Lifting with Da Vinci: Anthropometry and Art
By: Barbell Logic Team
It can be fun to learn to size up another person and see how their lifts will look compared to someone else’s. In fact, this is a critical skill for any coach who has to teach the models of each lift to many differently proportioned persons. It is important to recognize individual differences when performing the barbell lifts. This is, in part, why it is important to train your whole body, each lift, your strengths and your weaknesses. Because, regardless of how you are built, you can still get stronger on every lift and that makes everything else better too.
What Does da Vinci Have to do with Lifting?
Anyone who has studied art, anyone who has heard of Leonardo da Vinci, anyone who has seen Westworld on HBO (so pretty much everybody) has seen some version of the Vitruvian Man. The image is a man with arms and legs outstretched fitting inside a perfect circle and square. The name comes from the Roman author and architect, Vitruvius, who attempted to catalog and mathematically describe the ideal human proportions and use them as the basis for architectural proportions. According to Vitruvius, architecture should imitate nature.
Nearly 1500 years later, Leonardo da Vinci drew the image of the Vitruvian Man in a work titled Canon of Proportions or The Proportions of Man. Leonardo’s Vitruvian man attempted to bring natural and mathematical harmony into the human form. The connection between the square and the circle being two unrelatable objects—it is impossible to draw a circle and square with the same area—brought together by the human form has, perhaps, philosophical meaning to the place of humankind in the order of nature and the divine.
In the notes to the drawing, however, da Vinci gives what are known as the Classical Proportions for human anatomy that Vitruvius first set down:
Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man’s height. And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make a man; and these measures he used in his buildings. If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle. The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.
In addition to the height being equal to the outspread arms, the image gives the following proportions:
- The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height.
- From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height.
- The distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of the height.
- The distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height.
- The length of the hand is one-tenth of the height.
- The distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows and the hairline are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.
The study and measurement of human portions is called anthropometry, and it is a more widespread study than you might think. It is important in industries that value ergonomics, fashion, and human identification. The United States Army completed one of the largest, most comprehensive anthropometric surveys. Ergonomics, safety, and the effectiveness of our troops warranted a massive anthropometrical survey, the data being made available to designers of military vehicles, cockpits, protective gear, and other tools.
Anthropometry is also important for barbell training. This importance comes more from the classical perspective on proportions than ergonomics; how you look when you perform the lifts is essential to coaching and learning the correct movement according to a model.
The human form is eminently recognizable because almost everybody fits within a range of normally defined proportions. We don’t think about this much, but part of what makes abstract art effective is the distortion of what is familiar, like the human figure. Mastery of the Classical Proportions has allowed artists to distort the human figure in striking ways—or on the other side of the artistic spectrum this explains why children’s crude drawings of human figures seem “off.” Artists also play with the Vitruvian proportions as a basis of distinguishing different body types. In classical art, an average person would be drawn or sculpted as the average eight-heads tall. Heroic figures or deific figures might be eight and a half or nine heads tall, while smaller stature figures would be fewer than eight heads tall. For example, Michelangelo’s David is about 7 heads tall, emphasizing his diminutive stature. The recognizable range of human proportions carries with it a high degree of variability, but the Vitruvian proportions remain relevant. (Da Vinci’s proportions have even been used as a standard to help with body mapping and facial recognition software as the basis for defining the human form. )
This does not mean, however, that there is such a concept as the “ideal” human proportions. The human phenotype dictates certain functional aspects to the human form. But if studies of height and body proportions have shown anything, they have shown there is no combination of proportions to constitute an “average” or standard person—let alone an ideal one. Individual variations are too numerous.
Loaded Human Movement
This presents a dilemma for loaded human movement. How can we define a movement as “correct” or “incorrect” if everyone is built differently? You can see this dilemma for yourself. Watch BLOC Staff Coach Niki Sims squat, then watch BLOC Staff Coach Karl Schudt squat. Karl squats with a vertical torso, while Niki’s is nearly horizontal. Is one right and one wrong? Should we try to mimic their movements and, if so, who should we emulate?
The answer is both and neither. Karl and Niki are great lifters and we should try to be like them in that way. But how you look when you squat, bench, press, and deadlift will be different from how someone else looks.
It can be fun, however, to learn to size up another person and see how their lifts will look compared to someone else’s. In fact, this is a critical skill for any coach who has to teach the models of each lift to many differently proportioned persons.
Using the ⅛ head-to-body ratio as a starting point, the average person will be about eight heads tall. The averagely proportioned person’s elbow will be at about belly button height. A long upper arm would show an elbow lower than that position. This person might have trouble racking a power clean. And, if their arms extend down so that their fingertips are past their mid-thigh they are going to have a slightly shorter range of motion on the deadlift and a more vertical torso on that lift. They also are going to have a longer range of motion on the press and the bench press, making those lifts more difficult… sorry.
For an example of this, look up Lamar Gant, one of the greatest powerlifters of all time. (Or better yet, read about him here.)  The top of his deadlift shows a lockout position just above his kneecaps, due to a combination of long arms and scoliosis, giving him a relatively short range of motion. The amount of work needed to move a load from the ground to lockout is a function of the weight on the bar and the vertical distance traveled. Gant’s build gave him a short range of motion on the deadlift, contributing to his being the first person to deadlift five times his own bodyweight. His deadlift is amazing, but perhaps more amazing is that he also held a world record in the bench press!
For the squat, we usually look at the relative lengths of someone’s femur and torso. Long-torsoed, short-femured folks will squat with a more vertical back angle. This is because for the squat to be correct, the bar must travel vertically over the middle of the lifter’s foot. If the long-torsoed person leans over too much, the bar will travel forward of the midfoot, and he will be off-balance. Long-femured, short-torsoed people will have a much more horizontal back angle because they have to bend over much more to keep the bar traveling over the middle of their foot. If they stay too vertical they will have trouble hitting the proper depth as their hips have to close a lot in order to complete the range of motion.
While the study of human proportions is interesting, it is important to recognize individual differences when performing the barbell lifts. This is, in part, why it is important to train your whole body, each lift, your strengths and your weaknesses. Because, regardless of how you are built, you can still get stronger on every lift and that makes everything else better too. What do you think the Vitruvian Man’s best lift would have been? And, was da Vinci a true Renaissance man if he didn’t even squat?
 “Enabling human system integration by modeling the US Soldier,” (https://insight.livestories.com/s/v2/ansur-ii/4a7623f2-62a0-4727-a984-98d8be712911/)
Antonio S. Micilotta, Eng Jon Ong, Richard Bowden”Detection and Tracking of Humans by Probabilistic Body Part Assembly” (CVSSP, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK) (http://www.robots.ox.ac.uk/~phst/BMVC2005/papers/40/micilotta_et_al_BMVC2005.pdf)
 Marty Gallagher, “Lamar Gant & Joe Bradley: The Tiny Giants” (The Aasgaard Company 2012) (https://startingstrength.com/article/gant_bradley).