Genetics: Limitation or Copout?
by Christian Thibaudeau
We live in a world of excuses. Most people don't want to accept that when something goes wrong in their lives, they're at least partly to blame.
Lose your job? The boss has it in for you! (It has nothing to do with your own laziness or the fact that you send scanned pictures of your private parts to the whole staff, right?) Your kid turns into a delinquent? It's because of the music he listens to! (Not because of your lack of parenting skills, right?) And if you can't gain muscle? It must be because of your genetics!
Genetics. Probably the most widely used excuse for failure in the strength training world! If we don't progress as fast as we'd like, we blame genetics. If some guy is gaining more strength and size than us, he surely must have better genetics.
But does he really? Are genetics really that important in our quest to build the ultimate body? And what can we do about it?
Let's Get Genetic!
Okay, I'm going to put on my professor hat for a moment. First, we should get a working definition of genetics. Without using too much lab coat jargon, we can define "genetics" as the way our bodies are built. Because of our heredity and possibly of the way our mother ate, slept, and lived during her pregnancy, we inherit a certain genetic baggage that more or less determines the human being we can become.
In a certain way, genetics represent the material you have available to build your house. It's undeniable that several traits are purely due to genetics: the color of your hair and eyes, your basic body type, and your height (to a large degree) are good examples. But what about looking good naked?
When we talk about building a pleasing physique we can consider several factors:
1. The capacity to build muscle
2. The partitioning capacity of the body (do you store body fat easily or gain muscle tissue easily?)
3. The body structure
Since I'm one of the "training guys" I'll address only point number one, which is the capacity to build muscle. Is that genetic? Are some people genetically cursed?
The Capacity to Build Muscle
Adding a good amount of muscle tissue is paramount when attempting to build a superb physique. It would seem obvious that some people have more success at gaining mass than others. But is it something that's predetermined at birth? Are we doomed to be limited in our muscle-building efforts because we were dealt a bad hand?
Well, we do know that fast twitch muscle fibers have a greater muscle growth potential than their slow twitch counterparts. So it would seem logical to assume that the more fast twitch fibers someone has, the greater his muscle growth potential.
We also know that muscle fiber make-up is mostly a pre-determined thing. It's possible to stimulate fiber transformation (especially toward a more slow-twitch profile), but not to a greatly significant degree. So, in that regard, we could say that muscle growth potential is proportional to the amount of fast-twitch fibers, which is itself mostly a pre-determined (genetic) thing.
So it would seem that muscle growth potential is at least partly genetic. However, the difference in muscle fiber distribution among the population isn't that great. There are far less fast-twitch (or slow-twitch) freaks than we think. Most human characteristics follow a relatively normal distribution (a bell curve). It looks like this:
As you can see, there's less than a tenth of a percent of the population that can be considered fast-twitch freaks. On the other hand, close to 70% would be normal gainers (approximately 50/50 slow twitch to fast twitch distribution) and 95% would range from normal with a small slow twitch dominance (approximately 60% ST and 40% FT) to slight fast twitch dominance (approximately 60% FT and 40% ST).
It's impossible to know the exact ratio of muscle fibers within a muscle unless you get a very painful and intrusive muscle biopsy. However, a simple field test can give you a good idea if an individual is slow-twitch dominant or fast-twitch dominant. While it won't tell us that somebody has 65.786% fast twitch fibers, it can give us a general perception of the makeup of the individual. And really, that's all we need to design optimal training programs.
The 80% Rep Test
This is an oldie but a goodie. It's probably the easiest and most objective way of determining muscle fiber dominance. The procedure is simple: After a proper warm-up, load the bar to 80% of your maximum and perform as many reps as you can in good form. The table below will help you interpret your results:
So as you can see, true genetic muscle mutants are extremely rare! These are the guys who are very muscular and strong without even training or working hard. In their cases, yes, genetics could be the reason for their muscular superiority. But these guys and gals are a rarity.
Same thing goes with the endurance mutants (who are, by the same token, impaired when it comes to building muscle). Individuals who can truly blame genetics for their lack of muscularity are very rare. So the take-home message is that muscle-building potential is influenced by your genetic makeup, but chances are you're neither genetically blessed nor cursed.
Look at the pictures of Dorian Yates below. Would you really say that he looked genetically gifted in the beginning? Sure, steroids helped him get huge. But tons of guys take them and they're nowhere near his level of development!
Everybody (well, around 95% of the population) can build muscle to a significant degree. Obviously, not all of us can gain 20 pounds of muscle in six months! But I'll say that with proper training, sufficient nutrition, and adequate supplementation, everybody has the potential to gain at least 10 pounds of muscle per year.
Of course, as you become more advanced, it becomes harder to reach that target. But even very advanced lifters can gain at least 5 pounds of muscle per year. Beginners should normally be able to gain 15-20 pounds within a year.
Are you making those kinds of gains? If you're not, you probably blamed genetics at one point or another. We just saw that this is rarely the case. What's the reason then?
If Not Genetics, Then What?
Lack of muscle growth can be due to improper training, inadequate nutrition, and/or insufficient rest. Let's break those down so you can drop the excuses for good!
A lot of people aren't working hard enough or smart enough to gain muscle mass. They're content to go into the gym and do their usual routine. They forget (or don't know) that muscle growth is an adaptive response. For it to occur, the body must be challenged up to a certain threshold. And to have constant progress, it's important to have a certain progression in the difficulty of the workouts.
Difficulty can be increased via several methods:
1. External loading: By lifting more weight (provided that proper technique is maintained.)
2. Increasing volume by doing more reps while keeping the load the same (e.g. progressing from 10 reps at 200 pounds to 12 reps at 200 pounds.)
3. Increasing volume by doing more total sets. This is often the traditional way of progression, especially when "tradition" comes into play! While it's true that adding more sets (if loading can be sustained) will cause more physiological damage, there's a point where the returns actually become negative.
For example, progressing for three total sets per muscle group up to 9-12 total sets might spark new growth, but bumping it more than that could actually lead to stagnation and regression, especially when you're dieting down.
4. Increasing training density: Performing more work per unit of time. This is best accomplished by reducing the rest intervals between sets while maintaining external loading. Many coaches are now aware of this method. I always gradually reduce the rest intervals with my athletes, and Charles Staley obviously uses this method of progression with EDT.
5. Increasing eccentric loading or work: It's a well known physiological fact that the eccentric (lowering the weight or "negative") portion of an exercise causes the most damage to the muscle fibers and thus carries a greater potential for growth stimulation. Fast twitch fibers (with the most growth potential) are preferentially recruited during eccentric work, making this doubly effective.
You can increase eccentric stress either by slowing down the negative portion of the movement or by increasing external loading during the eccentric portion (either with weight releasers or by having a partner push down on the bar during the eccentric portion).
6. Lifting the weights faster: Force = mass x acceleration. You can thus increase force output either by lifting more weight or lifting the same load with greater acceleration. More force equals more intramuscular tension, which is one of the top three factors involved in growth stimulation (along with total time under tension and work density).
7. Using more complex exercises. I'm not talking about squatting on a Swiss ball here! Progressing from structurally simple exercises to more complex ones increases training stress. For example, a leg extension is easier than a leg press, which is easier than a squat.
8. Using advanced training methods: Pre-fatigue, cluster sets, rest/pauses, drop sets, iso-dynamic contrasts, tempo contrast, etc. These can add training stress (and should thus not be abused) and represent a progression in the difficulty of a program.
9. Better mental focus: Some will say "boooooring," but never neglect the mental aspect of lifting. If you're training for strength and power, you need an efficient nervous system. If you're a bodybuilder, being able to focus on your muscles working will increase the efficacy of your sets.
In layman's terms, if a client progresses from just breezing through the exercises to having 100% focus on each set, he has progressed. Two great supplements can make a huge difference in focus: Power Drive (my all time favorite supplement) and Spike (the new big kid on the block). Both can stimulate the nervous system or increase neurotransmitter production, which will go a long way in improving the efficacy of your workouts.
On the other hand, some people also train excessively either by 1) doing too much volume per session, 2) training too often with a high volume, or 3) increasing the difficulty of their program too rapidly. In both cases (inadequate or excessive training), this will lead to stagnation or even regression.
Quite simply, most people don't eat enough food to grow. This is often due to the fact that the average gym rat believes that he can gain a lot of muscle while getting ripped at the same time.
Sorry, won't happen. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue; it's a huge energy hog! Your body would rather be alive and skinny than superbly muscular but dead! As a result, if you don't consume enough calories each day, the body won't "want" to add any more muscle tissue because this would further increase energy expenditure, thus even less energy would be available to sustain life and regular functions.
To be blunt, to build muscle you need:
1) A caloric surplus: Generally a surplus of 10% above your daily energy expenditure is sufficient.
2) A sufficient amount of protein: Around 1 to 1.25 grams per pound is more than adequate.
3) A sufficient amount of carbohydrates to fuel your daily activities. I've been carb-phobic myself, but it wasn't until I increased my carb intake that I was able to significantly increase my muscle mass.
4) Enough good fats to facilitate hormonal and energy production.
Workout meals are also part of overall good nutrition, namely pre-workout and post-workout meals. The best way to provide all the necessary tools to your body during that time is in the form of a rapidly absorbed form of nutrition. The absolute best product to use is Surge; nothing even comes close.
In a perfect world you'd use half a serving pre-workout, half a serving during the workout, one serving 15-30 minutes post-workout, and another serving one hour afterwards. This will have almost drug-like effects on your gains. Trust me on this! (Note that I don't consider Surge to be a supplement; rather, I see it as "designer food" presented in concentrated form.)
In the history of mankind, nobody has ever gotten stronger or bigger in the gym. When you leave that place of torture you're in a worse state than you were coming in! Your energy stores are depleted, your muscle fibers have suffered micro-trauma, and your nervous system is overloaded! When do you grow then? At the kitchen table and in your bed!
To grow maximally you need at least eight hours of rest per night, nine to ten being even better. A daily afternoon nap can also do you a world of good. To make your sleeping period even more effective, a simple trick is to drink a serving of Low-Carb Grow! along with three caps of fish oil (to slow down absorption over a longer period of time). This is to ensure that your body has an ample supply of muscle-building proteins while you sleep.
I also suggest having two to three days off from training per week. If you're an athlete who performs both strength and track training, it would be preferable to do them both on the same day as to avoid reducing the number of complete rest days. During those recovery days it's possible and even advised to engage in some light physical activity, but nothing draining.
It's important to note that besides muscle fiber distribution, another important factor comes into play: anabolic hormone levels. The amount of muscle mass one carries is positively correlated with free and total Testosterone levels.
If we can increase Testosterone levels we can build more muscle on a consistent basis. Some men might very well be "programmed" to have higher levels of Testosterone. Other might have depressed "T" levels due to several external factors. Obviously using exogenous Testosterone (anabolic steroids) will go a long way toward building more muscle, but for those wanting to increase their "T" levels legally, what can be done?
Plenty! A good starting point is to use an effective supplement like Alpha Male. The high purity tribulus it contains will increase LH levels which acts as the signal to increase Testosterone production. The avena sativa and eurycoma longifolia also present in the product will lower SHBG activity which will leave more of the new Testosterone produced in its free form (the active form of Testosterone). The combination of these three products is the best legal and all natural stack to increase Testosterone production.
Another product worth mentioning is cordyceps sinensis which has been shown to mimic LH in humans. This may also stimulate Testosterone production.
As far as nutrition goes, it's been shown that insufficient calories and fat consumption can depress Testosterone levels. So I must once again reiterate the importance of consuming a caloric surplus and good fats (fish oils, flax seeds) when attempting to gain muscle mass.
Copout No More
Genetics are, in my opinion, a copout. Except for a rare few, we all have the capacity to build a significant amount of muscle mass if we take the necessary steps. If you fail to gain at an acceptable rate, the problem is most likely not in your genes, but rather in the way you train, eat, or rest.
Never give up; always strive to improve the way you do things. Never use genetics as an excuse or a putdown. Train hard, eat big, and sleep well. Then repeat!
Note: Christian Thibaudeau's Black Book of Training Secrets is now available in the T-Nation store.
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