The first rule of strength and conditioning is “Do no harm.” A very close second rule would be “One size fits NO ONE.” This basically means if you attempt to employ a one-size-fits-all model, usually no one will benefit from it.
Taking a cookie-cutter approach to training is actually called exercising. In exercising, activity is the goal. Anything counts.A cookie-cutter approach to training is actually called exercising. In exercising, activity is the goal. In training, our goals are individual-specific adaptations, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
In training, our goals are individual-specific adaptations to help the athlete physically and mentally prepare for the demands of their sport. Exercising will usually leave your athletes’ results up to pure chance, while training is a more calculated and monitored approach. No matter what setting you coach in, team or private, some level of individualization is non-negotiable. This is especially true when training tall athletes, such as “bigs” in basketball, middle blockers in volleyball, pitchers in baseball, and other “bigs” who are simply long-limbed compared to their peers.
Building Our Athletes
As coaches, we often talk about “building” our athletes. When it comes to building things, it’s vital to have the right tool for the job. If you need to use a screw, the right tool for the job would be the proper screwdriver. You could just use a hammer and end the job quickly, but would the long-term result be the same? The goal is not to finish the job but to do the job correctly.
The same thing goes for coaching. Athletes need to train several movement patterns and skills specific to them in order to achieve the adaptations we’re looking for from the program. So if we know we need them to improve lower body strength, that is the screw. What tool will we use? That is the exercise selection.
I know this is a blog for SimpliFaster, not HGTV, but let’s stick with this tool analogy. We know a squat will improve lower body strength. Boom. The job is done, right? Not so fast… What kind of squat will work best for that athlete? There are several types of screws that fit uniquely with several types of screwdrivers. You can fasten a Phillips screw with a flathead screwdriver, but it will damage the screw and probably take much longer than if you use a Phillips head screwdriver.
Okay, now let’s leave Home Depot and go back to the weight room.
When it comes to the popular “Big 3” lifts—squat, bench, deadlift—the unfortunate truth is that many athletes are simply not good candidates for those particular lifts. This is especially true for big and tall athletes.
Tall athletes, long-limbed athletes, and those with odd lever lengths may require some slight modifications to perform these lifts with a lower risk for error and injury. That’s not to say that tall athletes need to select totally different exercises, but rather find a way to make these lifts fit them better. Simple tweaks like a deadlift from blocks, bench pressing to a board, or squatting on a slant board can help your taller athletes perform lifts at a higher level without risk of compensation or pain.Simple tweaks like a deadlift from blocks or bench pressing to a board can help your taller athletes perform lifts at a higher level without risk of compensation or pain, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
Find the right tool for the job. Remember, the goal of training is to TRAIN. And train hard; don’t constantly take things away from the training menu.
Principles vs. Methods
A paradigm shift that may help coaches find the right tool for the job is to evaluate the relationship of principles and methods as it connects to training. You’ve got thousands of methods to choose from, but only a handful of solid foundational principles.
For example, in a deadlift there are some things we absolutely know we do not want to occur. We don’t want to see excessive lumbar ranges of motion. We don’t want to see athletes jerking the weight off the floor. We do want to see lats, glutes, and hamstrings loaded and engaged. We want to see a neutral spine throughout the lift. We want to see a hip-dominant movement, not a knee-dominant movement.
Knowing the principles that you’re looking for actually unlocks the plethora of methods that you could potentially employ for any given athlete. In the case of tall athletes, their methods often need to be altered to be able to hold these principles intact. An easy example is a chin-up—I love chin-ups and wish I could have all of my athletes do them. But my 7-foot tall basketball players simply can’t do them because of equipment limitations. Most squat racks with chin-up bars and/or stand-alone chin-up bars are simply not tall enough to support the long limbs of a 7-footer.
One of the principles of a chin-up is to get full range of motion, which includes lowering yourself down to full arm extension. Another principle is that the athlete’s legs should be extended with ankles in dorsiflexion to hollow out the anterior core. Athletes who are 6’6” and above will have some trouble doing that on normal-sized equipment, as their feet will hit the ground before they can reach full arm extension. So, throw that method out. Go back to the principles of a vertical pulling exercise. Ask yourself what you want to have the athlete achieve with a chin-up, then find a way to accomplish that.
This is the easiest example because it’s an equipment limitation. But what happens when the athlete has a range of motion, strength, or pain threshold limitation? Below are some of the most common obstacles for big athletes while doing the “Big 3” lifts, examined with some of the root causes and simple solutions.
Often labeled “The King of Exercises,” the barbell back squat is a dominant choice for strengthening the lower body. It’s a main lift in most programming, especially in team settings where it can be more difficult to individualize programming.
For tall athletes, one of the major issues I’ve noticed is accomplishing good squat depth without compensation or pain—that’s a long way down for some of these athletes. And, especially for more experienced athletes who have spent a long time in sports that feature partial ranges, it may be even more foreign for them to sit deep into a squat.
For example, a basketball player who has played years upon years of basketball has spent a lot of time in basketball-specific positions. We see a lot of jumps from quarter squat (or higher) depth, a lot of wide-stance quarter-depth squats on defense, and a lot of landing and takeoffs from a single leg. Mastering these partial ranges is what makes these athletes so good at the sport, so filling the gaps in the weight room with full ranges of motion may not always come easy; however, it will leave a lasting impact on their long-term health and development.
As simple as it sounds, I want my athletes’ squats to look like squats and their hinges to look like hinges. Tall athletes often tend to hinge their squats. On squat days at the gym, you’ll hear me repetitively yelling the overly simplified coaching cue, “Let’s bend the knees today!”
It’s silly, but it’s true.
The tall athlete’s go-to compensation is to try to counterbalance their lack of knee flexion with an increase of lumbar extension. This helps the athlete feel more upright or feel like they’re getting lower, but puts the stress in the wrong areas of the body.
Video 1. Athlete performing two kettlebell front squat in learning progression for the lift.
Another common mistake is just the opposite. The athlete will fold over and lose all pillar integrity during the squat, allowing their torso to fall forward and their spine to round.
The root cause here is that knee flexion is being limited somehow. It’s our job to find out how and then correct it. Athletes often cite knee pain or tenderness as a reason for their lack of ROM. Any time an athlete is in discomfort or lacks the movement quality needed for an exercise, it’s a good idea to not only assess that region of the body, but also look at the joints that surround it.
The knee is between the ankle and the hip, so either of those two joints could also be a part of the problem and solution. Whether a lack of ankle range of motion or a lack of hip stability, it all comes down to the athlete’s inability to control their center of mass during their squat.One of the most beneficial solutions to the tall athlete’s inability to control their COM during the squat is to start from the ground up and introduce a slant board, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
Joint assessments aside, one of the most beneficial solutions to this is to start from the ground up and introduce a slant board for tall athletes to squat on. This will help the athletes access more knee range of motion, especially if their ankle was the limiting factor to begin with. In turn, athletes will be able to achieve a better squat and then gain more strength and stability, which often leads to a reduction of aches and pains during training.
Terminology update: You may call it a slant board, some call it a heel lift, others call it a squat wedge. Whatever you call it, it’s a great tool for taller athletes!
Video 2. Example of front squatting with a slant board. Here, the athlete is returning from a knee dislocation.
It is extremely important to actually invest in a slant board. Elevating the heels with small weight plates is often mistaken as an equal alternative, but it’s not the same. A slant board places the ankle in a slightly dorsiflexed position and allows the athlete’s entire foot to be on the same surface. This helps athletes produce force as if it were on the ground while still adding the benefits at the ankle joint.
Elevating heels on plates places the ankle in a similar position, but the ball of the foot is on the ground while the heel of the foot is on the plate—a completely different surface—and the mid-foot floats in thin air between the two. This does not allow for optimal usage of the athlete’s whole foot during the squat. There are several “leaks” with this setup.
Any squat variation is perfectly compatible with a slant board, from bilateral to unilateral options, but the goal is to eventually train without it. Use it to help athletes strengthen their weaknesses and move to squat variations that don’t require them to constantly use lifting aids.
The bench press is a lift that many coaches love to demonize and push athletes away from. It’s bad for your shoulders. It’s not sport-specific. It’s not athletic.
The way I see it, any lift can be bad for athletes if repeatedly done incorrectly or misused. If a bench press checks the boxes you’re looking for, go for it. If you have a tall athlete who struggles to meet the principles of a bench press, there are plenty of helpful options that can assist them.If you have a tall athlete who struggles to meet the principles of a bench press, there are plenty of helpful options that can assist them, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
One of the biggest roadblocks for long-armed athletes while benching is constantly being stricken with shoulder pain. This pain can often be pinpointed to an anterior humeral glide during the bottom portion of the bench press.
Anterior humeral glide occurs frequently on pushing and pulling exercises where the athlete lacks control and retraction of their shoulder blades. In a bench press, this happens at the bottom phase of the lift. The humerus actually slides forward in relation to the shoulder socket, rather than staying centered. This forward motion of the top of the humerus can irritate the shoulder structures, but it can most commonly cause tendonitis of the biceps tendon that attaches in that joint.
Even for athletes with great technique, their structures may win in the end. Some athletes’ arms are so long, they literally cannot lower the bar fully to their chest without shifting the humerus forward to get that deep.
In these cases, we just raise the level of the chest by adding a board(s) or a block(s) to the lift. By finding the point of the eccentric phase where the compensation occurs, we can use those tools to elevate the end point of that lift and allow athletes to bench press compensation-free.
Video 3. Bench pressing with a block to raise the chest level in the lift.
In most cases, all we end up doing is taking out excess range of motion for the athlete, so the focus remains on the proper muscle groups. If we take away too much range of motion, it becomes triceps dominant rather than chest dominant, and in those rare cases, you may want to completely scrap the barbell and use dumbbells instead.
Again, you don’t have to bench press. You can floor press with a barbell or dumbbells. You can perform loaded push-ups. You can perform cable chest work. There is no shortage of pressing variations. But I know a ton of athletes who absolutely love to bench press. Motivation and enjoyment are a huge piece of training, so if you can safely keep a fan-favorite exercise in the mix, that’s always a good thing.
Last, but definitely not least, comes the deadlift—one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck exercises in a coaching toolbox. The question is, which kind of deadlift?
Deadlifts are to training as shrimp are to Bubba (you know, Forrest Gump’s dear friend).
You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it… [There’s] shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich.
There are so many ways to deadlift. Different bars, different stances, different ranges of motion, different speeds, etc. As always, the key is to find what fits your tall athletes the best.There are so many ways to deadlift. Different bars, stances, ranges of motion, speeds, etc. As always, the key is to find what fits your tall athletes the best, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
The word “tall” is simply an umbrella term for someone who is, well, tall. But there are different kinds of tall. Two people can be the same height, but have two completely opposite structures. One is all legs with a short torso, the other could be more proportionate. Those two people may need to lift differently, whether height is an issue or not.
When it comes to the deadlift and taller athletes, back pain is a big complaint that coaches usually hear. One of the biggest causes of low back pain during a deadlift is simply using an improper setup for the athlete. Actually, this can be true for any athlete of any size.
When athletes are too long or can’t get wedged into a good deadlift position, the main compensation we see is loading the quads more than the hamstrings. Because of their long legs and arms, some athletes are forced into a squatty deadlift, which actually puts an immense amount of stress in the lumbar spine.
Picture an athlete in this squatty deadlift start position. Their knees are deeply bent, hips are low, torso is upright, and they begin their initial pull. The first thing that usually happens is the bar goes nowhere on the initial pull, but the hips raise up. This results in a loss of lat tension, hamstring tension, and possibly core engagement. Then, the bar finally starts to come off the floor, but the levers being used are more low back dominant than hamstring and glutes.
Video 4. Example of the hips shooting up while performing a deadlift.
Repetitively doing this will probably start to irritate the low back. Worst case scenario, the athlete may experience disc herniations and all of the complications that could come from that. Best case scenario, they adapt and overly develop their spinal erectors and QL’s, which also has its pros and cons.
For your big athletes, Romanian deadlift variations can take over as the go-to “deadlift” exercise. I recently wrote about why we use the single leg RDL as a main lift and all of the benefits we’ve seen since doing so. Although a deadlift and Romanian deadlift share a common word, they are actually not directly related. Cousins, maybe. But not siblings.
The RDL is a top-down movement. The deadlift is a ground-up movement. One is more eccentric in nature, the other focused more on concentric strength. There is still a great benefit from an actual deadlift due to the extreme amounts of concentric strength athletes can build.
If the deadlift fits your program better than an RDL, you can use the same approach as the bench press by elevating the floor. Using boxes, blocks or plates or even a snatch grip, you can help elevate the height of the bar to fit your tall athlete’s optimal deadlift position. This will allow them to truly hinge at the hips and get the proper pulling position to be able to load the hamstrings and glutes more than the quads and lower back.Another great tool to introduce would be a trap bar, because it comes built-in with high & low handle heights and could help the tall athlete find their perfect setup, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
Another great tool to introduce would be a trap bar, because it comes built-in with high and low handle heights and could help the athlete find their perfect setup. The downside is that the trap bar is naturally kind of a hybrid deadlift, kind of a middle ground between posterior and anterior chain dominance. That turns a lot of coaches away from using the trap bar, but I’ve found that it’s a great option with no major drawbacks.
Video 5. Tall athlete performing a trap bar deadlift using bumper plates to raise the floor.
Training Your “Bigs”
I’ve been extremely lucky to work with some incredible—and tall—athletes over the years. A lot of what I’ve talked about in this article was the result of trial and error, plus strong communication with the athletes. I love to get their feedback and learn how I can better serve them, straight from the source. After so many conversations, you really start to notice trends among this unique population.
The most prominent and fulfilling feedback I’ve received regarding some of these modifications is the noticeable reduction of pain. Many athletes simply don’t know or forget what it feels like to feel good. Helping them get back on track and move the needle in the right direction is one of the most important things we can do for our athletes.
The domino effect from this is the real deal. When athletes feel better, they perform better. We often get hung up on the shiny objects of training. I want my athlete’s RSI to go up, I want their vertical jump to increase, I want their 40 time to get faster. We use force plates to measure this, we use VBT to track that, and so on and so forth. But we often overlook the low-hanging fruit, which is health drives performance. Sometimes, all of those things will naturally happen simply because the athlete feels better.
The “Big 3” lifts are called that for a reason. They are big, compound lifts that yield great results for athletes, from beginner to pro. They are also extremely scalable and great for use in team or large group settings. The squat pattern, upper body pressing pattern, and hip hinge pattern are irreplaceable. Their benefits build the foundation not only for weight room performance, but also athletic performance and in-game strength.Remember: We need to find the right tool. If one of these major lifts isn’t the right tool, we can mimic the movement pattern in another lift that may be a better fit, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
With that being said, remember we need to find the right tool. If one of these major lifts isn’t the right tool, we can mimic the movement pattern in another lift that may be a better fit. After all, that is what coaching is all about: problem solving, communicating, and finding ways to empower our athletes by any means. When it comes to working with tall athletes with limitations on the Big 3 lifts, these small tweaks have delivered big results.
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