It’s time for a quick lesson in physics. Don’t be scared; the training talk will begin soon. The definition of Work is “Force x Distance.” This is one of the most important concepts to understand when you’re a tall lifter in the gym.
Your arms and legs travel through a longer range of motion in most movements compared to people with shorter limbs. This added distance creates more work performed per rep compared to the same weight being moved by shorter lifters.
When it comes to multi-joint (compound) exercises like the squat, deadlift, and row, a longer range of motion can also mean extra loading on vital joints like the knees, hips, or vertebrae (particularly of the low back).
It’s vital to choose movements that will play to your anatomical strengths in the weight room, rather than invite excessive risk. Below are five of the smartest strength- and muscle-building exercises for tall bodies with long limbs.
Best Exercises for Tall People
For most lifters with longer legs, the front squat will reign superior over back squats and other barbell squat variations. Having the bar on the front of the body affects the center of mass.
If the barbell was to leave a trail, the bar should remain within a lifter’s footprint through all phases of the squat, traveling in a mostly straight line from top to bottom. When a lifter lacks mobility, their body mechanics and technique compensate to keep the bar along this general path, even if it means getting into inefficient positions.
The front squat allows your spine to stay much more upright compared to back squats, which can force a long-legged lifter into a forward-leaning position to keep the weight over the mid-foot. Not only is that position uncomfortable, it can be dangerous.
Front squats require you to stay upright and sit back “against” the load, rather than being pushed forward “with” the load in a back squat. This difference allows a tall lifter to finally access a full range of motion without breaking their back to do it.
How to Do the Front Squat
- Set a barbell in the rack just below shoulder-height. Step under the bar and place it near your collarbones with your hands outside each shoulder.
- Use a clean-grip or rack position to keep your elbows up and create a proper “shelf” for the bar to sit on. If it’s uncomfortable on your joints, chances are you’ve got mobility restrictions at the wrist, shoulder, or thoracic spine that need addressing.
- Find a squat stance that allows you to achieve your deepest, pain-free squat. This will require testing several foot placements and performing (unweighted) squats to find your individual best stance, based on your hip anatomy.
- Stand up and take a small step backward to unrack the bar. Squat down, beginning with a slight emphasis on knee-bending rather than “sitting back.” This will promote a vertical torso.
- Your knees should track in the same direction as your toes, angled slightly outward. They shouldn’t cave in or bow out excessively.
- Aim to achieve thighs-below-parallel depth before standing upright.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Long arms can be helpful for deadlifting since they minimize the total distance the bar has to travel, but this “benefit” is negated when coupled with an above-average leg length or total height.
A standard deadlift begins with the barbell over the shoelaces and requires moving the weight in a straight vertical path. However, for the tall crowd, the bar’s starting position blocks your lengthy shins from traveling forward and you’re forced to hike your hips higher, which puts your torso nearly parallel to the ground — a high-risk pulling position.
Simply put, physics (the tall lifter’s frenemy) has determined that a tall lifter will have to “bend over” more than a short lifter to maintain a direct pulling path. This deeper hinge position (horizontal torso) means your lower back is enduring more work on every rep of every set, which could spell danger over time.
That’s why the trap bar is a gold-standard choice for taller lifters looking to spare their spine while lifting heavy for strength or size — all the same benefits with less risk. The stress is less focused on your core and lower back and more evenly dispersed across your total body.
The trap bar also provides a neutral-grip (palms facing your body) with high or low handle options to individualize the range of motion, compared to an internally rotated (palms down) grip in front of the body at one fixed height.
The “openness” of the trap bar also gives you the ability to individualize your shin, hip, and torso angles more effectively than a barbell. Your knees can travel forward and you can sit lower while keeping your chest higher.
How to Do the Trap Bar Deadlift
- Step into the trap bar and set your feet a comfortable distance apart. Something closer to your basic squat stance will likely be ideal.
- Squeeze your chest up high and stick your butt toward the wall behind you. This will lengthen your spine and promote good starting posture.
- Pinch your shoulder blades together and squeeze your armpits down to engage your upper back.
- Use your whole head, not just your eyes, to look at a spot on the floor about two meters (six feet) in front of your toes.
- Drive your feet into the floor, squeeze your glutes and quads, and stand fully upright.
- Lower the weight to the floor with control. Don’t let the weight free fall to the ground. You should end in basically the same starting position.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Deadlift
- The muscles of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and even upper back) do the majority of the work.
- Because the trap bar allows for a deeper seated position and taller torso, your spine is spared from excessive loading.
- Your quadriceps contribute more to the trap bar deadlift than a barbell deadlift.
- Most people can move heavier loads, more safely, with a trap bar than a barbell.
The shoulder joint is arguably the most delicate joint in the entire body, and tall lifters with long arms put this crucial joint through a very long range of motion during upper body pressing exercises.
That’s why classic bench press variations using a full range of motion can work against a lifter’s shoulder joints, despite providing muscular benefits for the chest and triceps.
The pin press is a specific bench press variation, so the general horizontal pressing movement is the same. The slightly shortened range of motion avoids putting your shoulder joint into an extreme stretch, which is the most precarious position for this important joint. (1) If you have access to a Swiss bar (sometimes known as a football bar), the neutral-grip will further reduce joint stress.
The pin press is great for keeping your shoulders much healthier. This specific movement is also a fantastic choice for building brute strength using pure muscle contraction with zero momentum. (2)(3)
The pin press is an efficient tool for tall lifters who want to bench with a ton of volume and plenty of weight with far less risk.
How to Do the Pin Press
- Position a flat bench in a power rack and set the safety pins three to six inches above your chest-level when lying down. Load the bar while it’s on the safety pins, not in the usual J-hooks.
- Slide along the bench and set up with the bar roughly over your mid-chest. Grab the bar with a palms-down grip generally outside of shoulder-width. Adjust, if needed, to feel comfortable.
- Keep your feet flat and positioned under your knees to create a tucked, arched position.
- Pull your shoulders back to raise your rib cage and engage your upper back muscles for stability.
- Breathe in, stay tight from your shoulders to your grip to your feet, and press the weight to full-arm extension. Pause for a one-second count at lockout.
- Lower the weight back down to the pins under control. Take a second to re-set yourself, get properly positioned, and repeat for the next rep.
Benefits of the Pin Press
- The pin press allows you to access strength in the chest, shoulders, and triceps with a slightly limited range of motion, which protects the shoulder joint in its most vulnerable position.(4)
- Resetting from a dead-stop between individual repetitions kills any use of momentum and allows your form to remain squeaky clean. This makes it a true power and strength developer.
Making the switch to a neutral-grip for pull-ups is a simple change that has a big impact on your shoulder joint.
Classic pull-ups place your shoulder and upper arm in internal rotation. That position can get a bit finicky and potentially hazardous at end ranges (in the bottom, stretched position of a pull-up, for example).
View this post on Instagram
The goal should be to target your upper back and lats without getting into impingement problems — pinching or irritating the tendons of the shoulder joint . Rolling the head of the humerus (upper arm) into a more ideal position by using a neutral, palms-facing grip can make all the difference for pull-up comfort, strength, and longevity.
How to Do the Neutral-Grip Pull-Up
- Hold the neutral handles at a pull-up station and carefully lower yourself into a full hanging position with your elbows fully extended and your body straight underneath the bar.
- Set your shoulders back together and down away from your ears. As you begin to pull, think about making your neck long and raising your rib cage — this will increase stress on your upper back and lat muscles, and decrease joint stress.
- Exhale and keep your chest high as you get to the top. Think about tucking your elbows into your pockets.
- Don’t worry about making your neck pass above bar-level. Don’t reach your neck forward to meet the bar and avoid “over-pulling” and losing your set shoulder position.
- Avoid letting your body weight “jerk” your shoulders when you reach the bottom position. Achieve full elbow extension and perform the next repetition immediately without pausing.
Benefits of the Neutral-Grip Pull-Up
- Neutral-grip pull-ups recruit more biceps than standard (pronated or palms-down) pull-ups.(5)
- The adjusted position avoids “shoulder glide” which can plague long-armed lifters who goes through too great a range of motion.(6) Shoulder glide occurs when your shoulder joint travels forward in its socket rather than remaining properly centrated.
Your triceps muscle is made up of three heads — the lateral, medial, and long. Most triceps exercises heavily recruit the lateral head (the “horseshoe” most people can visually locate when someone flexes) while the remaining heads are under-emphasized.
Common movements like dips, pushdowns, and the close-grip bench press are three quick examples of the lateral head being put to the most work. The French press brings the weight overhead, which allows the neglected long head to get worked much more.
This a great way to beef up your triceps, especially for long-armed “hardgainers” with relatively long muscle bellies. The exercise also serves as a shoulder stabilizer because the long head attaches on the scapula (shoulder blade) and the muscle plays a role in overhead shoulder movement.
How to Do the French Press
- Sit in an upright or high-angled bench, holding a bar across your lap with a fairly close, palms-down grip. Brace your core and bring the weight to a full lockout supported above your head.
- Bend your elbows while angling them slightly outward, instead of forcing them to aim straight ahead. The weight should lower to just behind the base of your skull.
- When you’ve reached deep elbow flexion, exhale as you reverse direction and bring the weight back to the overhead position.
- Put your mind in your muscles during this bodybuilding-style isolation exercise and visualize your triceps getting a wild pump throughout the entire movement.
- Higher reps (10 to 15 per set) are more effective for this movement, to maximize muscle recruitment without excessively heavy weights.
Benefits of the French Press
- Tall lifters who struggle to add size to their upper arms will get plenty of new growth stimulus from changing the emphasis of which triceps head they’re hammering.(7)
- The French press significantly activates the long head of the triceps, which is not often well-recruited with other triceps exercises.(8)
Success Leaves Clues
Many people wouldn’t think that training in the gym is too similar to competing in sport. But if you take a second to think about it, you’ll see that many general restrictions and crucial influences are found in both.
At the beginner or intermediate level of nearly any sport, it’s easy to hold your own as long as you possess a good base of natural athleticism. In the gym, this is seen when everyone benefits from short-term “newbie gains.”
However, once you move up to more advanced levels, you start to notice some repeating trends. Just being “athletic” doesn’t cut it past a certain point, and other influential factors become difficult to overlook, in sports and in the gym.
View this post on Instagram
Most distinctly, the general body types that naturally contribute to success become more and more important. The rough silhouette of the top-level competitors in each sport all start to look similar. Take a closer look at the body proportions of elite swimmers, gymnasts, or 400-meter sprinters, for example.
You’ll notice many anatomical similarities among the top of each sport. Swimmers typically showcase longer torsos, larger hands and feet, and wide shoulders. Gymnasts are often defined by a stockier frame with short extremities and full muscle bellies. 400-meter sprinters are sure to sport long, lithe frames, with powerful musculature.
When it comes to lifting weights, your body type will impact performance just the same — especially when your goal is to be in a category far above average.
In general, lifting weights to build muscle and get very strong is much more a shorter person’s game than it is for taller folks. With the exception of competitive strongmen and strongwomen, most successful strength athletes and physique competitors benefit from not being overly tall, leaving the long folks hanging out to dry.
Tall lifters have a few distinct struggles when getting stronger and more muscular is the goal, and a number of highly regarded exercises need to be looked at through this new lens when you’re a lifter whose longer levers are moving through longer ranges of motion.
Apply this new approach to your program and you’ll get on track for more efficient training, more effective workouts, reduced risk of injury, and quicker results.
Haupt H. A. (2001). Upper extremity injuries associated with strength training. Clinics in sports medicine, 20(3), 481–490. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0278-5919(05)70264-7
- Seiberl, W., Hahn, D., Power, G. A., Fletcher, J. R., & Siebert, T. (2021). Editorial: The Stretch-Shortening Cycle of Active Muscle and Muscle-Tendon Complex: What, Why and How It Increases Muscle Performance?. Frontiers in physiology, 12, 693141. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2021.693141
- Aagaard, P., Simonsen, E. B., Andersen, J. L., Magnusson, P., & Dyhre-Poulsen, P. (2002). Increased rate of force development and neural drive of human skeletal muscle following resistance training. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 93(4), 1318–1326. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00283.2002
- Saeterbakken, A. H., Mo, D. A., Scott, S., & Andersen, V. (2017). The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. Journal of human kinetics, 57, 61–71. https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0047
Plantz MA, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Brachialis Muscle. [Updated 2022 Feb 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551630/
Johnson, A. J., Godges, J. J., Zimmerman, G. J., & Ounanian, L. L. (2007). The effect of anterior versus posterior glide joint mobilization on external rotation range of motion in patients with shoulder adhesive capsulitis. The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy, 37(3), 88–99. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2007.2307
Baz-Valle, E., Schoenfeld, B. J., Torres-Unda, J., Santos-Concejero, J., & Balsalobre-Fernández, C. (2019). The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PloS one, 14(12), e0226989. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226989
- Maeo, Sumiaki & Wu, Yuhang & Huang, Meng & Sakurai, Hikaru & Kusagawa, Yuki & Sugiyama, Takashi & Kanehisa, Hiroaki & Isaka, Tadao. (2022). Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position. European Journal of Sport Science. 1-26. 10.1080/17461391.2022.2100279.
Featured Image: Gerain0812 / Shutterstock