Do you tower over people when standing, but look normal height when sitting? Are you all arms and legs? Then you, my friend, are not only tall, but also long-limbed. Being tall is cool. It helps with most athletic pursuits, you never need worry about seeing over the crowd at a gig, you can reach stuff that others need a step for, and, in general, being tall makes you more attractive. While there are many benefits to being tall, muscle building is not one of them.
Trust me, I speak from experience. I’m 6’3” with a 6‘7” wingspan. Standing, I’m taller than 95% of people because all my height is in my legs. Sitting down, however, I am shorter than most. Filling out your arms and legs when they are long is tough. The struggle is real.
If you’re like me then, you have probably been battling for ages to pack some size onto your arms and legs (don’t even get me started on calves). Despite training hard for months, or even years, people might genuinely ask, ”Do you even lift?”
The sad reality is that a tall guy can spend years training and he’ll often look like he’s never seen the inside of a gym when compared to a shorter, more compact lifter who has trained for the same period. I feel your pain.
It is extremely frustrating to bust your balls in the gym, but see little return for all your hard work. All the while there are guys growing like weeds without having to put in the Herculean effort you need just to gain a measly quarter of an inch on your arms or legs.
The truth is you can gain muscle. The problem is that, when you do gain weight, it isn’t really that obvious. Ten pounds of muscle on a 5’8” guy completely transforms his physique. Those same 10 pounds on a 6’4“ bloke, barely noticeable.
You Can Build Muscle
Don’t despair. There is hope. You can build muscle, especially in your torso. Creating depth from front to back is relatively easy for you. A big chest and thick upper back is achievable because of your leverages. Building big arms and legs, however, is harder.
The principles of training and nutrition for mass gain are the same for you as they are for a short guy with t-rex arms. The difference is in the details. With a few smart tweaks to these details you can go from tall and skinny to big and jacked.
Having spent the past decade experimenting and refining what works for me, and having trained hundreds of clients over the same period, I have identified 11 key strategies to help you to finally build enough mass to fill out your frame. In this article I’ll cover the first five.
1. Get Your Head in the Game
This is by far the most important element to transforming your physique. If you skip this step, then all the cool training and nutrition tips I have for you below will be pointless. Think you won’t build muscle because you have always been tall and skinny? Guess what? You are right.
“Whether you think you can, or cannot—you’re right.” – Henry Ford
Ditch the self-limiting thoughts that have been holding you back and flip your thinking to a growth mindset.
Look at others who have achieved what you want to for inspiration. Believe you can achieve it and set about doing what is necessary.
You will need a laser-like focus on training and nutrition (don’t worry I have everything you need to know on these subjects below), but it is possible to be tall and jacked. Quit settling for being lanky, get in the gym, and work your ass off. It will be worth it because a tall and muscular guy really stands out.
If you want to reach a goal then you need to devote your attention towards it to the exclusion of all other conflicting goals. To build large amounts of muscle, specific phases of your training and lifestyle must be focused on maximizing muscle growth.
You need to keep the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID) principle front and center in your training and nutritional habits to grow muscle. The idea is that if you spend enough time picking heavy stuff up, your body will adapt by adding bigger, stronger muscles. Simple, right?
Yet, so often, tall guys looking to get huge do a bunch of cardio. Why? Honestly, I have no idea. Perhaps they want to keep their abs in check, or maybe they are just sick, twisted, sadistic, self-saboteurs.
The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t do anything that takes away from your primary goal. In this case, don’t engage in training that limits your true growth potential.
Don’t worry about your abs or conditioning. Forget about your 5k time, vertical jump, completing an Ironman, or a new cool activation drill for your subscapularis.
Likewise, drinking and partying all night, staying up late playing video games, and skipping meals should be a thing of the past. You need to train hard and recover harder. That means focusing all your time and effort towards training, eating, and sleeping.
Plenty of tall skinny guys make the mistake of going on a perma-bulk. They lose focus on training, but follow the see-food diet year round and end up skinny-fat. Instead, have dedicated periods of laser-like focus on building muscle.
Then, switch gears slightly to complimentary goals, like training for strength, while you maintain the muscle you gained. Perhaps, even do a mini-cut to reveal the rewards of your mass gaining efforts. Then, when you’re 100% ready and can give it all your attention, dive back into another focused mass gain phase.
3. Rest More to Grow More
If you are tall, then the bar has to travel further in a squat, bench, or deadlift than for a shorter person. If you are tall and disproportionately long limbed, then this issue is magnified. You do a lot more work per rep than shorter guys or more evenly structured tall guys.
Work, in physics, is defined as force x distance. So, being long limbed means that for every rep you have to apply force over a larger distance. This means you do more work even when using the same weight as other gym goers.
It stands to reason that a 6’5” guy has further to go than a 5’8” one. Less obvious is the fact that two 6’4” guys might also have different leverages. If the bulk of your height is in your limbs, then squatting below parallel will require you to go further than a shorter-limbed, tall guy.
Some natural squatters only have to move the bar a foot to hit depth, while us long limbed brethren have to move it for eternity (ok, it just feels like eternity) to hit the same depth.
This extra distance causes more work to be done and requires more energy to be expended. As a result, it is harder to recover from. Working with short rest periods, if you are the first guy, doesn’t seem so bad but, for the taller lifters out there, it will very quickly feel like a cardio challenge rather than a strength workout.
The simple answer is to take longer rest between sets to allow you to put forth a good effort in subsequent sets.
Almost all training protocols out there prescribe rest intervals without taking this into account. They simply consider the physiological impacts based on the average.
You are not average. So, what should you do?
My simple answer is to work at the high end of the standard recommendations. For example, for hypertrophy based training, it is generally suggested that you rest 30-120 seconds between sets. For the long limbed amongst us, I’d say to take the full 120 seconds.
The same goes when training for strength using heavier weights and fewer reps. In this case, 3-5 minutes is often advised. Guess what? If you are a tall long-limbed lifter, then you should take the whole 5 minute rest period.
4. Modify Your Rep Ranges
You should be starting to notice a trend here. We taller lifters shouldn’t blindly follow the prevailing dogma about training. Instead, learn the principles and then fine tune the details to suit your needs. A good example is rep ranges.
Plenty of old-school bodybuilders talk about high rep squats as a sure-fire way to build freaky huge legs. For us tall lifters, however, it is simply a great way to get out of breath and tax our lower back while giving little stimulation to our quads. All in all, a massive investment of training energy with very little return in leg size.
Tall lifters would be better served dropping the reps lower on big moves like squats. They can still do high reps but what constitutes a high rep set of squats for a long-limbed lifter is different to the average lifter. Fifteen reps is still way too high, in my opinion. Instead, focus on getting strong in the 4-8 rep range.
This will provide a ton of tension (a key stimulator of hypertrophy) and allow you to track progress over time. Then use machine based work (hack squats, leg press, or leg extensions) to really smash the quads in higher rep ranges.
5. Save High Rep Work for Assistance Exercises
Some exercises lend themselves to heavy weights and lower reps. Your big three are obvious examples. These exercises can act as indicators of your programs overall efficacy. If numbers are going up here, then good things are happening.
All too often though, I see tall guys apply the same logic to their assistance work, chasing PRs on isolation lifts and single leg work. That doesn’t make sense.
These assistance lifts are there to assist the big stuff. With these lifts, it is key that you can maintain tension on the target muscles, control the weight, and use a full range of motion (ROM) to activate the muscles throughout that whole ROM.
If you chase numbers too aggressively on these lifts, you tend to find other muscle groups kicking in to do the work that shift the emphasis away from where you want it. So, don’t do assistance exercises using loads that are comparable to that of your big lifts.
Here are some guidelines to help you pick rep ranges appropriate to different exercises:
Squats and Deadlifts
Exercises like squats and deadlifts have a high technical demand. Consequently, there is a high risk of form breakdown. Doing high rep sets of squats or deads can be extremely metabolically demanding and cause huge amounts of fatigue.
A high level of technical demand and massive amounts of fatigue are not a good combo. As such, keeping reps lower (for really tall guys I’d suggest 4-8 reps on squats and 3-6 reps on deads), and doing a high number of sets while stopping sets 2-3 reps short of failure is where you should spend most of your time.
Doing so will provide a great stimulus for hypertrophy through a high overall volume of work done on these brutal lifts.
For rows, I like a range of 6-12 reps. Now be careful if using the lower end of that scale. Often, people turn heavy rows into a weird hip hinge, shrug, chest drop, bar hump combo.
All of which is great for the ego but terrible for developing the lats and rhomboids. If doing 6 reps, I would suggest that you keep them strict and pause them at peak contraction for a second or two.
I have seen the best results training rows twice per week. One day a little heavier then one day a little lighter. For example, sets of 6-8 reps on a Monday and then 10-12 reps on a Thursday.
I suggest 5-12 reps on these. This will, of course, depend upon your strength level. I tend to prefer getting someone to the upper end of this range before adding external load (e.g. a plate with a dipping belt).
Going too heavy with added weight turns an awesome back exercise into a crappy bicep one. If you can get to 12 strict reps, then good things will happen to your physique.
For big lifts like bench and military press, 4-8 reps is best. If using dumbbells I would suggest you program 8-12 reps, with the occasional foray up to 15.
Dumbbells are inherently unstable so going too heavy is a case of risk outweighing reward, especially if you waste a lot of energy getting the dumbbells into position. Note, if your spotter has to lift the dumbbells on rep one for you to get things moving, you messed up choosing your weight.
Any higher than 12-15 reps on a regular basis and I think you will be limited by the fatigue
accumulated. The pec and triceps are primarily fast twitch and should be trained accordingly.
Single Leg Exercises
Much like using dumbbells for the upper body, single leg exercises are unstable and balance can be an issue. Going lighter and bumping the reps higher makes sense. I would suggest the same rule of thumb as dumbbell pressing variations of 8-15 reps. I would go further and say that 80% of the time you should be doing 10 plus reps.
Doing split squats in the fashion I have seen John Meadows can help with balance. In this version, you hold one dumbbell on one side and use the other arm to balance yourself against a squat rack.
This really helps with stability and allows you to focus on trashing the quads. Even though you are more stable in this version, I wouldn’t go lower than 8 reps. There are simply better choices for getting your heavy work in.
To infinity and beyond! Ok, well, not infinity, but these are the exercises where you can really push the reps high. I’d say 10 plus reps on nearly all sets, and these exercises are great for metabolic training so doing sets of 20 plus reps is perfectly fine. You will also get an awesome pump doing high rep sets on these.
For maximum hypertrophy, I would suggest you do the bulk of your work in the 10-15 rep range with these exercises. Occasionally, really get after it and chase the benefits of metabolic training by doing sets around the 20 rep mark with only short rest periods (e.g. 30 seconds). It’ll burn, and the pump is insane, but for brief periods of time it works brilliantly as a stimulus for muscle size.
Put These Tips to Practice
You are now with some practical tips to help you fill out your shirt sleeves and turn your lanky frame into a large and in charge one. Put these into practice and stay tuned for my next article 6 More Hypertrophy Tips for the Long Limbed Lifter.