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Genetics Damn Genetics

There is an article in the fitness section of the New York Times titled “Why some people won’t be fit despite exercise” at I believe you have to have an online ID to read it which you can sign up for free. The article points to a study done that showed there is a certain protion of the population that does not experince any significant performance or aesthetic benefits from training. In addition some portions of the population can only improve in specific areas but not in others some become bigger but not significantly stronger and vice versa. Anyway read the article and tell give me me some thoughts are genetics really as powerful as it seems in this article or can even the those with the least beneficial genes to the training effect, or are the doomed to a mediocre physique?

I didn’t read the article but I’d say genetics are an important factor that effect some things more than others. I think genetics have an effect on appearance much more then they do performance so this really sucks for bodybuilders or others trying to change mainly their appearance. As far as some people not being fit despite exercise I guess it depends on the definition of fit. If talking about a fit appearance I’d say a large segment of the population is never going to look fit without going to extremes no matter what they do or don’t do…quite often it seems the body has it’s own mind and does what the hell it wants to do.

This article has raised quite a stink in the Health Promotion world. The thing is, it is quite factual, but the negative aspects of what Hoffman and Bouchard have done, were over-emphasized. When you think about it though, what these researchers are talking about is simple population genetics, which is really just probability. Everything that has a large number and random distribution is considered a population. Populations always have a bell curve shaped distribution. That means that the majority of any population is going to be in the middle of the bell curve (normal), but there are going to be small numbers of individuals on either end of the curve (mutants). So, for every Flex Wheeler or Arnold Schwarznegger, or any other elite athlete you can name (mutants), there is going to be one individual who got the short end of the genetic stick (another mutant). These poor responders though, are going to be as rare as the Flex Wheelers. So, yes there will be non-responders, but they will be rare. Further, if you are a non-responder in one catergory, you may be a responder in another. For example, you may not lose fat mass with exercise, but you may derive physiological benefits not characterized by the researchers as benefits (e.g. improved insulin sensitivity, mental accuity, strength to mass ratio). Similarly, you may not get stronger with weight lifting, but you may gain mass, or the other way around. Because physical performance is typically multifactorial, the contribution of genetics will vary depending on the activity or discipline. Genetics have been estimated to contribute anywhere from 30-60 % of performance, and that would likely go for physique as well.

I didn’t read the article, but wtf? if these people suck so much that they can’t get any benefit from excercise how come they haven’t died yet due to their poor genetics? Sure we all can’t be Ronnie Coleman’s or what nots, but still… sounds like an excuse for some wuss not to train and to eat craptastic (yet delicious) foods.

There is some truth to it. Not everyone can be a Pro bodybuilder, after all. With the right diet, the right exercise, and the right motivation, anyone can be “fit”, whatever “fit” actually means these days.

“Genetic limits exist, but you’re probably no where near yours so stop using that excuse” by Chris Shugart (Things We’ve Learned, t-mag.com articles/192things.html)

I am sure people can never get a perfect six or be as big as Arnold but exercise and diet will benefit everybody.

I useto work out with a roommate of mine (a long time ago) and she was amazingly strong. But she was a stick. Her strength would increase but there would be little muscle growth. And then there’s me and I would grow along with my strength levels. Wild. My boyfriend is also strong, but not the biggest guy on the block - but he stays lean and eats a TON of food. Well, we both eat alot. An article like this is not surprising, considering all the different body types I’ve seen in my many years of training. But I hope people - or the average person - doesn’t use this article in the wrong way. I believe people should embrace what makes us all different, unique and take full advantage of our individual strengths. If ya can’t grow, but maybe your strength will increase and vice verse. But most people will only use this article as another excuse to not be physically active. Sad, but true.

No matter how or where genetics is discussed, one overarching truth remains: potential is understood only in retrospect. Misperception and early retirement killed more promising physiques than genetics ever will. After more than a decade of training, I had every observable reason to believe I was a skinny-fat-freak impervious to weight training. But I made a marked improvement in the last three years – thanks in part to T-mag and Biotest – improvement that my earlier years seemed to GUARANTEE would never happen. So everything in that article may be scientifically correct, but to draw from it the assumption that we are equipped to gauge our own potential, even after a long term pursuit, is emphatically incorrect.

Doesn’t this article help prove that exercise is only half of the equation? The other half is proper diet, and I don’t mean just calorie restriction.

I think that articles like this are tailored more towards their audience than grounded in reality. It seems like every week the slob brigade comes up with “exercise causes heart attacks”, “creatine is poisonous”, “vitamin C gives you cancer” studies, whereby they report facts selectively and/ or conduct very limited studies (eg. measuring the effects of exercise without controlling subjects diet). Middle aged slobs WANT to be told that theres nothing they can do about their bodies, it sells newspapers/ magazines/ websites. I doubt this study is any better. Like a few guys have posted, not everyone can look like Schwarzennegger, but I find it impossible to believe that somebody who trains CORRECTLY and eats CORRECTLY can’t make noticeable changes in their physique.

Debo–Actually, the studies they are referring to in the article were impeccable. One of the scientists they interviewed was Claude Bouchard. Bouchard performed a series of studies using identical twins. The specifics varied between studies, but the general principle was that the twins were sequestered in the Canadian wilderness for weeks or months at a time. All calories consumed were accounted for. Since they were in the wilderness, in a cabin, they couldn’t sneak off to 7-11 to grab twinkies. Also, activity level was controlled. While they were isolated in the cabin, they would exercise a given amount each day and no other activity was allowed. So, these studies are as close as you can get to actual lab rats. In these studies there was a clear relationship between genetics and weight loss using caloric restriction. There was also a clear genetic component of improvement in VO2max with cardiovascular training. The way they knew there was a clear relationship is that there was a distribution of responses to both factors (weight loss and fitness increase), some would lose 20 lbs in 6 weeks, while others would lose only 5 lbs with the same caloric deficit. The thing is, identical twins responded identically. That is, if one twin lost 20 lbs, the other twin would lose about 20 lbs. If one twin lost only 3 lbs, the other twin would lose a relatively small amount. The same response was observed for improvements with VO2 to training. The distribution was fairly wide (~5-30 %), but the twin correlation was very high. The differences in weight/fat loss could not be explained by caloric expenditure, as all subjects had the same caloric deficit and this was undisputable. Similarly, the response to exercise training could not be explained by differences in training as all subjects went through the same training regimen, which was also undisputable. These studies laid the ground work for later stuff Bouchard, Whilmore, and Hoffman have all done, in humans, demonstrating a strong genetic contribution to performance and body composition. And there are clearly non-responders, but the thing is they are as few and far between as the strong responders and this should be emphasized. Not the fact that a few individuals might not benefit (physiologically) very much from training. (disclaimer: the numbers I was using for changes in the studies were guestimates from memory, don’t quote me on it)

Of course, you cannot ignore that people with different genetics will respond differently. And of course, there are some people that do everything right but still make little progress, but these people are by far a tiny majority. During grad school, I took a seminar class on Obesity offered by the Nutrition department. I was the only Exercise Science person in the class and also I was the only person who both exercised and really understood the real world application of exercise and nutrition. Every single paper we read talked about hormonal control over food intake or some other genetic mechansim to cause obesity. The message from the class: Quit trying to do anything because your genetics are going to limit your progress and wait until we have figured out some way to tweak your genes so that you can lose weight. OK, so this was not said explicity, but that was the attitude of the profs and many of the nutrition PhD and MS students. I argued vigoursly that humans are intelligent creatures who have control of their bodies. Sure we get cravings and such, but we can learn to deal with these things. Anyway, they never budged. It is a sad world these people live in. By in large, people are fat and out of shape because they eat crap and don’t exercise. For every one person who has a leptin deficiency or a totally screwed thyroid, there are thousands who are fat because they choose to be fat.

Steve: Fascinating points. I thank you for contributing to thread; however, I think your non-responder analogy to Flex Wheeler is flawed, and here’s why. Even though Flex is a genetic “mutant,” he would not look the way he does without training. Sure, he’d be bigger and more ripped than most of us, but he still wouldn’t be the perfect specimen he’s become through years of hard training. Similarly, non-responders to exercise might be gentically predisposed not to responding to training, but training will still cause them to respond in some way. Following Selye (GAS), if it didn’t they’d die the first time they lifted weights (or at least suffer permanent metabolic and structural damage) as their bodies would be unable to adapt to the stresses imposed on them. So I can’t believe that there are people who are true non-responders to exercise. Very minimal responders, yes, but not non-responders. Even very minimal responders, I believe, can change their physiques with years of hard training and proper nutrition. Cool thread.

The point with regard to Flex is that he responds to a greater extent than the normal individual. (to be quite honest, I don’t know Flex, and I don’t really know if he trains harder, less, smarter etc.) I am really just using him as an example because he has been proposed as an example of an individual with a myostatin mutation and would therfore be larger than normal regardless of training, and with training is certainly on the extreme end of the distribution with regard to response to training. You don’t get that huge without being at the extreme end of the curve with regard to genetic capacity no matter how good your training program and nutrition are. With regard to the non-responders, the data from Bouchard, with regard to aerobic training and weight loss, indicates that there is a small segment of the population that respond very very little. Now, is this to say that they don’t respond at all, no, but the response is relatively small compared to even the normal responder. The thing is, I would suspect that the non-responder segement of the population is likely bigger now, in North America, than in any other time or place on Earth. The reason non-responders should be such a small segment of the population, is that they are selected out of the population by predators. Since the only predators in the North America typically carry Mac 10s or Uzis, the selection is removed. Selye’s response cannot happen if the genetic mechanisms are not in place. Back in the good old days, if you got chased by a sabre tooth tiger and survived, you responded to the training and were more likely to contribute to the gene pool. The non-responders likelihood of survival doesn’t improve, so sooner or later, he is removed from the gene pool. There isn’t much selective pressure to remove the non-responders any more.

Good information y’all. This is indeed another cool thread. Hey, Jason N have you ever considered putting together something (video, internet video, in writing), regarding “real world application” to exercise and nutrition. I was once a fitness trainer (and the only person on staff who did not have a Exercise Science Degree), at a local gym/health club - nevertheless I had 14-years of weight training and a lifetime involvement in a variety of sports. I’m in no way knocking degrees (for heaven’s sake, I work in a University) but I found that many of the other fitness trainers relied very heavily upon the books they had read rather than Getting in The Gym and Seeing IF ANY of the Theories Studied Actually Were Sound Theories…y’know used their bodies as a test subject (guinea pig). I used alot of common sense in my training and it’s something that I firmly believed I should pass on to my clients as well as other pertinent information (good form, technique, basic nutrition, etc.). But I would be interested in seeing what else you have to say on this subject (real-world application/exercise and nutrition).

I see your point, Steve, and I think we’re just hung up on semantics. Those you’re calling “non-responders” are really, in your own words (or something like them), not true non responders, but “very, very minimal responders.” I can buy that, but I still think that with many years of hard training such folks could improve their physiques to the point of respectability.

Sure, I do think that even people with the worst genetics can make some positive gains, although in some cases those will be pretty minimal. In this situation, it could be a case of putting all their eggs in the wrong basket. Regardless what people say, it is a challenge to live the kind of lifestyle us on here uphold: it means structuring your activities around your workout, preparing food in advance, being able to access food every few hours…it can definitely become quite an obsession for a lot of people. Fair enough, but if this is the case for the genetically challenged (for want of a more diplomatic label), surely their efforts are misdirected? Sure, training is enjoyable, and an excellent diet is imperative for your health, but if your genes dictate that you would need double the effort for only a fraction of the results, I think there is a strong argument that it would be smarter to direct time, effort and focus on other areas where success is much more likely to come. After all, we lift to feel good about ourselves. If, due to a lack of results, this is not happening, it is natural to look elsewhere for a source of self-esteem.

hmm interesting stuff on the minimal gains… here’s some more stuff to think about, on the spanish channel (they got hot chicks and lots of them) they had this midget dood on the stage, anywho this midget dood was apparently a bodybuilder (I don’t speak much spanish but he was wearing tight clothing and cut off jeans and doing poses) now this dood’s muscles looked like playdough, he had no v shape to his torso and his biceps looked well they looked weird. So for midgets excercise yields minimal asthetic gains (imho), but for non midgets I don’t think the point of minimal gains is a valid ones… compared to what? compared to Mr. O? if you compare most of us to Mr. O someone might come to the conclusion that we all suxor. Do we consider ourselves minimal responders? HELL FREAKIN NO! I really don’t think that non midgets can’t get any sizable asethetic and strengh improvement from excercise. Course most of what I post I make up or read somewhere else then alter due to poor memory hehe

I’m glad his thread has been so good. The study seemed so good that I thought it needed posting. I think physical characteristics are sort of like brain power sure you can study alot but you will never be John Nash or for some they will never get through a second year of calculus. But in the same way everyone does seem to have gifts in certain areas whether it be in acheiving sheer muscular size or in acheiving incredible physical endurance. I think training should be tailored to the individual as carefully as possible to take advantage of physical differences rather than be in opposition of them.

First of all, thank you for the kind words. My philosophy when it comes to training and nutrition is based on the combination of three things: 1)what goes on in the lab, 2)what goes on in the gym and 3)what goes on in the brain. These three pieces make a complete puzzle. An optimal combination of these three factors would be something that works in the lab, the gym and has scientific logic behind it. Many times, some fo these pieces are missing, but to discount something just because it is not yet proven in the lab even though it looks good on paper and is getting results in the gym is foolish. That is why sites like T-Mag are way more advanced in helping with real-world results then university based exercise programs or the help that you will receive from an MD, PhD or anyone else tied by the strings of beaurocracy and academia. Bottom line, if you wait for all three pieces of the puzzle, you miss out most of the time.