It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone.”

John Maynard Keynes

As a long time aficionado and admirer of the old Eastern Block training philosophy/regimens, and the single-minded purpose these nations threw behind their sporting programs, I find the prospect of DNA testing for the purpose of pin-pointing individualized training programs to be exquisitely interesting.  A few caveats, though, before we proceed: (1) I am not opining as a blind romantic here, as I am fully aware of the societal ills propagated against these “iron curtain” populations in general, and, specifically against the athletes representing the Eastern Block countries, and (2) with the prior having been said, I take the liberty of being able to sift-out the “good and the noble” of these programs, and concentrate on those aspects only.

That said, when a particularly well-suited genotype happens to be paired with the correct, dose/response limited stimulus, the result is an amazing phenotype expression.  The problem is, of course, that the trial-and-error approach is mostly fraught with error.  Some get lucky and stumble into their niche early; most, however, give up on the ride long before that personal sweet-spot is ever found.  Wouldn’t it have been a blessing to know in your youth whether you were particularly well-suited for either endurance or explosive activities?  Would it not have been a double-blessing, then, to have access to a coach who knew what to do with that knowledge?

Working with, and not in opposition to...
Working with, and not in opposition to…

If you happen to have a copy of Body by Science handy, check out chapter 8; as I’ve said before, this chapter alone is worth the book’s cover price.  Let me just say that, aside from the great information laid out in this chapter, what you find here is something rather unique in the world of physical culture, and something that both Dr. McGuff and John Little should be commended for — they’re telling you, straight up, the hard, naked truth that, no matter how hard one trains a particular modality, if you’re not blessed with the genetic make-up that leans toward that modality, you will hit an early — and particularly low — ceiling.   This does not mean that you will show no outward improvement, or that your health and well-being won’t be positively affected — it most certainly will — but as a physical specimen, you’ll always be that square peg banging around the proverbial round hole.

And that’s a bummer, I know; but it is the truth, though — contrary to what the shady supplement companies and “workout gurus” will tell you.  Does this mean that if you’re a genetically inclined endurance guy that you can’t show marked improvement in the weightroom?  Hell no, you can produce good gains and significantly alter your physique (and health) for the better.  Is competitive powerlifting, sprinting, or football in your future?  Afraid not.  On the flip side, check this out: I absolutely love mountain and fixed-speed biking.  Now, would I ever be competitive in races at these endeavors?  Are you kidding me? If properly trained (and with proper technical skills, i.e. 10k hours of practice) I might do well at track (velodrome) sprint events, but that’s about it.  The key, of course, is to find your niche and be happy with it.

...my inherant genetic inclinations
…my inherent genetic inclinations.  And rockin’ the Vibrams while doing so.

So back to chapter 8 of Body by Science.  What Dr. McGuff has laid out here is what are the currently known genetic factors holding sway over potential athletic prowess in certain modalities.  I say “current” because I am quite sure that many, many others will eventually be discovered. If you don’t have a copy of Body by Science, the genes (or, to cast the net a little wider, “determining factors”) we’re talking about here are: (1) Ciliary Neurotrophic Factor (CNTF), (2) Interleukin-15, (3) Alpha-Actinin-3, (4) Myosin Light Chain Kinase, and (5) Angiotensin Converting Enzyme. These genes, coupled with the more broad-stroke determining factors (determined by, guess what — more genes) such as one’s somatotype, muscle length, insertion and overall formation, size and shape, skeletal formation, fat distribution, muscle fiber density, and the prevalence (or not) of myostatin, make up the deck from which you’ll be dealt your athletic prowess hand.

So, armed with chapter 8 of Body by Science and a slew of genetic testing results, you ought to be able to provide your newborn with just the right environment and, a little later, the perfect training protocol; kick back for 18 years until the big contract is signed and the Benjamins come rolling in as if off of a 24-7 printing press, right?

Well, not exactly.  But there are a couple of companies out there who will be more than willing to help you part with your money if you’re so inclined.

Warrior Roots is one such outfit.  Atlas Sports Genetics is another.  To be fair, though, these companies are on the cutting edge of an industry that will, in time, most assuredly come into maturity and provide real, substantial benefit for athletes and coaches alike.  As it stands now, though, these companies can tell you no more, in my opinion (and probably no faster), about you or your offspring’s potential athleticism and power/endurance leanings, than a 1960’s era East German Olympic coach.  But the thing, really, is this: Just knowing that these factors are responsible for your “athletic hand” is enough.  Careful record keeping and a keen eye are more than enough to help direct you toward the proper training protocol(s) for your genetics.   I’ll explain what I mean in a follow-up post.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting article from Scientific American on the subject of genes and potential sporting talent.

In health,

Keith

5 COMMENTS

    • Yeah, that’s a great article, Shaun; thanks for the link. And by the way, I absolutely love my Vibrams. I’m not one to shill many products, but this is one that I’d definitely put my name on. All that remains to be seen now is how durable they are. So far, so good on that front — it’s still too early, though, to make a final durability judgment, though.

  1. The always insightful Steve Sailer on genetic testing:

    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2008/12/latest-bad-genetic-testing-idea.html

    ********The one kind of test that might be useful would be a more accurate estimate of ultimate height, since so many sports and/or positions depend heavily upon growing up to be really tall. You can estimate adult height from child height, but it’s pretty inaccurate. All through my childhood, my pediatrician would plot my height on a graph and inform me that I was right on schedule to grow up to be 6’0″. But, I ended up four inches taller.

    An accurate estimate of adult height would be mostly useful in a negative sense in it might discourage some kids from over-specializing in height-dependent sports like basketball. The majority of black youths who think they are going to grow up to be in the NBA won’t make six feet tall. Similarly, more than a few white dads invest enormous amounts of time and money in nurturing their sons to be NFL quarterbacks, many of whom won’t get close to the 6′-1″ or so minimum height.********

    • And then there are always the outliers; Doug Flutie, Spud Webb, et al. I’d hate to see a world where these kids are discouraged from perusing their dream.

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