Wingspan, Anthropometry and Biomechanics (Or, How Being Built Like a Gibbon Affects My Exercise Programming)

For me, life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer. – Arnold Schwarzenegger

So here’s a question for you: what does limb length relative to body height say about your potential for success in various athletic endeavors? And, too, in the enjoyment you derive from various athletic pursuits or exercise variants?

In short, it means a hell of a lot. It will also (or should) dictate much of the shape of your training.

I’ve written previously about how I am a much better “puller”, i.e.. deadlifter than squatter due to leg length vs waist and hip dimensions. Now this in no way is meant to establish a base of excuses (I still perform plenty of squat variations), but it does give me an idea of what exercises I can really “push”, and those that I need to “maintain”.  And not that I am by any means built for exceptional pulling from the floor, either. My long, monkey arm advantage (I’ll get to that in a second) is snuffed by also having long (relative to overall height) legs. It’s just that, all things taken into account (and relative to heavy iron movements), I’m much better suited, in a biomechanical/anthropometric sense, at pulling than I am squatting.

Now for sure I don’t get hung up on this assessment. Quite simply, I use it as just another (of the many) indicators in my physical culture journey.  It’s another clue on the trail.

So with a 35+” inseam at 5’11 and change, my legs are rather long. Good for running/sprinting; not  (especially in combo with a relatively narrow waist) so much for heavy squats. But it seems my arms are even more out of proportion to my body height. I’ve got a 6’2” wingspan on this shade-over-5’11” chassis. In short, it seems as if I’m built like a friggin’ gibbon — all arms and legs, with no torso. A Gibbon sporting a flat top, no less. paints a pretty picture, huh?

Chins and cleans, brah….

Also, I have a lot of trouble generating power out of the hole in a deep squat, though I’m very good at throwing things (think caber toss, for instance. And the occasional molotov cocktail), sprinting, and generating power in an upright position. All of this would be clues that I lean more toward the “Scottish Hip” end of the spectrum and away from the “Dalmatian Hip” end. For some discussion on that, check out Bret Contreras’ transcribed interview with Stu McGill. Excellent stuff. And again, just another piece of the jigsaw puzzle called “me”.

Now, I can’t reiterate enough how none of this is brought to light so that I have a ready list of excuses for why not to do certain exercises. I still squat deep, for example, and I still perform plenty of overhead (and otherwise) presses with these gibbon-like arms. It’s just that I’m realistic about things that are, anatomically at least, not particularly in my wheelhouse. And I look for workarounds.  Less angst, more joy. I “maintain” the “out-of-wheelhouse” exercises and movements, and “push” the things that I am anatomically suited for — sprints, for instance; swings and throws. Deadlifts work well for me, as well as driving from the quarter squat position. For example, even though my arms are long, my push-press poundages are fairly decent.

And all of this, of course, fits within the Five T’s structure of “Trademark” and, as a result of that “Techniques”; ideas you most definitely need to keep this in mind when reading articles that proclaim such things as “the only way to get swole is by heavy squatting”. Again, the squat is a great exercise, no doubt. And if you’re built for squatting, it’s a good idea to keep this as your lower body “push” exercise.  Think of it this way: no one in their right mind would put a quarterhouse to work in a draft horse’s stead.  Two very different breeds built for two very different duties.  And yet when it comes to humans, we tend to think all benefit the same from the same movements.  In my experience, that’s just not a smart way to go about training.

But the secret, of course, is being honest with yourself. If you’re built for squatting, but just too damn lazy to get a bar on your back… well, you’ve got other issues to contend with.  Might want to address those, first.

Of note: David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene”  goes into much discussion on the topic of biomechanics and anthropometry vis-a-vis sporting success. It’s a fantastic read. Here’s just one example of the right sport “finding” a driven athlete with favorable levers for that sport.

The bottom line here is that the athlete doesn’t pick the sport, the sport selects the athlete. The same should hold true for the exercise and modality selections within your training. Again, this isn’t an excuse to, for example, “never squat”, but rather to be realistic about your ability to squat well, and in determining where the squat fits relative to your own “bang-for-the-buck” exercises.

In health, fitness, and ancestral wellness –


  1. Craig says

    So what is a good reference for defining normal anthropometric proportions.

    I suspect that I have longish arms relative to my height, and that this puts me at some disadvantage for some lifts [and yes, I am looking for excuses :-) ]. But I’ve never known how to quantify this.

    • theorytopractice says

      A nice bell curve distribution sets up if we consider Vitruvian Man/Golden mean ratios. Cross-reference that with the freak outliers (the Michael Phelpses and kevin Durantes of the world). I’m only another 7″ in vertical height (with the same wingspan ratio) from being a hell of an NBA point guard 😉

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