Wednesday 4 July 2012

Genetics and Your Training Results

One of the big mistakes we often make in life is to go to the extreme. When it comes to the topic of genetics, I see this all the time. On one extreme, you have people who say that genetics does not matter at all and anyone can do anything or look like anything they want if they put their mind to it. On the other extreme, you have people who say that genetics is everything and that if you don't have amazing genetics for what you want to do, don't even bother. Between these two extremes is a healthy middle ground.

Things to Know About Genetics:
  • Everyone, regardless of their genetics, can improve their physical quality if they train properly for it. Every healthy individual, regardless of genetics, can gain muscle, lose body fat, increase strength, gain flexibility, improve speed, and increase performance.
  • Genetics determines skeletal structure. Imagine if someone came into the gym and asked a trainer to make them taller or shorter. As ridiculous as that sounds, there are people that are asking the same thing - just in the other direction. For example, if a woman has a wide pelvis, she can lose the body fat on top of that but she may not get to a certain dress size because of a structural issue she has no control over. When it comes to strength, short arms will give you an advantage in the bench press and a disadvantage in the deadlift.
  • Genetics determines body type. Traditionally, people have categorized body types as:
    • Endomorhps: naturally carry more body fat.
    • Mesomorphs: naturally have a muscular build.
    • Ectomorphs: naturally long and lean with a small bone structure, low levels of muscle mass and low levels of body fat.
    • Note: many people are a blend of body types. For example, ecto-mesomorph, endo-mesomorph.
  • While this body type is genetically predetermined, through proper training, any body type can make positive changes. For example, an ectomorph can gain muscle, and an endomorph can lose body fat.  The fitness myths and advertisements may tell you that Pilates will build long, lean muscles while weight training will build short, bulky muscles. The reality is that you cannot change the shape of the muscle. If you have a mesomorph build and thus have a shorter, bulkier build no amount of Pilates will give you long lean muscles.
  • Genetics determines muscle shape and tendon length. While training can make any muscle bigger, you cannot change the shape of the muscle. People all over the world are doing the same type of exercises and yet have different shapes to their muscles. Don't go on a wild goose chase trying to find that special exercise to beat your biceps. Some people have long muscle bellies and short tendons and are typically able to develop a much greater size to the muscle. Others have short muscle bellies and long tendons. In the case of the biceps, these people often are able to have a more noticeable peak. Also from a performance standpoint, those with longer Achilles tendons in short calves tend not to be able to develop the same calf size as the opposite build, but are able to develop a lot more explosive power through a large, springy Achilles tendon.
  • Genetics determines your starting spot. For example, let's say you have two people that are the same height and both train to gain 30 pounds of muscle. One currently weighs 140 pounds and the other currently is 200 pounds. Let’s say that they both gain the 30 pounds. The one who started at 200 pounds will be huge while the one who started at 140, may now barely look like he lifts weights.
  • Genetics also determines how far you can go. While I do not believe that few people actually reach their ultimate genetic limit, progress slows incredibly as you get close to it. Those who have a higher genetic limit will ultimately be able to achieve more.
  • Genetics determines how quickly you will get there. While everyone can improve, if you are training for something that you have a genetic predisposition to be good at, progress can often be made with suboptimal training effort. Those with great genetics and a great work ethic will make amazing progress and often be accused of using some type of performance enhancing drug.

The Application:
  • Be realistic in your goal setting. Goals should be challenging, but attainable.
  • Take advantage of your genetic advantages. There are sports and recreational activities suited for every body type and genetic makeup. If you find ones that you enjoy and are genetically gifted at, train to get better at them and you can have a ton of fun in the process.
  • Be aware of your weaknesses. For example, if you have a family history of heart disease, you might want to be extra careful to eat healthy, exercise regularly and manage your stress. Also, if your genetic weaknesses are hindering your performance, body composition or health, work extra hard in these areas.
  • Genetic limitations can (to a certain extent) be compensated for through proper training. For example, if an athlete has a lower than average percentage of fast twitch fibers, but learns to train the way that activates the fast twitch fibers that he or she does have, he or she can still dramatically increase strength, speed and power. A bodybuilder with narrow clavicles can focus on increasing deltoid and latissimus dorsi hypertrophy. This combined with the low level of body fat to make the waist as small as possible will give that body builder the coveted “V” shape.
  • Genetics determines the priorities of your training program. For example, if you are naturally inflexible, then you will have to do extra flexibility work to get yourself to an acceptable level so that lack of flexibility is not a “weak link” for you. If you have difficulty building or maintaining lean muscle, your program should have a greater amount of hypertrophy worked into it.
  • Do not use genetics as an excuse not to work hard. For example, some skinny people label themselves as “hard gainers” and spend the rest of their life never gaining an ounce of muscle. Others believe that since their whole family is overweight, there's nothing they can do about it. A better approach is to view your genetic limitations as a challenge to overcome. Those who do will be stronger, better people and learn the pattern of discipline and hard work that will help them in every area of their life.
  • DO NOT compare yourself to others. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Comparison to others can make us feel good about ourselves when we shouldn't or make us feel like failures when we are doing fantastic. Instead of wishing you had someone else's body, be thankful for the body God gave you and focus on developing it to its potential.



  1. I would love to be able to get some data / studies backing up this information. I personally suspect that it's the closest to reality, but there's a surprising lack of readily available research on the matter when googling.

    Can you provide any sources to help those of us who want to convince our skeptical friends a little more completely ?

    Thanks for the article!


  2. Paul, thanks for your comment. Yes, in my research as well I have also found a surprising lack of research in this area - especially when it comes to training. There are some studies that use these terms and here are some links to them (copy and past into browser):

    I believe 0ne of the reasons some people are skeptical is that they misunderstand the definition of a somatotype. I do not necessarily define this as what someone currently looks like, but rather what someone would look like naturally without specific training and dietary intervention.