How Does Your Limb Length Impact Your Lifts?

Why traditional coaching cues just don’t work for you.

Lifting well is about a lot of things: the resilience of your mind, the strength and coordination of your muscles, and physics. If you’ve ever wondered why your bar path can make a difference between a failed rep and a massive PR, science is the answer. It’s also the reason why the length of your arms and legs matter in lifting.

Barbell Drift Deadlift
Image via Shutterstock/Sirichai Saengcharnchai

[Related: Bar Floating Away From You In The Deadlift? Try This!]

Does Limb Length Impact Your Lifting (Or Are You Just “Making Excuses”)?

It’s not “making excuses” to say that if you’ve got longer legs, conventional deadlifts are harder to accomplish — it’s making a statement about your body’s interaction with the mechanics of the lift. Fragile masculinity is an avoidable obstacle. Instead of being afraid that people will think you’re only good at bench pressing because you’ve got short arms, get to work on loving yourself (and other people).

Lifting takes practice, skill, and strength regardless of your limb length — but learning how levers and center of mass work in your lifts will make you a better lifter.

Brief Physics Of Lifting

You know about bar path (aka keep the darn thing straight and — for squats and deadlifts — over your midfoot), force leakage (aka keep your form in good shape to boost your lift’s effectiveness), and momentum (aka kill the momentum on the ground for max muscular recruitment with your deadlifts). You might know a little less about the physics of it all.

To put it extra simply, your muscles are combating gravity when you lift, and moving your body in the most efficient way possible reduces gravity’s influence. Gravity causes the bar to want to return straight down the the ground — therefore, you want to move it pretty much directly up and down for your big compound lifts.

To do so, the moment arm matters — that is, the horizontal distance between where the bar is on your body and the point of rotation. For example, in a deadlift, the moment arm goes from your hands (where the bar is, pretty much directly under your shoulders) to your hinged hips (the point of your body’s rotation). With a squat, there’s a moment arm from the horizontal measure from your shoulders (where the bar is pinned) to the back of your hips and to the front of your knees (both places where your body is rotating, or moving, to control the barpath).

Think about the squat: if your thighs are super long (for the long-legged among us), one of your moment arms is going to be extra long, making it harder to avoid teetering off balance to try and keep the bar path straight. And with both deadlifts and presses, your arm length is going to have a lot to do with how far you’re physically moving the bar from the top of the lift to the bottom.

The TLD-love-science-in-high-school is this: the length of your limbs impacts the physics of your lifts. That doesn’t mean it predetermines whether or not you can crush it on the platform — it just means that there are very real training implications to consider when you’re chasing your next PR.

How Limb Length Affects Your Lifts

Of course, long-armed folks can have spectacular overhead presses, and the most T-rex-armed among us can be powerful deadlifters. Tall and short folk alike can have absurdly great squats and deads. If you exist at the extremes of limb length, knowing exactly how to train when you’ve got long or short arms, or long or short legs, can make all the difference in your next PR.

Pressing And Benching With Long Arms

If you’ve got long arms like me, your high planks and down dogs probably always look like you’re doing them wrong (because your arms are just too darn long to sit comfortably directly under your shoulders). And, you only like overhead and bench pressing (not to mention push-ups) if you love a challenge — because yes, alas, overhead presses and bench presses can be a bit trickier with long arms.

The reason is simple: the bar has a farther way to travel than it would it you had shorter arms. This doesn’t mean that humans with shorter arms automatically have great pressing strength, or that long-armed folks have no chance of developing solid pressing power. It just might change your training mechanics a bit.

Training RX: 

Sidebar — legs aren’t the biggest factor with your bench press, but if you have shorter legs, it might be harder to set up a solid leg drive. If that sounds like you, focus on bracing and on your hip and ankle flexibility — if you’re not in competition, you might also want to plant your feet down on a steady weight plate.

Squatting With Long Legs

The longer your femurs (your thigh bones), the harder time you may have keeping the center of mass over the midline of your foot (that good old bar path). To break parallel, you have to sink farther backward with longer thighs — and the farther back you dip (the longer your moment arm), the harder it is to balance the depth of your squat against the physical temptation to let your back fall forward and “good morning” the squat back up.

You might try to lean your torso forward with the bar so it stays on the bar path — but you’ll be doing all sorts of wonky things to your body and putting all kinds of unwanted pressure in your low back to do so.

Instead of forcing the bar up with mechanics that will just wind up hurting your back, try out some tricks to perfect your long-legged squat.

Training RX:

  • Perform daily ankle, hip, and spine mobility drills
  • Widen your stance to give your hips more room to sink down
  • Banded squats to encourage your knees to press out

Sidebar: if you have really short arms and/or inflexible shoulders, it might be tougher for you to pin the bar against your back. Work to improve your shoulder mobility, and if you need to, widen your grip on the bar.

Deadlifting With Long Legs And/Or Short Arms

Even with an incredibly-formed hip hinge, you’ve still got to grip the bar from nine inches off the ground. If you physically need to bend deeper in the knees to get there — whether because of long legs, short arms, or both — it might be tougher for you to scrape the bar up your shins while pushing the ground away through your heels.

Why? The greater the knee bend, the greater the forward tilt of your body — especially if you’re fighting to keep your torso upright, the weight will try to tug you forward over the center of mass, where you need to be pulling it straight up and back.

Training RX:

  • Strengthen your hip extensors to improve your strength off the ground
  • Focus extra on training your lats (since they’ll work overtime to keep the pull where it needs to be)
  • Try sumo deadlifting to decrease your required range of motion

Limb Length Counts

You might have some lever advantages if you’re a short-armed bench presser, but that doesn’t mean that the gangly-armed among us can’t put up some impressive numbers. Train to your weaknesses, praise yourself for your strengths, and you can become a well-rounded lifter regardless of your limb length.

Feature image via Shutterstock via Sirichai Saengcharnchai