How much do genetics define our physique results and how much should we care?

At 16, I dreamt of becoming a geneticist–that or the lead singer/songwriter for a band. Genetics was a new and exciting scientific frontier (whereas my songwriting admittedly didn’t mesh with the then-current Pacific NW grunge scene). Back in the Nineties, we believed that we could unlock the genetic code of anyone and read each of our futures and possibilities on our DNA, and with the Human Genome Project changing our knowledge literally every week, it was an exciting time. In the decades that have followed, the reality of what we can learn from someone’s genetic code has proven to be a lot more complicated.

Complicated realities have shown us that we can carry a gene for something, but it might not express itself unless the environment activates it (epigenetics). This means we can “inherit” traits from the womb environment, childhood experiences, and by living in one society rather than another. We’ve learned that some traits can involve literally dozens or hundreds of different genes, and it’s the complicated mix of those traits that results in the final results. And of course, we’ve learned that many traits are only partially explained by our genetics–a combination how we live and what options our genetic code bring to the proverbial table.

The evidence-based fitness world seems to be abuzz with discussion about genetics these past few weeks, sparking deep conversations about comparison to others and the mindsets and traits necessary to get above-average physique results. What is the balance between hard work and genetic potential? Can someone work their way out of unfavorable genetics?

When genetics was the topic of the day over at 3DMJ they asked how do elite, natural professional bodybuilders evaluate their own genetics? To what degree do they believe their results are evidence of their hard work and determination rather than genetic potential? I think they do a good job of navigating the tricky combination of personal choice and chance in determining what they have been capable of over years of training. I also find this to be a very compassionate conversation, leaving open room for believing in people’s possibilities without pushing too much towards the you just got to lift harder bro kind of message.

And speaking of you just got to lift harder bro. . . Apparently the 3DMJ conversation was inspired by another one on the Brains and Gains Podcast. This is a new one for me, and I’m still exploring it to decide if it’s going more regularly into the rotation.

The host, Dr. David Maconi, invited a guest, “Natural Hypertrophy,” to share his perspective on the division between genetic potential and hard work in determining physique results. Specifically, although never directly stated, this was a conversation about muscle mass and body fat percentage. The guest said something like “if everyone were to train for ten years ‘average genetics’ would improve.” He also says that he thinks that if trainers acknowledge that there are genetic differences, trainees will stop trying because they will think their goals are unattainable. So, rather than having an honest conversation about realistic goalposts and how to reach them, he seems to advocate for just pushing everyone to work as hard as possible to reach their desired physique. Needless to say, this perspective smacks of privilege and a lack of acknowledgement that that isn’t an equally attainable expectation for everyone.

In my own experience, I could argue that I’ve trained consistently for the last 10 years, if you are willing to define consistency as “continuing to do the work, in the capacity I’ve been able to do it, on a regular basis.” During those 10 years I’ve had numerous hurdles to lifting as often and as intensely as I would prefer to do, including multiple major surgeries, each requiring many months of rehab to get me back to lifting, an intensification of the symptoms related to my PTSD, and of course a worldwide pandemic that shut down gyms that we’ve all had to navigate. I have continued to train as much as I can under those circumstances, but what the training has looked like has had to vary depending on my circumstances. That’s reality, and each of us has to navigate our own realities, and in the normal curve of life experience, it is reasonable to assume some folks will have more hurdles and other folks will have less. Even without going into my genetic potential, it isn’t a simple case of wanting it badly enough.

Apparently, the roundtable with Natural Hypertrophy was a chance for NH to respond to this next video from Dr. Maconi. An excellent point Dave makes in the video that I didn’t hear from others is that our own personal experiences bias how we interpret results. If someone has an easier time putting on muscle or leaning out, they are more likely to attribute it to their hard work or superior skills rather than to assume they have a genetic advantage. (Although he commits my least favorite sexist blunder and refers to “people” many times when he means “men.”)

I don’t know for certain if the previous three conversations were the stepping-off point for the gents at Iron Culture, but I feel like the recent return to their discussion about the importance of individual goals and motivations for lifting feels very much like it could be a response. Diving into the philosophical end of the pool, Eric and Omar focus on how our standards and expectations, when externally motivated, naturally result in folks going to extremes while still being unsatisfied, and they make an excellent argument for folks on both sides of the natty or not dichotomy to focus on their own journey rather than comparing their outcomes to other people.

When Greg Nuckols, over at Stronger By Science, tackled the discussion of genetics, he brings in a breath of fresh air–actually discussing what we know about the genetics of building muscle and losing bodyfat! He makes the point I wanted to scream at the Natural Hypertrophy guy that human behavior isn’t entirely in our individual control, and we have lots of evidence in the obesity/eating space that shows us genetic variation strongly influencing our choices and behaviors under similar circumstances.

In all of these conversations the heart of the discussion turns to the values and pitfalls of physique comparison. We all have genetic factors that influence what our bodies look like and the more we learn about it, the more we must interact with that reality. And this happens in combination with a society that pushes comparison at all times of all bodies and economic systems that provide financial incentives to push people to look a certain way and to pursue those appearances.

So, here we have five separate videos involving nine men, all of whom have trained for a decade or longer, mostly White and under the age of forty, generalizing about what is possible for the general public. What’s missing?

In two of the five conversations, there was no discussion of how genetics impacts our behaviors. This is not something I’ve seen a lot of research on in the fitness space, but there’s a lot of discussion in the obesity space. Take a listen to this discussion with Dr. Stephen Guienet on how neurobiology impacts our eating decisions at a subconscious level.

https://podcasts.apple.com/sa/podcast/neurobiology-of-obesity-with-dr-stephan-guyenet/id1611961208?i=1000579199248

Or, you can listen to this lecture from Dr. Giles Yeo on genetics as an influence on obesity.

We know that some of us are genetically more predisposed to certain kinds of stimuli increasing our appetite and our willingness to eat when we are less hungry than others. Some people simply find it easier to eat less. Likewise, I would assume that some of us are going to find it easier to deal with the discomforts related to training. It is understandable and expected that our tolerance for these challenges will vary from person to person, and we can’t all just work harder. I was very pleased to hear Jeff make a similar point over on the 3DMJ podcast, mentioning that he would expect variation between people on the ability to develop training behaviors and to maintain them.

Another missing component to these conversations is hearing from the perspective of folks who learn about the limits of genetic potential, the dangers of comparison, and decide that the healthiest decision for themselves is to step off the field and not play the game. That doesn’t mean they stop pursuing physical activity for other health reasons, but they decide that for themselves the pursuit of physique isn’t a health-promoting motivator. At the extreme end of this spectrum are the folks who want none of us to ever have those motivators, who are pushing back against societal norms that put so much emphasis on appearance and see any of us who pursue physique as contributing to and complicit with oppressive diet culture. These folks aren’t wrong that a lot of harm is done to individuals by themselves and others by the unquestioning, overemphasis on the size and appearance of people’s bodies. I value personal autonomy too much to fully be in agreement with a universal goal that no one ever have physique goals, but I am deeply sympathetic to the harms that they are responding to.

Another completely missing piece to the many conversations above is the implicit racism of our current beauty standards. I’m in the middle of reading Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings and have already learned a lot about the history tying together racism and fatphobia in Eurocentric societies. When we compare ourselves to these ideals and strictly attempt to adhere to them, we are continuing to validate a racist system. I haven’t heard about it anywhere yet, but I feel like it isn’t a coincidence that bodybuilding shows and physical culture became a cultural phenomenon not long after dog shows became a thing motivated by an explicitly eugenicist philosophy. Perfecting humanity became a goal for a lot of people at the turn of the last century, justifying genocides around the world, and unfortunately, we continue to need reminders of the dangers of that idea today. Regardless, if the standards are inherently racist, then the definitions of ideal genetics must therefore have unequal racial implications as well.

I love bodybuilding, but I don’t want to contribute to or collaborate with oppressive systems. I work to circle that square by having more individualized definitions of “the goal.” I want each athlete, weekend warrior or recreational bodybuilder to do the work they can do consistently, at the intensity that brings them joy, to build the best version of themselves that they feel inspired to build. I want us to honor our individual body types, our individual genotypes and phenotypes, and keep our focus on doing what brings us joy in the process rather than defining success on an arbitrary outcome.

When we let external factors characterize a “good” result and a “bad” one, “good genetics” and “bad genetics,” we are by definition creating comparisons against an ideal. There is a place in our experience for appreciation of beauty, hard work, and individual accomplishment, but I wouldn’t want that to hold more importance than personal achievement compared against oneself. Even that can be a shaky definition of success for those of us who have again and again had to redefine the goalposts due to health and mental health barriers or changing physical abilities or disabilities. We won’t all continue to progress over time. Ten years of consistent, intense work isn’t equally available to each of us. Our genetics plays a role in that reality. I think knowing the diversity within the genetic code can be a wonderful access point for gaining the compassion necessary to be kinder with ourselves and others and needn’t be dispiriting or lead us to a fatalistic unwillingness to try. Working towards the best health, strength, and physical confidence I can is certainly more achievable than my dreams of becoming a hit singer/songwriter.

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