There are lots of assumptions around the relationship between height and strength. Are taller people stronger because they have a larger frame and can pack more muscle on? Or are smaller people stronger because it is comparatively easier to fill out a smaller frame?
I’m sure you’ve all seen a smaller person lifting incredibly heavy weight so are you stronger if you are taller?
In this article, we are going to unpick some of the assumptions around this question and delve a bit deeper into the anatomy and biomechanics of the strength-height relationship.
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Are You Stronger if You Are Taller
Before we go any further, it’s important to define what we mean by ‘strength’. When we are talking about strength in weightlifting, we are referring to the ‘maximum force that can be exerted by a muscle (or group of muscles) during a single contraction.
Muscle strength is related to the size of the cross-sectional area of the muscle. The larger the muscle, the greater the number of protein filaments and cross-bridges, so the greater the force that can be applied.
If you were to increase the size of your muscle by 20% then, theoretically, you will be able to apply a 20% greater force.
So where does height come into this?
Whilst having more muscle technically makes you stronger, your biomechanics and the relationship of your muscles and tendons to the length of your bones, is a more significant predictor of strength.
Take a look at your bicep. If you curl your arm towards you, you’ll notice the bicep muscle beginning to bulge as the muscle contracts.
This bulge is called the ‘belly’ of the muscle. Either side of the bicep are tendons connecting the bicep belly to your bones. The bicep is connected to your forearm by the distal bicep tendon. If you have much shorter tendons relative to the muscle belly, it allows for a larger proportion of the bone to be occupied by the muscle.
This means that you are able to apply a larger force over the size of the bone. Conversely, should you have relatively larger tendons, this would mean a shorter bicep with less muscle belly to contract and lift your arm towards you. This is called the ‘belly-tendon’ ratio.
Additionally, depending on how far the distal biceps tendon inserts away from the elbow into the forearm, this will determine the overall amount of force that needs to be applied.
In order to ‘lift’ a weight, we need leverage.
Having the bicep inserted further along the forearm will mean that more leverage is created through the joint of the elbow when the muscle contracts.
This will mean that less force needs to be applied compared to someone who has a tendon that inserts closer to the bicep and not so far along the forearm. This is called ‘tendon insertion’.
Finally, the longer the lever, the more force is needed to complete a lift.
Think about the last time you carried in shopping from the car. If you were to hold this shopping out in front of your body, at arm’s length, you’d start to feel the deltoids of your shoulder working pretty hard to stabilize your arm and forearm.
People with longer arms have longer levers.
This means their muscles are working harder since the muscle has to contract and stabilize the long bones.
To put this into context for our bicep curl, a longer forearm would mean that our weight is held further away from the fulcrum of the lift (the elbow in this case). Since it is further away, a larger force is needed to contract and draw the radius towards us.
In the case of the taller person with long levers, having longer arms and legs can be detrimental to performance depending on the type of lift.
Does Height Affect Your Strength?
Anatomically, some people have more favorable lever lengths and body proportions than others. This can lead to a significant advantage in leverage, particularly with certain lifts, and give them a greater chance of developing strength compared to others.
When it comes down to lifting weights, let’s have a look at how anatomy affects the lift.
Deadlifts. One of the only lifts where your lift starts at the same height – 9 inches from the floor if you are using a barbell.
Smaller people have a proportionately smaller torso with longer arms which means they do not have to bend so far over the barbell keeping it close to their body. This means there is less load placed on the posterior chain and in muscles like the erector spinae.
They also finish the lift in a lower position which means the barbell doesn’t actually have to travel as far as someone who is taller. Favorable anatomy for this lift would be a shorter torso and shorter legs, with long arms.
Physical height can potentially have a significant impact on your ability to bench press. Typically taller people have longer arms and therefore have a larger distance to push the bar away from the chest. This means more time under tension.
From a physics viewpoint, the further you need to move the load, the more weight you are lifting overall so people with longer arms could essentially be doing 50% – 75% more work compared to someone with shorter arms.
Having a thicker chest and shorter arms relative to the torso will actually mean the tricep and pectoralis major need to apply less force to complete a bench press. Therefore, shorter people are usually better at this lift.
Squats are also a potentially problematic movement for taller people since there is such a large range of motion which leads to a greater time under tension. This leads to a comparatively massive energy expenditure in a short space of time.
An exception for this might be due to a shorter femur length relative to your torso. This would mean being able to apply a greater force over a shorter length and therefore being stronger in this lift.
An example of this is Andrezej Stanaszek, the world record holder in his class for the squat. Stanaszek, diagnosed with dwarfism lifted 350kg @ 52kg bodyweight – nearly 6 times his bodyweight at only 1.22m!
Do Tall People Gain Strength Faster?
Technically people with larger limbs expend more energy per rep since they have a larger distance to travel.
The lift has a larger time under tension and requires more force to perform the movement compared to someone with shorter limbs.
Time under tension leads to a greater muscle gain so we could conclude that their longer lever length helps them to gain strength faster. However, the increased time spent under tension can create more stress when lifting and should be accompanied by longer rest periods between sets.
This could mean slightly longer gym sessions but lead to quicker muscle development overall.
The final caveat for taller athletes gaining strength is they can be susceptible to joint pain. Since lever lengths are longer, more pressure can go through the joints and if lifts aren’t completed with accuracy and developed technique, larger athletes can be more prone to injuries compared to shorter weightlifters.
As someone that is 6’1 myself but with very long limbs in context (my wingspan is longer than my height), I often struggle with elbow and knee pain simply because a lot of exercises are strenuous on my joints.
I’ve even covered an article on this site (tricep exercises for elbow pain) because it’s something I’ve struggled with. I find it easier to quickly get strong with a deadlift or front squat (due to my long levers providing leverage) but any sort of press – particularly bench press – wreaks havoc on my joints.
Therefore, tall people can often gain strength faster how they also tend to hit a plateau much quicker than shorter lifters who have fewer issues with joint stress and pain.
So to answer the question, ‘are you stronger if you are taller?’ being tall doesn’t necessarily lend itself to strength.
Whilst a larger frame might mean ‘larger muscles’, other factors like the muscle ‘belly to tendon’ ratio, tendon insertion, and lever length are more likely to determine the overall strength of the individual.
People with smaller levers and anatomy favorable to certain lifts will be stronger in those areas. Strength, therefore, becomes more relative to the anatomy and mechanics of the individual alongside the type of lift they are performing rather than height being the determining factor.
If you’re reading this and focusing on strength with little progress, you might want to also check out our article on why you are getting stronger but not bigger.