Squatting and Pulling with the “Taller” Lifter

Here’s some details from others that began some discussion on never training basketball players (translation – tall athletes) with full depths in lower body training.
–if an individual has an excessive posterior tilting of the pelvis either ATG movement or even past parallel then the individual is in a compromised position……….
–lumbar spine has a normal lordotic curve that allows for load bearing…..
–what causes this excessive tilt I’m sure could be many different things that deal with stability, mobility, genetics, muscle tone, neural innervation
–this tilting is too often simply attributed to just so called “hamstring tightness”.   I don’t buy this since I have seen individuals with tight hamstrings able to squat to parallel with heavy loads and not experience this excessive pelvic tilt
–I don’t think we can overgeneralize, but I do because sometimes I can’t be (coach) everywhere (or every athlete).
–if a female basketball player is 5’9″ or taller and a male player of 6’3″ or taller I will usually do rack pulls and partial squats eventually but not full unless they have been cleared on five points (cervical position, thoracic alignment, pelvic position, knee kinematics, and ankle/foot stability.
–if you pull from the floor with a set starting weight (let’s say 175 deadlift for girl) or if you pull with 225 from a rack pull/lift/box (6-12″ based on positional evaluation) who will get stronger with less risk for injury?

There’s a lot of stuff to consider here in terms of these statements above, where I am on what I think matters here, and some other messages that bring me to my opinions.

1.  It is completely mythical that just because someone is tall, they can’t go off the floor or go deep into a squat.  At times I typically like to take a common sense approach to what may be polarizing, but in this case I’ll use something more scientific.  This approach is very scientific, reliable, valid, specific, and sensitive.  It is heavily published in a journal that I am actually the editor for.  The journal is JOCS, the Journal of Common Sense.  This brilliant audit I speak of is used by many; it is known as the Poop Test.
If someone is tall, short, medium, or anywhere in between, and they pull off the floor, and it’s looks like poop {see picture below to confirm poop}, it’s probably poop.  Don’t do it.  It’s likely overloading somewhere in the system and/or simply not an ideal position to gain adapatation of force production.
Now if they look good, then…….they look good, get after it.  It can really stop and end there.  What causes form to go south leads down many roads as suggested above.  I’ll get into my thoughts on these failures below, but more importantly through this common sense lens, I don’t think there needs to be marriage to any special way to reach a goal.  If your Plan A option has barriers, you have got to be legitimate enough to know, clear, and coach other options.  It’s the carryover that you are after, not the exercise or drill.  Sure, some options will have better carryover, but there has got to be another “next best” route for the adaptation you are after.
But as far as just being tall, you have plenty of competitive strength athletes that are well over 6’5″ going well below parallel and even strongmen that are legit 7Footers (pronounced Footers – 7 is silent) that pull off the floor.  I’ll explain after a few other direct addresses to what we see above.

I'm guessing you're not okay with this.

I’m guessing you’re not okay with this.  Or the other fellow behind to his left.

2.  There are 3 Windows of Failure.  I’ve referenced this thought process quite a bit lately, and it’s not in direct reference to this tall athlete issue.  But let’s use the tall basketball player that looks like poop.  I think there’s only 3 possible avenues to find why this individual can’t do what you want you want them to do.
The first window is technical skills.  Maybe they are just not well coached in doing a barbell deadlift off the floor.  I think you can coach tall people, and sometimes you can’t.  And sometimes it’s just not worth it to stick around trying to coach your way into threading a needle.
The second window is biological power.  Maybe form is going bad because the bar is just too heavy and you wind up in a heavy arch or rounding over to pull the bar.  The first step is establishing if the individual can even get into an ideal starting position before you even determine if the weight is too big.
I think many times a combination of coaching and programming just don’t get it done.  Very often, an individual simply can’t get into the ideal positions to execute a movement or even lateralizations of the movement.
This brings us to the third window of failure, fundamental movement.
You either don’t know how to do the movement, perform the movement under the desired power outputs, or you just can’t get in the right position to do either.  This window is where regressions come into play, and combined with the right combination of neuroceptive input and motor control training, often this window’s role is minimized.
So if someone has motoric or anatomical barriers to prevent going off the floor, these principles should take you away from height as the causation and closer to just this particular individual’s barriers to acute success.

The tight hamstring suggestion from above is not unfair to explain the butt tucking under in a squat or deadlift.  It is possible.
But to put the blame of tight hamstrings (even if that’s accurate, as it often is not) on height is just erroneous.
Can shorter people not have tight hamstrings?  So every male over 6’3″ can’t touch their toes?  How about the group of folks that on their back have “tight hamstrings” but can then can touch their toes sitting or standing?  Or what about the the group that can squat and pull brilliantly but have “tight hamstrings?”

That's somethin' right there now.

That’s somethin’ right there now.

If you want to generalize options in a large group training enivironment, that’s fine, but it’s more mad scientist stuff that’s flat out wrong in blaming tight hamstrings or any other assumed movement struggle is always the  reason for the tuck under in the squat or rounding in a pull.

3.  Being tall from floor to top of head has nothing to do with it.  Have you ever noticed that very, very tall individuals get their height out of different areas?  Like Tim Duncan has a very long torso.  Sprinters and female volleyball players have very long legs.  Some have taller or smaller head lengths that add up to a total height.  Within the leg, the femur and tibia may be disproportionate to each other.  If we were talking about pressing, the humerus and forearm lengths as a function of total arm length would also matter.
The ratios that I look at and their favorable environments……..

Floor to Pelvis / Total Height
–Larger is better.  This is ideal for most athletic activities and lower extremity force output.  With less of a spine length, as the inherent instability to the pelvis, to control, it is easier to maintain a stiffer trunk for the hip to rotate around within the pelvis.  Now the longer legs (with proper stiffness) yield a more advantageous moment-arm in which to create propulsion off the rigid ground.  You have advantages on both ends of the fulcrum, the femoral head in the acetabulum.
This individual will likely be able to squat and deadlift just fine despite being tall overall.
A smaller ratio is ideal in swimming as there is less drag in the water.
This ratio doesn’t mean you can not be strong or fast.  It just means for any given pattern that is loaded with a static load, you will not carry as many wheels.  SAID will still apply; you’ll just get to it with less load.   Implications here are more towards loading movements where the load never changes it’s orientation to the fulcrum.  Someone with a longer torso and shorter legs will do better with Olympic Lifting than powerlifting.
Shorter legs + Longer arms is your deadlift freak that probably doesn’t squat nearly as well as you would expect.

Fairly long torso and head.  Fairly skilled olympic lifter.  Fairly strong.  Fairly accomplished swimmer.

Fairly long torso and head.  Fairly skilled olympic lifter. Fairly strong. Fairly accomplished swimmer.

C-T Junction to Top of Head / Total Height
–Smaller the better.
There is minimal advantage in having a longer head as a function of height unless maybe for a header to the side (with side bending) in global football.

Floor to Release Point + Total Length of Upper extreme (+ Longer Forearm)
–All linearly related to mechanics of object propulsion.
Randy Johnson is the perfect example.  Obviously mobility, stability, and technical prowess must come along with these inherent advantages.
A short humerus (cough, cough) is advantageous in the bench press as the angle off the lateral line of the torso is inherently closer to the body.

Taller is better for throwing.  Please don't argue.

Taller is better for throwing. Please don’t argue.

Phalange / Total Hand or Foot
–This is similar to a longer leg compared to trunk.  When the mid-hand or foot is shorter, it is inherently easier to control in the present of change.  The longer the phalange, the improved ideal mechanics to push off in running or jumping or throwing or grip.

Overall height, particularly with a longer torso, may appear to yield to movement challenge because the longer areas have more opportunities to be unstable and compensate to achieve a fixed point.  The same is true for the longer foot that then becomes flat.  These are the chronic adaptations of being put into positions of capacity that do not flatter their competency.
A point of curiosity is if genetic testing can forecast limb and trunk proportions in an effort to select athletic options as a part of LTAD.  Anyway……………….., it still doesn’t matter if you’r tall or not.  How you’re proportioned matters.

4.  Back to the specific issues above, the rack pull as a great lateralization to pulling off the floor when competency is challenged by mobility or anthropometry.  There’s the recognition that squatting with a rounded back is basically heresy, and that the mild lordosis is quite critical.  We unfortunately hear some folks recently demonstrate neutral spine with a severe tuck under and then say “we” just don’t know what a neutral spine looks like.  Remember there’s a difference between squatting as an movement expression of upper body extension and lower body flexion vs. squatting as an effort to develop qualities for fitness or sport.
Refer to the Poop Test above, and then ask whoever is saying a rounded back is okay how heavy a bar they’ve ever had in their hands or on the back.

Rack Pulls are not poop.  Great option for when you can't go off the floor.

Rack Pulls are not poop. Great option for when you can’t go off the floor.

5.  To not use full ranges, when competent, is a major mistake for a number of reasons……….
………More time to develop power via more time for intertia to act on the load
………Maintaining strength qualities over a longer range of motion increases stress buffering within that movement pattern (and potentially others with carry over).  In this case, angled tibia action pulling off the floor or squatting below parallel will actually allow for less fatigue when maintaining the athletic position.  As you become stronger in a range larger than required for the athletic positions, you are further from your end points of motor control and perceive less tension/inhibition.  Training eccentric and isometric strength further from where you may need to use it in your terminal specific activities will yield a quite advantageous adaptation in creating a sweet spot of an athletic ready position.
……..Bigger ranges allows for synovial fluid to flush through as much of the joint surfaces as possible and staving off degenerative changes of the joint.  Training with big ranges is how we swish the body’s motor oil throughout the joints’ surfaces.

This stuff actually looks like synovial fluid.

This stuff actually looks like synovial fluid.

6.  Of course at no point should a loaded lift be preferred at a larger excursion at the expense of anything less than perfect form………ever. That is unfortunate if that is part of the discussion.

Now there are some cases when a loaded movement can be used judiciously to maintain or even gain mobility, but these are used on an as-needed basis, and the load is reactive not resistive.  The goblet squat is a very good example of this.

So if the 175 off the floor vs. 225 out of the rack is really a question, it is not an effective discussion if the 175 is not with proper form. It’s not even comparing apples and oranges; it’s comparing dirty, old, rotten apples and oranges.

7.  There are times in a technique focus when partial lifts can bring up weaknesses, but again, they are in response to a weakness in a full lift, not a movement inefficiency.  This is applicable in powerlifting or to a lesser degree in Olympic lifting.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, and it very preferred as I see it, to shorten the lift to maintain integrity in the “exercise” and run it in parallel with movement training to improve the excursions. Yes, getting lower is preferred, but you don’t get stronger when you can’t get down. You are just grinding the gears.
Something else to consider is that when you are using very heavy weights at the absolute lowest height possible, the loading at the bottom becomes a functional stretch that should add to depth as a training effect. Also keep in mind that when you are heavy enough for starting strength, as you should be, you should be able to garner some of that mythical 15 degree range of strength benefit from the isometric literature as per somebody very old.

Training groups is always a challenge, and TYPICALLY, the taller athletes second to their longer levers will be challenged in the hip hinge lifts.
But this doesn’t have to be the case for everybody.
I do respect that sometimes shooting middle down is the best you can do.

Single leg work that takes the spine out of the lever system will allow for strengthening of larger excursions provided the hip and ankle mobility is in there to begin with.
Maybe that’s the answer unless you’re married to the squat or deadlift.

6'7" pulling off the floor.  Short torso.

6’7″ pulling off the floor. Short torso.

8.  Here’s an article that is still fairly consistent with how I think regarding training tall jumping athletes.  It’s less about the topics above but involved in training basketball players.

Training Basketball Players

  • December 18, 2013

Leave a Reply 6 comments

Jon Hereth Reply

Great article!! Vince Gabrielle turned me on to your work about a year ago and it sent me down a whole new path learning, via DNS, McGill, Leibenson and the rest of the ISCRS crew. Thanks for the good work and for not letting the “McTherapists” rule the world!

John D'Amico Reply

Hi-dee-ho and thanks for the effort

Dr. E Reply

Epic post Charlie, love the JOCS! You’re the editor in chief!

John Reply

Great article, Charlie. Besides visually, are there other ways of assessing/measuring these ratios (specifically for laymen, who may not be able to tell simply by looking)? Thank you.

Charlie Reply

I’m not sure what the valid measures of leg length are, but maybe you can try the ratio of Pelvic Rim to Floor / Top of Head to Floor.

Robbie Reply

Great article!

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