Bio – Density Ratio of Tall – For – Weightlifting – Weightlifters: Part I

Andrew Charniga

.“..the main features of the lifter’s physique are relatively short stature, thick bones and large muscles (N.I. Kurachenkov, 1956)”.

“..the ectomorphic body type (relatively tall and frail) is not very common amongst weightlifters.” (Pilipovsky, A.Z., 1975)


Figure 1.  A relatively tall and ‘frail’ ectomorphic Hoza Bohdan UKR (195 cm/109 kg) set junior world records (snatch 195 kg) at the 2022 IWF Junior world championships. Charniga photo

It has been said Samson was the last super-heavyweight to make a successful comeback (Sports Illustrated 10/1980). The likes of super champions John Davis, Vasily Alexeyev and Olympic champion Sultan Rakhmanov all failed to return to competition form after injury; despite being able to gain an unlimited amount of muscle mass.The ability to come back from injury, or otherwise an extended period away from the sport and return to top form for weightlifters of the largest body mass; is not a easy proposition. Even Samson had to rely on divine intervention.

The relationship between body mass and strength, a static quality, has a proven linear relationship (Vorobeyev, 1977). In the past, the strongest weightlifters in the world were the strongest; strength, a static quality; set the stage for athletes with bigger, stronger muscles who would win most of the championships.

However, weightlifting has evolved from a static to a speed strength to a speed sport. (Stepanov, Tomilov, 1985). Gleaning who is the strongest by measuring levels of static strength is no longer applicable. So, one can say, with reasonable certainty, the old rules don’t apply.

There have been periodic reviews of height/bodyweight and distribution of weightlifters by weight class; dating back to pre – Soviet times. However, weightlifting sport has evolved; speed of movement, qualities combining suppleness with speed of muscle relaxation have displaced absolute strength. Historically, improvement of weightlifting results  has been connected with increases in strength with rising relative proportion of muscle mass; which in turn, is accompanied by increases in overall body mass. A significant increase in bio – density {a height/weight to specific gravity concept} ultimately compelled weightlifters’ switching to heavier weight classes.

However, a re- evaluation of the bodyweight/height relationship to contractile, visco- elastic and rigid (bone) tissues and relative fat mass, i.e., bio – density; is needed in the modern era of the speed sport of weightlifting.

In the not so distance past a tall champion weightlifter was something of an anomaly.

That being said, an appreciable influx of, for weightlifting, tall athletes; who are showing good results; is a not so subtle hint, a tall, lean weightlifter, even of the ectomorphic body type, is not anomalous.

Nonetheless, the literature does not support such a supposition. For instance, a relatively recent study (Ford, et al, 2000) asserted there are height limitations of weightlifting champions because of:  a “constant fraction of of body mass devoted to muscle in lighter lifters and a lesser fraction in heavier lifters”; “these relationships suggest an abrupt increase in the fraction of non-contractile tissue contributing to body mass in heavier champions”, “(Ford, et al, 2000).

“The majority of  authors agree that the average weightlifter is not tall, his bodyweight is above average and the circumference of the rib cage is large”.(Tumanyan, Martirosov, 1976)

The study cited (Ford, et al, 2000), echos those data of the past (Tumanyan, Martirosov, 1976) which show the lighter lifters have the highest relative composition of bone and muscle mass; whereas the heavyweights the least. In its turn, this means the increases of body mass in the heavyweights is disproportionate fat mass; decreasing the specific gravity of the heavier lifters’ bodies. For instance according to Yenilinoi, Utkin, 1967, the body composition lightest lifters (56 kg) had the following relative compositions: 9.94% fat, 47.88% muscle and 18.07% bone mass. The corresponding figures for the heavyweights were 22.22% fat, 44.49% muscle and 14.33% bone (cited by Tumanyan, 1976) .

A kilogram is a kilogram irregardless; a kilo of fat weighs the same as a kilo of muscle or bone. The difference is the density: the density of fat is 0.9g/ml whereas the density of muscle is 1.1g/ml McArdle, et al. Furthermore, bone is likewise more dense than fat and usually comprises approximately 14% of body mass.

The specific gravity of the weightlifter’s body is affected by the increase in subcutaneous fat with the rise in weight class. Furthermore, the lower level lifter has disproportionately more subcutaneous fat than the high level athlete, i.e., less useful body mass for lifting (Utkin, 1965, Yelina, 1967; cited by Tumanyan, Marirosov, 1976).   

Therefore, the lighter the weightlifter, the higher his/her level, has the advantage of greater density of useful bio-materials, i.e., contractile and rigid tissues. However, something is missing in most, if not all of this dated data. The data happens to reaffirm the basic premise of virtually all research of this type: the weightlifters with the most muscle mass, i.e., the strongest muscles, lift the bigger weights; relative to body mass. 

What is missing in these simplified muscle mass, fat mass, bone mass arguments for limitations of height/weight, for want of a better term is a more comprehensive definition of ‘bio – density’.

It is known the human body is full of springs, i.e., Bio – springs, otherwise known as tendons, ligaments and fascia. Bio – springs are visco – elastic tissues which enable athletes to produce power exceeding anything possible from mind – to – muscle – contraction. Consequently, any analysis of maximum strength potential of weightlifters is incomplete which does not take into account the capacity to develop energy faster and likewise above beyond the energy produced from muscle contraction. Without taking the ‘supra energy’ potential of Bio – springs into account when defining limits of the strength of weightlifters; the below quoted limitations are questionable at best:

“those with thicker muscles will lift more weight” and “there is an absolute upper limit to lateral muscle growth at a height of about 183 cm in men and 175 cm in women”(Ford, et al, 2000).

The literature is replete with assumptions “thicker muscles and an upper limit of lateral muscle growth of 183 cm in men and 175 cm in women; would more than preclude a ‘frail’ ectomorphic champion weightlifter’; especially one who is 195 cm tall at a bodyweight of 109 kg (see figure 1).  The thicker muscles argument asserts “rising stature imposes limits of strength” because “upper limits to lateral muscle growth” after, for instance, a height of 183 cm for men and 175 cm for women (Ford, et al, 2000).

Figure 2. Members of the USSR 1968 Olympic weightlifting team which competed in Tokyo. Note the near uniform heights from left to right Kurentsov 75 kg gold (164 cm); Selitsky 82.5 kg gold (164 cm) and Belayev  82.5 kg silver {167 cm} with Talts  90 kg silver (174 cm) second from left contrasted with Zhabotinsky +90 kg gold (193 cm) 2nd from right. Note 1964 Olympic champion at 75 kg Zdrazila (CZE) was 171.3 cm.

So, according to the thinking passed down from the era of absolute strength (when the press was part of the weightlifting triathlon) and reinforced over the intervening years; the supposed limitations imposed by an insufficient proportion of contractile muscle mass would appear to put the brakes on any likelihood an influx of tall weightlifters would descend onto the international scene.

Tall athletes would seem to have too may obstacles to overcome to succeed at the international level.

Typically, the increase in useful muscle mass comes at price for the shorter, taller, heavier lifters alike. Strength exercises such as presses and squats increase superfluous, non – contractile fat mass along with muscle.

For instance, measurements of weightlifters following the elimination of the press with the concomitant reduction of the volume of strength exercises and the rise in the training volume of speed – strength work; resulted in a reduction of relative fat mass of 1 – 3% for athletes in all weight classes; with the heavyweights and those who were good at the press (but, also had poor results in the snatch and the clean and jerk), having the largest relative reduction of fat mass (Pilipovsky, 1975). The circumstance adding muscle can add fat; is likewise  confirmed in practice by the bodybuilder’s well known bulk up cycle to increase muscle mass followed by a trimming cycle to reduce fat and bring out muscle definition.  

Usually with the switch to a heavier weight class a weightlifter endeavors to add more muscle mass to fill out the limits of the category. In the process, the lifter adds unnecessary, low density, non – contractile fat; a negative for mechanical efficiency. That is one reason taller heavier lifters show a diminishing return in results with weight gain; especially the female weightlifter. Furthermore, the distribution of the weightlifter’s fat mass is non – uniform; with the largest fat deposits on the back and stomach (Tumanyan, Martirosov, 1976).

“..a man’s strength potential, in the classic sense, with respect to the Vebera principle (1846), essentially depends on his bodyweight.” Tumanyan, 1976.

Further complicating a case for tall – for – weightlifting athletes is the fact they expend more energy performing weightlifting exercises and need more training work to get equivalent results (Saxonov, 1970). For instance, Tumanyan (1976) cited N.N. Saxonov’s concept of a “specific energy cost”, i.e., the energy required to perform work in kg-sec/m. According to Saxonov’s method, the energy expenditure of the heavyweights exceeds that of the lightest lifters by 38%; which in turn is reflected in relative work capacity and weightlifting results.

Figure 3: The height of the bar is approximately 10.8% of the 195 cm weightlifting champion’s height from the platform. Consequently, the lifter  pictured has to lift it approximately 3 – 3.4% further, relative to his height, than a lifter of 150 cm. Charniga photo. 

Saxonov’s energy cost factor applies to the weightlifter’s qualification (level of expertise) as well. Lower qualified lifters expend more energy in exercises than highly qualified athletes. Complex speed – strength exercises require more energy as well. Calculations of energy expenditure according to Saxonov (1970) showed a weightlifter of 165 cm in height required 3.5 times more energy to perform a snatch  than a bench press. 

Furthermore, the dimensions of the competition barbell are fixed. Weightlifters have to raise a barbell to outstretched arms overhead with the bottom of the bar in the palms of the hands, i.e., the lowest point. That means the tall athlete has to raise the barbell from its standardized starting height from the floor a distance of up to 4% of his/her height further than the shorter lifters, i.e., in the process performing more work against gravity.

So, all in all, tall lifters have to work harder to rise the barbell a disproportionately greater distance to lift it; have typically a greater composition of body-fat which means they have to move more non – contractile, unproductive body mass, i.e., specific gravity decreases with rising Bio-density (height in centimeters/bodyweight in grams).

Other negatives connected with increasing height and bodyweight is the theoretical limit to lateral muscle growth after a conjectured height of 183 cm for men and 175 cm for women. If that is true, which in all probability it is not; even those figures represent a measure of progress. For instance, press era data concluded the height of the qualified lifter should not exceed the following limits (Tumanyan, Medvedyev, 1967) table 1; whereas the recommendations of Vorobeyev 1988 show the clear tendency for taller weightlifters: 

Table 1. Comparative recommendations for maximum optimum height to body weight class from 1967 (Medvedyev) and 1988  (Vorobeyev).

class 56 60 67.5 75 82.5 90 100 110 +110
150 156 161 165 169 174 1967 154.7 156.9 161.6 167.4 171.2 175.7 176.2 177.5 183.9 1988

However, even the Vorobeyev data gets stuck at 183.9 cm as the maximum optimum height (table 1). 

Another model (table 2) of optimum height to weight (of Chernyak 1978; cited by Oleshko 1982) shows a clear cut recession character in the calculated optimum height of weightlifters for each weight class. The numbers indicate the maximum height of a class I lifter in the 110 kg class, for instance, is 183 cm; whereas, the same maximum optimum height is only 177 cm for the same weight class of the world record holder (table 2). The ‘science’ of the mathematics implies a weightlifter needs a specific Bio – density, i.e., grams of muscle mass per centimeter of height to be able to raise world records in each of the weight classes (table 2). 

Furthermore, the model data presented in table 2 appears to imply the too – tall – for -each -weight – class – lifter either ceases to make progress after reaching a lower class rating; stops lifting altogether, and/or is simply too tall to set records. Hence, ‘math discovers science’.  The math, underpinning the science of ‘discovering’ a weightlifter is too tall to set world records is based on the assumption a minimum specific density of muscle mass to centimeters of height is needed to produce the energy to raise world record barbells (see table 2); which is logical, in that fat and bone are not contractile tissues.         

Table 2. Model of minimum/maximum height (in cm) indices of weightlifters according to Chernyak (cited by Oleshko, 1982); Classification rating (class I); WR – world record holders.

Class 56 60 67.5 75 82.5 90 110 +110 classif
Min 155 160 165 170 175 177 178 I
Max 160 165 170 175 180 183 183 I
Min 148 154 159 163 167 171 176 WR
Max 149 155 160 164 168 172 177 WR

‘Math discovers science’

“..athletes whose height conformed to their weight category or were 2 – 4 cm shorter attained the highest results. The results were lower if the athlete is taller than the norm. The taller the athlete the lower the results in a given weight category.” Kudyukov, I.,S., 1981

The data in  table 2 (reiterated in the above quotation) is an example of ‘math discovering science’. The calculated height to weight class model represent optimum height to weight class for the weightlifter’s classification. This model contrasts the class I lifter’s optimum height to bodyweight range with that of world record holders (masters of sport international class, under the old USSR system). These data are very close to that of Vorobeyev’s recommendations in table 1.

However, does this math actually ‘discover the science’, i.e, confirm the underlying assumption a weightlifter needs a specific Bio-density  i.e., muscle mass in relation to height to reach good results; especially record results?

The underpinning of the assumption a specific percentage of muscle mass, in effect, a specific gravity, is first and foremost the most important factor of the weightlifter’s strength. It is the underlying belief of the optimum height to weight models; the math. For instance, it would be hard to explain how a teenager of 195 cm in height could set world records see figure 1; at 109 kg no less, when the  the optimum height for the  110 kg class is calculated to be 177 cm, i.e., 10% shorter. The 195 cm athlete has a lower bio – density, i.e., contractile tissue to centimeters of height than the model of 177 cm in height at 110 kg bodyweight. So, how does someone this tall have enough muscle mass to accomplish the task of setting world records; all the while doing disproportionately more work against gravity?

“A negative correlation is observed: within a given weight class, the higher the sportsman’s qualification the shorter his height.” Oleshko, V. 1982 Managing the Training of Weightlifters

The mathematics of Ford, et al, 2000, Soviet and others of a similar vein of height – to –  weight – to – weightlifting results model correlations, i.e,  a ‘math discovers science’; indicate the tallest guys should finish last. However,  this math does not discover such a science; since the sport has left behind the era of absolute strength; the optimum height to weight range of a weightlifter is an ongoing evolution. 

‘Math discovers science’ models such as the Soviet ones cited and Ford, (2000), preclude foresight of changes in weightlifting sport; of which, there have been many over the years. Consequently,  the shorter, thickset lifters will, at the very least, not dominate the sport as in the era, now long gone, of absolute strength; when most tall guys finished last.

“It has been established that shorter athletes are at an advantage. The relative strength decreases (strength per kilo of body mass) as body mass increases.”, Geselyevitch, 1981

Despite the mathematical calculations of past research, one of the alterations in the current era of weightlifting is a definite trend for the emergence of taller weightlifting champions; especially by comparison with the era of absolute strength:

“… in our research, the high class lifters were slightly taller, on average, than 10 – 15 years ago. For instance, a comparison of our data with that of A.N. Vorobeyev’s (1977) data on 20 – 22 year –olds, showed the athletes in the following weight classes were taller: 52 kg by 2.8 cm; 56 by 3.14; 60 kg by 4.5 cm; 67.5 by 6.17 cm; 75 kg by 6.8 cm; 82.5 by 7.94 cm; 90 kg by 6.4 cm; and over 90 kg by 0.1 cm.” L.S. Dvorkin, 1992

Figure 4. Tall – for – weightlifting athletes such as Hoza Bohdan (UKR) depicted above; typically have long shins; with the largest proportion of muscle mass in the proximal part of the shank; which is affirmed by morphological data. Charniga photo.  

The problem with a ‘math discovers science’ approach; such as the research which essentially stipulates height limits of male and female weightlifters; is the math ‘discovers’ the underlying bias weightlifting strength is a matter of muscle size and a function of muscle contraction:

These findings suggest a nearly constant fraction of body mass devoted to muscle in lighter lifters and a lesser fraction in heavier lifters. Analysis also suggests that contractile tissue comprises ∼30% less body mass in female champions.” Ford, et al, 2000

That is to say, the underlying logic, revolves around the assumption relative muscle mass and energy released from muscle contraction define weightlifting strength. However, there are too numerous to cite examples of other factors involved in supra – release of energy in sport and nature which permit living things to exceed the boundaries of muscle mass/muscle – contraction limitations.

For instance, Biewener, A.A.,  Animal Locomotion, cited a jumping frog as an example of supra – release of energy beyond the possibilities of muscle contraction. The animal is unable to achieve the height and the distance of its jumps irregardless if all the jumping muscles were to contract efficiently at maximum power. However, the animal tenses hind leg muscles in a full flexion stance for some moments before releasing to jump. The preliminary isometric muscle tension creates strain energy in the tendons which is released as the animal takes off. Consequently,  Biewener concludes:

the exceedingly high power outputs that these jumps represent are well beyond the capacity of the animal’s muscles, even if all the jumping muscles contracted optimally to maximize their power output.” Biewener, 2007.

The same mechanisms to release supra – energy are present in all living things; especially in athletes. Therefore, mathematical models based on assumptions of muscle mass density and  height limitations due to less “lateral muscle growth” fail to account for the entirety of a weightlifter’s potential to generate the muscle – tendon ‘supra – energy’ to raise maximum weights.

Calculations of maximum height to weight fail to take into account other factors, such as  the Bio-density of a weightlifter’s body full of springs:

“Body-weight-limited weightlifting requires that as much body weight as possible be devoted to the relevant muscles and that all other tissue be minimized”. Ford et al, 2000.

Statements such as the one above which states a weightlifter should minimize all other tissue to raise the proportion of “relevant” muscle mass either counts tendons, ligaments and fascia as muscle tissue; which they are not; or discounts them altogether. Consequently, models of height limitations constrained by decreasing composition of muscle mass fail to account for the supra – energy potential of bio-springs (tendons, ligaments and fascia).

The Weightlifter’s Morphology

Morphological comparison of the circumference of the shank between weightlifters and basketball players showed that weightlifters with long shins had a higher concentration of muscle mass in the upper third of the shank 42%; 38% in the middle 1/3 and 19.20% in the lower 1/3 (Nikitin, A.F., Gladysheva,A.A., 1975). Such a relative distribution of muscle mass has been observed by Lescraft, 1896; Alexander, 1971 in animals able to run fast; as well as in world class sprinters.

The fraction of bone mass has been found to increase with increasing size. For instance, in one study the percentage of body mass as bone increased “from about 5.5% between the heights of 150 cm and 200 cm for both men and women”, Heymsfield, et all (2109). Furthermore, increasing height is accompanied by disproportionate increase in length of lower extremities; which in an of itself would seem to be a negative for a tall weightlifter: 

the lengths of bones such as the femur, tibia, and fibula might be a larger fraction of height in people who are tall versus those who are short.” Heymsfield et al, 2019

So, with increasing height and bodyweight, the weightlifter typically experiences disproportionate increases in bone and fat mass to contractile tissues; even the distribution of muscle mass of lower extremities can be affected. Fat and bone contribute to body mass, but neither are contractile tissue.

Consequently, with so many roadblocks obstructing a prospective tall weightlifter: more work against gravity; greater expenditure of energy in performing exercises; larger portions of bone and fat with height; longer thigh and shank bones; varying distribution of muscle mass; mathematical induced bias, i.e., theoretical limits with increasing height on cross sectional area of muscles;  how is it possible for tall people to succeed at weightlifting?


/ Astrand, P- A., RoDAhl, K., Dahl, D., Stromme, S., TEXTBOOK OF Work Physiology, 2003; Human Kinetics

/ Ford, L.E., Detterline, A. J., Ho, K.K., CAO W., “Gender- and height-related limits of muscle strength in world weightlifting champions”, PMID: 10956351, DOI:10.1152/jappl.2000.89.3.1061

/ Tumanyan, G.S., Martirosov, A.G.,  Body Structure and Sport  FiS, Moscow, 1976 Pp180 – 196. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Nikitin, A.F., Gladysheva, A.A., “Stereo – Photometric Research of the Muscle Topography of the Sportsman’s Ankle”, The First All –Soviet Scientific Conference on Sport Morphology, PP114 – 116 Moscow, 1975. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Saxonov, N.N., “Energy expenditure of classified weightlifters”, Tribuna Masterov, 79 – 90; FIS, Moscow, 1969. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Chernyak, A.V., Povetkin, Y.S., Marshaniv, S.S., Popov, G.I.,”Technical preparedness of the 1980 Olympic champions”, Tiiazhelaya Atletika Yezhegodnik, FIS, Moscow, 1980. English translation Andrew Charniga

/ Kudyukov, I.,S., “Dynamics of some components of sport mastery” Tiazhelaya Atletika, Yezhgodnik, 1981. English translation Sportivnypress Livonia, Michigan. Andrew Charniga.

/ Pilipovsky, A.Z., “Somato – metric and Somato – typological Characteristics of the High Class Weightlifter”,The First All –Soviet Scientific Conference on Sport Morphology   Moscow, 1975. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Dzedzitz, A., “Something about Baszanowski, Ozimek and Smalcerz”, From: V Druzhba – Cila (Strength in Friendship), FIS, Moscow, 1978 I.S. Kudyukov, editor; The Path to Records. Translated by Andrew Charniga.

/Steven B. Heymsfield,1 Phoenix Hwaung,1 Fernando Ferreyro-Bravo,2 Moonseong Heo,3 Diana M. Thomas,4 and John M. Schuna, Jr., “Scaling of Adult Human Bone and Skeletal Muscle Mass to Height in the United States Population”, Am J Hum Biol. 2019 Jul; 31(4): e23252.  Published online 2019 May 14. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.23252 PMCID: PMC6634976 NIHMSID: NIHMS1028784

/ Bobbert, M., Huijing, P., Van Ingen Schenau, G., “A model of the human triceps surae muscle- tendon complex applied to jumping; ” J. Biomechanics vol. 19: 11: 887-898:1986

/ Salnikov, V. A., Kimeisha, B.V., Nikitin A.M.,”The time Dynamics of Weightlifters’ Results with Respect to the Psycho – motor Peculiarities of Personality”,  Teoriia I Praktika Fizicheskoi Kultury  7:14 – 17:1982

/ Geselyevitch, V.A., Medical Reference Book for the Coach, FiS, Moscow, 1981. Translated by Andrew Charniga