down) and add a deficit by standing on a low platform or plates. This'll make you get down lower to pick up the weight, allow you to keep a tall torso, and have the quads and glutes work much harder than before. Over time, this will certainly improve the performance of your squat.
5 – Goblet Squat for High Reps
It's difficult to get a pump with squats when you're never practicing enough range to feel it anywhere other than your lower back. While you build your ROM using the tips above, you should also include goblet squats.
Since you can't max out on them, take advantage of the conditioning they can provide and their ability to help groove your proper squat pattern through repetition. Adding them as their own exercise or as burnout sets at the end of workouts is a smart move you'll be glad you made.
6 – Work on Ankle Dorsiflexion
If you think of the physics of most lower body movements, you'll realize that a longer pair of legs requires better dorsiflexion in order to reach full depth. Dorsiflexion (pulling the toes up) is a skill that very few people work on. Strengthening the muscles of the shin – especially the tibialis anterior – can help release the calves on the opposing side and pull the knee forward over the toe as knee flexion occurs.
This is often the first limiting factor when tall people try to achieve some depth in their squats. The lack of dorsiflexion is often what results in a major forward pitch when squatting, turning the lift into an unintentional good morning. A long-legged lifter will need to let the knees pass even further forward over the toe with the heel staying planted. To train this capacity, consider the following:
- Ditch the Olympic lifting shoes for a while and squat in flats. Olympic lifting shoes have elevated heels, which is perfect for setting the knees in a position to track forward. Dropping down to flat ground level creates more of a demand on good dorsiflexion, forcing you to master that ability yourself.
- Strengthen the shins by doing toe raises, heel walks, and by being aware of dorsiflexion during hip and core movements.
- Be aware of fallen arches. Doing fascial release to the plantar fascia can have a direct effect on the malleability of the calves. In turn, that can allow the ankle dorsiflexors the opportunity to work without being "blocked."
7 – Take Care of the Hips, Do Hanging Leg Raises
The knees are a hinge joint, and problems with them often arise from disproportionate contributions between the quads and surrounding muscles. This is often compounded in a tall lifter because the long lever arms, coupled with incomplete ranges of motion, usually make the quads a lone wolf in the amount of activity they contribute.
Chronic knee pain often comes from the limited hip mobility caused by quad tightness and insufficient ROM. Doing mobility drills to improve the tissue quality of the hips preceding (and even during) leg workouts is worth its weight in gold. Do them, but don't forget that a set of strong, responsive hip flexors is just as important.
Muscles can be tight and weak – it's not just limited to one or the other. Psoas muscles that get weak because they're never forced into deep hip flexion can work against the knee since other muscles (like the rectus femoris, a quad muscle that attaches directly to the knee) could be taking twice the load and catalyzing joint stress.
Aside from sprinting with good technique or doing high box jumps, there aren't many ways for the general population to hit the psoas muscles, which flex the hips when the knee is higher than parallel to the floor. However, hanging leg raises will often do the trick. Work them into your routine to get that hip flexion in the mix. Just make sure you pull the knees right up to the elbows or chest.