Strength Training and Weight Lifting for Short Men

As I’ve said before, my passion is helping modest men upgrade every part of their lives. I focus on style, but improving your fitness is another great way to enhance how you look and feel.

Mark Wahlberg underwear model

Mark Wahlberg looking fit at 5’7″ (Source: Calvin Klein)

Plus, having a lean, muscular build can actually make your clothes fit better (seriously).

But the world of men’s fitness is huge and confusing. Where do you start? Who do you trust? What’s worth doing and what’s a waste of time?

While I prefer sports and martial arts, strength training has been shown to have dramatic health benefits, and it’s widely accepted as one of the best ways to stay in shape.

So, I’ve brought in two experts to help walk you through some common misconceptions about weight lifting and teach you how to get the most out of the weight room.

Enter Kennedy and Coleman Collins—brothers, former D1 athletes, founders of Ohmcoach and general fitness nuts. These guys have run marathons, climbed mountains and helped hundreds of people lose fat and gain muscle.

Take it away, boys!

Strength training for short men

Your body = clothes you can never take off

Let’s take a wild guess: you started reading this blog because you care about the way you look. You had a feeling, deep down, that the way the world was seeing you didn’t match up with who you really were. And so you decided to change that.

By looking for information and reading this blog, you’ve already doing better than a vast majority of the population. But if you’re really serious about making a change, you should focus on the two things that make up 80% of how you’re perceived: your clothes, and the body that the clothes are on.

While transforming your body can take more time than upgrading your wardrobe, it doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult.

Fitness is very similar to fashion. Both can seem intimidating and complicated, and both are extremely susceptible to fads.

The internet is full of conflicting information about fitness and fashion, and you don’t know who to trust because everyone’s trying to sell you something.

But just like fashion, fitness isn’t really a huge mystery once you get down to it. Anyone can get impressive results by avoiding some common mistakes, learning some basic rules, and putting in the time and effort.

It’s really just consistent application of two variables—diet and exercise. Everything else is details.

To really explain diet would take another hilariously long post, but here’s short version:

You have to eat for the body you want, because you’ll never out-exercise a bad diet.

That means worrying first about whether you’re getting the right amount of food (that is, calories), then whether your food has enough protein, then where that food came from.

Everything else is, again, details.

For exercise, there’s no better bang for your buck than picking up heavy things and putting them down again. If you only have half an hour to work out, you should lift weights.

If you have an hour, you should lift weights for an hour. And the best part: modest men have some distinct advantages over taller guys when it comes to lifting weights and building muscle

“But what about cardio!?”

What about it? As long as you have enough cardiovascular strength to do the things you want to do on a daily basis, you don’t need cardio training to stay healthy.

Plus, strength training can provide plenty of cardiovascular benefit. Try squatting your own body weight ten times in a row—your heart will be going plenty fast.

In this guide, we’ll cover some of the science behind why everyone should lift weights and why it’s particularly good for shorter men. Then we’ll tackle some common misconceptions and give you a workout and diet plan that will let you get started today.

Why You Should Lift Weights

To be clear, strength training isn’t perfect for everyone. But for 90+% of men, it’s far and away the best choice for exercise.

By lifting, you can improve your metabolism, boost your mood and cognitive function, and lower your overall chance of injury. Plus, you’ll look great with your shirt off.

#1: Don’t lose weight, lose fat

muscle-vs-fat

5lb of fat vs 5lb of muscle (Source: Anatomy Warehouse)

When people talk about losing ‘weight’, they’re actually talking about losing fat. The only way to lose fat is to eat fewer calories than you use.

But when you’re eating less than you need to fuel yourself, your body burns both muscle and fat to make up the difference. That’s why strength training is the most effective kind of exercise for anyone on a diet: it gets your body to leave the muscle alone.

In sciencier terms, heavy resistance training tells your body to increase the amount of testosterone and human growth hormone in your blood, which preserves your existing muscle and also gives your metabolism a decent kick in the pants. (Yes, kick in the pants is a scientific term).

Maintaining that muscle mass isn’t just important for aesthetic reasons: muscle burns three times the calories than fat does.

That means for every pound of muscle you have (either by gaining it or not losing it), you increase the total number of calories you can consume while maintaining the same weight. It’s the exercise equivalent of wishing for more wishes.

#2: Think better, feel better

While you’re probably focused on changing the way you look, weights can also transform the way you think and feel.

Mountains of studies show that resistance training can reverse age-related cognitive decline. The science is thinner for younger people, but the prevailing wisdom among scientists is that lifting has the same effect on the young as the old.

Weight training can improve mood, memory, cognition, and executive function. It can decrease or eliminate anxiety and depression.

The list goes on and on but most importantly, hitting the iron improves self-esteem. Having clear goals and breaking them over and over again, making consistent progress, and watching your body transform can have a profound effect on the way that you see yourself.

And if you’re here, trying to improve the way you look, isn’t increasing self-esteem half the battle?

#3: Stay healthier, be harder to kill.

Back in hunter-gatherer days, if you weren’t strong, you were dead. Consistent strength training can improve your bone density, ligament and tendon strength, and balance.

triathlete-vs-sedentary

Cross-section of quadriceps (Source: PubMed)

If you enjoy playing sports (or even just playing with your kids), all of those things mean that you’ll get injured less. And less time injured means more time doing the things you love.

Another big benefit of increased bone density and strength is improved quality of life as you age. The conventional wisdom is that we get weaker as we age, and therefore aren’t able to exercise as much.

But recent evidence suggests that the opposite is going on: we don’t exercise as we get older, and therefore get weaker.

Strength training into old age means that you’ll get more out of that old age. Good thing, because people who lift live longer.

Why Shorter Is Better

Basically, short(er) men can make faster progress and transform their bodies far quicker than taller guys with a similar training regimen — they see the results quicker, and actually end up stronger pound-for-pound.

There is one disadvantage, though: because shorter guys have a smaller frame, they’re unable to put on as much total muscle. That means that while shorter guys are stronger relative to their weight, taller men are stronger in an absolute sense—more muscle moves more weight, and their total strength ceiling is higher.

But unless your goal is to play offensive line or be the world’s strongest man, you shouldn’t be too concerned about that. For men who are trying to transform the way their body looks, shorter is better in almost every way.

Shorter guys see quicker results

weight-spread-over-height

If you’ve ever struggled with your weight, you know that extra poundage on a shorter man’s frame is more obvious than the same number of pounds on a taller man.

That’s because fat has a consistent volume, short or tall, so when you spread the same volume of fat over a smaller height, it’s going to protrude more and be more visible.

Luckily, the same is true for building muscle: the same amount of muscle looks much more impressive on a smaller frame than a larger one—and requires roughly the same amount of effort to build.

Muscle growth is limited by the biological processes that build and repair muscle, and those operate at roughly the same rate for both taller and shorter guys.

Shorter guys are stronger

Most of the reason that shorter people are relatively stronger than taller ones comes down to two fairly straightforward concepts from Physics 101: the square-cube law and levers.

That’s right, it’s time for more science! If you don’t care why short men are relatively stronger than their taller counterparts, feel free to skip ahead to the next section, where we’ll cover practical stuff like what exercises to do in the gym and how to eat to make the fastest progress. All of you beautiful nerds out there, read on. This is the fun part.

cube-square-explanation

The square-cube law explains the relationship between the height, surface area, and volume of a shape. As you can see in the diagram, when you increase the height of a 2D shape, its area doesn’t increase linearly—it increases by the change squared.

The same is true when you increase the height of a 3D shape—the volume of that shape increases by the change cubed.

The strength of a muscle is directly related to its cross-sectional area. So if you take a muscle from a shorter guy and scale it up proportionally to fit in a guy that is twice the height, it’ll have four times the cross section (and therefore four times the strength) of the smaller muscle—but eight times the volume (and therefore eight times the weight).

This also means that shorter men are much better at bodyweight movements. The square-cube law says that for every 10% you get taller, you get 21% stronger—and 33% heavier.

So as you grow taller, you get heavier much faster than you get stronger. It’s no coincidence that the tallest male gymnast to ever win gold was Alexei Nemov, standing a modest 5’8”. Past that height, the most impressive gymnastic feats become literally impossible.

The other reason shorter men are stronger, pound for pound, is that their muscles have to do less work to move the same amount of weight. Your body is a series of levers; with your bones acting as the lever arms and your joints acting as the fulcrums. Your muscles pull on your bones to operate these levers.

curl-levers

Imagine doing a curl. You have a weight in your hand with your arm straight, and then you lift that weight up so your hand is next to your shoulder. If you were able to see into your arm, you would see that your biceps is doing that work.

Your biceps is attached to your shoulder and to the closer end of your forearm, just past your elbow. This creates a third order lever where your elbow is the fulcrum and your biceps is the force applied to move the weight at the end.

When that muscle fires, it contracts, and pulls on the close end of your forearm to lift up your hand and the weight.

If you paid attention in physics class, you know that the amount of force needed to move a weight at the end of a lever increases linearly with the length of the lever arm. So the taller you are, and the longer your forearm, the more force your muscle has to put out to move the same amount of weight.

This is also true for more complex movements like squats. In a squat, you have two main levers acting: the muscles of your hips and butt are trying to straighten the angle between your back and upper leg, and the muscles in the front of your leg trying to straighten your knee.

When you have longer bones, those lever arms are much longer, meaning again that the muscles have to work harder to move the same amount of weight.

squat-levers

Put all of this together, and you get something like the graphs below. When you look at the current world records for Men’s Olympic Weightlifting, and compare the total weight moved to the weight of the athlete, it’s very clear that the smaller a guy is, the stronger he is relatively, and the larger an athlete is, the more total weight they can move.

weightlifting-records

Again, it’s a tradeoff—but the higher relative strength of shorter athletes means moving more weight, faster, and seeing results quicker, at the expense of a lower ceiling. If you’re trying to change the way you look, shorter is the way to go.

Lifting Myths and Misconceptions

You may have heard that lifting will stunt your growth, make you muscle bound and inflexible, hurt your joints, or just make you wider than you are tall.

All of it is nonsense.

Myth 1: Lifting will stunt my growth.

No it won’t. This myth is ancient and extremely hard to pin down, but it seem to come from a Japanese study done in the mid-60s that looked at the growth rates of child laborers in remote villages.

All of the children studied were shorter than expected, and the researchers concluded that lifting heavy things all day had stunted their growth.

This study was later revisited, and guess what? Those Japanese kids also weren’t eating enough. You have to eat for the body you want, and childhood malnourishment is a one way ticket to stunted growth (among dozen of other issues).

Tons of later research has shown that there is no relationship between lifting weights and height, at any age.

Myth 2: Lifting weights will make me look bulky or stocky.

Big nope here. Meet Liao Hui, gold medal winning Olympic weightlifter, world record holder, and certified modest man, standing at 5’6”. This is a guy who has dedicated his entire life to strength training.

liao-hui

Liao Hui (Source: Sohu Sports)

Since being recruited by the Chinese government at the age of ten, he has spent every waking hour lifting, thinking about lifting, or recovering from lifting.

Does he look stocky to you? Yeah, me neither. And he’s been lifting every day for twenty years. Most of the mass monsters that you see running around who look stocky are on massive amounts of steroids and other drugs.

If you’re not planning to take heroic doses of growth hormone, you’re not going to accidentally get big and bulky.

Ultimately, ‘stocky’ is all about two things: body fat percentage and shoulder-to-waist ratio. If you’re carrying fat around your midsection, then you’re going to look stocky.

Adding muscle to your frame will often have the opposite effect—by widening your shoulders, you can restore some of the ‘v’ shape that is seen as athletic and ‘fit’.

If you’re already a stockier guy, hit the gym and make sure your clothes fit well. You’ll be fine.

Myth 3: Lifting will damage my joints and make me less flexible.

N-O-P-E. This is akin to saying that driving your car is bad for your car. If you drive like a maniac and never change your oil, then yes—driving you car is bad for your car.

liao-hui-snatch

Liao Hui performing a snatch (Source: IronMind)

But if you drive reasonably and do routine maintenance, driving your car isn’t going to damage it.

This older study looked at 25 experienced lifters and found that only a few of them had any joint damage—and everyone with issues had injured themselves playing sports.

Hell, if you go to an olympic weightlifting competition and check out the masters categories, there are 70 and 80 year old men who are still putting up serious numbers.

And when it comes to being inflexible, let’s check back in on our boy Liao Hui. A majority of adults can’t get in this kind of ass-to-ankles squat, let alone do it with 340lbs overhead.

Many of the standard lifts, especially the squat, can actually increase flexibility when performed properly. And that’s the key: when performed properly.

Lifting weights with bad form is bad for you, and lifting weights without working on mobility will make you inflexible. So be careful with your form, make sure to warm up and stretch, and you’ll be able to lift for the rest of your life.

How to build a better body with weight lifting

By now, you’re hopefully at least kind of convinced that working out with weights is something worth doing. But “pick heavy stuff up and then put it down again” isn’t exactly a workout plan.

So let’s talk about what you should be doing in the gym, and what you should be doing outside of it.

What to do in the gym

The most important thing you have to do in the gym is show up, and show up consistently. When you train, your muscles are damaged and need some time to recover.

But as they recover, they overshoot and actually end up stronger than before. The science word for this is supercompensation.

But, if you don’t demonstrate to your body that you need that new strength, you’ll lose it. Muscle is biologically expensive, and your body won’t keep it around if it’s not needed.

So the key to getting stronger is to train again when your body is still in the supercompensation phase, creating what we call progressive overload.

Every time you go to the gym, lift slightly more than you could last time, and then go home. As a beginner, if you’re eating and sleeping enough, you’ll be able to keep progressing in a linear fashion for at least a year.

Supercompensation graph

Source: CPS

When you’re at the gym, lift heavy things with as much of your body as possible. A routine built around the classic barbell lifts—bench press, squat, overhead press, and deadlift—is ideal, because each one uses at least two major muscle groups.

If you add in a couple more pulling movements, like pull-ups and rows, then you’ve got a simple set of exercises that will work your entire body quickly and efficiently.

Six exercises to work the whole body is pretty nice, because doing more work in less time is better than doing more work in more time (duh).

Also, these big, multi-joint movements are incredibly good at provoking a big hormonal response, getting you even more benefit for your work.

What to do in the kitchen

Muscles are made of protein. So if you want your muscles to grow, you have to eat protein. If you don’t give your body the building blocks it needs to build muscle, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend in the gym. You’re not going to get stronger.

Now, when you ask how much protein is enough to build muscle, the only answer you’re not going to get is a consistent one. Scientists have proposed daily intake numbers that range from .6g/lb of bodyweight all the way up to 1.6g/lb of bodyweight per day.

For the sake of simplicity, stick to 1g/lb. It’s probably a little on the high side, but extra protein isn’t bad for you, and it makes the math a lot simpler—for every pound you weigh, eat one gram of protein every day. You can do this in six meals or one meal, it doesn’t really matter.

Otherwise, eat what you want. You need some fat in your diet—your hormones and cell membranes are made out of fat. You should probably eat some carbs, although they are not biologically necessary.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to go for foods that look like they were recently picked, harvested or butchered, rather than sent through a processing line. Vegetables are, in fact, good for you.

But for building muscle, the only things that matter are getting enough protein and enough total calories. Everything else is, yet again, details.

Weekly Workout Plan for Shorter Men

Two exercises per day, six total. Five sets of five repetitions per exercise. As much rest between sets as you want. That’s it.

  1. Day 1: Warmup, Squat 5×5; Weighted Pull-up 5×5
  2. Day 2: Rest
  3. Day 3:Warmup, Bench Press 5×5; Barbell Row 5×5
  4. Day 4: Rest
  5. Day 5: Warmup, Overhead Press 5×5; Deadlift 5×5
  6. Day 6: Rest
  7. Day 7: Rest

This workout seems simple, but don’t let that fool you. It will pack muscle on your frame as long as you eat enough, and it shouldn’t take you more than three hours per week — quick enough for even the busiest among us.

  • Start with a bare bar for every exercise except deadlifts and rows, and body weight for pull ups. It’s almost impossible to deadlift and row correctly without a little bit of weight.
  • For deadlifts and rows, start with 95lbs (two 25lb plates on either side of a 45lb bar).

Yes, this will feel silly at first, but don’t let your ego get the best of you. Every week, if you are able to complete the 5×5 lifts, you earn the right to add weight.

  • Add 10lbs to the deadlift and the squat after successful lift.
  • Add 5lbs to the bench press, the overhead press, and the barbell row after each successful lift.
  • Add 2.5lbs to the weighted pullups.

If you’re used to Men’s Fitness articles and “the routine that turned Chris Hemsworth into Thor”, you still might be wondering where the “rest of the workout” is.

There isn’t any. You don’t have to spend two hours a day in the gym to be strong and look great with your shirt off.

This is a plan that is geared towards getting you in and out as quickly as is effective so can better enjoy the rest of your life, not a plan geared towards making the gym your life.

Just get in, do the work, and get on with your day.

BONUS: Ready to Get Started?

If you’re serious about getting started, we’ve created a special set of bonuses just for readers of the Modest Man.

It takes the program and diet recommended above and walks you through it step–by–step, including workout tracking sheets, warmup and exercise demonstrations, and answers to common questions.

→ Download your “getting started” packet here


Big thanks to the Collins brothers for putting together this awesome strength training guide for The Modest Man!

Got questions? Leave a comment below…

Comments

  1. Kennedy Collins says:

    Hey guys! Thanks again to Brock for letting us share this information with his readers.
    I’ll be checking back in regularly to answer questions you might have, so just leave ’em here and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

  2. Great information! Thanks!

  3. Good stuff fellas! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Brock, thanks for publishing an excellent article. Makes me extremely happy after reading it. I believe shorter stature men would look better by building a lean tone body than bulking up like Arnold. I feel we look better having a swimmers body or a gymnast body. Also, building muscle using more body weight than free weights exercise would help the body recover quickly after a traumatic injury. I sustained a car injury that led to a life threatening neck/spinal surgery back in August. Normally, recovery from such surgery would be a year. Because I worked out for 4 years doing body weight training, I was able to recover in 4 months.

  5. Rob Gorton says:

    Short blokes who lift weights look like oxo cubes ,

    It also makes them look shorter

  6. But when shorter men become bulky they can look even shorter…. like a troll!

  7. Thanks for the info. I always love hearing how to improve myself. Knowledge is real power.

  8. Like it says in the article, which is excellent by the way, you can train without getting bulky. Think Tom Cruise. Modest man, now in his fifties, and still looks amazing with or without shirt, very ripped but not remotely bulky. Personally, I favour bodyweight training, but do also use some free weights for all the reasons given above. Not that I’ll ever look as good as Tom Cruise, but it all helps!

  9. Greg Hamlin says:

    Great article Brock, I’m always impressed with your content!

    Kennedy, I have an issue with one of the points you brought up. You mentioned that for every pound you should consume 1g of protein per day, which is a common and reasonable recommendation. However, you also mention that whether it’s consumed in “six meals or one meal, it doesn’t really matter”. You provided a link to a study from the British Journal of Nutrition called ‘Meal Frequency and Energy Balance’ which concludes that meal frequency has no discernible effect on energy expenditure. In layman’s terms: the number of meals you eat doesn’t really effect the amount of calories you burn.

    The problem here is that you use this study to say that it doesn’t matter if you eat one meal with 150g of protein or 5 meals with 30g of protein because it will have the same effect. First of all, the study has nothing to do with protein synthesis or muscle generation. In fact, protein isn’t even mentioned in the study. This leads me to believe that the evidence you provided doesn’t prove your point at all.

    I wasn’t able to find a scholarly source that found the amount of protein that the body can process at once, but a quick Google search found several fitness articles that all cite nutritional journal saying that the body can only process somewhere between 2-10g of protein per hour. They also suggest that you shouldn’t consume more than ~35g of protein in one sitting because the excess protein will be used as energy or stored as fat. Based on this, I would say not to chug all your protein at once but instead have a shake or a protein bar between meals.

    Hopefully you can shed some light on this because I am interested in seeing if there is some information I’m missing. Thanks for the article!

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