You’re good at pushing cars out of the snow. You can punch somebody’s lights out pretty easily. You can even reach the can of corn from the top shelf without getting a stool. When you’re at a parade or sporting event, kids want to climb on your shoulders so they can catch all the action. Yep, life’s pretty easy for tall guys… until they get to the gym.
Because of physics, lifting weights can sometimes get pretty frustrating for tall guys. Their squat poundages are usually comparatively pathetic, and don’t even talk about what they can bench.
I think it was Archimedes who once said something along the lines of, “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the earth.” Tall guys have got long levers, all right, but they’ve got moveable, collapsible joints right in the middle of them. Besides, it’s not like tall guys are jamming the long end of a femur bone under a rock to move it; instead, those long lever arms with their joints, when plotted against sinew, metal, and gravity, just don’t have the same advantages as those lifters with shorter lever arms.
Luckily, tall guys are usually pretty good in the deadlift and the odd machine where their leverage inexplicably works well for them, like the friggin’ leg extension.
But there are other problems that extend beyond particular exercises. For instance, tall guys just have the darndest time putting on noticeable amounts of muscle. One reason is just common sense. When you’ve got a bicep that’s about as long as a French baguette, adding an inch or two to its circumference just isn’t going to be as noticeable as if you added the same one or two inches to a short dude’s arm. Nope, you’d have to add four or five inches to a tall guy’s bicep before it started to look like a fat loaf of Wonder Bread.
The big problem, however, goes back to the aforementioned lever arms. Imagine, if you will, you Lurch-clone you, that you were doing a dumbbell biceps curl. Where is almost everyone the weakest? During the beginning or first third of the movement, right? That’s because the weight is furthest away from the body at that point. At that point, the dumbbell weighs the most. As muscle technologist Jerry Telle has pointed out time and time again, weight position determines how much weight is being exerted on the target muscle.
Therefore, the weight you use is determined by how much weight you can curl out of this bottom position and this is often related to how long your forearms are. Trouble is, once you get to about the halfway point of the curl, you’re much stronger. Unfortunately, because the resistance you’re using is limited by how much you can curl out of the bottom position, your biceps muscles never get the muscle tension necessary to grow in the second half of the movement. While this is true to a certain extent in all lifters, it’s particularly true for the tall or long-limbed lifter.
And these types of mechanical conundrums are true of a lot of lifts other than just dumbbell curls. In the bench press, the amount you use is limited by how much you can use in your weakest position. I once read a study that determined that the length of a lifter’s forearms are inversely related to how much he can lift, but in a conversation with Charles Staley, another long-limbed lifter, we came to the intuitive conclusion that it’s actually the length of the humerus, or upper arm, that’s inversely related to how much you can bench. Either way, long-armed lifters usually suck in the bench press.
In any type of rowing movements, it’s the length of the humerus that affects rowing success; in triceps movements, it’s the forearms that acts as a cursed governor on the weight used; and, in pressing movements, we’re back to the not-so-humorous humerus.
Given that I’m a tall guy myself, I’ve had good cause to think about the subject for a long time. While stuffing socks and toilet paper in my shirtsleeves and pant legs worked for awhile, I eventually had to come up with some techniques to help myself. I don’t have a particular training program that’s guaranteed to make people stop calling you “Stretch,” but I do have several tips to help you get the most out of your workouts.
Here they are, in no particular order:
Roll it Down
While the squat is still one of the most highly touted movements to build overall strength, power, size, and sports functionality, it probably isn’t the greatest movement for building quadriceps mass in a tall guy. I know, I know, I’ll probably be burned in effigy for that statement, but I’ll get to my rationale in a minute. Regardless, I’m by no means suggesting that you don’t do squats. However, I’m suggesting that you do powerlifting style squats instead of bodybuilding type squats.
What’s the diff? Well, bodybuilding squats are those done with the bar resting at the top of the trapezius. While these are fine for the shorter guys, it’s not often the case for Lurch types. When the bar is “up high,” the tall guy’s spinal erectors are exposed to a helluva’ lot of tension. As such, they’re often the weakest link in the chain and your set stops when your erectors start to scream momma’.(1) Granted, there are those that have erectors that can support an old-fashioned bank vault without too much problem, but if you’re the typical tall guy, you’ll rack the bar when your back starts screaming.
Obviously, an aborted set isn’t going to do much for your legs.
Instead, I recommend rolling the bar down the back as far as possible so that the erectors don’t have to work as hard at supporting that long back. That way, you’ll rack the bar when your quads are screamin’ instead of your spinal erectors.
Don’t ‘Diss the Leg Press
For the long-legged lifter, the leg press can actually result in more quad hypertrophy than the squat.(1) I know, I know, a lot of strength coaches would like to throttle me for that statement, but you can bet your ass nine out of ten of them are short bastards.
Because of the enormous range of motion a tall lifter has to travel in doing a squat, it’s often his aerobic capacity that fails before his anaerobic capacity. In other words, his lungs will give out before his quads. When a tall guy does ten squats, he’s done a helluva’ lot of work. In other words, he’s moved the weight a great distance – considerably more than a shorter guy using the same weight. As such, the bar is often racked prematurely.
While this is true of the leg press, too, a tall lifter doesn’t have to worry so much about failure because he can use his hands as “spotters.” When he fails, he can simply use his hands and arms to push on the knees for a few more reps.
Besides, as is true of many other movements, the squat poundage a lifter uses is limited by what he can drive out of the hole (the midway point of the squat) and in the tall lifter, because of those long femur bones, the weight is often severely limited. As such, the weight or resistance isn’t enough to cause hypertrophy. However, by using the hands to push on the knees during a leg press to “keep on going,” the tall lifter can at least partially overcome the limitations of his long femur bones.
Take home message: Don’t dismiss the leg press.
Your Cheatin’ Heart
While we’ve stressed good form and controlled movements in T-mag over and over again, let me say that scheduled cheat sets are perfectly acceptable for the taller lifter, particularly when biceps curls and triceps extensions are concerned.
Remember what I said about the long-forearmed lifter being weakest in the first part of the movement and that the resistance subsequently chosen isn’t great enough to tax the muscle because your strength is disproportionately greater as the angle of the arm narrows (as the weight gets closer to your shoulder)? Well, controlled and scheduled cheat sets allow you to use a weight that’s much heavier than what you might ordinarily handle. That way, by lurching your body backward a bit at the beginning of the movement, you overcome the weak range of motion and simultaneously use a weight that’s heavy enough to pose a challenge to the strong part of the lift.
Similarly, cheating allows you to use a heavier weight than you ordinarily might during overhead triceps extensions or lying triceps extensions, thus overcoming that weak starting point (where the bar or weight is closest to your body).
Since the resistance you use is limited by your weakest position, you can ameliorate this limitation by doing one-point-five, or 1 1/2, reps. In other words, when you’re doing a bench press, lower the bar as normal, pause, come up all the way, pause, lower the bar half way down, pause, and then press it up to the start position again. That’s one rep.
That way, you give what’s often in tall guys the stronger range of motion – the range that often gets shortchanged because it’s being held back by the resistance necessitated by the weak part of the lift – extra volume and ulitimately maximize hypetrophy.
You can use this for bench press, barbell rows, squats, and nearly every exercise where you suffer this physics conundrum. Of course, with squats, you’d do your half reps at the bottom of the movement instead.
Go for the Rebound
Charles Staley told me about this method. My limited imagination tells me that its use is restricted to the bench press, but that’s okay. Most people choke on the bench during the first third of the movement, and this is especially true of longer limbed guys because of the length of their humerus bones. As such, employing a little plyometric effect can be a Godsend in breaking through sticking points and as such, using a weight that’s sufficient to tax the chest in its stronger ranges of motion.
To do Rebounds, rather than lower the bar in a controlled fashion, or even rather than let it fall quickly to the chest, you literally pull the bar into your chest. When it hits, you reverse direction as rapidly as possible and power the bar up.
Afterward, you cough up one or both lungs. Okay, obviously, you need to be careful and those with orthopedic impediments should stick to safer and more conventional training methods.
I’m sure some of you Lurch-types out there know countless other ways to improve a tall man’s training, and I’m quite sure the exercise physiologists out there will have something to add to my little discussion – negative or positive. In either case, I welcome their comments.
Keep in mind, too, that I’m by no means saying to neglect the weaker range of motion, or to devote all of your training to doing cheat sets, rebounds, or 1.5 reps. I’m just recommending that you incorporate them into your workout often so that no range of motion gets short changed.
Now excuse me while I go change a light bulb for the little lady.
1. TC’s Friggin’ Big Book of Knowledge, 8th edition, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.