How Much Of Your Body Build Can You Really Blame On Genetics?
Your body’s limitations are your secret weapon for packing on muscle mass
We all understand that genes determine basic features like our height or eye colour. If you and your wife have blue eyes, and your baby’s eyes are brown, you know it’s time to contact the divorce lawyer. And if someone offered you a workout program to make you taller (and they aren’t talking about improving your posture), you’d smell the BS a mile away.
But when you’re trying to build muscle strength and size, it’s a lot harder to know what is and isn’t attainable. All of us start out with the same basic goal: to look and perform better than we do now. The open question is how much better. How far can you get with hard work and dedication, genes be damned?
Bret Contreras, author of Strong Curves and Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, has spent much of his life asking that question, and trying to figure out the answer. Which is . . . well, it depends.
Anyone can get bigger, stronger, and/or leaner. Anyone can improve their skill in the weight room, which should lead to better gains with fewer injuries over time. But you can’t change some of the things that matter most.
Most vexing, for lifters, are the proportions of your bones and connective tissues.
Say, for example, that you have relatively long arms. They give you an advantage on the deadlift but are also a huge disadvantage on the bench press, for the same basic reason: range of motion, or the distance the bar has to travel farther on each repetition. Long arms shorten the range on deadlifts but increase it on the bench.
Your tendon insertion points are also crucial. At the “lucky bastard” extreme are guys who have long muscle bellies and short tendons. With the same amount of work, they’ll end up with thicker, fuller muscles than a guy with the opposite configuration: short muscle bellies and long tendons.
So, to sum up:
• Some of us won’t be good at certain lifts, no matter how hard we try.
• Some of us won’t be able to build muscles that look like the ones on our favourite posters or magazine covers.
So what’s the good news? The exercises in which you have a built-in disadvantage can actually be the best muscle-builders for you, Contreras says. “Your muscles are working overtime during the lift, due to the inherently greater range of motion and increased torque requirements.”
“Torque” is the amount of pulling force generated by a muscle, multiplied by the length of the object it’s pulling. “The muscles end up performing more work per repetition,” Contreras says. “So the exercise is very productive for muscle growth.”
If your primary goal is aesthetic, Contreras recommends adding an isolation exercise for major muscles, to complement the multijoint movement. So you would follow chinups with biceps curls, bench presses with triceps extensions, squats with leg extensions, and deadlifts with leg curls.
“The focus is still on the compound lift,” he says. That’s where you’re going to apply mechanical tension, the most powerful growth stimulus, to the targeted muscles. But it’s not the only muscle-building stimulus. There’s also metabolic stress, which you can achieve by taking your muscles to a deep level of exhaustion, and by pumping them full of blood, which gets temporarily trapped within the muscle. “Each exercise does unique things,” Contreras says. “Best results are seen when you do a variety.”
As a general guideline, he recommends doing 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps of the primary exercise, followed by 2 sets of 12 to 20 reps of the isolation movement.
The key lesson: “You shouldn’t nix a lift just because you aren’t good at it,” Contreras says. “That lift is likely one of the best things for your development.”