Playing the “I just don’t have good genetics is all” card is one of the most common and defeating excuses you hear in the fitness community for those who haven’t achieved their goals. But in fact, the genetics you are born with do play an enormous role in what type of physique you are capable of developing. Researchers are just now identifying exact genes responsible for predisposition to storing body fat, ability to gain muscle, strength and many more. Many of these genes, in fact, are extremely black and white and you either have them or you don’t. As an example, close to 20% of the world’s population is completely deficient in a gene called ACTN3, which is a structural protein within muscle fibers. ACTN3 is responsible for generating explosive strength at speed (explosive power). Those who don’t have this gene invariably cannot develop a whole lot of explosive power. Researchers tested a number of elite sprinters and determined that all of them had the ACTN3 gene. So, if you want to be a good sprinter, you better have it. A number of similar genes exist as well, some responsible for the ability to pack on muscle, store fat, where you store fat, develop strength, and more. Other more obviously expressed genes are responsible for body and muscle shape. While you may not have the best genes in every area, you almost certainly have some genetic strongholds. Determining what these are and working to accentuate them can be your ticket to having your best physique. So what are the key elements of having great genetics for bodybuilding and fitness?
Ability to put on muscle: There have been a few high quality, large participation studies on genetics and building muscle. It was determined that some individuals respond extremely well to weight training, some respond to a degree, and the unfortunate group at the bottom were dubbed “non-responders” who actually lost muscle after administration of a protocol of weight training. After a 12 week weight training program, the high responders gained an amazing 60% more muscle mass, the average responder gained about 25%, while the non-responders gained no muscle at all. These results were nearly duplicated in an unrelated study using a smaller study set. Both studies showed that about 10-25% of the population are high responders, 50-60% are average responders, while the final 10-25% are non-responders. Yu will know pretty quickly into your weight training career (or even before) if you are a high responder or a low responder, but the majority of us fall in the middle.
Metabolism adaptability and predisposition to storing body fat: Human history has put us in a position where, genetically, most of us have a high predisposition to store body fat. This is because food has been much more scarce for the bulk of human history, and it wasn’t until the industrialization of farming in the early 20th century that so much high calorie food became available so easily. As such, more than 1 in 3 Americans are considered obese. (So don’t feel too bad if you are having trouble getting your abs to pop). In studies on this, it has been demonstrated that by overfeeding similar individuals and creating a calorie excess, some will store nearly 100% of the excess as fat, while some will store none at all and completely metabolize the excess calories. Keep in mind that of the individuals who gained the most fat, some just have a predisposition to store fat, but for some the responsible gene was relating to the adaptability of their metabolism, so if the opposite were true and they adhered to a caloric deficit diet, they would also lose the most amount of fat, so it’s not all bad. Further, fat storage is the most malleable quality of all the genetic codes. Everyone can have a low body fat, it just takes some more work than others.
Muscle shape: A more obviously expressed genetic feature is the way in which your body holds muscle. Some use the term “round muscle bellies”. This is basically the shape of the muscle and how it contours to your structure. The most noticeable forms of this is the shoulder to bicep tie in, height and roundness of the calf muscle, ab shape and depth and quad separation. Literally nothing can be done to change this, however we can develop these muscles more and accentuate what we have, giving them a fuller and more refined appearance.
Bone structure: This is another genetic feature that is not malleable. However, there are benefits to having different types of bone structures. For instance, a small narrow bone structure means it is much easier to fill out and give the appearance of being much more muscular than the larger boned counterparts. Combine a small bone structure with a good ability to gain muscle and you are well on your way. Alternatively, a large bone structure generally means you can pack on more total muscle, look wider and get much stronger than those with small bones. Another big factor is the thickness of bones, particularly the joints. While having small joints is horrible for strength, it lends itself very well to physique sports as it creates the illusion of larger muscles due to larger bulges exiting joints and into muscles.
With all of the genetic factors, you either have them or you don’t, but that is not to say you are doomed if you don’t, not by a long shot. Instead, you can determine what good aspects you do have, and work to optimize them. No one has perfect genetics, and no one has completely horrible genetics, we all have good aspect and bad aspects. There has never been a person who properly implemented a solid diet and training regimen that didn’t get results. Determine your particular genetics and ways within training and diet to optimize these and you will be your best.