Weight training is not one size fits all.
Certainly not all individuals are built or move the same. This world was not created for people who are at above-average (or well above-average) height, and this extends to the weight room. The big three barbell lifts—the Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift—cater more to shorter people than tall people. It's just basic biomechanics.
Yet many coaches will try to have two athletes with a foot of height difference between them press, squat or deadlift exactly the same way. We often get married to specific movements and overlook principles and patterns. Not everyone needs to squat with a barbell on their back, not everyone needs to deadlift a barbell from the ground, and not everyone needs to press a barbell from their chest. Unless they're competing in the sport of powerlifting where they will be judged on the proficiency of these lifts, then these exact variations are not essential.
But do you know what all individuals should include in their strength training program, regardless of their physique or dimensions? A movement involving a squat pattern, a movement involving a hinge pattern, and a movement involving a horizontal pressing pattern (among many other things, of course). Whether you're working with an athlete whose primary focus is on performance or just the average Joe looking to improve their health and well-being, incorporating a movement involving each of the previously mentioned patterns will help create a stronger, more resilient, and better-off human being.
So, tall people need to squat, hinge and horizontally press. But the most traditional exercises for these patterns present some obvious problems to those of above-average height. Here are some smarter variations that can help tall athletes build strength and perform better.
1. Squat Smarter
The Squat is often valued as the most important lift in an individual's movement tool box. Few things come close to checking all the task boxes that the squat achieves. But the Barbell Back Squat is also one of the taller lifters' worst nightmares.
How many times have you worked with a taller client and they've told you that the Squat hurts their knees, or watched as they absolutely butchered a simple Bodyweight Squat during their warm-up!
These same individuals absolutely need to squat, but we can achieve that pattern through some different options that will help them be more technically efficient.
The Landmine Squat is a great option to still get the full range of motion of the Squat. By loading the weight through a landmine, it is easier on the athlete's body and can assist them with actually pushing their hips back into the squat so they can achieve proper depth and glute activation.
The High Box Squat is a great alternative to squatting or box squatting. The height of the box will depend on the individual and their goals, but even going slightly higher than parallel by adding an extra plate or mat to the box can make all the difference.
The Pin Squat can have many variations, but for taller individuals, I like to have them start in the bottom position with the barbell resting on the pins. Doing this forces the individual to focus more on their strength in the bottom position, where they are at the biggest disadvantage.
This also helps the lifter break up a set of multiple repetitions into single repetitions, as they will reset each repetition when they put the barbell back onto the pins. You can also manipulate the location of the pins to make the lifter start lower or higher up depending on their goals.
The Safety Bar Hatfield Squat is another nice choice. The Hatfield Squat was created by Dr. Fred Hatfield, also known as Dr. Squat. This squat variation was done as an accessory movement to help limit stress and de-load the body by using assistance from the hands when squatting. This works great with athletes with long levers, because it makes it easier for them to maintain an upright posture and push their hips back into the movement of the Squat without worrying about their balance. Since your hands are grabbing onto an extra structure for support, you need a Safety Bar to perform the Hatfield Squat safely.
These movements can also be mixed and matched. Examples of this include using a safety squat bar on a pin squat or high box squat.
2. Deadlift: Change Your Range
The Deadlift is probably right behind the Squat on the list of exercises taller athletes tend to despise. Teaching the hinge pattern in general is a difficult process with a majority of clients, but you throw in some long-body levers, and you have a recipe for a rounded-back Deadlift. The Deadlift still has a tremendous carryover to an individual's strength, and shouldn't be avoided altogether, but rather can be modified to be more appropriate for these individuals. With providing alternatives to the Deadlift, and hinge pattern putting them in positions we can succeed from is a necessity.
The Barbell Rack Pull is a perfect example of this. The use of pins allows you to adjust the starting point of the initial pull. You have the athlete initiate their deadlift from mid-shin, slightly below the knee, etc. This allows the athlete to focus more on technique and maintain a neutral spine position throughout the movement.
You could also try a Barbell Deadlift off Blocks. Similar to the rack pull, the blocks can easily be adjusted to set the lifter at a specific starting position. The only difference with the blocks is that they will likely transfer over better to execution of the actual lift because you can practice "pulling" the slack out of the bar during your setup—something that can be difficult off pins.
But perhaps the best variation for a tall lifter is the use of a Trap Bar with High Handles. There's an argument to be made that every athlete should be deadlifting with a Trap Bar, but for taller lifters, it's especially beneficial. By changing the center of mass from standing behind the bar to standing inside the bar, a long-levered athlete is much better positioned to execute quality lifts and move significant loads with good form.
The Landmine Deadlift is another tool for taller lifters with long limbs. This one will typically be done with a wide, sumo-style stance, so it's a great addition to help build up the hips and glutes. Like the Landmine Squat, this will also help prevent the athlete from coming too far forward during the movement.
These movements can also be combined. An example of this is using a trap bar to perform a Deadlift off of blocks. Also performing the Romanian Deadlift with either the hex bar or the landmine is a great alternative for the taller lifter.
3. Benching for the Big Man
While the Barbell Bench Press might not seem like a daunting task to a taller lifter, in terms of efficiency, they are still at an extreme disadvantage compared to shorter athletes. When it comes to this exercise, a long, lanky frame is not ideal for optimal pressing.
Is it impossible to become technically proficient at benching if you're taller? No. But it's certainly not easy, and unless you're a powerlifter, it really might not be worth all the hassle.
Let's get into some other variations you can utilize.
The Push-Up. Yes, the Push-Up! The Push-Up is often overlooked when assigning main upper-body lifts., which is ridiculous for a couple reasons. One, many lifters cannot even perform a set of 10 proper Push-Ups. Two, a proper Push-Up offers core and glute activation that can't be matched by a traditional Bench Press.
The Barbell Pin Press is another solid option for bringing along taller lifters. The Barbell Pin Press follows the same guidelines as the Barbell Pin Squat or Deadlift. The pins can easily be manipulated to change the range, making the range of motion smaller or larger and the starting point closer or further away
The Barbell Board Press is similar to the pin press, so it's a nice option if you don't have access to pins but do have access to a board. The Barbell Board Press limits the range of motion on the press, but not drastically. This works great with lifters with long arms because it will be easier to overload it and put the elbows in safer positioning. Lifters with long arms will sometimes have their elbows dip below their back just to have the bar touch their chest! Using a board or a foam roller on the chest (always held by a partner for safety) prevents this from happening.
The DB Bench Press often gets overlooked when we're talking about main upper-body pressing movements. The Dumbbell Bench Press and the Barbell Bench Press should be viewed as separate movements. it's not that one is better then the other, or that one is a progression or regression of the other, but rather what is more appropriate for the individual and their goals. One thing that is achieved through the dumbbells that is not possible through the barbell is the strength and stability you get in each individual arm. The dumbbells are not fixed like the barbell, so if the lifter has an imbalance and one arm is stronger then the other, then the Dumbbell Bench Press will reveal this fact. The lifter cannot simply compensate to make up for the imbalance like they can on a barbell.
Tall lifters might not often be the guys or girls setting records inside the weight room, but that's partially because they're at a major mechanical disadvantage in the traditional big three, which are go-to testing movements for most programs.
We need to do what's best for the athlete. I absolutely love the Barbell Squat, Barbell Deadlift and Barbell Bench Press, but it's not about what we love as coaches. It's about putting the athlete in position to be successful and thinking about what's going to carryover best to their respective sport. No one's rolling out a set of barbells on game day, so let's not believe their inclusion is non-negotiable in every athlete's program.
Photo Credit: Neustockimages/iStock
- 3 Squat Variations for Tall Athletes
- 4 Essential Workout Tips for Tall Athletes
- 3 Mistakes Sabotaging Your Bench Press