To develop a scheme for partitioning the products of photosynthesis toward different biomass components in land-surface models, a database on component mass and net primary productivity (NPP), collected from FLUXNET sites, was examined to determine allometric patterns of allocation. We found that NPP per individual of foliage (Gfol), stem and branches (Gstem), coarse roots (Gcroot) and fine roots (Gfroot) in individual trees is largely explained (r2 = 67–91%) by the magnitude of total NPP per individual (G). Gfol scales with G isometrically, meaning it is a fixed fraction of G (∼25%). Root–shoot trade-offs were manifest as a slow decline in Gfroot, as a fraction of G, from 50% to 25% as stands increased in biomass, with Gstem and Gcroot increasing as a consequence. These results indicate that a functional trade-off between aboveground and belowground allocation is essentially captured by variations in G, which itself is largely governed by stand biomass and only secondarily by site-specific resource availability. We argue that forests are characterized by strong competition for light, observed as a race for individual trees to ascend by increasing partitioning toward wood, rather than by growing more leaves, and that this competition strongly constrains the allocational plasticity that trees may be capable of. The residual variation in partitioning was not related to climatic or edaphic factors, nor did plots with nutrient or water additions show a pattern of partitioning distinct from that predicted by G alone. These findings leverage short-term process studies of the terrestrial carbon cycle to improve decade-scale predictions of biomass accumulation in forests. An algorithm for calculating partitioning in land-surface models is presented.