Ever wondered how some lifters seem to excel at certain lifts while being mediocre at others? A lot of it comes down to leverages, which are determined largely by your body proportions.
Let's take Lamar Gant as an example. In 1985 he became the first to deadlift five times his bodyweight: 661 pounds. He only weighed 132 pounds. Gant had some of the longest arms you'll ever see on a human being, which meant his ROM (range of motion) was tiny, even with a conventional stance.
Now, don't get me wrong. Gant was an incredible lifter, who actually held bench press records despite his arm length. So I'm not taking anything away from his achievements. I'm just saying, when you want to deadlift a lot of weight, being able to scratch your kneecaps while standing up straight helps!
What This Has to Do With Training
It really isn't THAT complicated. A well-rounded training plan with some kind of progression system, along with consistent effort over time, is enough to get most people where they want to be. The "secret" to long-term progress is to constantly improve your weak points. This is a two-stage process:
- Identify your weak points.
- Plan your training to strengthen those weak points.
This is often where people go wrong, especially when planning their own training. Sometimes it can be difficult to identify your weak points without an external viewpoint.
Luckily, understanding your own body proportions and mechanics can give you some pretty reliable ideas about where your weak points are going to be and how you need to allocate your training efforts to keep yourself well balanced.
Why Are Body Proportions Important?
They'll determine how your muscles are loaded during movements. This in turn determines which muscle groups will get more or less stimulation from those movements.
We've all met the guy who's got massive, well-proportioned legs purely from squatting. But many others can't do that. Likewise, some people manage to get great back development from very little direct pulling/back work and will often say, "I just deadlift heavy."
A lot of this comes down to proportions.
Take me for example. I have freakishly long legs, especially femurs, and the torso of Gimli from Lord of the Rings. So literally, the worst build for squatting.
When I back squat, I need so much hip flexion to keep the bar over my center of gravity that it's what most would call a "squat good-morning." My squat is probably more hip-dominant than your deadlift. So back squatting will never give me well-developed legs; it'll mostly hit my glutes and lower back.
On the other hand, my wife, Naomi, has pretty short femurs so she's much more upright in the bottom of her squat. This means the workload is much more evenly distributed and, if anything, leaves her glutes and lower back UNDER-stimulated.
So the strategy Naomi and I would use to achieve all-around lower body strength and hypertrophy would be very different based on this alone.
Here you can see how giraffe-like femurs and a dwarf's torso leads to a lot of forward lean at the bottom position of the squat (left, me) compared to a more normally proportioned human being (right, Naomi).
We can also see how years of back squatting has given me a bigger booty compared to Naomi due to my leverages. (There has to be a silver lining somewhere folks.)
So What Proportions Are Important?
For planning effective training you can gather all the information you need from a handful of easy measurements:
- Height – Please don't make me explain this.
- Leg Length – Measure the distance from anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS, look it up) to the medial malleous (bony part of the ankle joint).
- Tibia Length – Measure from malleolus (bony part of ankle joint) to bottom of kneecap.
- Femur Length – This is your leg length minus your tibia length.
- Wingspan – Measure your wingspan with stretched arms from finger tip to finger tip. You'll need a partner to help.
- Humerus Length – Measure length from top of shoulder to elbow.
- Ulna Length – Measure from elbow to crease of wrist.
Once you have these you can determine whether you have short, average, or long legs and arms, then create a strategy to work with these.
Upper Body Proportions
So here we need to determine whether you have long or short arms. What's important is your wingspan relative to your height:
- Short Arms – Your wingspan is LESS than 1cm longer than your height.
- Average Arms – Your wingspan is 1-5 cm longer than your height.
- Long Arms – Your wingspan is MORE than 5cm longer than your height.
But what if you have average arms? Then you need to delve a little deeper and look at the length of your ulna (bone in your forearms) relative to your humerus (bone in your upper arms):
- Short Ulna – It'll be 75-78% or less of your humerus length.
- Average Ulna – It'll be 79-84% of your humerus length.
- Long Ulna – It'll be 85% or more of your humerus length.
If your ulna measured short or average, you in essence have long arms.
If your ulna was measured as long, you in essence have short arms.
Lifting Recommendations for Long-Armed Lifters
If you've got proportionally long arms, then you'll have a mechanical advantage in pulling movements, but the opposite will be true for pressing movements.
Here are some guidelines for planning your training:
Do 25-50% more assistance work/volume for pressing exercises compared to pulling movements.
You're likely to be relatively weak at pressing due to your longer ROM, so you'll need to place more focus on these to even that out.
Place more focus on unilateral work.
Longer levers makes it easier to develop side-to-side imbalances and favor one side, so keeping some form of unilateral work is recommended to keep this at bay.
Place more focus on movements that emphasize shoulder stability.
Longer levers and greater ROM require increased stability. Stability demands can be increased in your current main movements through methods like: slow eccentrics, pauses, hanging band techniques, or specialty bars such as a cambered or bamboo bar. Or it could be as simple as holding the top position at the beginning/end of your sets or between reps.
Focus on pressing movements that improve "raw" pressing strength.
Your pressing muscles are naturally going to lag. So doing exercises where you can use other muscle groups to aid in pressing likely won't address this enough, i.e. bench press (good leg drive can take a lot of work off the pecs for example) or push press. So try these: floor press, Spoto press, and incline press.
Do dedicated pec and arm assistance work.
Long-armed lifters will need some dedicated isolation work for the biceps and triceps to get full development, so don't be scared to include it. Even if it's considered "not functional" by some, some lifters require it for balanced development.
Likewise, long arms can lead to your presses being very shoulder dominant. It's wise to include pressing movements that emphasize the pecs (decline presses, dips) or include isolation work for them. I like dumbbell squeeze presses, but use whatever allows you to FEEL them working.
Recommendations for Short-Armed Lifters
You'll be strong on pressing movements and most likely get good all-round development without the need for much isolation work. BUT you'll struggle in pulling movements. Life is a bit simpler for you as you'll see from the guidelines below:
You'll have little need for unilateral or isolation work.
Short levers means much less chance of side-to-side imbalances and a more even distribution of workload during pressing movements. So you can probably get away with including little to no unilateral or isolation work for your pressing muscles.
Focus on getting strong on just a few pressing movements
You won't need a huge amount of variation to get good results. Stick to one horizontal press, one vertical press, and possibly one incline press variation (at any one time).
Do 50-75% more pulling assistance than pressing assistance.
Once your main pressing work is done, your focus should be on pulling movements. Since you already have short arms, focus on variations that allow both full ROM and focus to be on recruiting the back muscles such as: seal row (see video below), single-arm dumbbell rows (with emphasis on squeezing at the top and a stretch at the bottom), and straight-arm pulldown variations.
Whatever variation you choose, the emphasis should be on FEELING the correct muscles doing the work to get a better connection with them.
You could also focus on doing your presses with slow eccentrics. Focus on slowly PULLING down on the bar to increase the recruitment and workload for your back.
Lower Body Proportions
A lot of people seem to be under the impression that height is an important factor here, especially for squats. But this isn't really true.
What matters is your leg length RELATIVE to your height. If you have relatively short legs, or more specifically femurs, then you have good leverages for squats regardless of height.
A quick aside about height and deadlift though. Height actually can be important when looking at deadlift variations. It's the only lift in which the start position isn't determined by your own body proportions. Instead, the bar starts from an arbitrary height from the floor no matter your build. If a lifter is very tall, then sometimes it can be better to stick to block/pin pulls from the lowest height at which they can still keep proper alignment.
Often if a tall lifter has average or long arms, this ends up not being an issue. But if he or she has short arms it's a different story.
Determining your leg length is as simple as comparing leg length to height:
- Short Legs – They'll be 40-43% of your height.
- Average Legs – They'll be 44-47% of your height.
- Long Legs – They'll be 47-51% or more of height.
If you have "average" legs, look at the length of your tibia relative to your femur:
- Short Tibia – It'll be 75-78% of your femur (or less).
- Average Tibia – It'll be 79-84% of your femur length.
- Long Tibia – It'll be 85% or more of your femur length.
If your tibia is measured to be short or average, then you have long legs effectively. If your tibia is measured as long, then you have short legs.
Recommendations for Long-Legged Lifters
With long legs you'll tend to be strong through the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back) and relatively weak in the anterior chain (quads, abs).
Your squats will be more posterior dominant and therefore won't be too dissimilar to your deadlift in terms of muscle recruitment. Long-legged individuals can't just back squat if they want balanced development. They also probably don't need to spend too much time deadlifting to be pretty good at it... unless they're cursed with long-legs and short arms. In that case, sorry, but you're born to be a bench specialist.
Here's how you need to approach your lower body training:
Do unilateral assistance work.
Long levers leave more room for developing an imbalance. Some form of unilateral work should be in all phases of your training, even if it's purely for maintaining balance. Unilateral movements such as Bulgarian split squats have the added bonus of being a great choice for quad/leg hypertrophy.
Do assistance work focused on the squat and quads.
You'll need to do little to no extra posterior chain work so long as you're doing some form of squat and deadlift regularly. In fact, you could get away with rarely deadlifting and still maintain or even improve strength, so long as you're increasing your squat strength. Your efforts should be focused on squat variations that target your weak points in that lift along with isolation work for the quads.
Focus on front-loaded or more quad-dominant squat variations.
Back squats will still primarily be a posterior chain exercise, so try any of these: front squat, Zercher squat (see video below with Christian Thibaudeau), or squat with the Safety-Squat bar. Using a narrower stance or elevated heels can also make your squats more quad-dominant.
Don't forget your abs.
They're a key part of the anterior chain along with the quads. Dedicated ab work should be included in your plan pretty regularly. The good news is that movements like the front squat and Zercher squat will tax the abs pretty hard, so if you're doing those regularly, they shouldn't be lagging.
Recommendations for Short-Legged Lifters
Squatting will take care of most of your lower body development. For those with short legs, the back squat (performed correctly) will lead to pretty even and well-rounded leg development. This means that your squat will likely need very little assistance work to improve, provided you're programming it well.
Here's how to approach your lower body training:
You'll have little need for unilateral work.
Short levers leave you at less of a risk of developing imbalances. So unilateral work can be programmed infrequently, just enough to make sure everything is in check.
Do assistance work focused on the deadlift/posterior chain.
Your deadlift will need considerably more work than your squat. Your assistance work should be focused on your weak point in the deadlift along with generally strengthening the posterior chain. Do assistance work that's as hip-dominant as possible: Romanian deadlifts with toes elevated (see pic below), 1.5 rep deadlifts (where you do the top half of the movement twice per rep) and pin good mornings.
Do squat variations that improve posterior chain recruitment
Wide-stance box squats and squat good-mornings are good examples. You can also play around with wearing flat shoes if you normally wear Oly shoes.
You might not have been dealt the perfect hand when it comes to genetics, muscle insertion points, or symmetry. But you can optimize your results by tailoring your training to your body's proportions.
By doing so you'll improve your results by spending more of your time and energy targeting your weak points and under-stimulated muscle groups. As an added bonus, by being better balanced you'll leave yourself less injury-prone and less likely to develop niggling issues like joint pain and tendinitis.
Measuring your body proportions is one of the easiest and quickest tools to help determine exercise selection, so make use of it!