The longer I spend within the powerlifting community, the more I come to realise that strength and its expression comes in many shapes and forms! In a sport of such genetic diversity, you could swing a dead cat in a warm up room and never hit someone with the same bodily proportions. Although, as the sport continues to grow this diversity lends itself to a larger amount of lifters who may prove to be exceptions to the general rules and finer technical conventions.
For the most part this diversity is fantastic for the sport and its growth, although one of the major issues which is presented, is the general competitive population seeing these outliers and attempting to model their own lifting after them. This gives rise to a fairly large proportion of lifters who attempt to excuse fundamental flaws in their technique by saying “oh nah bro this is just how my body works” or “ this is what Larry does”.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are the strange technical quirks of your favourite lifter will very rarely apply to your average competitor. This is because what makes these lifters outstanding among their work ethic and attention to detail, is the ability of their bodies to transfer force with above average efficiency, which is a product of their structure, an attribute which can’t be trained.
This means that yes, it is true that some people are just made of sturdier stuff and simply have a better framework to cultivate muscular mass and skill upon, although this is not meant to discourage those who are not as gifted with a favorable structure. Ones structure does not limit the improvement they can make as an individual, everyone can be better than yesterday, but in a competitive context it must come into consideration. So with that, what exactly are we referring to when we speak about this structure? Well that is where anthropometry comes in!
By definition anthropometry is the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body. This means that attributes such as the lengths of your bones, the sites of your muscular attachments, along with the the varied proportions of your joints all fall into the category of ‘anthropometric measures’.
It is from the collection of these measures (in most cases done just by observation) that we build the basis of our technical prescriptions, as it is these bodily proportions which determine the positions you can safely exert the greatest amount of forces, which means moving the of weight! With this in mind however, there is the propensity for highly specialised athletes like powerlifters to exhibit a wide range of technical proficiencies, as slight differences in proportion such as femur length can manifest in large changes in the efficiency of positions!
Along with these structures which can be physically be viewed, palpated and quantified more internalised structures (mainly a muscles attachment site) stand to explain how two individuals with seemingly identical bone structures and limb proportions may have completely different aptitudes for applying force and therefore maximal strength.
To save you the boring physics lecture however, the short version is for joint action to occur, a muscle which spans across that joint (think that the biceps span across the elbow connecting the humerus and the radius) must exert a force great enough to create the wanted joint action, regardless of a load. To keep the bicep theme going this would be a dumbbell in your hand.
Now depending on how far the distal attachment is from the pivot point (the biceps attachment on the radial tuberosity and its distance from the pivot point of the elbow) determines the amount of force needed to produce the act of flexion to complete your curl and get a joocie pump! For an individual who has an extremely close biceps attachment, lifting a 20 kg dumbell will be mechanically harder than someone whose biceps which attaches further down the radius.
At the end of the day the weight is the same, however one individual can move that weight with SUBSTANTIALLY greater efficiency, which has extreme consequences in a sport which is a test of maximal strength. Now imagine every joint and every muscle which spans them having their own unique attachment point which will have impacts on overall strength and efficiency, crazy huh!
What is important to remember however, is that even amongst this large possible diversity and millions of anatomical combinations, the distribution of most lifters still follows a simple bell curve in terms of applied technique. Despite the ends of this curve being very far away, the larger pool of lifters bunching around the average. This means that despite everyone showing a unique structure, for the most part the general conventions of technique across all three lifts hold true for the greatest majority of lifters. With outliers being exactly that, an outlier!
With this in mind, it does display a large need to include the consideration of major anthropometric landmarks when we are working on lifting efficiently with correct technique and apply small technical changes as needed, however it needs to be done in conjunction with addressing underlying pathology or movement deficiencies.
As when we use the excuse of structure and that alone to make large technical alterations to get around an inability to move efficiently or lack of movement variability, we risk not only lowering long term performance outcomes for a short term goal but can also increase the risk of injury!