In the evidence-based natural bodybuilding scene it is currently very popular to make genetics responsible for all the good results (mostly of someone else) or blame genetics for not achieving goals (mostly the own ones). Compared to the 90’s and the early 2000’s, genetics is very tangible as genetic tests are sold as a solution to fix diet and training. Long-time readers of the blog know my opinion on it, but I’ll repeat it again: you should rather invest your money in healthy food and a good coach than on expensive DNA testing, since their validity is still very questionable. Nevertheless, genes do play a huge role, especially in elite sports, but a lot of us do focus a bit too much on it and limit themselves by blaming genetics and resigning too soon.
When should i start worrying about genetics?
Dr. Mike Israetel from Renaissance Periodization made a simple rough guideline when you can start worrying (or not) about your bad genetics
If after two to four years of
- training hard and consistently: this means taking your sets with good technique (close) to failure and without bigger periods of NOT training at all (for example taking regularly one month off because vacation, then two weeks off because stress at work, and so on…)
- somehow science-based training: following a plan with following points:
- performing exercises in a”hypertropy-range“: everything between 5-20 reps; for some people and muscle groups it may be also 3-15 or 8-25. But do not expect to grow huge amount of muscles with your “Body Pump”, “Hot Iron” or whatsoever aerobic class.
- all muscle groups at least twice a week: a bro-split (one muscle group once a weak) may work for some genetic freaks, enhanced bros and broettes and some people with a very hardcore mindset, but for the most of us it is simply not enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis often enough.
- progressive overload: the weight on the bar or on the stack or on the dumbbells should increase over time; other progression forms are repetitions and technique.
- eating enough: if you are not overweight you should aim for a slow but steady increase in weight over time. Dr. Mike himself, for example managed to go from 50kg to 72kg in approximately 5 years as a natural. Ok, he may really be a bit of a genetic outlier, but you get the point…
- good recovery: good sleep and good stress (job, family…) management and a generally healthy lifestyle.
…you can tick all the boxes and are still weak and thin, than you can start worrying that maybe strength training or bodybuilding will never be a sport where you excel. Nevertheless, if you still enjoy going to the gym and care about your nutrition, why quit? There is more in life than deadlifting 300kg and looking jacked 😉 .
Genetic freaks vs. genetic wracks
On the other side there are some people who have good results even under suboptimal conditions. This is the case of the real genetic gifted people but they could do even better with an optimal training program, better nutrition, a good recovery strategy and often even better work ethics. Because this is often the downside of the genetic freaks: a lot of people with excellent genetics do not feel the drive to work hard enough. For the bodybuilding fans the best example is Flex Weeler. He did not work as hard as a Ronnie Colemann (who is also a genetic freak) and managed to get to a pretty high level but Ronnie’s work ethic brought him to eight Mr. Olympia titles whereas Flex never reached that level.
room for optimization
We all agree that the vast majority of us will never look like the guys on the pic, who are definitely winners of the muscle-genetic-lottery (and have also a bit of help from proper supplementation too 😉 ) but most people are not doomed to be forever skinny neither.
If you read again the bullet points above carefully, you will see how much room for optimization there is. Taking myself as an example: I’ve spent my last three years of training more in a deficit than in a surplus and my stress management needs definitely some improvement. As I want to compete I’ve decided to hire a coach to get my improvement season properly managed and my training and nutrition structured and supervised. For me, it was a gamechanger and I strongly encourage everyone who wants to achieve results in an efficient way to hire a good coach. Even Stefan, who has succesfully been coaching himself and other clients for years, is now profiting a lot from a good online coach: his technique is improving and he made some quite impressive gains.
the purpose of your training
Before even worrying about genetics, you should ask yourself the following questions: what are your expectations towards training and nutrition? Do you want to improve your health? Or you would love looking good naked? Are you aiming for a bodybuilding-contest? Which class would you like to compete? Of course you should keep your expectation realistic and never forget that even if you realize that you will never become a pro bodybuilder there are plenty of other possibilities to enjoy strength sport and a healthy nutrition.
Keeping expectations realistic will save you from major delusions. Nevertheless, do not limit yourself too much by seeing yourself as “probably-not-so-genetic-gifted”. Again taking myself as an example: aiming for a very muscular and conditioned class like the bodybuilding women class is unrealistic for my first year of competing but I’ll start giving my best for the bikini class 2021. And I let myself openminded for more or less depending on how everything evolves.
PLACEBo: the power of believe
The placebo effect-the idea that your brain can convince your body a fake beneficial effect- is an extremly powerful phenomenon and it does exist. Especially for effects modulated by the brain like perception of pain, it has been proven that even a mock-drug can help you feeling better. There is a publication from 2014 by Kaptchuk which shows that even if the migraine patients did know they were taking a placebo against migrain, the placebo was 50% as effective as the pain killer in the control group (source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-power-of-the-placebo-effect ) . There are even more studies, one of the most famous being the one by Ariel&Saville (1972) summarized in the picture below.
Talking about genetics, there was one study where test persons were tested for a gene correlated to aerobic performance and the participants were given a random genetic result. The participants who were told that they had the “better” gene had a better performance than in the baseline treadmill test regardless of the true gene. You can find more about this study either here or in the original publication. Of course you can claim that it is a very short term study but it shows again how powerful believe is.
Of course placebo effect will not heal cancer, lower cholesterol nor it will make you the new Arnold if there is not the genetic possibility, but it will maximize what you can get out of your training and nutrition. The key of placebo is ritualization which brings you in a certain mindset: for me it is drinking a double espresso before getting in my gym clothes at Das Gym in Vienna or taking the time to eat a protein bar after having cleaned up my desk at work in Krems. I mentally go through the workout and think what PR can I reallistically crush during this one session.
genetic testing and muscle fibre types
Now you should be convinced that genetic testing for optimizing training and nutrition is a waste of money. In most cases just a couple of genes are tested and the correlation between those genes and performance and diet are very loose. Often you are given very simple lifestyle recommendations like eating more protein and veggies, as well as performing some kind of physical activity. If you have spent a lot of money for such a test, you will likely follow those advices and in the best case reach your goals but you could have spent your money better.
Some genetic tests claim that they can tell you if you are rather a fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscle fibre type and therefore if you should train more towards explosive movements or cardio. Let us debunk this: first, there are even more muscle fibre types than these two; second, distribution of the muscle fibres in the body is not only different from individual to individual but also from muscle group to muscle group in each person; third, even if you are a slow-twitch dominant person with lesser potential of muscle growth as a more fast-twitched one, you will profit from strength training as slow-twitched fibre can undergo hypertrophy too; last, if you train for health purpose or to look good naked you should have strength training on your programm anyways.
It doesn’t mean that you should not take muscle fibre type distribution in account when you design your training plan: start training muscle groups with different rep ranges from 5-25 and observe how your muscles respond. Is it getting tired very quickly? Then it may be a more fast-twitched muscle group and you should be training it more in a lower rep range. The opposite is true for slow-twitched muscle fibres. Often it is something inbetween, that is why the hypertrophy range myth is still so popular. It requires some experience and meticoulusly tracking your performance as well as objectively measuring progress in order to optimize your program but it may be worth it. Stefan made some impressive chest gains by training a powerlifting-style bench press with 1 to 5 reps: not the classic chest workout you would expect!
You can not alter your genetics yet, therefore it is not worth worrying about it. You should instead focus on:
- train hard
- eat (more protein)
- believe in the process
- take care of your recovery
- enjoy life!
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