Are Taller People Stronger? Do Shorter People Look More Muscular?

By on March 2, 2017

Going to the gym is hard if, like me, you’re 5’8’’ (and a bit).

For starters, it will take me a lot more work to become stronger than my significantly taller friends. Even if I pack a huge amount of muscle onto my frame, I’m still going to be shorter, which means I’ll probably be lighter and I’ll probably have less weight to throw behind me when I wrestle or throw a punch.

arnie franco

The other issue I face, is discrimination. I can get extremely ripped and bulky (in theory) and a lot of people will tell me that it was easy for me because I’m shorter. Being shorter means that muscle gets ‘bunched up’ more and you look bulkier with less work. I need to eat less protein too. It’s almost like I’m cheating!

Don’t get me wrong, 5’8’’ is not that short. I’m the smaller side of average and these aren’t big issues for me. But it does make you think: just how big an impact does your height have on your strength? And is it really easier to look muscular if you’re short?

As is often the case, it turns out that the reality is a fair bit more complicated…

Muscle Belly to Tendon Ratio

Of course, it makes sense that someone who is taller can potentially pack more muscle on their frame before they run out of ‘space’. Thus it’s true that many tall people are naturally stronger and especially when it comes to pushing challenges that allow them to involve their size.

But this is only one of several factors.

For starters, the size of the muscle belly is not purely determined by the length of the bone. It’s also determined by the length of the tendons that connect the muscles and bones. The muscle ‘belly’ describes the length of the muscle that is situated between the tendons. All of us have a different ratio of ‘muscle to tendon’, so one person might have so much tendon making up their upper arm that there is only size for a smaller muscle belly.

Tendon Insertion Diagram

Elegant diagram, I know…

In other words, if you have a long arm but a low muscle to tendon ratio, then your muscle might still have a smaller bicep than someone who has a shorter arm but a more favorable ratio.

The same goes for how ‘bulky’ your muscles look on your frame. If you have shorter muscle bellies, then this can help them to develop more girth but only to a point, depending on your bone length. Personal preference comes into it too – what you think looks good. It’s not necessarily easier to look good just because your shorter. Having shorter limbs might help but only if your muscle to tendon ratio is optimal too. And even then, it comes down to personal preference.

Bone Length and Leverage

The thing to understand about strength, is that it is all based on physics. For example: when you lift a weight, you are using your arm as a hinge or a lever of some sort. This is especially apparent when you’re curling a dumbbell, in which case your forearm becomes the lever as you try to lift the weight.

Think of this like trying to lift a rock on the end of a plank of wood. You are holding the plank of wood by one hand at the end and then applying force as a lever to lift the stone. Will you be able to lift a heavier stone if the plank of wood is longer or shorter?

preacher curls

In this scenario, the stone is the dumbbell. The plank of wood is your forearm. And your hand is where your bicep ligament attaches to your forearm bone. In other words, you might actually be able to lift heavier weights with a shorter forearm because the weight will be closer to the force.

This doesn’t come down to your height so much as your proportions. In this scenario, we want a longer upper arm with a better tendon-muscle-belly ratio but with a shorter forearm.

Likewise, deadlifting is easier for some people than for others depending on how short their legs are and how long their torso is. Deadlifting is also easier if you have longer arms. The ideal power lifter will have short torsos and short legs with wide hips to give them more stability and power. For the ultimate explosive power, you need to be built like a cannonball.

Coincidentally, this is also why you shouldn’t teach everyone the same way when it comes to performing specific moves in the gym. The ideal technique for one person might be completely wrong for someone else. Listen to your instinct when it comes to how to move – your body should know what to do (which is not to say you shouldn’t also listening to the coach telling you not to arch your back!).

Tendon Insertion

Finally, another factor to consider here is your tendon insertions. This is the point at which the tendon attaches to the bone in order. The further from the pivot point your insertion is, the more more powerful that limb will be.

In other words, even if you have a very long forearm, this can be mitigated if you have an optimal tendon insertion. In other words, if the attachment is found at your wrist, then you’ll have almost no lever and you’ll be able to exert more power, more directly.

tendon insertions

But if the insertion is right by your elbow, then for all extents and purposes, the lever arm is longer.

Now of course no one has their tendon insertion in their wrist, but this site is slightly different for everyone and some people are luckier than others. In fact, there is a condition that causes some people to suffer from shorter tendons and attachment sites that are too close to the joints, resulting in extreme weakness.

This is a genetic limiting factor in your strength then. Some people will be born much stronger, even without training, if they have ideal tendon insertions and good muscle-belly to tendon ratios.

So, while height isn’t everything when it comes to strength and power, it’s certainly true that there is a big genetic element that determines how successful you’re likely to be in the gym. And this is probably why, when I was 15 and I tried lifting weights at school for the first time, I was able to outperform kids twice my size. That was one of the first times I though ‘Hmm, I might just be good at this’ and decided it might make a nice hobby for me. I’ve worked hard since, but I acknowledge that I was dealt a lucky hand in this regard.

Conclusion – The Last Word on Height and Sterngth

Of course, there are countless other factors that also determine your strength. Your ‘mind-muscle-connection’ or ability to recruit muscle fibres is one. Your ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibre is another. And the thickness of your muscle fibres – determined at least partially by the self-imposed hypertrophy we see at the gym – is another.

So no, it is not accurate to say that taller people are stronger or that shorter people have an easier time looking muscular. It is true that a tall person has more potential for longer muscle bellies but their strength will still be determined by other factors. Likewise, a short person still needs other genetic advantages to have an ‘easy time’.

attachment sites

Either way, all you can do is to play the hand you’re dealt and to develop your own frame to the best of your ability. Then again, there is also something to be said for playing to your strengths. Perhaps the deadlift isn’t ‘your move’ – but that’s not to say there isn’t an exercise out there that you were absolutely built for.

Of course this also applies to other activities, including athletics, sports and martial arts. But that’s a post for another time…

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.