Deadlifting With Short Arms: 4 tricks For Bigger Pulls

I’m sorry to say that if you have short arms relative to the rest of your body that you’ll be at a disadvantage when deadlifting.

Therefore, choosing the right training strategy and deadlifting technique is imperative in order to continue getting stronger.

The top 4 tips for deadlifting with short arms are:

  1. Consider deadlifting sumo
  2. Place your torso slightly more horizontal to the floor
  3. Build strong hip extensors
  4. Accept that you’ll have a slightly rounded upper back

Stick around until the end of this article, as you’ll leave with 5 training strategies to start implementing immediately in order to deadlift more effectively with short arms.

If you have short arms combined with a tall body, then you’ll also want to check out my article on Deadlifting For Tall Guys.

Do You Actually Have Short Arms?

Before diving into the tips for deadlifting with short arms, we first need to understand whether we actually have short arms or not.

A lot of lifters arbitrarily say they have ‘short arms’, but they actually haven’t gone through an assessment to determine whether their arms are actually shorter compared with the rest of their body.

If you do have short arms it will most certainly change the mechanics of the overall movement.

So do you have short arms or not?

A study by hales (2010) examined the torso, leg, and arm segment lengths as proportions of the overall body structure. These segment lengths offer a reference point to determine whether some limbs are considered ‘long’ or short’.

measuring whether you have short arms for deadlifts
Measuring whether you have short arms or not

It’s important to understand that having ‘short arms’ needs to be considered as proportions to the rest of the body.

If you have short arms, but you also have short legs and a short torso, then you might not actually have any negative effects when it comes to deadlifting.

Therefore, you need to measure your torso leg, and arm segments (not just your arms).

Here is how you should measure:

  • Torso length: Start at the hip bone (greater trochanter) and measure to the top of the head
  • Arm length: Start at the shoulder joint (humeral head) to the tip of the middle finger.
  • Leg length: Start at the hip bone (greater trochanter) and measure to the floor.

For reference, here is my limb proportions:

proportions of short arms versus other body segments for deadlifts

Based on these measurements, I would be classified as someone who has average arms, long legs, and a long torso.

Therefore, I do not fit within the categor of having ‘short arms’, and so the tips in this article won’t apply to me. However, if you’ve gone through this assessment and have identified yourself as someone with short arms, read on.

Check out my article on How To Squat With Long Legs.

Deadlifting Mechanics: Regardless If You Have Short Arms

Before discussing some of the consequences of deadlifting with short arms, you need to understand that regardless of your arm length that there are 3 deadlifting best practices. 

1.  Start With The Barbell Over Your Mid-Foot

When you stand over the barbell, you want to ensure that the barbell is directly over the mid-part of your foot.  

2.  Start With Your Shoulder Blades Directly Over The Barbell

After you’ve gripped the barbell and your hips are in their start position, your shoulder blades should be directly stacked over the barbell.  In other words, if you draw a straight line down from your shoulder blades, it should be in line with the barbell.  

3.  Bring Your Shins To The Barbell 

 Before initiating the pull off the floor, make sure your shins move forward to touch the barbell.  The shins shouldn’t ‘push the barbell forward’, but they should make contact in order to keep the barbell as close to the body as possible.

As long as you achieve these 3 key positions, then everything else is fair game to manipulate.  So, if you have short arms, you definitely want to change parts of your set-up and technique, which we’ll discuss in a second.   

Consequences For Having Short Arms When Deadlifting

If you deadlift with short arms, there will naturally be some consequence that you’ll experience compared with someone who has long arms.  

You’ll Be Doing More Work Than Other Lifters

With shorter arms, you’ll be pulling the barbell over a greater distance.  In other words, you will have a longer range of motion compared with someone with long arms.  

From an energy perspective, this means that you’ll be doing more work than other lifters. Mechanical work is a product of force times the distance that this force needs to be applied over (Work = Force X Distance).

Therefore, if we have to displace force over a longer distance, the short-armed lifter is at an energetic disadvantage.

The consequence is that you may be more susceptible to the negative effects of fatigue accumulated during a workout.  

So, you might experience technical breakdown earlier in a workout, you might not be able to handle the same amount of volume as someone else, or you might need more recovery between deadlift workouts. 

Back Might Feel Rounded

With short arms, you might feel like you’re having to bend really far forward to grab the barbell in the start position.  

As such, your back angle will be more horizontal to the floor.  

If you don’t have strong spinal erectors, you might feel like your back is rounding more and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.  

I’m going to explain later why a rounded back for people with short arms might not be an entirely bad thing.  

However, for now, just know that if you have short arms you’ll likely be more prone to a round back while deadlifting, while other lifters will have an easier time maintaining a neutral spine.

Related Article: 5 Best Deadlift Jacks & Wedges (2020)

Grip Might Be Challenged More

As I previously mentioned, one of the negative consequences of having short arms while deadlifting is a greater range of motion.  

As such, lifters with short arms might find their grip failing at top loads.  This is a result of having to hold onto the bar for greater distances, which leads to a greater time under tension for your gripping muscles.

While struggling with grip is not necessarily always the case with people who have short arms.  However, if you have a combination of short arms and small hands, then challenges with your grip will be more apparent compared with other lifters. This is why I suggest lifters with short arms to use hand grippers.

I won’t discuss getting a stronger grip in this article, but you can refer to my article on How To Never Fail A Deadlift On Grip Again.

You Might Feel Demotivated

One of the biggest consequences for deadlifting with short arms is that you will feel de-motivated to train the deadlift.  

It’s very easy to get into a cycle of negative self-talk by saying things like “I suck”, “I will never be a good deadlifter”, “deadlifting doesn’t come naturally”, etc.

In fact, check out this piece of advice someone gave to a lifter who posted on a forum asking for advice on deadlifting with short arms: 

“Just accept the fact that you’ll never be a good deadlifter…”

If that’s not a defeatist attitude then I don’t know what is.  

There are countless examples of deadlifters with short arms putting up big weight? 

Without further ado, here are my tips for deadlifting with short arms. 

5 Tips For Deadlifting With Short Arms

Not all of these tips will apply to everyone equally.  What might work for one person, may not work for another.  What I suggest is to take one of these tips, implement it into your training over a period of time, and see if they work for you.  If it does, great! If not, move onto the next tip.  

1. Consider Deadlifting Sumo

If you have short arms for deadlifts you should deadlift sumo

In the study by Hales (2010) that I mentioned earlier, the conclusion was that anyone who has short arms should be deadlifting using the sumo stance.  

This included ANY combination of body segments: 

  • Long torso / short arms
  • Short torso / short arms
  • Average torso / short arms 

So if you’ve never tried deadlifting in the sumo stance, there is strong evidence to suggest that you might find a more natural position with sumo compared with conventional. 

The sumo deadlift starts with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and gripping inside of your shins.  

You should understand that sumo deadlifting requires a superior level of technique and usually takes several months (sometimes years) to master.  This is why a lot of people try sumo deadlifting, don’t’ see immediate results, then give up and say “sumo doesn’t work”.  

So, if you’re going to switch to sumo deadlifting, make sure that you commit for at least 3-6 months.  I encourage you to read my article on conventional vs sumo deadlift to dig deeper into the differences between these two styles.  

If it turns out that sumo deadlifting doesn’t work for you, the semi-sumo deadlift might be a better style, which is a hybrid between the conventional and sumo stance. 

2. Place Your Torso Slightly More Horizontal To The Floor

Your back angle might be more horizontal if you have short arms for deadlifts

In my article on the best deadlift back angle, I suggest that based on your limb lengths your back angle will be more or less horizontal to the floor.  

If you have short arms generally, regardless of any other proportions, your back angle will be more parallel to the ground in the start position.  This will look like your back being more ‘bent over’ compared with being straight up and down.  

It’s still critical for you to get into a start position where your shoulder blades are directly over the barbell.  However, for someone with short arms, this will put you in a position that’s naturally more forward-leaning compared with someone with longer arms. 

Don’t fight this position.  It’s okay to have a more horizontal torso position. 

What this means, however, is that your spinal erectors need to be stronger to handle the loading demands off the floor.  You will naturally be more of a ‘back puller’ vs ‘leg puller’. Therefore, you’ll want to incorporate deadlift accessories that target your spinal erectors and mid-back.  

Are you struggling to get the barbell passed your knees? Check out my article on Deadlift Weakness Off The Floor.

3. Build Strong Hip Extensors

When your torso angle is more horizontal to the floor, there’s another consequence that happens.  

When you’re more forward-leaning in the start position, your hips are naturally going to be further away from the barbell.  In other words, if you draw a straight line from your hips to the barbell, this distance will be longer compared with if you had a more upright torso position.

What this means is that your hip extensor muscles will need to work a lot harder in the lockout.  This is because your hips will need to travel a greater distance to ‘meet the barbell’ to finish the lift.  

Hip extension is a primary function of the glutes, in addition to other smaller muscle groups like the adductor magnus (an inner thigh muscle).  

As a result, if you have shorter arms, once the barbell travels across the knees, you need stronger glutes in order to finish the lift.  

This is why I like programming rack deadlifts or banded deadlifts for my lifters who have short arms. These two exercises will challenge your hip extensors to a greater extent.   

4. Accept You’ll Have A Slightly Rounded Upper Back

deadlifting with short arms may cause slightly round upper back

World-renowned powerlifting coach, Steve Denovi, wrote an excellent article on the “Round Back Deadlift”.  

He argued that while maintaining a neutral spine during the deadlift should be the ultimate goal, there are some types of lifters who will actually benefit from having a slightly rounded upper back.  

One of the conclusions was that if a lifter has short arms then upper back rounding may not be avoidable.  

Denovi makes a few key points though when accepting a round-back from his lifters: 

First, the rounding must come from the upper back, not the lower or mid-back.  There is a low risk of injury when rounding happens at the upper back, but a higher risk if it happens further down the chain. 

Second, the rounding must be consistent at both lower and heavier weights.  In other words, if the lifter’s upper back only rounds under heavier weight, then this might just be a sign that they have a weak upper back.  However, if they round under both lighter and heavier weights, then this is likely a more natural position for the lifter to be in every time.  

One key thing to note is that rounding from the upper back will likely allow you to assume a more upright torso position.  So what you want to avoid is having both a bent-over toro position AND a rounded upper back. If you are going to round your upper back, you must try to have a more vertical torso position.

Final Thoughts

Whether you have short arms or not, you want to make sure that you follow basic fundamental deadlifting technique: (1) starting with the bar over the mid-foot, (2) keeping your shoulder blades in line with the barbell in the start position, and (3) keeping the barbell on your shins and as close to your body as possible.

If you have short arms, recognize that you’re going to be at a disadvantage, but that doesn’t mean you are helpless. Whether you switch your deadlifting style to sumo, place your torso more horizontal to the floor, work on developing your hip extensors, or accept a slightly rounded upper back position, you can still get stronger in the deadlift.

Just remember, shorter arms in the deadlift means you will have a greater advantage in the bench press. On the other hand, those who have longer arms in the deadlift will have a greater disadvantage in the bench press. You can’t win them all!