How to Maximise Your Gains with Anthropometric Training

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Photo credit: RichLegg - Getty Images
Photo credit: RichLegg - Getty Images

The bodyweight squat just wasn’t happening. Trainer Jon Flake could see it the moment that Jalen McDaniels started trying to drop his 6ft 9in frame into a crouch. McDaniels, a professional basketball player, was beginning a workout at the Peak Performance Project facility in Santa Barbara, California.

The gym frequently works with NBA players and Flake, the lead performance specialist, has seen plenty of bad squats. “For many tall guys, the squat goes wrong in one of two ways,” he says. “Either they push their butt too far back, or they push their knees too far forward.” McDaniels was fusing the two, and in this moment, he looked as if he was crammed into an invisible clown car.

This wasn’t McDaniels’s fault. He hadn’t set up in a squat position that properly took into account his long limbs. Flake spotted this and handed McDaniels a trap bar, which instantly took stress off the player’s upper back and helped him to keep his torso upright. After that, McDaniels started doing reps flawlessly, because he was performing a move custom-built for his body. “It’s always about finding the exercise that best suits the athlete,” says Flake.

That task is never easy, no matter what the receptionist at Fit for Less tells you, because your body is more than just your height and weight. Different combinations of limbs and torso length handle exercises in different ways. You may be better built to squat than McDaniels, but his long legs set him up to dominate the 20-second AirBike intervals that may leave you gassed. Identify both the advantages and disadvantages of your body type and you can unlock muscle-building potential while avoiding frustration.

Photo credit: RichLegg - Getty Images
Photo credit: RichLegg - Getty Images

The study of these body proportions is called anthropometry, and it is rarely optimised for the gym. It first came to prominence in the 1880s, when the French biometrics researcher Alphonse Bertillon, who worked in the Paris police records department, began cataloguing limb lengths and other data of suspects and criminal offenders for identification purposes. The goal of anthropometry is to breakdown body measurements beyond height and weight, chasing nuanced data on such things as the lengths of your torso, arms and legs. This data is most commonly used in ergonomics, aiding in the design of objects such as chairs and tables.

The closest that muscle-heads came to anthropometry was in the discussion of body types, or somatotypes, which first appeared in the 1940s. Set forth by the psychologist and physician William Sheldon, the somatotype system categorised people as ectomorphs (tall and lean), mesomorphs (athletic and strong) or endomorphs (heavy and round). His theory was that your body type dictated how easy or hard it would be to build muscle and lose weight.

Numerous experts have debunked Sheldon’s theories, yet we still think in body types. Thanks to pop culture and social media, many of us grew up with the perception that a strong body meant Arnie biceps and Chris Evans abs. If our arms were longer or skinnier than theirs, we assumed we’d never crush it in the gym. Many still believe these ideas but they shouldn’t. Every body is equipped to pull off great feats of strength. The key is learning to train with exercises matched to your body type.

That’s why anthropometric training can be life-changing. Fitness experts credit the late Canadian kinesiology professor David A Winter with connecting the dots between limb length, exercise performance and forging strength. In his influential 1979 book, Biomechanics of Human Movement, he analysed data from research on cadaver limb lengths and started linking it to the way the body moves. His insights gained traction only with forward-thinking trainers, even though limb length can make a 100kg barbell deadlift a breeze for one person and a nightmare for another.

Jon Flake and a handful of trainers are starting to incorporate these ideas in their work. Make a few training tweaks based on your limb measurements and you can optimise key exercises and avoid nagging injuries at the same time. There are five key combinations of arms, legs and torsos that can significantly affect the way you lift and move. Understand them and you’ll put yourself on the path to major gains.

01 The Skyscrapers

Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood
Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood

Long-limbed men over 5ft 10in. Training issues for taller men tend to become more acute if you’re taller than 6ft 8in.

Your challenge: Think of your body as the lift in a multi-storey building, powering the weight upward. The taller you are, the more “floors” the weight has to travel up before reaching its destination. So, you need a split second longer than most people to complete each rep. That adds up to extra work (and time spent under tension) for every muscle in every set.

Perfect Your Form

The taller you get, the tighter your form must be. Every exercise has a moment when you stop lowering the weight and start lifting. This is where injuries often happen– because of your long limbs, you face more time under tension. So, perfect your form before going heavy.

Rethink the Deadlift

The classic barbell deadlift, a total-body muscle builder, isn’t suited to you. Your long legs and torso make it unwieldy. Shift your legs outside shoulder width for a more natural set-up. Or perform Romanian deadlifts, holding dumbbells at your hips, then slowly pushing your glutes back and lowering your torso before standing explosively.

Prioritise Bent-over Rows

The added time under tension you face on every rep works against you on most exercises, but not bent-over rows. Your middle- and upper-back muscles respond well to sustained periods of time under tension, so if you train your back hard, you’ll see major lat growth. In the process, you’ll hone your posture and bulletproof your shoulders, too. Do three sets of dumbbell or kettlebell rows at least twice a week.

Take Time Off

Remember, a single rep for you forces your muscles to work harder than a single rep for an average-height training partner. Take that into consideration when planning your workouts. Rest for an extra 15 seconds between sets of any exercise, and give yourself an extra day to recover between tough workouts. A person of average height may squat every other day – but you do extra work in every squat session, so your body needs two days to recover.

02 The Tanks

Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood
Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood

Anyone 5ft 7in or shorter, but it’s not all about height. You can consider yourself a tank if you’ve got shorter limbs. Stand straight, with your hands at your sides. Do your middle fingers reach down your thighs just slightly? Congratulations– you’re a tank.

Your challenge: Power production isn’t your strength. Your short limbs will hold you back when you take on the 500m row or test the broad jump. Short athletes generate less power per stroke than taller athletes, according to a study of competitive 2,000m rowers.

Hit the Bench

Your shorter arms will help you crush pressing exercises such as bench presses and overhead presses. Take advantage of this and do both exercises frequently to pack muscle onto your chest and shoulders.

Master Bodyweight Moves

You’re built to dominate bodyweight exercises. Pull-ups, press-ups, bodyweight squats and even pistol squats will come easily, thanks to your shorter limbs and tight centre of gravity, so integrate moves of these kinds into your training daily.

Definitely Deadlift

If you’re 5ft 7in or under, you were born to deadlift – and heavy. One study of novice weightlifters showed that deadlifts helped them build strength and added to their vertical leap. That means the lift can make you stronger and help you boost your explosive athleticism, too. Taller gym bros can’t reap benefits from the deadlift as efficiently as you can, thanks to your levers. Make the most of this. Start with five sets of five, twice a week.

Always Go Heavy

Cut the reps. Train insets of five to seven reps, and don’t be afraid to push your limits, taking advantage of the way your shorter limbs reduce your risk of injury. No, you won’t pile up time under tension, but research shows that the frequency and intensity of your training can also build muscle. By working with heavier weights and lower reps, you’ll encourage your body to build power and offset your disadvantage.

03 The Boats

Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood
Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood

Men with long torsos. Get in a half-kneeling stance and fold your torso forward, so your chest is parallel to the floor. Is the middle of your chest in front of your knee? Then there’s a good chance you have a long torso.

Your challenge: The average person has a torso that makes up about 30% of their total height, measured from hip bone to shoulder. If yours is longer than that, weighted moves that have your torso bent forward – such as deadlifts and rows – can be daunting.

Dominate the Rower

Your body-type poster body? Michael Phelps. The Olympic legend has a long torso, as many swimmers do. Elite swimmers and rowers illustrate your strengths: your torso helps you transfer force from lower body to upper body (and vice versa). Expect to dominate on the rower – and make it a regular part of your training.

Focus on Your Core

You’re built to excel at core exercises, and during gymnastics-style moves such as hollow holds and L-sits, your longer rectus abdominus holds up your legs easily. In other words, eight-pack, here you come.

Support Your Chest

Barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell bent-over rows are classic back-building exercises, but you may not be able to go as heavy as you want on these motions. Opt for bench-supported rows instead, lying with your chest on an include or flat bench, then rowing dumbbells or kettlebells. This will relieve stress from your lower back. Aim for three sets of 10-12 reps, twice a week.

Watch for Imbalances

Your lower body is prone to imbalance because of your squatting mechanics. Sure, you’ll develop your squads nicely, but your hamstrings and glutes are destined to be underworked. Solve that with Romanian deadlifts and hip thrusts when you’re not squatting. Perform Romanian deadlifts at least twice a week, and do hip thrusts as often as three times a week. Aim for three sets of 12 for both exercises.

04 The Cavemen

Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood
Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood

Long arms and short legs. When you’re standing, do your arms nearly scratch your kneecaps? That’s a sign of a lengthy wingspan. And when your wingspan exceeds your height, you have long arms and short legs. Want to check? Extend your arms out to the sides and measure from fingertip to fingertip across your chest.

Your challenge: Many men struggle with shoulder issues – and this is a problem for you more than for most. Overhead movements such as pull-ups and shoulder presses, and explosive lifts such as barbell and kettlebell snatches, place your shoulder at risk, thanks to the long arm lever you create as you thrust upward.

Reap the Benefits of Leg Day

Your legs move efficiently through squats and lunges. Do them holding weights at your sides and watch your leg (and abs) build strength.

Don’t Skip Chest Day

Yes, you can bench press. No, you may not get the results you want. Because of your long arms, the move will tax your triceps more than your chest. But, hey they’re important, too.

Embrace Barbell Deadlifts

You’re built for this lift. Your long arms are primed to reach down easily and grasp the bar, but your shorter legs won’t face too much tension as they power the bar up. Deadlift at least twice a week; you’ll burn serious calories and build total-body muscle.

Isolate Your Chest

Since bench presses and press-ups stimulate your chest, you’ll need extra work to blast your pecs. Try floor dumbbell flies. Lie holding bells above your shoulders, elbows bent. Lower the bells in a wide arc until your elbows touch the floor. Reverse the movement. You’ll isolate chest muscles safely. Do three sets of 10-12, at least once a week.

Sit Out Overhead Holds

Think twice about exercises such as snatches and overhead squats. You’re placing those long arms at risk of injury. Aiming to build shoulder size? Opt for safer alternatives, such as dumbbell overhead presses and lateral raises, instead.

05 The T-Rexes

Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood
Photo credit: Ben Mounsey-Wood

Short arms and long legs. Sit on the ground, legs straight. Press your hands into the ground. If you can’t lift your glutes off the ground, then you have short arms. Now try touching your toes without bending your knees. If you can’t come close, then you have short arms and long legs.

Your challenge: You have a natural build for distance running. Strength training? Not so much. Your shorter arms make deadlifts difficult. And your long legs are the bane of your existence, creating a heavy load for your core on abs exercises and causing problems on lower-body-focused moves.

Pull and Push

Your shorter arms make pull-ups and press-ups a breeze, so rely on bodyweight training for your upper body. You can still get a great pump on without weights.

Keep It Simple

Exercises that challenge you to use multiple limbs at once, such as burpees and Turkish get-ups, may frustrate you, because your long legs will frequently get in the way (and may throw your timing off). Practice them in parts. Instead of doing 10 burpees, for example, do 10 press-ups, then jump from plank position to a squat 10 times, then do 10 jump squats. You’ll get the same calorie burn, but with less annoyance.

Elevate Your Weights

Lowering into position for deadlifts and similar moves (such as cleans and snatches) is harder for you. It also won’t build any extra muscle. So, bring the weights to you by elevating them. Some gyms have small steps or mats; grab those or a pair of 20kg plates and place them just outside your feet. Then place your barbell or dumbbells on that elevated surface. This will make it easier to grab the weights and focus on the muscle-growing portions of your rows and deadlifts.

Embrace Pull-ups

You’ll build serious muscle with pull-ups. You have a short range of motion, thanks to your arm length, but your torso and long legs create plenty of weight for you to hoist upward. If you struggle, take time to learn the motion. Start by jumping up to the bar and slowly lowering yourself. Do three sets of five reps like this three times a week. Once you can do pull-ups, aim for three sets of 10-12, three times a week.

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