“There is a kinship, a kind of freemasonry, between all persons of intelligence, however antagonistic their moral outlook.”

Norman Douglas

The Manipulation of training routines so as to more properly engage one’s genetic profile has much in common with the science and technique behind fat loss, in that one can quickly lose any sense of practical bearing, sliding headlong into the rabbit hole of minutia.  As an example, just look at the comments that this post generated.  After all that bantering over “is a calorie a calorie”, we’re still right back to making real-life decisions about what and what not to eat.  Paleo works, and the mechanisms behind why it works are known (even if some of the minutia are still hotly debated); but really, though — does the minutia matter one whit when you’re out at the restaurant with friends, and faced with a decision between steak and pasta?  Real life is where we operate, and the succession of real life decisions are where we ultimately either succeed or fail at out goals.

Now, as I’ve said before, I can geek-out on the minutia and specifics of a subject with the best of them — however, practically speaking, if real, tangible health and fitness is what we’re seeking, we’ve got to get out of bed in the morning and hit the ground running with a foundationally solid, and doable, plan of attack.   At 5 AM on a workout morning, I have to have converted whatever applicable science I so choose into actual weight on the bar; sets, reps, total time under load — this is where real progress is made; this is where theory is converted to practice.

So I’ve been thinking a bit lately about individual genetic profiles, determinism, and sporting prowess; the specific genetic hand we’re dealt, and how best to play that hand within the limitations of the real world.  First off, how about a little visual representation of what a mutation to a single gene (actually, the non-presence of the GDF-8 gene) can cause in an otherwise similar breed of dog.  GDF-8, by the way, is responsible for signaling the production of myostatin, which, in turn, is responsible for limiting the amount of muscle production in an animal.  Myostatin works the same way in humans as it does in these whippets.  GDF-8, while being yet another stroke of evolutionary genius (muscle mass past a certain point is an unnecessary metabolic drag, i.e., survival limiting), is an area of obvious interest within the physical culture community.

Normal whippet muscling
Normal whippet muscling, 2 copies of the GDF-8 gene
A single copy of the GDF-8 gene
A single copy of the GDF-8 gene
No GDF-8 gene, and hence, no myostatin to curtail muscling
No GDF-8 gene, and hence, no myostatin to curtail muscling

No PhotoShop here, folks; just a dramatic demonstration of the effects genes can have upon muscling and athletic prowess.  And this is a representation of what affects a single gene mutation can signal.  What I find interesting is that if Wendy were a human, we’d just assume that she was much more dedicated in following her (fill in the blank) workout regimen; being that she’s a dog, though, we’re ok with the fact that she’s come by her appearance the old fashioned way — i.e., via inheritance.  By the way, here’s an interesting Animal Planet video clip of Wendy, the defacto spokes-pooch of bully whippets.  A normal whippet in every way, except in skeletal musculature.  I find it very sad that appearantly these animals are normally euthanized at birth (I’m assuming because they are not charactoristic of the AKC whippet?).

So that’s a pretty dramatic visual.  My intent here, though, is not is not to kick up a dust cloud of fatalism, but rather to bring a sense of realism to the endeavor of physical culture.  We are, all of us, in theory, limited by our genetic make-up; the question remains, however, how many of us actually realize that genetic ceiling? Given the optimum training protocol for our individual genetic make-up, how far could even a mediocre genetic hand advance?

Here’s an article that appeared in the September 2000 issue of  Scientific  American which discusses the muscle fiber differences in sprinters vs that of endurance athletes.  This article was also cited in Body by Science (page 141), and for good reason.  Even though this article is going on 9 years old, it is still a relevant piece of work.  There’s plenty of food for thought here, especially as related to the plasticity of the genetic make-up.  For an analogy, think of your genetic make-up as a set of gaurd rails along a winding highway; lots of maneuvering room in between.  What the genetic make-up is not is a set of railroad tracks.

And by the way, see if the last portion of this article, “Brave New World”, doesn’t make you immediately call to mind Usain Bolt’s utter dominance in every sprint event below 400 meters as of late.  I would love to know what Usain’s muscle fiber make-up looks like, and what his genetic profile looked like before he started serious training.  One has to wonder if he might have a mutation which allows for the prevalence of type IIb fast-twitch fibers.  That would be very, very interesting indeed.  Which leads to the question of the inevitability of future gene “doping”, which is covered in the article as well.  This is the new frontier of sports enhancement, and the results of successfully manipulating an already accomplished athlete’s gene pool will obliterate any “doping” response results seen thus far in the sporting world.

And had the wall not come down with the death of communism — had the eastern block sporting machines remained viable — this, in my opinion, would already be old, passe science.

Late edit (4/9/17): a good compare / contrast article, here, which looks at my 23AndMe results.  Hint: I’ve apparently “beat the house” with a less than favorable hand.  Mindset, will, and epigenetic input matters, kids.  A lot.

Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world,



    • My pleasure, Monica. I’m glad you found this interesting. And by the way (and I’m sure you’re already familiar with this), there are certain breeds of cattle bred specifically for the lack of the GDF-8 gene. More meat on the hoof = more money/head.

    • In so far as the overall cross-sectional area of muscle affects overall strength, yes. I’m not aware, though, of any studies that have been carried out to assess the fiber-type make-up of myostatin-free muscle. If anyone does know of such studies, by all means, please clue me in. It would be interesting to find out just how much faster (if at all) the bully version of the whippet is compared to the “normal” version. In other words, is there more than a doubling of power output from these animals to compensate for the doubling in body weight? I would imagine that the bully version has a huge advantage in the first few meters of the sprint, but that that advantage quickly evaporates. Of course, I’m biased in my thinking by related this to a human model. Anyone have any insight here?

  1. I remember when I was 14 or 15 there was a guy at school who was absolutely huge. Some kids were just big framed but this lad had a normal bone structure but with huge muscles hanging off him. His legs were like Tom Platz. He didn’t train at all.

    It was frustrating and I think I was probably pretty jealous but it taught me something about genetics. I’d never look like that whatever I would do.

    • A young Dorian Yates, maybe?

      One thing to not lose sight of — and I know I’m preaching to the choir, here, but it still bears repeating — is that the health benefits of proper exercise are there for everyone, regardless of genetic make-up or physical appearance.

  2. Dorian lived about 80 miles south of me….

    That is the key of course – exercise is good for you no matter what impact it has on you appearance. You may never look like Mr Olympia or even Mr neighbouhood but you will look better than 95% of the population….especially as you get older.

    One thing I am aware of now at 41 though is the damage I’ve done over the years to various joints through training. My back is dodgy, I have a shoulder that is sore most of the time….I’m looking for that sweet spot where I get better but don’t cause damage.

    20 years ago a big deadlift and squat were really important to me….but I don’t think i’m built for it and pulling 300lb plus regularly I think may have messed up my posture and done some damage over time.

  3. That’s the key, isn’t it: “how many of us actually realize that genetic ceiling?”

    If we’re living our lives in a way to hit that ceiling, we’re doing quite well.

    • Something I’ve always wondered about Otto and Ewald — which of the two trained closer to their initial genetic leaning? It would be fascinating to run a twin study that considered pre-training genetic make-up, then subjected one twin to a genetically “complementary” training protocol, while the other endured a protocol alien to his/her genetic leaning. A little draconian, I know — but still…Also of interest would be the psychological response in both subjects. It’s obvious, from a psychological standpoint, that when a trainee is in their “comfort zone” there is a re-doubling of available effort. How much of an effect does this have on the ultimate phenotypical expression? I’ll explore this a bit in an upcoming post.

  4. Great post.

    I recall a post on one of the message boards I frequent, something to the effect of, “Many ectomorphs start to move closer to mesomorphs the bigger they get.”

    It is typically suggested that ectomorphs are not able to contract all of the fibers they have very well; as they advance this would improve, thus the comment. I like it none the less.


    • I think there is some room for improvement in this ability (speaking strictly from empirical evidence), though, like everything else, there is a genetic ceiling above which one cannot achieve.

    • Or in the words of Art DeVany (and Doug McGuff), keep that “metabolic headroom” high.

      I’d love to know how many professional bodybuilders are myostatin deficient, and how many professional athletes (where size is a factor) are lacking at least one GDF-8 gene copy. I’d also love to know if the muscle fiber make-up of myostatin-free muscle is different than “normal” muscle.

  5. Yeah, I need all the headroom I can get… *haa*

    BTW if you could ‘genetically profile’ anyone out there, who would you pick?

    I’d like to see BOTH a hormone panel (free T, E1 E2 E3, P, DHEA, preg, etc) and gene variants of ACE, PON (antioxidant potential), GDF-8, VDR and PPAR-delta (endurance/ strength) for:
    –Carolina Klüft (swedish heptathlon)
    –!!any good track male/female!! (who is hawt)
    –Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals–ice hockey)
    –Ronaldo (Manchester United–soccer)
    –Tiger Woods
    –Lance Armstrong
    (absolutely no baseball players…ok maybe… Robb Nen)

    And a few other people… *haa* like yours!

    Would it be insane to expect my kids to ask for a genetic profile and prenupt??? For ordinary mortals, is Paleo/ Xfit/ VitD+antioxidants just the optimal solution for everyone irregardless of genetic programming?


  6. Keith,

    Yeah — I definitely need to keep the headroom HIGH. *haa*

    I’d like to ‘genetically profile’ a couple of people too *wink* In fact, I’d like to see both their hormone profiles (Free T, SHBG, Total T, E1 E2 E3, P, preg, DHEA, etc) and their genetic variants for VDR (vitamin D), ACE (like you), GDF-8, PON-1 (for HDLs and antioxidant capacity), and PPAR-d a (insulin, endurance, strength).

    Which ones for you?

    –Carolina Klüft (swedish heptathon)
    –Gabrielle Reese (volleyball)
    –!!any excellent TRACK male/female!! (esp if hawt)
    –Ronaldo (soccer)

    Couple of others too… maybe you!


  7. A bit off-topic but still related to muscle growth — but tonight I managed to knock out 30 muscle-ups in a row at CrossFit.

    Yes, I am proud of myself. 🙂

    Bookended on both sides with an 800m run BTW.

    As I cranked these out, all I could think of is there no better, more functional, more explosive upper-body workout than this. You gotta pull, snap over with a kip, and then push.

    Hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, triceps, pecs, and back — all have to work in concert.

    And that is why gymnasts are yoked. Not only BB yoked, but functionally yoked. As in Iron Cross yoked.

    Not to beat a dead horse — but this is why McGuff is dead wrong.

    • That’s a hell of an impressive accomplishment, Patrik. I love ring (or straight bar) muscle-ups as well; not to be confused with the barbell shoulder/trap exercise by the same name — though that’s a fantastic movement in its own right. MU’s are one of those things that look easy enough — until you give it a go. And it’s a great indicator, I think, of overall athleticism (show me a kid w/a good vert. and the ability to rip-off a few MU’s in a row, and I’ll want that kid on my team). I carry a good bit of body weight, so I have to incorporate MU’s in extended sets of 1-3 reps/micro set, and/or tucked within a mash-up of ballistic push-ups/ring flyes/ring rev. flyes, or some such. Sometimes I couple MU’s with sprints for a great, functional workout.

      I wouldn’t say that Doug is wrong — he just advocates a different path for a different purpose. I do think he’s right about the cumulative trauma issue, and in that respect I do find SS/HIT being a viable option for some. Again, one needs to define their ultimate goal. Personally, I like to reside on the athletic/functional side of the tracks, even with the added (and acknowledged) risk/responsibility of managing potential injury (both acute and chronic). I like SS/HIT as a viable, in-season (esp. football, baseball, hockey) option as well. Off-season? Hey, different story completely. And I’m fully on board with Doug’s dose-response management ideas — even if my idea of “medicine” is, for the most part, a bit different than his.

      Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Continue to rock-on with the MU’s, Patrik!

    • Gymnasts are yoked, both bodybuilding and functionally. Making this comparison to what McGuff says is: 1. True in context, they are buff but 2. absolutely beside the point. I see SS/HIT getting thrown around in tandem, but SS is derived from HIT, only focusing on one variable: slow. It’s like how Mentzer went overboard with rest. It’s like saying rugby and football are the same because they have a pointy ball and large men smashing into one another.

      Not taking away from gymnasts, but they’re short and that gives them a huge leverage advantage for their particular sport. Basketball players have low absolute strength, even relative strength because of their height, but can jump out of the gym because of the femur length and achilles tendon length. Specific advantages applied to specific sports.

  8. @Keith

    You are far too diplomatic and agreeable. 🙂


    Agreed with regard to gymnasts. Another reason gymnastics selects for shortness is that shorter people have better rotational inertia. For example, it is easier for a shorter person to do a back flip (or a pommel horse rotation/spin) than a taller person. There is literally less linear distance for their distal end to travel — in this case their feet.


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