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Can Understanding and Accepting Genetic Limitations Be Empowering?

As is true in any human endeavor, there are simply vast individual differences in the ability that people have to respond to different forms of exercise.

Strangely enough, while we readily accept that these individual differences prevail and are the defining characteristics in different athletic pursuits, many of us have found it hard to accept that this is certainly the case in bodybuilding.

Perhaps, this is because, if you read through any contemporary, mainstream bodybuilding publication, except for some reference to "good genetics", there is really no serious discussion of this topic.

In fact, it's a subject that needs to be avoided just like the plague.

Bodybuilding publications, with some notable exceptions, generally operate from a simple formula.
  • Show a picture perfect specimen, and if it's a male, preferably surround him with semi-naked females.
  • Create admiration for the perfect specimen while at the same time creating some sense of inadequacy in the reader.
  • Offer readers ways to reduce their inadequacy by following a specific training routine and taking specific supplements, presumably taken by the perfect specimen to achieve the very results displayed for you.
  • Make readers believe that anyone putting in the time and effort and consuming the right supplements can achieve the same outcomes.
  • Make readers believe that without specific supplements, they can achieve only minimal results.
As noted in other writings, supplements have recently addressed the source of inadequacy more closely by focusing on hormonal manipulations for "natural" bodybuilders.

Once you get your testosterone up, everything else will surely follow1.

If bodybuilding publications seriously addressed genetic limitations, their current formula would not work well.

To verify these statements, examine any bodybuilding publications you have in your possession. Outside of material written by Stuart McRobert, Matt Bryzcki, Mike Mentzer, Ken Leistner, and Arthur Jones, who else has seriously written about this topic?

Often people who are naturally gifted at an activity can't offer sound training advice to people with only average ability, much less to people with below average abilities.

Those 'gifted' individuals frequently have achieved their success not because they have vast knowledge stores or possess special training secrets but merely because they have natural ability for which they really can take no credit. Instead they should thank their parents and grandparents for their fine genetics! (Of course this doesn't mean these people don't train hard -- because most do. It just means that if us 'mere mortals' did what they did in the gym, we STILL wouldn't make the gains that they do, because we are not as genetically gifted in that way.)

I'm not writing this article so that all of us will become remarkably depressed about our genetic limitations to respond to exercise. I'm writing this article so that we all do some realistic assessments of our strengths and weaknesses and how we personally respond to exercise in order to fine-tune our exercise programs and create some reachable goals.

Indeed, if we acknowledge our genetic limitations and factor them into our training, they offer a clear ray of hope...
Rather then following the 'conventional wisdom,' if we study alternatives and look for training methods that support how we -- with our known limitations -- can improve, we can uncover 'natural gifts' that might otherwise gone unnoticed.
A personal example that I've written about before has to do with my experience with running. I wasn't a very good long distance runner even though (or especially since) I trained using the conventional high-volume over-distance approach. In fact, I recall in one Halloween 10K race on campus I was passed near the finish line by a six-legged "monster" - three guys tied together under a large cape. That should have told me something.

But when I switched my cardiovascular training to short distances and sprinting, I'm really got quite good. Indeed, casting modesty to the winds, I'm spectacular doing sprints. I could have been an excellent 200-meter or 400-meter runner. I never would have discovered that if I had not tried a very different style of training with very different goals.

I'm sure there are some people reading this piece who could suddenly see very good results by trying another approach to training that focuses on different or at least somewhat different goals.

These examples suggest that it is very important to do a good personal assessment of our own strengths and weaknesses and then try some experimentation that plays to our strengths.

Let's look further at some related points.

Not too many years ago, legendary bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Mike Mentzer weighed in at 200 - 220 lbs and were labelled as 'massively built.' It wasn't that uncommon to see some great bodybuilders who weighed 160 - 170 lbs.

Today, to be competitive, bodybuilders weigh 50 - 70 lbs. more, with the main idea that bigger is better.

This wild embrace of size, often fueled by drugs, has had at least one unfortunate consequence:
It's convinced many more typically sized people that they too have to become huge to be 'well built.' Unfortunately for them it just isn't in the cards.
I'm willing to bet there are a number of men and women struggling with a good deal of excess body fat despite their diligent training who would look absolutely great and be much healthier if they just lost 20 - 30 lbs. and made essentially no change in their training.

All that is required is a realistic assessment primarily based on past experiences and efforts.

Again, let me use myself as an example.

Even after many years of training I've not been able to surpass about 140 lbs. of lean body mass. With about the same lean body mass, I have weighed as little as about 145lbs., and hence reached a startling low body fat, and as much as 190 lbs, when I was much younger, carrying an extraordinary amount of body fat.

At about 160 lbs., I simply look like a 50+ person who happens to train but is obviously too fat, i.e., the typical scenario.

At about 148 lbs. and less, I can look as defined as many good natural bodybuilders. It is fairly easy to stay at the lower bodyweight, play on a good ability to get and stay lean, and capitalize on one good asset. At a very low weight, I can get a 20" difference between my waist and chest. But, I simply cannot obtain the size of contemporary bodybuilders no matter what I do.

What's unfortunate is that it took me until about age 45 to realize, accept, and in some ways, capitalize on my limitations.

Just click here to look at these pictures to see what I mean.

The pictures of me at 29 and 39 show a person who trains but who carries around quite a bit of body fat - probably about 25 lbs. In fact, notice that even at 157 lbs., while I had decent proportions, I was just too heavy. What was required to actually look like a well-conditioned athlete was to further reduce my body fat.

The irony is that through all my training incarnations, I had about the same lean body mass. The only thing required to capitalize on my best assets was to just watch my diet a bit more.

Indeed, by comparison, staying relatively lean has been quite easy in contrast the stuffing myself with food to "bulk-up". The reason is that staying leaner plays to whatever favorable genetics I have. Bulking up does not.

Would I like to weigh 180 lbs. with a 50" chest and 18" arms? The answer, even at 53, is "absolutely". But, such muscular proportions were never in my DNA coding. If we can't face such facts in our mature years and make the best of them, when are we going to do so?

Accepting one's strengths and weaknesses and genetic limitations can be liberating, not confining and depressing.

Let's accept the premise that began this article:
Given almost any reasonable training program, one that allows for overload and sufficient recovery, genetic factors most determine responsiveness2.
A corollary of this premise is that there are innumerable such "reasonable programs" that can bring results, with the degree of results again dependent upon genetic factors. Considering that this premise is most likely true, why not pick the most efficient way to train?

If the limits of your training are genetically "preordained", and it's obvious that you do not have "champion quality" DNA for this endeavor, why spend eight hours a week doing an activity when one hour a week or less will bring about the same results?

And, why not - again within reason and guided by training principles - implement your training in ways more suitable to you and your lifestyle?

Understanding and accepting our strengths and weaknesses and genetic limitations rather than constraining us, should, indeed, set us free.

In that sense, understanding and accepting our genetic limitations can be empowering because we will be directed toward reaching achievable goals in ways that are most efficient and effective for us.


1. While testosterone levels appear to influence a number of processes related to strength and muscle mass, testosterone is only one key hormone involved in multiple and interrelated processes. What is particularly frightening about the marketing of various products to increase testosterone is that few, if any, have been seriously tested in clinical trials. Because of considerably lobbying by the supplement industry a few years ago and the passing of legislation in 1994, these products are considered "nutritional supplements" and are not closely regulated by the FDA. Presumably, they would only be taken off the market if there is some evidence of harm. To claim that the products are safe and effective, as most ads do, is, however, fraudulent. It is also distressing to see magazines that have embraced the natural movement prominently feature these products in numerous ads and articles (infomercials). These hormones are basically steroids. Here’s one example of where deregulation of an industry has had some very negative outcomes.

2. Even if these products work, and are safe, if we took them, we would not automatically be converted to huge, super athletes. Most of us simply do not have enough muscle fibers where we want them. For example, shapely, but smaller and "higher" calf muscles, such as I have, will not be suddenly transformed into large, and "low" calf muscles by taking hormones. We’re still left with working what we have in the most efficient and effective way. Smaller, higher calves can look reasonably good and it only requires one or two hard sets per week to improve them.