How strength training works with your genetics
Genetics has seen a boom in popularity recently.
The reason is obvious: we’re entering the sci-fi field of genetic research where we’ve mapped the genome, tests are commercially feasible, and Crispr makes it plausible to think that human genome manipulation is just around the corner.
With this hype surrounding the field, it’s unsurprising that we’ve had a boom in questions about genetics and their role on both strength training and obesity. Today we’re dealing with the former: the way that genes play into your training.
The Genetic Threshold: Genes as a Limiter
The most common discussion of genetics in strength and performance is always the genetic limit.
This is the notion that there is a maximum genetic capacity for any type of adaptation that is linked to your genes. This makes sense, right? You can only get so good at anything – strength, power, muscle mass, endurance, whatever.
The problem with this idea is that most people will never bump into their genetic limit. This is something we primarily see discussed by individuals with 5 or so years of training experience who talk definitively about their genetic limit and how it’s impossible to get better. The problem is that these people tend to train like trash.
When we look at the most dominant athletes of all time, they continued to progress for decades without hitting a “genetic limit”. Michael Phelps continued to hit personal bests until 2015 – over a decade after his first world record. If Phelps can continue to improve his performance for this long, it’s ridiculous to think that anyone but the most elite athletes would talk about the genetic limit.
In powerlifting, the sport of strength training, the top-level competitors continue to hit PRs after a similar time. To start with, be sceptical of anyone talking about genetic limitations.
Why Are Genetics Overrated?
Discussions on genetics like this are limited. To start with, you have no idea what your genetics are like or what your limit is – if you ever find it. You can’t read your genetics without huge amounts of financial investment and medical technology. And even if you could, it wouldn’t provide you with actionable information.
There are a lot of steps between the genes in your cells and the ‘functional gene products’ that actually act in your body. It’s not quite as simple as the genes controlling the body – it’s a highly-mediated process. Everything from your diet to your environment plays into your gene expression.
Plasticity in genes and adaptation is one of the most important and interesting fields of study that have popped up in the last few decades. The way that these things take effect are crucial in your long-term “limit”. Exercise in youth is an easy way to improve your limit, as is dealing with hormonal and environmental factors in your training.
We can’t say for certain that there’s a causal mechanism between the genes and the results you experience. We know that there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ genetics for progress, power, muscle development, and hundreds of other factors. The problem is that we can’t really discuss them in a 1-1 way. It’s just too complicated right now.
Genetics: Why you Shouldn’t Care
We’re going to keep this brief. You shouldn’t care about your genetics for strength training for a number of reasons:
- You can’t change your DNA
- They don’t directly influence your results, only in a mediated way
- Your environment, training and recovery play a bigger role in day-to-day progress than your genes
- We don’t know exactly how genetic differences influence/cause specific changes in training
- You’re probably never going to see the impact of your genes on a genetic limit or elite sport performance
This isn’t a negative statement. It’s actualy quite liberating: you don’t need to worry about your genetics if you’re a fitness or strength enthusiast. The best in the world haven’t hit their limits, your genes don’t determine your progress, and you have more influence through the environmental variables than your genes have.
The simple facts are that genes won’t play a role in your day-to-day life. There’s a lot of fancy talk about them, but the only time they’re a real concern is the very top level of sport – when you’re competing against people who do everything right at the Olympics or professional leagues.
Your genes don’t limit you and they don’t dictate what you can achieve: focus on getting your environment right and maybe one day the only limiter will be your genes. That should be the goal!