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Bodybuilding Mythology: Genetics and Outcomes

Premises

Training routines for bodybuilding invariably have been promoted with one main pitch. ‘This routine is different, it’s sure to bring quick and great results, and it’s the secret to developing great - fill in the blank – arms, legs, chest, back, shoulders, abs’.

Inevitably, the muscle group noted happens to be the best muscle group of the celebrity bodybuilder promoting the routine or associated with it.

Assuming (a stretch of the imagination) that such promotions are honestly done with good intent, the underlying premises are:
  • Different routines produce different outcomes.
  • A muscle group’s size and shape can be differently affected by different routines and exercises.
Most of us understand that these premises essentially are untrue. And, we understand that genetic factors have much to do with outcomes from training.

I want to take these points a few steps further. These points can help you have a different perspective on your training that is quite positive.

Perspective

I believe that the same routine produces different outcomes dependent upon the individual’s genetic make-up. For example, two people can do the exact same routine over a period of years. One person has the genetic traits for large muscular arms; the other person does not but has the genetic traits for large muscular legs. A few years down the road, our first person has large muscular arms and very average looking legs, while our second person ends up with just the opposite outcomes.

Our first trainee may honestly believe that the routine is the secret to great arm development. Our second trainee may believe that the routine is the secret to great leg development. If either trainee were a celebrity, the routine would be promoted as either the key to great arms or legs.

Of course, neither trainee would have made a correct assessment. The key to any great outcome is to perform any one of a number of reasonable routines and have the right genetic factors to produce that outcome.

People simply respond differently to training and have different relative strengths and weaknesses.

For a person’s relative strengths, any reasonable training routine produces good results. Training works and works well.

Personal Experience

I believe many of us have experienced exactly how training works because we all have strengths and weaknesses. For our strengths, likely most any approach has produced good or even great outcomes. For our weaknesses, training leads to improvement but not very good and certainly not great outcomes.

I readily see these genetic strengths and weaknesses operating in the outcomes I’ve achieved with my own training. The important point is that the outcomes have little to do with the specific training routines I’ve used.

For my size and frame I have very large deltoid, trapezius muscles, and pectoral muscles. These muscle groups always were very easy for me to develop and were large within the first couple of years of training. I can do almost any kind of resistance training exercise, and these muscle groups respond very well. Training works.

Interestingly, and quite to the point, I do not have great strength for pressing movements or side lateral raises. The common conception is that if the muscle group shows great size, then the individual will have great strength in those muscle groups. For me, and I suspect many others, this is not necessarily the case.

For my size and frame, I have smaller thighs and calves. I have tried different routines over many years, but really nothing has been effective in appreciably increasing the muscle mass in my lower body. In that sense, training does not work very well.

Interestingly and again, quite to the point, I do have very good strength in most lower body exercises. Resistance training has been a very effective way for me to demonstrate one of my genetically based predispositions – the propensity for very good lower-body strength.

This personal example shows that the genetic predisposition for muscular hypertrophy and strength not only differs between people but also can differ within the same person depending upon muscle groups and exercise movements.

Insights

My personal experiences with training – and likely your experience too – leads to some other insights. I would be considered really very good in bodybuilding if all my muscle groups responded as well as my deltoids, traps, and chest. To become very good at it, I only would need to train consistently. Nothing else would be required because the training would work in an ideal way. My experience with certain responsive muscle groups is what very good bodybuilders experience with all their muscle groups.

Much of what has and is written about bodybuilding outside of supplements involves ‘routines’ (defined as arrangements of exercise, sets, and repetitions) for different muscle groups. Presumably, the person who has one or more great muscle groups has a ‘lock’ on a super approach for those muscle groups.

You can see that the entire notion of precise routines to produce specific effects has no basis in reality. A person, or as has been noted, a muscle group, with favorable genetics will respond well to any group of exercises, or for that matter, even one exercise.

Specific routines have little to do with outcomes and, in that sense, there are no specific routines. Genetic factors, on the other hand, have a lot to do with outcomes.

Understanding Genetics

And to be quite honest, I haven’t completely understood this different perspective. For example, when people have asked how I got very defined abs with a small waist, my stock reply consistent with believing I had a lock on a special routine was: ‘Eat slightly less than you need to maintain your weight. Do this for about six to eight weeks. Train abs as you would any other muscle group. For example, I do one set of crunches, one set of side bends, one set of hanging reverse crunches, and one set on the rotary torso machine once per week. So, I train abs for about 4 minutes once per week’.

I hadn’t realized that being able to readily shed body fat from my waist is a genetically based characteristic. People gain and lose body fat in different ways that are genetically determined. Another person following my advice would likely increase the strength of the abdominal and oblique muscles but not nearly as readily end up with a small waist and defined abs.

The entire process of losing body fat is also aided by another factor that is partly genetically based. I have a high metabolic rate. It means I need a lot of calories to just maintain my weight so reducing by 200-300 calories per day is no big deal when you’re eating a lot of food. Losing weight and body fat must be harder if you’re not eating that much in the first place.

Having a high metabolic rate is a good characteristic to have if one goal is to get leaner. At least it makes losing weight pretty easy.

I’ve also recently realized two other facets of my training that likely have some genetic basis. Over the years, I’ve found that I hardly need to warm-up except for doing a short warm-up with the first exercise of the day. For upper-body workouts, I do two warm-up sets, one for two repetitions with about 70% of the goal work set weight, and one repetition with about 85% of the goal weight. I do no other warm-up sets. For a lower-body workout, I perform some warm-up sets with 1-5 repetitions in the squat followed by a work set and do no other warm-ups and that includes no warm-ups for deadlifts.

I also have frequently heard that people find resistance training painful. Even sub-maximal efforts seem to make people feel a good deal of discomfort. Maximal efforts seem to be painful. I’m aware of making very good efforts in all the resistance training exercises I perform. But, I do not really feel any pain even at the end of an all-out set performed with longer duration repetitions. Maybe this is an example of learning or adaptation. There’s also a cognitive part to the experience of pain so perhaps I now label pain from resistance training as ‘making a great effort’. My guess is that there is more to it than learning, adaptation, or ‘cognitive restructuring’. Perhaps, feeling no pain from resistance training has some genetic basis and can explain why some people stick with it and some people will not because they find the experience too aversive.

A Positive Conclusion

This perspective on training, bodybuilding, genetics, and outcomes is not meant to be cynical or negative. Few of us have been duped into believing there are miracle ways to train. But, we may have thought we’re missing something or there are some much better ways to train.

Think about what you do well and where and how you’re responsive. What are the exercises and muscle groups where training works and you have good muscle and/or strength outcomes? A sure bet is that for the exercises and muscle groups that are responsive, the only requirement for continuing to get good outcomes is to keep consistently training in some reasonable way. The same approach is likely giving you as good as can be expected outcomes for any other exercise or muscle group.

There’s no reason to beat yourself up or continue on an endless and most likely futile search for that one great routine that will lead to a total transformation. And, there’s little reason to train in ways you do not find enjoyable with the hope of greatly improving your performance in a given exercise or the responsiveness of a specific muscle group.

Application

For major muscle groups, one compound movement provides a good stimulus and one movement that does a better job isolating that muscle group, each performed for one set each. For smaller muscle groups such as biceps, likely one exercise for a single set is sufficient. If a muscle group is responsive based on genetic factors, you will show over time considerable muscular hypertrophy. If a muscle group is not that responsive, then perhaps you will get stronger but not show great development in that muscle group.

Knowing these basic facts means that your approach to training can be quite simple and not filled with numerous question marks or doubts. For each muscle group, pick the exercises you like to do and can do safely. Now based on personal preferences and your recovery ability, you only need to decide if you want to do those movements for a muscle group once or twice per week and whether you want to use a whole body routine or some split routine.

On the physical side, that’s about it. Then just train consistently hard and what ever can happen will happen.