Genetics: The role it plays in fitness

Have you ever had a training buddy that can gain chronic muscle pump in their biceps by doing one set of curls a week? Yeah, we all know THAT guy. This guy has freakish genetics that basically allow him to eat whatever he wants, hit the gym once a week, and maintain a nice shape (at least while he’s in his 20s).  As much as we hate to hear it, genetics plays a major role in the results that you will see when you’re busting your butt in the gym.

A study in 2005 by MJ Hubal focused on the variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training, and it showed a wide range of results.  This study was 12 weeks long, focused on progressive dynamic exercise, and used 585 male and female subjects.  2% of these subject gained absolutely no strength whatsoever, but the best responders increased muscle cross-sectional area by 59% and increased their 1RM strength by 250%.  All of these subjects used the exact same protocol! 

Now, these particular subjects may or may have not helped themselves out with their nutritional habits.  Nonetheless, with or without nutrition, strength gains are usually seen with that much work in the gym.  

The point sounds cliche, but it’s true: EVERY person has a different genetic makeup, which means EVERY person will respond differently to fitness training.  

So, when you’re in the gym, focus on what YOU are doing, don’t worry about the next person.  Make it your goal to work harder than any other person that is hitting the weights.  Experiment on yourself and see what kind of results you can get.  Whether you have the best genetics or not, every person out there can see results if you work hard enough.  You just may have to work harder and twice as long as the person with cream of the crop genetics.  

Bottom line

Some folks hit the genetic jackpot, while others have gotten the genetic shaft. Genetically-speaking, anything that negatively impacts the ability of the myofibers to increase their number of myonuclei in response to mechanical loading will reduce hypertrophy and strength potential.

This ranges from the number of signaling molecules, to the cell’s sensitivity to the signals, to satellite cell availability, to satellite cell pool expansion, to miRNA regulation. Nutrition and optimal programming play a role in hypertrophy of course, and certain genotypes may be associated with hypertrophy too.

Genetics and Body Fat

Genes can affect fat storage and fat loss by influencing energy intake, energy expenditure, or nutrient partitioning. Researchers have coined the term “obesogenic environment” to describe the manner in which our changes in lifestyle over the past century has exposed our underlying genetic risk factors for excessive adiposity.

Natural selection may have favored those who possessed genes associated with thrifty metabolisms, which would have allowed for survival during times of nutrient scarcity. Now that much of the world has adopted a modern lifestyle characterized by sedentarism and excessive caloric intake, these same genes now contribute to poor health and obesity.

Take home message: If you have been eating right and working your butt off, but haven’t been seeing results, don’t get discouraged. Keep after it, because eventually those genetics have to give way and let the hypertrophy/fat-loss happen.  Stay on YOUR game, not anyone else’s.  What works for someone else may not work for you.  Move to the beat of your own drum.  If you need help, ask for it!  As a fitness professional, I find that men have a tough time admitting they need the help in the gym or in the kitchen.  Consulting or working with a properly trained and educated fitness professional, you may be able to reach your goals way faster than trying to motivate yourself.  And others out there, it may just be a matter of sticking to your routine and the progress is about to breakthrough.  You never know when your genetics will stop holding you down, so DON’T GIVE UP. 

Good luck and happy working out! 



Move to the beat of your own drum.


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