Genetics Are a Thing…Deal with It

It is very common for folks with high trainability to get very defensive when genetics are brought up, quickly citing that it’s been all the hard work that’s caused the progress. No doubt. However, regardless of how much it might bruise their image of their own hard work, genetics are a thing and they are a variable in the equation. A fixed variable, in fact. You, me, and Mattie Rogers could have started the same weightlifting program four years ago, and I promise, you aren’t going to be clean and jerking 297# at 151 pounds. Regardless of effort level. Do Mathew Fraser’s exact program for three years and tell me if you win the CrossFit games. Some athletes can boast about eating donuts and still look shredded while others may as well tape it directly onto their midsection.

What, how, and why do certain athletes show more adaptation than others if both follow the exact same program? In fact, I bet right now you can think of a few head-scratchers in the gym.

There are five main influencers of strength, and highest among them are your genetics. Factors such as leverage characteristics of one’s joints, distribution of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers, acid buffering capability, body somatoype, bone girth, and others are all genetic input that play a vital role in your training output. These influences make up what’s referred to as your Genetic Trainability.

It’s a nice way of saying your ceiling. We all have one. They’re all different.

If this comes as a buzz kill, I don’t know what to tell you. We all react differently to stress stimulus and some are going to adapt to that stress at much higher rates. That’s just real life, and rather than pretend that doesn’t exist and clap and cheer lead our way through it, I think the smarter choice is to get a better grasp on it so you can better control your training outcomes, see what you might favor if performance is your goal, and temper frustration in movements that might not advance at rates correlative to your effort level.

Here are a couple major aspects of genetics to consider.

Enduring vs. Powerful
In Kill Bill 2, there’s the scene where Bud is talking to Elle in the desert trailer. He asks her, now that Beatrix is supposedly dead, which ‘R’ she is filled with more? Regret or relief? At first, Elle says both and Bud responds by saying he understands, and that both are to be expected, however, “I know damn well you’re filled with one more than the other”, as he puts it. “So which is it?”

Think about your athletic tendencies in similar manners. Very few of us are rarely put into a silo for whether or not we are powerful or enduring, but we all skew more towards one the other. There are athletes who are more genetically wired for power, and there are athletes that are more genetically wired to endure. Both will progress, but at much different rates, benefits, and outcomes. Take a former football linebacker and a college distance runner and put them on the same lifting program, and you’re going to get two drastically different outcomes.

Thigh, pelvic, and calf girth all directly correlate to strength potential (1). These characteristics create larger loading frames so they can produce more force, handle and move larger loads, and be less prone to injury and training stresses. However, that same body type is likely not going to crank out a five minute mile. There are strengths and weaknesses to us all.

Genetics are a Thing. Deal With It.

  • Endomorphs – Bigger, wider hips, usually gain weight easily. Tend to favor power activities and produce much higher strength and power outputs.
  • Mesomorphs – Broad shoulders with relatively narrow hips. Usually all around very athletic. Tend to be proficient in both power and enduring. These are the all-rounders.
  • Ectomorphs – Thinner, narrow hips, usually hard gainers who struggle to put on weight. Tend to genetically favor enduring activities. These are very hard gainers.

Put those who are hardwired to endure in a program where they can train and express it, and you’re usually talking about distance race champs. Put those who are hardwired to produce power in a strength and endurance format, and you’re usually looking at fitness competition winners. Put those who are hardwired to produce high-end power and you’re looking at lifting medalists.

Which body type are you?

Length of Joints
Anthropometry is the study of measurements and proportions of the body, and it plays a very large role in both the mechanics of a movement and the ability of the athlete to produce force. If you are short and have short limbs you are going to crush weightlifting movements because the bar doesn’t have to travel as far, and you’ll need to produce less mechanical torque. If you have long arms you’ll be a great puller of weight off the ground, but probably weak overhead (again, because of bar travel). If you have long femurs and a short torso, you’ll likely be good at deadlifting, but the squat is going to be a challenging movement pattern and you’re not going to squat ass-to-grass. Any coach who keeps telling you to do that is just going to frustrate you. Which is why it’s a stupid ass coaching cue. Long spines are more susceptible to injury than short, there’s more to be exposed to movement. You get the idea.

Ultimately, there are two main reasons to be aware of your trainability.

  1. Appropriate Movements – If you know you are never going to have great leverage in the conventional deadlift and a bit more susceptible to injury, take a look at the sumo stance. If you have very long femurs and tend to naturally tip forward in your squat, try squatting high bar to keep a more vertical torso.
  2. Expectation Management – I see so much comparison in the gym, which I usually believe to be a net positive. However, when we start to say, “Well I see him doing that weight all the time and I’ve been training for two more years!” Trainability, friends.

Genetics don’t mean you can’t get strong and fit as hell, and they certainly do not define your fitness outcomes.  Just look at our own Brie Hancy. Scoliosis in her back, yet just finished up a 5th place ranking at USA Powerlifting Nationals in Orlando. Coach Kyle, who fits the thigh, pelvic, and hip girth power mold to a tee, has also produced a sub 6-minute mile. You can train to strengthen any movement to a very high level, and anyone can get into great shape and develop high outputs of fitness measureables with hard work. However, knowing where and what you naturally favor can be helpful towards managing your expectations, helping you select appropriate goals, and keep the gym a place of net happiness for you.

-Dave Thomas
@VirginiaDave

References:

(36) Gross, M T, et al. “Relationship between Lifting Capacity and Anthropometric Measures.” The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 May 2000, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10817411.

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