6 Strength-Training Variations for Plus-Sized Athletes

If you have a large chest, try setting up for overhead presses with the weight to the side, rather than the front, of your shoulder.
Image Credit: kali9/E+/GettyImages

A great strength training routine fits your body, no matter your size, shape or how you move.

After all, no two bodies work in the exact same way. And one of the best moves you can make in strength training is working ​with​, not against, your body, says Lore McSpadden-Walker, CPT, a certified inclusive fitness trainer and co-founder of Positive Force Movement.

Here, they share six tips to make some of the best, most common strength moves (think: squats, deadlifts, push-ups, rows, shoulder presses and planks) fit your individual body. Test what works for you and pay attention to how you feel before, during and after each exercise. Keep coming back to the ones that work for you and tweak any that don't.

1. Take a Wide Stance During Squats

If you have a narrow or hip-width stance with squats, it can be easy to feel bunched up at the bottom of each rep. But stepping your feet out wider means your thighs and stomach won't need to be in the same place at the same time, McFadden-Walker says.

The result: safer form, a fuller range of motion and bigger gains.

In the below video, they show how to do a squat with your feet just greater than shoulder-width apart, but you can also step out even farther with a sumo squat.

Wide-Stance Squat

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Activity Kettlebell Workout
Body Part [ "Legs", "Butt" ]
  1. Stand with your feet just greater than shoulder-width apart and your toes turned out slightly. Brace your core. (Optional: Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell against your chest.)
  2. Push your hips back and bend your knees to lower straight down into a squat.
  3. Pause, then drive through your feet to stand up as tall as possible.

Tip

If you’re new to squats, try them in front of a chair or couch. Tap your hips to its surface with each rep.

2. Swap Out Your Conventional Deadlifts for Sumos

It's strange that conventional deadlifts are called "conventional," because, in reality, they aren't the best fit for the majority of lifters. If you're tall, have long legs, a large stomach or big breasts, getting into position at the bottom of a deadlift can be a challenge, if not impossible.

Fortunately, just like with a squat, placing your feet farther apart for your deadlift set-up can let your hip hinge happen more naturally, McSpadden-Walker says. Sumo squats eliminate some lean in your torso and don't require a scrunched knees-to-chest position at the bottom of each rep.

Sumo Deadlift

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Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part [ "Legs", "Butt", "Abs", "Back", "Shoulders" ]
  1. Stand tall with your feet about double shoulder-width apart and your toes turned out. Position a loaded barbell on the floor with the bar in line with the middle of your feet.
  2. Keeping your back flat and core braced, push your hips back and allow a slight bend in your knees to grab the barbell with an overhand grip and your hands roughly hip width apart.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back, then drive through your feet to stand up as tall as possible.
  4. Squeeze your glutes at the top. While keeping a flat back, push your hips back to lower the weight to the starting position.

Tip

Use rubber weight plates at both ends of the barbell. That way, when you rest the weight to the floor, the bar comes halfway up your shins.

3. Try Floating Tabletops in Place of Push-Ups

The push-up is a difficult exercise for so many reasons. For athletes living with obesity, one concern is the ability to comfortably and safely press their body weight.

To sub in a more accessible move that works the same muscles and a similar movement pattern, try the floating tabletop.

"You're still lifting your body weight, but there's less risk of losing torso stability or hurting your shoulders," as compared with push-ups, McSpadden-Walker says.

Floating Tabletop

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part [ "Arms", "Chest", "Shoulders", "Abs" ]
  1. Start on all fours with your shoulders over your wrists and knees under your hips. Hook your toes into the floor and brace your core.
  2. Keeping your back flat, press through your hands and raise your knees off the floor.
  3. Take a full, deep breath at the top, then lower your knees.

Tip

To keep your back happy and core working, don't let your lower back dip or arch.

4. If You Have Trouble With Rows or Pull-Ups, Try Y-T-W-Ls

Row variations and pull-ups are great back strengtheners, but they aren't accessible to everyone. For example, if you have a heavy chest, doing bent-over rows can sometimes exacerbate lower back pain. And the greater your body weight, the stronger your back and shoulder joints have to be to do a pull-up.

If that sounds familiar, the Y-T-W-L is a great substitution for working your back, McSpadden-Walker says. And even if you rock pull-ups on the regular, it's still an awesome move to add to your back workouts.

Y-T-W-L

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part [ "Back", "Shoulders" ]
  1. Get into a standing hinge position with your hips back and back flat at a roughly 45 degree angle.
  2. Start with your arms straight down in front of you, shoulders away from your ears.
  3. Lift your arms up to a Y position, pause, then lower them back down.
  4. Lift your arms out to the sides to a T position, pulling your shoulder blades together, pause, then lower them back down.
  5. Bend your elbows and lift your arms to form a W position, pulling your shoulder blades together and down your back.Pause, then straighten your arms back down in front of you.
  6. Finally, pull your elbows to your sides and, keeping your elbows at your torso, move your forearms to the sides to form Ls. Rotate your shoulders outward and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  7. Straighten and lower your arms to return to the starting position.

Tip

You can also do this series while sitting on a bench or in a chair.

5. When Setting Up Overhead Presses, Hold the Weights to Your Sides

Most overhead press exercises start in the rack position, which usually means holding the weight right up against the front of your shoulder, McSpadden-Walker says.

But if you have large upper arms or a lot of mass around your chest, using a wider rack position can help keep things more comfortable, they say. It also lets you keep your forearms vertical throughout the move, which protects your elbows.

So when you've got kettlebells, dumbbells or even a barbell at your shoulders, try positioning your hands against the sides, rather than the fronts, of your shoulders.

Single-Arm Overhead Press

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Activity Kettlebell Workout
Body Part [ "Shoulders", "Arms", "Abs" ]
  1. Stand tall holding the weight at your shoulders in the racked position with your hand to the side of your shoulder and your forearm vertical.
  2. Keeping your shoulder packed down, press the weight straight over head until your arm is by your ear.
  3. Pause, then lower the weight back to the original racked position and repeat.

Tip

This single-arm overhead press requires a lot of core stability. If you can't help but lean during the move, try using a lighter weight or spreading your feet farther apart.

6. Instead of Planks and Crunches, Do Dead Bugs

The dead bug is one of the best core exercises for working your transverse abdominis, your deepest ab muscle, and improving core stability.

It also happens to be ideal for anyone who has trouble supporting their body weight in a plank or scrunching up during crunches and sit-ups.

Dead Bug

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part Abs
  1. Lie on your back, arms extended overhead, and knees bent with knees over hips and shins parallel to the floor.
  2. On an inhale, extend and lower one arm and opposite leg toward the floor.
  3. Exhale as you bring both back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat on the other side and continue alternating with each rep.

Tip

Keep your lower back pressed into the floor the entire time. If it starts to raise, take a break.

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