Wingspan Correlated With Athletic Prowess In NBA, MMA, Study Shows

by Samuel Abasi Posted on August 2nd, 2018

Berkeley, California, USA: For decades, boxing coaches and analysts have concerned themselves with “the tale of the tape,” using a competitor’s measurements — height, weight and reach — to determine their advantage in an upcoming bout. Now, new research out of UC Berkeley suggests that the relative length of an athlete’s arms to their height might be even more important than previously believed.

The study which was published  in the Journal of Anthropology of Sport and Physical Education, shows that body proportions, specifically the ratio of arm length to height, are significantly associated with elite athlete success in the NBA and mixed martial arts (MMA).

Reach, or the length of a fighter’s arm, has always been data of some importance among the fighting community because of the tactical advantage it lends. The term “wingspan” is now en vogue among NBA teams and scouts when considering prospects ahead of the NBA draft.

Led by Dr. Tesla Monson, a Berkeley postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Zurich, researchers looked at arm span and height in more than 10,000 individuals, including roughly 3,000 basketball players, 1,300 MMA fighters and 6,000 U.S. Army recruits. The study shows advantages of a wide wingspan relative to the height of athletes.

“This work is important,” says Monson, “because it is one of the first studies to look at body proportions in really tall individuals and use statistics within a scientific framework to investigate biological factors that contribute to elite athletic success in professional sports.”

By studying body proportions in the context of biology and anthropology, scientists were able to show that some of the most elite athletes — including the NBA’s LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and the UFC’s two-time champion Jon Jones — have relative arm spans that are significantly above average while still falling within the expected ranges for normal human variation.

But not all elite athletes have arm spans that are above average. Data shows that two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry has a relative arm span that is below average for athletes, as does current UFC Women’s Featherweight Champion Cris Cyborg.

“In many sports, greater height and arm span are purportedly linked to athletic success. While variation in body proportions has been explored across an array of scientifi c disciplines, studies focusing on humans of tall stature outside of clinical cases are limited.

We investigated body size proportions in a sample of elite athletes, employing data on recruits for the National Basketball Association (NBA, n=2,990), mixed martial arts (MMA) fi ghters (mixedsex, n=1,284), as well as a control sample of healthy young adults who are not professional athletes, represented here by male (n=4,082) and female (n=1,986) recruits for the United States Army, to test two hypotheses:

1) There is a significant difference in arm span to height ratios between elite professional athletes and the control population, and 2) There is a significant relationship between arm span to height ratio and athletic success within the NBA and MMA.

We find that NBA players are significantly taller, with absolutely and relatively wider arm spans than MMA fighters and the control population. Additionally, we find that basketball players are significantly more likely to be drafted in the NBA, and MMA fighters are significantly more likely to have a better loss to win ratio, if their arm span to height ratio falls above the regression line.

However, we note that arm span and height, as well as athletic success, are impacted by a myriad of factors, and some of the most successful professional athletes do not have particularly long arms relative to their height.” the researchers wrote.

Study Results

Basketball players scouted for the NBA have the longest arm span, the greatest height, and the largest arm span to height ratio of the four groups sampled for this study. On the other end of the spectrum, female Army recruits are shorter and have a shorter arm span and smaller arm span to height ratio than male recruits, MMA fighters (mixed-sex), and basketball players. Height and arm span are significantly different across all four groups.

Arm span to height ratio is also significantly different across groups. Male Army recruits have a larger average arm span to height ratio than MMA fighters, although arm span and height are both significantly higher in MMA fighters than Army recruits, male or female. Of the groups sampled, sex-specific data were available only for the Army recruits. Comparison using multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) finds that male Army recruits are significantly taller and have significantly wider arm span and larger arm span to height ratios than do female recruits.


Samuel Abasi

Samuel Abasi

Staff Writer

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