How Limb Length Affects Training
Q: You’ve said before that the front squat is a better lower-body lift than the back squat for people with long legs. How else can limb length play a role in exercise selection?
A: Exercise selection is the most important training variable. Imagine if you’re a patient at the doctor’s office and the conversation went like this…
- Doctor: I’m going to prescribe you 200mg twice a day.
- Patient: 200mg of what, Doc?
- Doctor: What do you prefer? Which medication do you feel like taking?
It doesn’t make sense, right? Well it’s the same thing with training. Think of sets, reps, and training methods as the dosage and exercises as the medicine.
While everybody will improve their body and performance by gradually becoming stronger on the big basics, simply doing those and nothing else will emphasize certain muscles over others, and might not end up giving you the result you’re looking for.
Some people will get great pec development from the bench press while others will only grow their triceps and delts. Some will build tremendous quads from back squatting and others will build bigger glutes.
Limb length relative to torso length is one of the main factors that determines which muscles receive the most stimulation.
Here’s a general overview:
Body Type 1 – Long Limbs/Short Torso
- Tend to progress more easily on pulling movements than on pressing ones
- Have an easier time getting stronger on the hip hinge/deadlift than on the squat
Upper Body Pressing
- Pecs are the easiest to develop
- Delts are second
- Triceps are the hardest to develop
Upper Body Pulling
- Lats are the easiest to develop
- Rhomboids, rear delts are second
- Biceps are third
- Upper traps are the hardest to develop
Lower Body Training
- Glutes are the easiest to develop
- Hamstrings are second
- Quads are third
- Calves are the hardest to develop
Body Type 2 – Short Limbs/Long Torso
- Tend to progress more easily on pressing movements than on pulling ones
- Have an easier time getting stronger on the squat than on hinging/deadlifting
Upper Body Pressing
- Triceps are the easiest to develop
- Delts are second
- Pecs are the hardest to develop
Upper Body Pulling
- Upper traps are the easiest to develop
- Biceps are second
- Rhomboid, rear delts are third
- Lats are the hardest to develop
Lower Body Training
- Quads are the easiest to develop
- Calves are second
- Hamstrings are third
- Glutes are the hardest to develop
All of this is true most of the time, but there will be some exceptions. (Arnold, for example, is long limbed and had huge biceps.)
That info allows you to better select the assistance work you’re doing in a program by telling you which muscles will need added direct work. For example, I have short legs, so I don’t need any direct assistance work for the quads. They grow just fine by doing squats exclusively and I prefer to invest my training time on exercises that are actually needed to fix a weakness. However, I do need direct glute and hamstring work.
You don’t need as much (if any) direct work for the muscles that are the easiest to develop, but you’ll need a lot more for those that are the hardest.
Knowing this also helps us better select the big lift variations for our workouts. If I have long legs, the front squat will be better than the back squat for overall development. Why? Because with the back squat I’ll get mostly glutes and some hamstrings while with the front squat I’d stimulate the quads. A heels-elevated back squats would also do the trick.
While there’s nothing wrong with good, smart programs you find on the internet, you should still give yourself some leeway in exercise selection: you can respect the spirit of a program while choosing better movements.
Delt-Building Lateral Raises
Q: When I do lateral raises I feel it mostly in my traps. How can I make them more effective at hitting my delts?
A: Welcome to the club! I have naturally narrow shoulders and short arms which tends to favor the development of the traps over delts. But I do have a few tricks when it comes to lateral raises.
Before I get into the three exercises, I must emphasize one point: to make the lateral raise effective at recruiting the delts you must focus on pushing the dumbbells AWAY, not on lifting them up. Try to bring the dumbbells as far to your sides as possible. They should only go up as a result of you pushing sideways. This tip alone should minimize trap recruitment.
1. The Backpack Raise
No, you won’t be doing lateral raises while wearing a backpack (although that would likely work too) but with resistance bands looped around your shoulders to keep them down.
The traps get involved when the shoulders raise up instead of just rotate. The bands, by keeping the shoulders down, help you focus on the delts better.
To set up, you step on the inside of the band and hook the other end around the shoulder. Then do that on the other side with a second band.
The bands’ position on the shoulder is important. You want to place it on the AC joint, not on the trap. If the band is on the trap it will actually increase the recruitment of the trap by creating a greater mind-muscle connection with that muscle and a reactive contraction because of the pressure.
You’ll still need to focus on pushing the dumbbells away instead of lifting them up, but the bands will make that a lot easier.
2. The Handcuff Raise with a Mechanical Drop Set
For this one you’ll use a short resistance band looped around your wrists, like handcuffs. Use a band with only a small amount of resistance; no need to go crazy here since you’re only using it to shift the tension to the medial delts.
Choose dumbbells that are a bit lighter than what you’d normally use for 10 strict reps. Let’s say a weight you could do 12-15 quality lateral raises with.
- The first step of the mechanical drop set is to do partial lateral raises with the band and dumbbells. Go as high as the band will allow, which should be around a third to a half of the way up. Do as many good reps as you can.
- Then immediately drop the band and do regular lateral raises with dumbbells only. Shoot for 8-10 reps.
- Then, drop the dumbbells and put the band back on and do partial reps (like in step one) with only the band.
Don’t rest between each step of the mechanical drop set. If you want to set your medial delts on fire, this is the exercise for you!
3. The Incline Lateral Raise
This is the “less cool” option but one that I’ve been using for at least 15 years successfully with people who have dominant traps.
It’s simple: sit down on an adjustable bench angled at around 30 degrees and do lateral raises from that position. Still focus on pushing the dumbbells out, not lifting them up. This greatly decreases trap activation, but you still have to focus on pushing the dumbbells far away from your side instead of up.
Fitness Tracker Accuracy
Q: How accurate are those watches that say how many calories I burned during a workout?
A: Not really accurate. A friend of mine recently told me that she did a lifting workout that burned 960 calories. And while I’d like to believe that – because it would make lifting the best fat loss tool known to man – it’s simply not realistic.
It’s hard to know exactly how many calories you burned during a workout. It depends on the exercises (a squat uses more fuel than a curl), the number of reps completed, the training methods used, and how much muscle you recruited during each rep.
For upper body lifts, a hypertrophy set lasting 40-60 seconds might expend 7-10 calories while it can get as high as 40 calories for a set of squats lasting one minute (Victor M. Reis, R. S. 2011. Energy Cost of Resistance Exercises: J Hum Kinet. 29A: 33–39).
If you do 4 work sets like that, we’re talking about 160 calories. If you have another big lift in your workout, done with the same parameters, that could add another 160 calories. Then if you have four smaller exercises it could add 350-400 calories. Such a workout would expend 650-700 calories and it’d be one helluva workload.
A hypertrophy workout for the upper body could expend 250-400 calories more than your normal caloric expenditure for the duration of the workout. For the lower body, it could burn up to 500-700 calories more than your normal caloric expenditure, and a whole-body workout could be in the 300-500 calorie range.
I believe that the caloric expenditure estimated by those watches/apps use mostly heart rate as the measure for energy expenditure. These formulas were developed with cardiovascular exercise in mind. In that type of exercise, the heart rate is directly proportional to the rate of energy expenditure because the heart rate increases only in response to the need of the heart to pump blood to the muscles to supply oxygen to produce fuel.
However, with resistance training the increase in heart rate can also be due to a high release of adrenaline. Furthermore, heart rate might spike for the duration of the set and stay elevated because of the adrenaline/neural activation during the rest periods, despite no work being done. As a result, these instruments will dramatically overestimate how many calories you’re burning during a lifting workout.
Why is that a problem? By giving the impression that you’re burning a metric ton of calories, it might lead you to overeat or overindulge.
“I just burned 1200 calories in my lifting workout! I can eat that burger since it only has 600 calories!”
No, you can’t. In the grand scheme of things it’s not the end of the world, but it’s still misleading.