It’s difficult to neatly categorize body types and make a claim that only one kind should pursue powerlifting, however, patterns do exist among high level lifters that may be interesting to note for those curious to know if they have a natural advantage.
What body type is the best for powerlifting? Powerlifter’s body types tend to be endo-mesomorphic (a muscular physique). However, other variables, like having proportionally shorter limbs, more muscle mass, and smaller heights overall, will likely give you an advantage regardless of body type.
When the goal of your sport is to move a weight from point A to point B, the shorter the distance that weight has to travel, the easier it will likely be to find success. This is why overall stockier individuals with lots of muscle will find their body type to work in their favor.
In this article I will go over…
- What we mean by body types
- What matters when it comes to powerlifting
- A breakdown of body type advantages for each lift (squat, bench press, deadlift)
- Whether you should be worried if you do not have the ideal body type for powerlifting
What Is Meant By “Body Types” In Powerlifting?
In the fitness and lifting world we often refer to people’s “body types” as ectomorphic, mesomorphic and endomorphic.
These are terms with problematic origins in eugenics (the study of “desirable” hereditary traits) and were coined in the early 20th century.
While the theories about these body types are vastly outdated, they have given the fitness world terminology for roughly describing one’s body structure.
Let’s briefly discuss what each of these body types mean.
An ectomorph is considered someone who finds building muscle and gaining fat to be difficult.
They have a thinner frame and are relatively lean. This body type is not as common in high levels of powerlifting, mostly because once you become experienced enough you will eventually build a substantial amount of muscle and no longer resemble an ectomorph.
A mesomorph is characterized by a relatively muscular physique, it is someone who responds well to weight training and has a high proportion of muscle for their frame.
While they have a solid amount of muscle mass they don’t tend to gain lots of fat along with the muscle and tend to still be relatively lean.
Endomorphs are typically considered to be individuals who don’t have trouble gaining muscle but at the same time also tend to carry more fat and will gain fat more easily.
Endomorphs can often be seen within the sport of powerlifting as maximizing muscle mass gives you an advantage while being lean is not required. Also, having a generally thicker frame can also be preferential in terms of leverages.
Weight Classes & Body Types In Powerlifting: What Matters?
When it comes to powerlifting, there tends to be a pattern of intermediate weight classes performing the best, pound for pound, although this has likely less to do with the number on the scale and more to do with height, limb proportions, torso length and muscle mass.
While powerlifting is split up into weight classes, it’s important to realize that two people who weigh the exact same weight can also look and be structured in a completely different way and the number alone doesn’t necessarily determine your strength potential.
Here are some features you should pay the most attention to:
Your height is determined both by the length of your legs, but also of your torso.
Therefore, some individuals, although short, may have proportionally longer torsos while other tall individuals may have shorter torsos.
While there is no one magic number that is the “ideal” torso length, having a particularly long torso may be disadvantageous for conventional deadlifts.
According to a study published in 2019 by Cholewa et al, they found a slight mechanical advantage for those with long torsos to do sumo deadlifts and those with short torsos to do conventional deadlifts.
In addition to torso length, torso circumference is also something that has been studied by Ferland et al in 2020, along with other variables.
They found that a higher torso circumference was correlated with greater absolute strength in the squat, bench and deadlift. Therefore the girthier your midsection, the better you seem to fare in powerlifting.
Your height is more than likely a contributing factor to your ability to perform as a powerlifter because your height may indirectly impact your limb length, as well as your ability to put on muscle mass.
The point of powerlifting is to move a weight from point A to point B, so the taller you are the further point A becomes from point B and the more work you will have to do to move the weight.
However it’s unlikely that the relationship is linear since some tall people may have proportionally smaller limbs while some shorter individuals may have longer torsos or legs, making squatting difficult even though they are below average height.
This nuance can also be applied for tall lifters who carry a ton of muscle mass which helps them make up for the fact that they may need to “travel” a bit farther and be under tension a bit longer during the lifts.
A 2008 study by Keogh et al. found that while some powerlifters present more mesomorphic and the heavyweights err more on the side of meso-endomorphic, the general proportion of limb length to size was the same among those in the study. This suggests that proportions have more to do with any potential advantage that your total body “type” or size may have.
What’s also interesting to note is that they surveyed lifters from light, medium and heavy weight classes meaning that even the lighter lifters do not get classified as ectomorphs, and the heavy weights, although they are likely bigger guys, still have a similar limb proportions similar to the smaller guys.
A 2020 study by Ferland et al also found that while longer arms serve you better in the deadlift, they present a disadvantage when it comes to relative strength in the bench press.
Worried about your limb lengths? Check out our other resources:
- Deadlifting With Short Arms: 4 Tricks For Bigger Pulls
- Bench Pressing With Long Arms: 5 Tricks
- How To Squat With Long Legs: 10 Tips
According to a 2002 paper by Breuche and Abe et al, the amount of fat free mass, an indicator of muscle mass, is associated with powerlifting performance. Keogh et al, 2008 also supported this finding since all their subjects tended to have high fat free mass, muscular girth and were meso-endomorphic.
Therefore, building muscle on any frame will likely always work in your favour when it comes to powerlifting. In this regard you can assume that lighter weight classes can struggle to catch up to the more medium to heavier built individuals who have more surface area in total to work with and build upon.
However, while shorter individuals may have less total potential for muscle mass, they have the advantage of likely being short and they may be able to create a powerful mesomorphic physique in a more efficient way than someone who is over 6ft tall.
Therefore, there are tradeoffs with any advantage you may have and your weight class alone or your propensity to hold on to fat or muscle may not provide enough information to determine how successful you will be in the sport of powerlifting. However, research does continue in this field to find out more.
Curious to know which weight class is best for you in powerlifting?
Squat & Body Types: Which Is Better?
The best body type for great squat performance would be someone with shorter thighs relative to the rest of their leg or height as well as a thicker overall physique.
Having shorter femurs or thigh bones is known within the powerlifting community to be the best for squatting. Those with relatively long legs, especially above the knee, tend to cave forward in the squat and struggle with staying upright because their centre of mass is shifted backwards.
A 2020 study by Ferland et al. didn’t call out the upper leg length in particular, but a shorter lower leg length was associated with a stronger squat. Suggesting that having shorter legs in general may be best for squats.
In addition to limb length, this study and another study by Ferland et al. both found that better squat performance was related to higher body mass, body fat percentage and greater circumference in the waist, hip and torso in absolute values as well as relative to the lifters height.
Therefore, a stocky and thick physique overall is best for squats.
Have long legs? Specific shoes can help you when squatting:
Bench Press & Body Types: Which Is Better?
The best body type feature to have for a bench press advantage would be someone with shorter arms and a wider girth chest.
A 2020 study by Ferland et al suggested that greater reach to height ratio, suggesting longer arms, was negatively associated with relative bench press strength and a lower percentage of powerlifting total. This makes sense since the length of your arms determines how long you will be under tension in a bench press.
In addition to your arm length, it was found that having a higher BMI, shorter lower leg length (below the knee) relative to height and greater torso circumference relative to height was also associated with greater bench press performance.
Therefore, skewing closer to being endomorphic is likely best for bench press and especially if you have shorter forearms.
Deadlift & Body Types: Which Is Better?
The best body type for conventional deadlifts would be leaner with a shorter torsos, shorter thighs and longer arms; however, sumo deadlift helps to even out the playing field to those with longer torsos.
Ferland et al 2020 identified deadlift performance to be correlated with being short in general, but specifically having shorter thighs relative to height, a short trunk, a longer lower leg relative to height and relative to the thighs, and smaller hip to waist ratio.
In another study by Ferland et al, a relatively longer reach to height ratio also predicted relative deadlift strength. This means that having longer arms is also advantageous.
This same study also supported the finding about hip to waist ratio and further went to observe that those who’s deadlift makes up a greater percentage of their powerlifting total tended to have lower body fat percentage and lower BMI than others in the study.
This may have something to do with the fact that hip hinging can be a little uncomfortable if you have a larger belly and getting into position can be more precise when you don’t have to adjust around your body.
Curious to know how much you should be deadlifting compared to your squat? Check out:
Examples of Powerlifting Body Types
The best way to see the similarities, but also the diversity, within the sport is to look at the athletes who are currently at the top of their game and what they look like.
Taylor Atwood is a 2x 74kg IPF world champion as well as a 7x USAPL national champion.
He is the perfect example of someone who maintains a pretty lean mesomorphic physique on a relatively small frame and still dominates in the sport.
He’s got relatively short limbs with a long torso which likely explains his preference of sumo over conventional.
Amanda Lawrence is the reigning 84kg world champion and is top ranked powerlifter from the USA.
Amanda is not particularly shorter than average and sits in a higher weight category and presents a more meso-endomorphic physique.
She is very muscular and thick which allows for her to move a lot of weight.
Julius Maddox is best known for his world record 782lbs bench press.
From a somatotype perspective he is more endomorphic than some other powerlifter in the sport.
While his torso and chest have a wide circumference and his arms aren’t incredibly longer than average, he does still have a sizeable range of motion proving that you don’t have to be built like a t-rex to be great at bench pressing.
Heather Connor is one of lightest weight powerlifters, competing in the 47kg class. She is a world champ and best known for her deadlift.
She is both very short and very light and, while she does have a solid amount of muscle, she isn’t big and stocky by any definition of the term.
Her limbs aren’t particularly short relative to her total height either and really challenges what we consider to be the definition of a “powerlifting body type.”
Should You Be Worried If You’re Not The Optimal Body Type?
You should not be discouraged from training, competing and participating in powerlifting just because you do not currently have what is considered “advantageous.”
Firstly, because somatotyping is a somewhat outdated concept since it was previously thought to be a static feature of a person. We used to think an ectomorph was destined to be one forever and an endomorph would be born and die an endomorph; however the reality is far more fluid.
We now know you can build muscle and you can adjust your lifestyle in ways to change over time and eventually build up your advantage. You won’t have to look far to find someone who was an ectomorph as a teen and is now a meso or endomorph. It will just require decades of good training and nutrition.
Secondly, for those with longer limbs or longer torsos, there are ways that you can manipulate things like your stance or set-up to help you overcome these disadvantages. For example, improving t-spine mobility to get a greater arch in your bench press or choosing to pull sumo instead of conventional.
Overall, if your goal in powerlifting is to become better than you once were, rest assured that will occur regardless of body type. If your only goal in the sport is to become the best in the world, then I’d maybe suggest you reflect on your body type, but even then, this area of study is not well researched and you very well could be an outlier waiting to make your mark on the world.
As a powerlifter yourself or someone looking to get into powerlifting, stressing out over not having the ideal body proportions likely won’t serve you well. While being a shorter meso-endomorphic person with a thick torso and short limbs may sound like the only way forward, you can find elite powerlifters in every weight class and of all shapes and sizes.
In essence, you win some, you lose some and it’s all about playing up your strengths and minimizing the effects of your weaknesses. Powerlifting is more about being better than you were yesterday and worrying less about why you weren’t born with a shorter thigh bone.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.