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Is Morbid Obesity a Hindrance to Strength Training Performance?

Updated on November 1, 2019
Lorra Garrick profile image

Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.

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What is morbid obesity?

It’s when a person is at least 100 pounds over his or her ideal weight range or has a body mass index of at least 40.

I’ve been working out at many gyms for years, and it’s really not uncommon to see a person who’s obese: overweight, but not more than a hundred pounds overweight.

It’s been a very rare occasion that I’ve seen someone who’s morbidly obese, or, to put it another way, a woman of average height who appears to be over 250 pounds, or a man of average height who appears to be around 300 pounds. Even the biggest bodybuilders aren’t 300 pounds.

I can understand why a very overweight individual wouldn’t be attempting to jog around the gym’s track or participate in group fitness classes.

But strength training can be done from a seated or standing position.

Weightlifting Equipment and Very Large Bodies

If you’re big enough, it won’t be comfortable sitting on the relatively small seats of most weightlifting equipment.

In fact, even average-size people find some of the seats uncomfortable.

But who says that your strength training needs to be limited to the sit-down machines?

The ideal strength training mode for the morbidly obese man or woman is free weights.

  • Barbells
  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Heavy balls

Another very doable mode of strength training for the very plus-sized person is cable machines that you can use when standing.

You cannot be too big to lift weights.

Even Playing Field

A very obese person is on an even playing field with thinner people for many strength training moves.

I’d certainly never instruct a morbidly obese client to attempt walking lunges while holding dumbbells.

But this client can certainly do a standing overhead press with a barbell.

Standing Overhead Prress. Not shown: Version in which the barbell is pre-racked at shoulder height.
Standing Overhead Prress. Not shown: Version in which the barbell is pre-racked at shoulder height. | Source

Fear of Ridicule at the Gym

If you can get past the delusion that at a gym, you’ll be ridiculed, you will have many options for strength training.

Just where did this delusion come from? Why would “very fat” individuals be judged or criticized for doing something that everyone thinks they should be doing? This absolutely makes no sense.

Nobody’s going to walk up to you in a health club and say, “You don’t belong here.” You DO belong there. Everyone does, because every body should strength train.

Fear of Not Fitting into the Equipment

For some morbidly obese people, the issue is the belief that they’re too big to work out with weights. Indeed, there’s equipment you won’t be able to fit on well due to the seat size.

But remember, many thin people will avoid certain kinds of equipment due to discomfort. The issue with equipment comfort is not exclusive to morbidly overweight people.

The horizontal leg press apparatus will accommodate women well over 300 pounds, even 350. The horizontal design allows an easy entry and exit, and the seat is wide enough for a tolerable and even comfortable fit for a very large woman – or man.

Same with the leg extension and seated leg curl machines; the seats of most models are generous.

Note the Generous Seat Size
Note the Generous Seat Size
Leg Press Equipment
Leg Press Equipment
Chest Press Equipment
Chest Press Equipment | Source

Hammerstrength equipment also has generous seats. You’d have to be REALLY HUGE not to be able to fit into the Hammerstrength brand equipment, for which you load with weight plates, instead of the equipment being pulley-operated with weight stacks.

Fear of Not Being Able to Use Free Weights

There are very effective free weight exercises that can be done while standing in one spot or sitting on a bench.

Though a weightlifting bench may appear too narrow for a 350 pound person to sit on, these benches are actually more accommodating than they look – because there are no confining spaces; the space around them is open.

Strength Training Exercises that a Morbidly Obese Person Can Perform

Rack pull. This is a partial deadlift, in which the barbell is not on the floor at the start, but instead, resting between shin and above-knee level (wherever you can manage), supported by bars in the “squat cage” equipment.

Even a 500 pound person can do a rack pull. If you can walk to the squat cage, and if your hands and fingers work, then you can do a rack pull.

Deadlift. A younger morbidly obese person, whose joints have not yet been severely impacted by body weight, might want to try the deadlift – starting out with a very light barbell. The issue is that a very light barbell is closer to the floor, due to the smaller diameter of the weight plates.

Deadlift (pick barbell up from the floor and straighten.)
Deadlift (pick barbell up from the floor and straighten.) | Source

However, your gym may provide 10- and 25-pound weight plates that are the same diameter as the heaviest plates. Ask about this.

Flat bench press. This assumes that you can lie into position on the bench and remain in that position without difficulty.

Incline bench press. More mobility is required to straddle the seat as you get onto and out of it. This is a good exercise for more mobile or younger people.

Standing overhead press. The barbell is lifted off a platform (squat cage or squat rack) at shoulder height, and simply pressed overhead. A very morbidly obese person can do this.

Many other standing exercises. Ask a trainer to demonstrate various moves that are friendly to your size. These include dumbbell side and front raises, biceps curls with dumbbells, reverse curls with a barbell, and modified kettlebell swings.

Ball wall squat. Stand with your back against a fitness ball against a wall, feet out and wider than shoulder-width. Keeping back vertical, lower into a quarter squat or however far you can sink down, but do not let your thighs get past parallel to the floor. Then stand back up.

Cable equipment. Your gym may have the type of equipment for which you can do standing exercises such as shoulder presses and rows. The machine will have diagrams of different moves, and you can also have a trainer demonstrate some.

Heavy balls. These can be bounced on the floor or against a wall, raised overhead or raised straight outward. Some balls are not designed for bouncing, but work very well for raising overhead or holding while squatting or marching in place.

Overall, morbid obesity, including being over 400 pounds, is NOT a hindrance to a strength training regimen. Though there are certain kinds of equipment and some free-weight moves that would be very difficult for an exceptionally large person, there remain plenty of strength training movements that you can still do quite effectively.

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    • Lorra Garrick profile imageAUTHOR

      Lorri G 

      9 months ago

      Thanks, Lorna. Most overweight women underestimate what they can do with a stack of metal.

    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      9 months ago

      This is an interesting article. I think people who are obese are also very self conscious, so the idea of a public gym is more a self esteem issue. Perhaps going to the gym with a family member or friend would be a good place to start. There are certainly many great tips in your article.

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