The kernel inside every fitness effort is the belief that a person has the ability to change themselves. The French scientist Alexis Carrel had a poetic way of summing it up; “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.”Self improvement activities are unique in that they use the power of the mind and body to change the very mind and body themselves. It truly is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. This is why it’s so hard to do. It requires equal portions of determination and positivity. Determination to keep going when things are hard, and the positivity to know that the suffering is worth it and that it WILL pay off.
It’s for this reason that personal trainers and fitness professionals often tiptoe around the topic of genetics. Training your body is all about focusing on things you can control; your nutrition, your muscle stimulation, your rest cycles, and your state of mind. Juggling all of that is hard enough. Worrying about your genetic profile is a distraction. It’s hard to understand, even harder to explain, and you can’t do anything about it anyway. And to top things off, dwelling on genetics can impact both your determination to keep going and your positivity that it’s all worth it.
I want to keep you positive and determined. So I need you to stick with me as we discuss this topic all the way through to the end. Even though there may be some bummer moments along the way, I promise you’ll feel more empowered and in control once all the facts are laid on the table!
The word “gene” is just shorthand for the molecular constructions which determine how your body codes proteins. As a human, you have more than 20,000 genes.
You and your cat share 90% of the same genes. You and the fruit fly buzzing around your bananas share about 60% of the same genes. And you and those very same bananas share 50% of the same genes.
Our closest genetic cousin is the chimpanzee, with whom we share about 98% of the same DNA. That last two percent is the difference between the two young creatures in this photo.
Which brings us to our fellow homo sapiens. The genetic difference between you and any other human on the planet is at most .5% And within this half of a percent we manage to make ourselves miserable. It's like the old joke about two men who meet by chance on vacation, discover they live in the same town, went to the same high-school, have the same number of kids, drive the same car, but one is a Catholic and one is a Protestant. "Nice guy, but we don't have much in common."
When you compare yourself with another person, you're highlighting the tenth of a percent difference between you and them. But we're a mercurial species, and these differences end up being much more meaningful than they ought to. The color of a person's skin is, in terms of genetics, a rounding error. At the level of DNA, it's such a trivial thing that it's not even worth talking about. And look at how much grief it's caused throughout world history. This goes back to a core belief I have. Want to end racism, sexism, and fundamentalism in one go? Teach kids science! That's all it takes! But I digress.
In terms of your fitness and aesthetics, the gene expressions people care about most are:
Proportions - your basic bone structure. How wide your hips or shoulders are. Your height. The length of your limbs. The shape of your skull.
Fat storage - everyone has different coding for where their body prefers to tuck away adipose tissue. It could be the midsection, the hips, the thighs, the breasts, the back of the arms, or even under the chin.
Muscle mass - gorillas are about 10 times stronger than the strongest human. But I don't see any apes waiting for their turn on the bench press at the gym. The gorilla genome simply codes for extremely high muscle mass. Humans have a lot of variance in how much muscle they naturally maintain, as well as how quickly their bodies can add (or lose) muscle.
Muscle composition - this one is complicated so I'll stick to the basics. There are two types of muscle fibers. "Slow twitch" muscle is red, has a lot of mitochondria and uses an oxidative process as fuel. "Fast twitch" muscle is white, has much fewer mitochondria and uses sugar (glucose) as its energy source. Slow twitch muscle has high endurance but low power output. Good for things like long distance running. Fast twitch muscle fiber can produce a lot of power very quickly but can't be used for very long. Perfect for activities like sprinting or powerlifting. We all have both types of fibers in our bodies, but your genes will determine what ratio of each type you carry. People with predominately slow twitch fibers will have less visibly large muscles and will struggle to add muscle mass, but will have better endurance. Those with a lot of fast twitch fibers will find they gain muscle easily but are quickly fatigued.
In fitness, these four areas are the variables which impact your results the most. And there's not a damn thing you can do about them.
In the modern cultural milieu, there's a clear preference forming as far as body aesthetics go. You should be tall but not too tall. If you're a man you should have very even fat storage across your body. If you're a woman you should have fat storage going to your hips and breasts but nowhere else. You should have well balanced muscle mass and composition. Men should have more fast twitch muscle fibers to create tone and dimension, women should have more slow twitch fibers to create long, elegant muscles. If all of these things are true for you, then congratulations, you've won the genetic lottery and are the ideal body type for modern Western culture. Of course in Samoa you'd be a skinny freak and in third century Han dynasty you'd be a hideous over-muscled barbarian, but that's the nature of culture, it's fickle.
But perhaps you didn't pass all those hurdles. Maybe you're a too-short guy. Maybe you're a too-tall girl. Maybe you're a male with too much slow twitch muscle, making you unappealingly skinny. Or a female with too much red fiber, making your muscles too bulky and "unfeminine". You cannot change these things. You are stuck.
You have two options from here; despair that you'll never have the body you want, or delight in the body you have. I recommend the latter.
Eating right and exercising won't make you look like a model, but it will make you look like you, and that's pretty awesome. Within all of us is a genetic blueprint for our body at its best. Low bodyfat, good muscle mass, strong hearts, and high performance. Your low bodyfat might never be the same as a naturally lean person, and that lean person's muscle mass might never be as high as yours, but these things are inconsequential. For better or for worse, you have the genes you do. All that matters is that you make the most of them. No one could ask any more of you.
Bodybuilders know this very well. I've often heard them say things like "I reached my genetic potential at 32 years old." The importance of good genetics isn't a dirty secret on the bodybuilding circuit, which is why steroid abuse is so widely tolerated. Same for cycling. When everyone is eating perfectly, working as hard as they can, and giving their lives to a sport, the role of genetics becomes almost an insult. Good DNA? What an arbitrary, unfair way to select winners!
Fortunately, none of us has to compete at these elite levels, and we can bypass all the harm and extremism that goes along with living in that world. This means we can be happy doing the best we can with the genes we've got.
And trust me, there's a LOT you can do, no matter how the genetic spreadsheet is adding up for you. First and foremost, as I'll keep saying until I'm blue in the face, get your body fat down with a solid nutrition plan. Low body fat will make EVERY kind of body look good. After that, exercise smart and exercise often. This means targeted workouts that burn calories and build muscle in a sustainable way. This will get you 90% of the way there. The last 10% is all about the choices you make. Ladies, have a "meh" midsection but great arms? Go sleeveless! Works for the First Lady! Guys, have a weak upper body but nice toned legs? Get out the shorts! Accentuate your best points and minimize your weaknesses. You'll look better, which is nice, but most importantly you'll feel better about yourself. This allows you to access that crucial positivity and determination which changes lives.
Talking about genetics, the most common comparison is that of being dealt a deck of cards. This is the hand you drew, play it out as best you can. If you were dealt a bad hand then tough luck, life's not fair.
But that analogy never rang true for me. It's missing an important caveat. True, you're at the mercy of the genetic card dealer, but you have the unique ability to look at your hand, then walk around the casino and choose which game it's best suited for. Maybe you drew cards that would be useful in poker. Or perhaps you're well set-up for a blackjack game. Or maybe it would be better to take your hand and play bridge on a quiet Sunday. It's up to you!
Find the activities that match up well with your natural physical properties. If you're burly and full of fast twitch muscle don't kill yourself in the marathon. If you're naturally lean and toned don't get caught up the pursuit of bigger muscles (men) or sexier curves (women). You'll see your personal satisfaction skyrocket once you stop fighting your genes and start working with what you've got. A skillful carpenter works with the grain of his wood. A master sculptor looks at the raw piece of marble and chooses a pose that gets the most out of the block of stone. You should do the same with the body you're sitting in right now.
Your first task is to get your body fat down and muscle mass up. Your second task is finding a "look" and an activity that's a nice match for the cards you've been dealt. The third task is to enjoy your wonderful, one-of-a-kind body, not despite its flaws, but because its flaws make you YOU!