How Body Structure Influences Expressions of Strength

By: Kelly Baggett

I am often asked how natural body structure can influence things like the ability to jump high, run fast, lift weight, or anything else. The truth is, your body structure and the way you are built can have a significant influence on not only the way you express your strength in all sports, but more importantly, it will influence the type of training that you tend to respond to.

When it comes to body structure, we can classify people as either long limbed, termed brachiomorphs, or short limbed, termed dolicomorphs. In weight-lifting, long-limbed individuals are prone to think that they're genetically disadvantaged while short limbed people tend to think they're disadvantaged when it comes to something like jumping or running. But are they really? Depends on the sport or movement. Expression of strength is variable. Long-levered athletes tend to express their strength much more successfully on the playing field than in the weight room. For example, Michael Jordan at one time had a startling vertical jump and was very strong, yet when compared to a person his same weight and a foot shorter he has a large disadvantage in a parallel squat and I doubt if you would ever see him setting any lifting records. When you're 6'6", bending the legs to parallel is a long way down!

Those in sport often say that short limbed people are cursed on the field and while their long limbed counterparts often appear to have an advantage the "short limbs" curse is hardly a rule. If anything, those with short limbs tend have an advantage during the initial phase of an explosive movement or when agility is of paramount importance. Nobody ever accused former world record sprinters Maurice Greene or Kelli White of being long limbed yet it didn't seem to hold them back any and it definitely doesn't seem to hold Kansas City chiefs return man Dante Hall.

In a sport like powerlifting, athletes with short limbs tend to have an advantage over those who possess long limbs because the weight is moved through a shorter distance. On the other hand, if an athlete requires a long powerful stroke, such as in swimming, sprinting, jumping, or rowing, then a longer lever, provided it is accompanied by the muscular power needed to propel it, - has an advantage in these types of sports because of the speed those longer limbs can generate at the end of their range of motion.

Think about it. A guy whose upper legs are 20 inches long should be able to come out of a 1/4 squat and generate more velocity at toe off in a vertical jump then a guy whose upper legs are only 12 inches long. However, the guy with longer upper legs will also have to work harder on his strength whereas the guy with short upper legs will probably need to work hard to maximize his rate of force development so that he too can demonstrate superior speed at full extension. The same point can be made in other sports where hitting or throwing are important. For example, speed in a tennis serve, volleyball spike, or a baseball pitch can all be higher for long-levered athletes as long as they have enough muscle power to extend the longer limbs.

Legs Like a Kangaroo

By the same token many athletes who can jump high and run fast have physical characteristics such as long lower legs, high calves and a long achilles tendon. The length of the achilles tendon gives them a leverage advantage for reactive strength because it acts like a long rubber band. Recall that in a plyometric movement the muscles and tendons are stretched and energy is stored and released in greater quantities. Having long tendons in the lower leg can enhance this process. The achilles tendon is amazing at storing elastic energy and giving it back to you; it's an adaptation to make activities like walking and running more efficient. In the animal kingdom kangaroos probably have the longest achilles tendons and are also the best leapers. They can literally bounce around over small buildings with hardly any muscular effort.

This doesn't at all mean that just because you might not have long legs and tendons that you won't be able to run or jump, it just means strength and agility will probably come easier for you and that your leaping ability will likely be naturally more dependent on pure strength and your reactive ability will come less easy. Maximize your attributes and develop your weaknesses and you will definitely overcome someone who has the right attributes but doesn't train correctly.

On the other hand, if you have long legs and tendons,- strength and the ability to demonstrate that strength in the weight room, jump from a pure standstill, or fire off the line like a bullet in a sprint probably won't come as easy for you, - yet being bouncy, having good top speed, and having good reactive ability will. If this describes you and you one day desire to be a powerlifting champion it can be done but you're just gonna have to work a little smarter then others who are gifted with a structure geared towards lifting.

Since there is obviously nothing you can do to change your body structure once you're done growing besides adding muscle (despite what some people may want to sell you!), the only thing you is work with what you have and train to maximize your natural attributes and strengthen your natural weaknesses so that you can perform to the best of YOUR ability!