Most of the time, it pays to be tall. Step onto the basketball or tennis court, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a leg up over everyone else.
But on the lifting platform? Sorry, dude.
When it comes to weightlifting, short guys often have an advantage over their taller counterparts—we’re talking 6’2″ and over—simply because certain exercises favor their biomechanics. Because of their long limbs, tall guys need to sustain weight over larger ranges of motion, and that makes them more susceptible to injury than their more compact counterparts.
“Through years of training many different types of guys—from Navy SEALs to NBA players—I’ve noticed some common denominators among tall guys,” says Lucas Dunham, XPS, a performance specialist at EXOS. Those commonalities:
- Taller guys generally have a harder time gaining lean mass.
- Taller guys have a more challenging time performing traditional strength exercises through a full range of motion.
- Taller guys are more susceptible to joint discomfort if treated like every other lifter.
But height alone doesn’t dictate your ability to excel in strength training. “You can still be really tall and have exceptional biomechanics, giving you an advantage over shorter lifters,” he says. “For example, Brian Shaw (who’s 6’8”) has been named the World’s Strongest Man four times and has deadlifted over 1,000lbs; he’s incredibly tall relative to others in his sport, but he’s modified and mastered exercises based on his proportions and biomechanics,” Lucas explains.
So, with the above disadvantages in mind, Lucas has pinpointed the 10 most common exercises tall guys struggle with. And, for each move, he’s provide a more favorable alternative or modification you can implement in your own regimen.
1. Barbell bench press
Why it’s hard for tall guys: “The bench press is undoubtedly a great exercise for packing on mass and building anterior core strength,” Lucas says, but it also demands serious control of your shoulder blades, thoracic spine, and shoulder joints. “If people insist everyone touches the bar to their chest, the lift becomes not only humbling but potentially unsafe when you add long arms into the equation,” he explains.
Do these instead: Master the dumbbell bench press and incline barbell bench press. The dumbbell press—because you’re using two free weights—lets you find a more favorable, comfortable position through your shoulder complex. Plus, it’s actually more effective for building mass in your chest, Lucas says. The incline bench press is also intrinsically safer because it doesn’t come with the same stigma about coming down to your chest or demand the amount of torque at your shoulder joint, he adds.
How to use in a routine: For mass, try 4 sets of 10 on each movement with 1 minute rest. For strength, try 5 sets of 5 reps on each movement with 1-2 minutes rest.
2. Conventional deadlift
Why it’s hard for tall guys: “The deadlift is a great test of pure strength and power because it’s gauging how much weight you can pick off the floor,” Lucas says. “The trouble with deadlifting is that everyone—no matter how tall or how long your legs are—has to pick it up from about 9 inches off the ground,” he explains. It’s the only power lift with a range of motion based on the height of the equipment, rather than the anatomy of the lifter. What’s more, tall guys with especially long legs have a hard time keeping their weight back on their heels because they need greater knee flexion to perform the movement. But guess what: Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, you don’t need the traditional deadlift.
Do this instead: Use the trap (hex) bar deadlift as an alternative. (It’s also regarded as the most efficient lift, according to NFL combine trainer Ryan Flaherty.) The equipment lets you sink into a more comfortable setup, and you’re not constricted or limited by the bar hitting your knees. “Plus, the elevated handles allow taller guys to pull from a more reasonable height,” Lucas says. “If you’re still having trouble with the setup, try setting the weight up on a few boxes or stacked plates,” he adds.
How to use in a routine: Keep the volume relatively low and really master the technique. Start with 3-4 sets of 3-4 reps, with plenty of rest between sets on your lower-body days, he recommends.
3. Barbell back squat
Why it’s hard for tall guys: Squats—particularly back squats variation—are king as far as building lean mass, stimulating total-body growth, boosting testosterone, and improving joint mobility. “But there’s no denying the movement demands requisite mobility in your ankles, hips, and thoracic spine,” Lucas says. “And the longer your femurs are, the harder it is to perform the back squat with high quality,” he adds. Tall guys struggle to maintain balance between pushing their hips back to settle into the squat and keeping their center of mass over the midfoot. With the load placed in front of you, though, this task becomes much less daunting.
Do these instead: Opt for the front squat, which is a great way to load up the bar for strength work, and the goblet squat, which is an amazing variation for building mass. (Just make sure for the goblet squat, you use a heavy dumbbell, hold it in front of your chest, and tuck your elbows into your sides, Lucas notes.)
How to use in a routine: For strength, perform 5 sets of 5 with heavy front squats or goblet squats. For mass, grab a moderate dumbbell or kettlebell and rip through 3 sets of 10-20 quality goblet squats at a controlled tempo. Rest for 1-3 minutes between both styles.
4/5. Barbell snatch and barbell clean and jerk
Why they’re hard for tall guys: “Olympic lifts—like the barbell snatch and barbell clean and jerk—are the ultimate presentation of weightlifting mastery,” Lucas says. “The lifts require an intense amount of power, speed, finesse, grace, mobility, and stability—all of which are desirable qualities for an athlete.” Throw in long legs and arms, though, and you ramp the difficulty up a few notches; in fact, for some guys, these lifts are nearly impossible to pull off. “Unless you’re competing in weightlifting, it’s hard to justify allocating your training time and resources toward mastering the prerequisites for these lifts,” Lucas adds.
Do these instead: Want to reap some of the benefits of Olympic lifting without actually doing Olympic lifts? Do more dumbbell snatches and kettlebell swings. The dumbbell snatch will help you achieve power and explosiveness and set you up in a controlled overhead position that requires much less mobility. The kettlebell swing will also enhance your power, speed, and explosiveness; it’s far easier to master, too.
How to use in a routine: For dumbbell snatches, perform 2-3 sets of 5 reps per arm at the beginning of your sessions with 2 minutes rest between sets. For kettlebell swings, start with 3 sets of 10-20 reps with high-quality form as a warmup, conditioning, or deadlift accessory. Rest for at least a minute between sets.
6. Barbell overhead pressing
Why it’s hard for tall guys: “Strict overhead pressing can be really unforgiving if you have long arms,” Lucas says. “Not only does it require more work to move the weight a greater distance, but it becomes even more challenging to keep postural integrity the further the weight gets away from you,” he explains. That’s not to say you should pass up on overhead pressing; it’s integral for building size and improving your physique.
Do this instead: Try a ½ kneeling landmine press. Wedge a barbell up against the corner of a wall (you can prevent it from sliding by adding towels or sand bags). Come down on your left knee and plant your right foot out in front of you. Grab the barbell with your left hand. As you press the weight up, shift your torso forward slightly to wedge yourself under the weight. This will get you into an overhead position without throwing your postural integrity or shoulder mechanics off. Switch sides after prescribed reps.
How to use in a routine: For strength, load this up for 3 sets of 5 reps per side, with 2 minutes rest. For size, aim for 3 sets of 10 reps per side, with 1-2 minutes rest.
7. Single-leg Romanian deadlift
Why it’s hard for tall guys: “The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a tremendous exercise for improving sprinting, running mechanics, power, and athleticism,” Lucas says. “But, the wider your hips and longer your legs are, the harder it is to perform correctly,” he explains. And if you’re doing RDLs wrong, you can actually hinder your performance.
Do this instead: Modify the movement and try a sliding single-leg RDL. Set up a sliding disk on the end of an elevated bench. Face away from the bench and place one foot in front of it, while you position the other on the slider. Hinge at your hips and try to slide that disk from one end of the bench to the other. “You’ll notice your hips have to stay square to the bench and you have to go straight back or the slider will fall off,” Lucas says. You can also add dumbbells to both hands to increase the difficulty.
How to use in a routine: Use this as a warmup before you deadlift or a staple in a foundational general prep strength phase. To start, perform 2-3 sets of 6 slow reps each side. Give yourself about 30seconds to 1 minute rest between sets.
8. Leg press
Why it’s hard for tall guys: “The leg press has become a staple in bodybuilding for its ability to load your leg musculature without loading your spine (something you see in big powerlifts),” Lucas says. The longer your levers are, though, the more ankle mobility you need to hit your quads, glutes, and hamstrings appropriately, he explains. And, unless you’re performing endless ankle mobility drills before and after your workout, there are better options to hammer your legs.
Do these instead: To still get in high-volume leg work, alternate between goblet squats and lunges or split squats if you’d rather load your quads more directly. These moves still require a decent amount of ankle mobility, but the demands and limits are placed on you, rather than a fixed piece of equipment, Lucas says.
How to use in a routine: For lunges, start with 3 sets of 10 reps per side, with the highest quality. Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets. For strength, perform 5 sets of 5 with heavy split or goblet squats. For mass, grab a moderate dumbbell or kettlebell and blast through 3 sets of 10-20 quality goblet squats at a controlled tempo. Rest for 1-3 minutes between both styles.
9/10. Chinup and row
Why they’re hard for tall guys: “Upper-body pulling movements are arguably some of the more important exercises for tall guys; but they’re also some of the toughest because many are bodyweight based and tall guys have to put in more work to achieve the same results a short guy would get,” Lucas says. The relative force and resistance is the same for both, but tall guys are pulling their weight over a longer distance, which can smoke grip strength.
Do this instead: Add isometric hangs into your training. You can do flexed-arm hangs (chin above the bar) or packed-shoulder hangs (arms straight, shoulders pulled down away from your ears). The longer you can hang on the bar, the more you’ll be able to pull with less fatigue.
How to use in a routine: For isometric hangs, perform 2-3 sets until failure daily. Give yourself at least 2-3 minutes to recover between sets. These can be performed in the training session or as a finisher, depending on your movements that day. (Note: Just don’t use as a warmup for deadlifts.)
“By adding these exercises to your strength-training program, you’ll be able to take advantage of features once perceived as disadvantageous,” Lucas says. Bottom line, though, you want to listen to your body as a tall lifter. If you find only one side of your body is sore from these exercises, that’s usually an indication of compensation, he explains. And if you find easily-irritated areas like your knees or low back are sore, skip the movements that aggravate them until you’re no longer experiencing pain.
“Don’t seek instant gratification; invest in the process of getting better over a long period of time instead,” Lucas adds. “And if shorter guys give you a hard time about not squatting ‘ass to grass,’ dunk a basketball in front of them,” he suggests. That should shut them up.