The more advanced a lifter becomes, the less he tends to rely on new information to improve his strength. If he’s seen good results, it’s a safe bet that he’s learned his own body, and understands what movements do and don’t work for him. This is the level of maturity that most good coaches will hope to get out of their athletes over time.
Many trainers don’t understand that concept, and things move in the other direction instead. Where training programs are concerned, making the right choices about what programs or fixed systems are right for you has a second layer worth considering. Along with the lifter’s maturity level as a trainee, it’s also important to consider the lifter’s body type. Here’s how and why it impacts almost every lift.
TRUTH ABOUT TRAINING PROGRAMS
Most programs that you’ll find on the internet, or even in the writings of very accomplished coaches, can overlook the fact that your performance or physical results are not only limited by your skill level or conditioning. A program or workout that recommends plenty of compound movements, imposes limited rest intervals between sets, extreme amounts of volume, or plenty of supersets between challenging patterns may be scientifically sound.
However, it also implies the lifter in question has a body type that is friendly to weight training. The reality is, every sport has an anatomical “sweet spot” – a body type that will make pursuing and excelling in that sport naturally friendlier to that particular individual over another with a different body type. Efficiency of movement is half the battle when it comes to moving impressive numbers in the weight room. A lifter with an unfavorable body type for high performance weight training will have a harder time adding strength or muscle because of these disadvantages.
Two lifters who are conditioned equally may present very different results in a fitness or strength test simply due to their variations of leverages. It can lead a coach to falsely judge the disadvantaged lifter as out of shape, but it is the responsibility of the coach to realize that leverage variation requires serious consideration.
STRENGTH VERSUS WORK
A trainer would do very well to consider this massive and important difference when monitoring the quality of a training program for clients of varying body types. Work is measured by the equation, force x distance, and is something that will be a stronger indicator of a given workout’s training effect – not the amount of absolute load lifted.
To illustrate, suppose two lifters were squatting next to one another. One was 5’5” tall, with compact features and a low centre of gravity. The other was 6’7” tall, with long legs and a short torso. The short lifter had 315lbs on the bar, while the tall lifter had 295lbs on his. Both were squatting for 3 sets of 10 reps, and both achieved full range of motion on each squat. On paper, the shorter lifter would appear to be the stronger one, since the performance wouldn’t lie. He’d be lifting the heavier load for the same amount of sets and reps.
But let’s look further. A 5’5” lifter squatting to full depth may descend about 20 inches to get to the bottom. A 6’7” lifter squatting to full depth may descend roughly 36 inches. Since work is equal to force x distance, it’s worth simply multiplying the sets and reps by their respective distances travelled per rep to ascertain just how much of a training effect each lifter undergoes. At the end of three sets of 10 reps, based on the numbers above, the short lifter would have travelled 1200 inches with 315lbs. The taller lifter would have travelled 2160 inches with 295lbs – that’s 1.8 times more. That means likely double the time under tension, and (assuming rest intervals were similar) less recovery time.
Asking the question of “who’s really stronger” should take on a new perspective with this data. This is even more important to ask when dealing with lifters who don’t compete, and have nothing directly riding on their numerical performance in the gym.
LEVERS AND SHEAR
What’s more, just because a lifter with unfavourable extremities is strong or mobile enough to perform movement patterns with full range of motion using significant load, it doesn’t mean he’s protected from the collateral damage that bearing those loads can create. In other words, longer levers will create the potential for more shear forces in key areas like the knees and lumbar spine.
Imagine a scenario of a tall lifter (6 foot plus) at the bottom depth during a back squat. As someone with good mobility, in order to keep the bar over the mid foot where it belongs (and ultimately travelling in a straight line), they would need to allow the knees to travel very far forward over the toes, and assume a slightly greater than desired forward lean.
Because of a tall person’s lever lengths, there’s virtually no correction for this on a greater level – and minus a few tweaks, this will be the general geometry for a back squat for someone of these proportions.
So what movement variations may be friendlier to the taller lifter when they are lifting heavy? What alternatives can be used to substitute heavy lifting so as to reduce the potential for injury?
TALL MAN STRATEGIES
In the case of the squat, it would be a smart idea to use front squats when the lower back’s health and hip mobility are in greater question. If knee health is more the issue, box squats and landmine squats are viable options. For deadlifting, using a trap bar allows for the torso to be kept more vertical and for a reduced pulling space to be used (when going high handle).
These can be friendly to both taller, longer-legged lifters, and also wider, heavier lifters who may struggle to find the correct starting spine position during conventional barbell deadlifts. Pin pressing instead of full range bench pressing can expose a long-armed lifter to heavy loads under safer parameters, by having the bar stop a few vital inches shy of the actual torso.
This change can eliminate the potential for shoulder glide, which can compromise the general benefits of a bench press pattern. On a similar note, stopping just shy of the torso for pull exercises like rows, pull-downs and pull-ups may be the answer to maintain back stimulation, when the pulling space exceeds the space of contraction for the target muscles.
Encouraging the use of isometrics while mimicking the above movement patterns is also a wise way to promote neural exhaustion and maximal effort without the variable of dynamic movement in the picture. The majority of injuries in sport and weight training happen when the body has to change positions (and possibly lose good technique) under load. Removing that factor from the picture means the biggest risk is eliminated.
Finally, trainers need to be concerned with the long haul, so it makes sense to put these methods into practice sooner rather than later, but more importantly, to instil their big-picture importance into the minds of our trainees to whom they apply. What’s more, force-feeding certain lifts, rest intervals, and volume onto every client will not serve you or the people you’re training in the long term. “Training smart” is only half the battle. Training with a regard for your body type is what matters most.