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Height and Weightlifting Ability: The Short and Tall of It



How does height affect weightlifting ability? Do tall people or short people have the upper hand? The calculator and explanation below help answer these questions. Note that by only accounting for body height, the answers are merely approximate as many other factors come into play.

Height and Weightlifting Ability for Various Exercises

Lifting weight is doing work. And I’m not talking about the kind you do on your computer. Rather, it is physical work, which is the product of force and distance. The heavier the weight and further the distance, the greater the work done. Sometimes weight and distance are related to body height and sometimes they aren’t. This leads to four categories. These are listed below along with the impact of body height. Afterwards is a section on concepts to help provide a more complete understanding of how height affects weightlifting ability.

Body Weight Exercises

Common body weight exercises include push-ups and chin-ups. Both the distance traveled and the force required are proportional to height, meaning taller people do more work. A taller person’s greater ability to do work does not offset this larger work requirement. Hence body weight exercises tend to be more difficult for taller people.1 This is something coaches and drill sergeants should be made better aware of!

By Everkinetic (http://everkinetic.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gym Weight Exercises

Common gym weight exercises include lifting dumbbells, barbells, and kettle bells as well as pulling cables. The weight is constant and independent of height while the distance traveled is proportional to height. Hence more work is done. But a taller person’s greater work capacity is enough to offset this. So taller people in general tend to have an advantage for these kinds of exercises. For evidence of this, consider that Olympic weightlifting champions, like world snatch record holding 6′6″ Behdad Salimi Kordasiabi, tend to be on the taller side.

By Everkinetic (http://everkinetic.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Note that the weight of the body is also being lifted, and a taller person tends to weigh more, thereby diminishing the advantage. And a challenge with Olympic lifts is that the bar starts at the same height off the ground for everyone, so tall people need to squat slightly deeper at the beginning.

Some gym machine exercises also fall into this same category. One exception is curl machine exercises, as follows.

Curl Machine Exercises

Common bicep and hamstring curl machines are cable machines where the cable is guided over a set circular path. And given people tend to rotate their joints through similar angles independent of their body height, the gym weights travel the same constant distance. The magnitude of the gym weights is also constant and independent of body height. Hence the amount of work done is independent of body height. Taller people, given greater work capacity, have a huge advantage when it comes to curl machine exercises. This is why even wimpy looking tall guys can often lift most of the stack.

Common butterfly weight training machines also fall into this category, along with a variety of others. The key is that the cable is following a set circular path.

By Everkinetic (http://everkinetic.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Obstacle Exercises

Common obstacle exercises include stepping onto a bench and jumping onto a box. These are body weight exercises so the weight is proportional to height while the distance traveled is independent of height. Hence work increases with height, but not by enough to offset a taller person’s greater work capacity. These exercises are slightly easier for taller people. The relationship changes when obstacles are large, like a climbing wall.

By Everkinetic (http://everkinetic.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Concepts

Please note it does get a tad more technical here on in… I’ve added the following key concepts in case you want to better understand the height-weightlifting relationship.

Square-Cube Law: Volume scales faster than area. Hence mass scales faster than strength. Thus tall people, while stronger in the absolute sense, are relatively weaker. This is why, when body weight is involved in an exercise, it becomes harder for tall people to do. See square-cube law for more info.

Proportions: As people get taller, they also tend to get wider and heavier, though not proportionally. The actual mass-height scaling exponent tends to be somewhere between square and cube. This diminishes the trends expected from the square-cube law. See for more info.

Weight Lifting Work: This is the amount of energy converted to potential energy when a weight is lifted. It is the product of force and distance. So when a taller and heavier person does a push-up, they apply more force over a greater distance and thereby do more work.

Weightlifting Work Capacity: This is the product of how much force a person can exert (strength) and the distance they can apply it over. A taller person will tend to have greater weightlifting work capacity given greater absolute strength and distance they can apply this over.

Relative Weightlifting Ability: One measure of weightlifting ability is work capacity divided by the corresponding exercise work. The calculator above outputs the relationship between this measure for a person with the specified height and an average height person of the same gender.

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