To long-limbed, string bean athlete,
When I hit 16, my legs got longer and everything I knew about coordination and athleticism started to leave me. Suddenly, kitchen counters were much closer than they appeared and I remember running into the corner of the hallway so many times because my shoulders were broader and my arms now spread out wider. These are the consequences of a growth spurt. My mom couldn’t put enough food on the table for me to eat and I was literally inhaling my dinner. But what nobody told me then is what science has finally shown me now.
With long limbs and a short torso, I started realizing the things I probably wouldn’t be so good at anymore and some things that I might be better off doing. Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person that when I struggle with something, it only makes me try harder. Being tall and skinny automatically put me into basketball, but having a short torso leaves you mismatched a lot. So I found myself playing a lot of basketball, jumping at the rim with the others guys, only to realize their arms were always longer and their reach a little further than mine would ever be. Football can be difficult, too, because the kids running at you shoulder first can be hard to avoid when you are struggling with coordination problems. There were so many times football made me think to myself, “Am I not athletic anymore?”. Baseball seemed to be the best fit because you don’t have to be too athletic, long limbed allow you to create some serious torque, and if David Wells can do it then a tall lanky kid can too.
On a side note, I would argue it might even be better to be a shorter, smaller player than it is to be a medium height athlete with a short torso. Limb angular velocity and everything you skip over in the textbooks about disadvantages and advantages of muscles explains this. While short limb lengths won’t be able to produce as much force as long ones, they will be able to move much faster. This can be reflected by a Darren Sproles or Nate Robinson type of athlete, someone who is small but still can find a place in elite level sports because their limbs can move at such high speeds they end up producing as much force as their longer limbed counterparts that are capable of producing more force at slower rates.
Being long-limbed has its pro’s and con’s in sports. But, it can also create a really interesting issue in the strength and conditioning field as well. Strength and conditioning coaches assess players before working them and decide what is best for them based on the needs of their sports. Golfers, baseball players, and tennis athletes need power in the form of torque because of the rotational nature of the sport. Basketball and volleyball players need more of a vertical increase in power capabilities. Football and soccer need short sprint burst acceleration and the ability to cut and turn on a dime while also having the strength to stand their ground. Since height in most of these sports can create a disadvantage of some form, taller athletes are highly sought after. So, instead of the strength coach getting 4 new recruits that are 5’5″ Naim Suleymanoglu’s frame and body type, they receive 6’0-6’5″ lanky kids who blow over with a slight breeze. Time to brainstorm, right?
Luckily, I know a thing or two about being this person. I mentioned my growth spurt and playing sports in high school to explain that highlight the fact I played a lot of sports. But I didn’t mention lifting a lot of weights during that time. Sadly, a lot of kids that jump through growth spurts don’t either because of all they have enough on their plate. What can weights do for me? I just went to bed and woke up and I’m an inch taller. They start thinking the phrase “I’ll fill out when I stop growing”, because that’s what everyone tells them. What I didn’t know back then was that a well thought out strength program could’ve brought me better coordination and increased strength I needed with this newfound length and range of motion. So not only are these tall lanky athletes flooding through the doors as wide-eyed freshmen, but they also couldn’t tell you a front squat from a hang clean from their lack of experience. Once my time was done as an athlete, the lack of strength work that led me to a training table and eventually a rehab clinic after injuries put a fire underneath me. How could I be so unaware of my own well-being that I would neglect my future? Never again. So I’ve set out since then to gain strength, gain power, and gain knowledge in the process. That process has brought me some insight and tips that I want to share with long-legged lifters to save them time and skip the things that I’ve had to find out the hard way.
Tip #1: Learn, practice, love the deadlift
In college, I tried to follow all of the most popular programs out there. I tried the Russian squat routine and walked crippled to class a lot. I tried the high-frequency routines for the bench press and had a hard time sitting up straight in class because my shoulders rolled forward so badly. But one thing I never seemed to do much of was the deadlift. Why? I sucked at it. The bar is all the way down THERE. My 5’8″ friend I lifted with could reach down and deadlift 225lbs. like it was a pillow. I would get into the starting position and be done for the day. The deadlift wasn’t nearly as gratifying as the bench press, the seated shoulder press, or the mighty skull crusher. Those lifts gave me feedback, they give me something I can go home and show girls when I go out with my friends. “What could the deadlift do for me?”, I thought. The deadlift is a Mr. Miyagi exercise, it makes you wax on and wax off for years with no understanding of when you get to really show off. But as I have learned with all training through the last 6 years I’ve spent in this field, everything you hate doing is probably what you should work the hardest at.
The deadlift is an exercise in which you get into a crouched position and with your arms extended you pull weight off the floor to a standing straight up position. Longer legs can make the distance the bar travels longer, so this is where the not so fun part comes into play. But before you decide curls are better, look into what physics teaches us. I used to see the distance I had to travel in the back squat and deadlift unfair when I’d lift next to a short squatty guy. But the truth is, WE HAVE THE ADVANTAGE! The short squatty guy can create faster speeds in the lift and doesn’t have to move the bar as far, but by getting more possible distance traveled in the lift we have a greater potential for gains.
So, if increasing power is the goal (which is of almost every athlete’s programs) and Power=Force x Distance/Time, then having more distance to travel actually is an advantage allowing you to produce force for longer and spend more time under tension during each rep. Huzzah! Science is fun.
Tip #2: Single leg lifts are essential
This doesn’t sound like anything new, because single leg lifts have been all the rage ever since Mike Boyle became popular. And rightly so. Working a leg individually makes sense for athletes since they typically will be producing force one leg at a time in their sport anyhow. While I do still believe lifts like the back squat and deadlift trump any single leg pistol squat in terms of what they can do for a young developing athlete, I think for the long-legged lifter the single leg lifts are essential. In my own experience, my longer legs made my center of mass higher off of the ground and made it more important for my legs to take up the responsibility of keeping me stable. The hips are the center of the body so they are key in fixing the “wobbling” coordination problems kids have during growth spurts. As my legs got longer, I started feeling the wobbling. Running through a defense with a football in your hands is not my idea of a fun friday night when you’re struggling with coordination. As I got older, I noticed that my balance had gotten much worse despite playing collegiate baseball as a pitcher where balance is a big part of pitching. As a result of my loss of balance, I began compensating. Compensations happen as a result of the body doing whatever it takes to help you work as efficient as possible with whatever task you give it. I was forcing my body to work with unstable joints, bad balance, and a changing center of gravity. So, in return it gave me a way to make sure I wouldn’t fall down standing up through compensations.
Now, from a biomechanics standpoint, my center of gravity was changing so quickly that my body and brain had no opportunity to adapt my spatial awareness. The slightest little bit in changing center of gravity can cause that “wobble” feeling I was having. My body then built in a compensation pattern by basically installing crooked pillars that would get the job done. What I should have done then is what I am telling you to do now. During that time, start isolating each leg and give it the task of being a strong pillar able to hold up the brick house on its own. Acquire better spatial awareness by implementing single leg exercises paired with your big lifts. This method allows you to make sure that each leg is well equipped and prepared to be a strong pillar by itself as well as together to hold up the upper body and provide a solid foundation. Examples include doing split squats, Bulgarian rear-foot elevated squats, single-leg RDL’s, and even single-leg squats. The body learns to move better with longer limbs if you help it understand through practice.
Tip #3: You will probably be a “hard gainer” until you get serious about nutrition
Nutrition has grown so fast that what you learn this year could be old news in 5 years. There is literally a new diet every month and new supplements that promise a whole slew of things. But you won’t stop being a string bean until you get serious about what you are eating. The pitfalls of being tall and skinny is that you feel like eating everything is okay and you can get away with it. You are told by family and friends how lucky you are that you can eat all the birthday cake you want and not have any weight issues. What they don’t know is that all when you go to football practice, the coach sees you as “too skinny to play”. What seems like a blessing to adults is actually detrimental to a young athlete in power sports. You see guys like “The Rock” in magazines and see that Dwayne Johnson is a tall guy like you too. The problem with that is that you aren’t Dwayne Johnson. Some people can be tall and pack on mass. But we have narrowed this down to the thousands of kids that can’t pack on that mass. So since you aren’t Dwayne Johnson, go get a notebook. In this notebook, write down what you eat each day leaving out nothing. Find out how information on the food you eat by reading the label and write that down too. Calories, fat, protein, carbs. Total those up with a calculator each day and decide if what you’ve been doing is really helping you get where you want to be.
Chances are, you get this notebook and write everything to find that on Tuesday you ate a lot of calories and carbs. Since you ate so much on Tuesday, you were full on Wednesday and ate half of what you ate the day before. This is a problem because these a big variations. Your body will become what you consistently tell it to be. And if you aren’t consistently telling it to be bigger, then it won’t listen. I can’t stress this enough, get a notebook and keep track of what you are doing and make a plan how to fix what you aren’t doing.
Tip #4 Stop forcing yourself to do certain exercises
Through my time in college, I interned with one of the best strength coaches in the country. He is a well-kept secret by choice, because he’s not in this field to be on Dr. Oz or write for T-Nation. Regardless, the guy is the gospel when it comes to advice on just about anything. I learned olympic lifting was the best way to acquire athletic abilities through him and developed an interest in these lifts because of him. It was the greatest thing I could’ve done for my career because it led me to learning about the world of weightlifting that I had no previous knowledge of before. I was so fascinated by olympic lifting that I wanted to be good at it myself. I tried and tried only to continue finding dead ends and frustration.
I remember trying so hard to be good at some lifts only to see people who I worked with getting better faster. His advice was simple, “Maybe you aren’t cut out to be an olympic lifter”. I was disappointed at this advice because I was so interested in this method of development. I wished I was shorter, I wished my numbers were better, I wished my overhead squat was better. And then, it finally hit me. Maybe I should stop chasing lifts that I would forever struggle with and start working on lifts that I could really excel at like the deadlift. Maybe some lifts are great for some body types and not so great for others. Lifts that require a lot of quickness and speed might not be best suited for tall people. In olympic lifting, the longer the bar has to travel the harder the body has to work in order to make the lift. The deadlift is the same concept, but the longer distance doesn’t necessarily contribute to you missing the lift.
Sure, there are some long-legged guys who can clean and jerk with the best of them. Some of the strongest olympic lifters in the world were tall guys. But I’m focusing on the tall lanky athletes who could try 5 years and never get anywhere with the snatch when they could’ve saved that time and energy on pulling 500 lbs from the earth. Would they not have a strong foundation then? Would they not still have better posture as a result? Could they develop power another way than the olympic lifts? Couldn’t they just perform variations of olympic lifts like high pulls? You see, my mentor knew from experience that you can’t beat a square peg into a round hole. He said that good coaches can find multiple ways to develop athletic qualities without being forced to one way. Good coaches find another way by taking what the athlete gives them.
A last note to the long-legged lifter:
If you are struggling with your body type and can’t find a way around the issues that come up, use these tips to help. I have spent a lot of time learning the hard way hoping that maybe something would magically change after I poured in my effort and outworked the truth. There is a lack of material on this topic creating a need for this article. Why the lack of material? Because long-legged athletes suck at lifting as overall. You can debate me all day, but Dikembe Mutombo ain’t back squatting 500 lbs. And if you forced him to do heavy back squats, you might not be coaching him much longer. But could Dikembe Mutombo have lifted weights? He has a whole list of problems that strength training could’ve possibly addressed with the right program and understanding of the body.
The problem is that most tall athletes just use the old form of HIT style training to pack on mass because it’s easier. It’s either too difficult to teach them to deadlift and back squat, or it would take too much time the strength coach doesn’t have. But what about that athlete needs? What does he or she do when you give them what’s easiest for you? What about the tall baseball pitcher that actually WANTS to learn and develop into a powerhouse? Or the tall high school volleyball player that wants a scholarship to go to college? Hopefully by using these tips that athlete will save some time and start in the right direction. We can’t ignore the fact that kids are getting taller every year and the amount of 7 foot basketball players coming out of high school is growing. Golfers, swimmers, baseball pitchers, football linemen, basketball players are all growing and we need to start looking deeper into biomechanics in order to stay a step ahead. Stay smart, don’t be these guys.